The expectations couldn’t be higher for college football’s reigning Heisman winner. He swears he likes it that way.
But as he practiced, Williams came to understand that a baseball is not a football. None of his nine attempts came within a foot of the target. He bounced balls on the asphalt. He assaulted the fence behind the trash can. Wide right. High and outside. After one throw, Williams’s concerned mother, Dayna Price, joked, “You just hit somebody in the head.”
Undaunted by the unscathed trash can, Williams decided to save his arm for the real show. He hustled to the mound, leaned back and let fly his best pitch of the afternoon — not a strike but close enough to elicit cheers from the crowd and approving nods from family and friends near the Nationals dugout. Nats owner Mark Lerner, whom Williams met shortly before making the toss, shouted, “You can breathe, man.”
Williams’s sense of the moment remains one of the superpowers that has him favored to go first in next year’s NFL draft. His charm and his arm have allowed Williams to take the field in hostile environments with meticulously manicured fingernails, walk into a gym full of kids at a boys and girls club and step on a mound at Nationals Park knowing what’s expected of him to win over his audience. It’s not a switch, really, but an awareness.
“When it’s go time, it’s go time,” Williams said.
And go time has arrived for Williams’s encore to last season, when he threw for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns, rushed for another 10 scores and overwhelmed the college football world with his personality and highlight-reel plays. By eluding defenders with the improvisational skill of a tap dancer, firing deep passes on a rope and displaying the carefree joy of a kid in the sandlot, Williams helped Coach Lincoln Riley transform USC from a 4-8 team to one that fell a win short of the College Football Playoff. On Saturday, Williams opens his junior season seeking to become just the second player to repeat as a Heisman winner amid title hopes for the Trojans. He lives in a world, he knows, of soaring expectations but insists he has no plans of shying away from them.
“Trying to reach for more and strive to be better than I was last year is the only thing that’s on my mind,” Williams, 20, said. “We didn’t even go to the playoffs last year. So, obviously, there were a lot of things that I could have done better. I’m just staying hungry. I want to go out there and kill. I want to go out there and destroy whoever else is on the other side.”
Williams is the first Heisman winner to have his entire career play out in the name, image and likeness era of collegiate sports, with players allowed to profit off their personal brands. He signed his first NIL deal, with Beats by Dre, as a true freshman, before he replaced Spencer Rattler as the starting quarterback at Oklahoma. He has continued to build a seven-figure portfolio since, with brands, including AC+ION Water, Neutrogena and PlayStation, that align with both his image and his interests. His pinned post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, is a Jay-Z lyric: “I’m Not A Businessman. I’m A Business, Man.”
In profiting from his success in a way no other Heisman predecessor could, Williams prematurely fulfilled a pledge he made to his father at age 12 that he wouldn’t depend on his dad’s money to survive.
“When he decided that he was going to make a bunch of money, my reaction was like, ‘Great, how soon do we get this done?’ Not really realizing NIL was going to be a thing,” Carl Williams said with a laugh.
But Williams hasn’t used his funds only to enrich himself. Before taking a snap at USC, he launched a charity, the Caleb Cares Foundation, to combat bullying and address mental health. He paid for his offensive linemen to travel to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. And while making a homecoming visit to Washington in May, he launched an East Coast branch of his charity and created a scholarship at his high school alma mater, Gonzaga College in the District, to pay for the tuition of a student from an underserved community. He also paid a visit to the homeless shelter near the school’s Capitol Hill campus, where he spoke with some of the unhoused and offered encouragement.
“Caleb is kind of an old soul,” said Patsy Mangas, director of the Caleb Cares Foundation. “It’s pretty incredible that he’s so young but he’s doing things that most people have to be in their 40s to understand.”
Growing up, Williams developed a worldview that forced him to see the good in giving. His grandfather and uncle are co-pastors at a church in District Heights where Caleb volunteered to serve food for families in need. His mother runs a nursery school, and his father is a small-business owner committed to donating his time and money to charitable efforts.
“My parents, they give back all the time. And I’d always question when I was younger like, ‘Why?’ Now that I’ve gotten older, there’s no questions about it. I just do it.”
He chose Gonzaga, a mission-driven Jesuit school, despite it being the only school he considered that didn’t offer a sports scholarship. Before leaving for a recruiting trip to LSU as a junior, he approached his social studies teacher, Ed Donnellan, to ask whether there were any historical sites that he should visit while in Baton Rouge. Donnellan had been teaching his students about the Georgetown 272, a group of enslaved people from Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland whose labor helped fund Gonzaga and were sold to Louisiana plantation owners in 1838. Donnellan suggested Williams travel about 30 minutes away to Maringouin, where they were sold. Williams and his father did, spending an afternoon with the descendants. Williams returned to school with a small jar of soil from the cemetery where the enslaved people were buried, waiting until after class to present it to Donnellan.
That season, Williams also was named Gatorade player of the year in D.C., which included a financial reward — if he wrote an essay during an already intense part of the school year. Carl convinced him the cash prize could impact the community. Williams did the work, and he used the money to purchase laptops for a study room at the Bowie Boys and Girls Club where he once played.
“That was kind of the genesis” of Caleb understanding his purpose, Carl said. “Doing good for others, outworking everybody and being tireless in your efforts and giving as much as you can, then rewards happen. Good things happen to you. You start thinking about, well, how do I get to the next thing? As my platform gets bigger, what do I want to do with it? I want to do some other things that can be impactful. I want to feel that feeling. And feel it on a bigger scale.”
Williams likes to joke that he enjoys being in Los Angeles because he can’t be the biggest star in a town with LeBron James and the Kardashians. In his lone year at Oklahoma, routine dinners out ended up becoming impromptu autograph and photo sessions. But he is the biggest star in college football and slowly moving up the ranks in the land of celebrities. Williams was recently summoned to the stage at a Drake concert at Crypto.com Arena, and the Los Angeles Dodgers gave away his bobblehead at a game this month. That fame affords him an enviable platform — Williams would say responsibility — to make a difference.
He has been open about the importance of his own mental health in overall performance while encouraging kindness as a counter to bullying. Williams has been on the receiving end of social media harassment and criticism, which he believes makes him relatable to kids who might struggle to feel as if they fit in or belong.
“I paint my nails, as a male football player. A lot of people don’t like that, so they try and say harsh things,” Williams said. “I think it’s just something cool that I do. People see me as this and that, maybe not think that I would get bullied. But I do. And I’m here for you. I’m here with you. And, you know, let’s fight it together.”
Bennie Wylie, USC’s director of football performance, recalls one of the first times Williams came into his office at Oklahoma. Williams saw a picture of Kyler Murray holding the Heisman Trophy and told Wylie, “I’m going to get you your next one.”
Wylie, who has since followed Riley to Los Angeles, didn’t detect cockiness in the comment. And within a few months, the kid who was expected to back up a Heisman Trophy candidate at Oklahoma was supplanting him, announcing his official arrival to college football by leading a thrilling comeback victory over rival Texas. That wouldn’t have been possible if Williams hadn’t already channeled his desire for more playing time into a commitment to working with Wylie on being prepared when the moment arrived.
“There’s a reason why he [has] done what he’s done after Gonzaga. And it’s not just the Superman talent, because that’s the physical side of it,” Gonzaga Coach Randy Trivers said, “but what makes him tick inside of his heart and his mind.”
Williams is surrounded by many of the same people who have been around him since he was 10, when he decided he would dedicate his life to football. Carl Williams came up with the plan, which included working with sports psychologists and public speaking specialists. In middle school, Williams and four friends started 5:30 a.m. training sessions; the group still stays in touch. And the success that followed confirmed to Williams that what came his way was supposed to happen because he was determined to make it happen. Winning the Heisman — that was part of the plan.
“But this wasn’t the end all be all,” said Russell Thomas, one of Williams’s mentors and a co-owner of the Athletic Republic Capital Region training center, along with Carl Williams and Mark McCain. “We’ve been around it so much, and we do know that this ride is special. It’s not that we expect it, but we do realize he’s going to do some great things. He will go to the NFL. He will win a Super Bowl. It’s not because it’s a guess. But he’s on that pathway, and he’s that good. He’s that dialed in.”
The night after the Heisman ceremony, Williams gathered with his inner circle in his hotel room. But instead of a celebration, he began discussing over slices of pizza what he hoped to accomplish going forward. It was on to the next. The Heisman Trophy sat in his passenger seat for two days, Williams said, traveling everywhere he went until he found a spot in his apartment.
And when he met up with Wylie when he returned to USC, Williams didn’t gloat or sit back and wait for dap. “He goes, ‘Hey, Coach, I’m going to get you another one.’ That’s just the kind of driven guy that he is.”
It’s easy to dream a dream but harder to live it. Williams speaks with a matter-of-fact charisma that makes what most consider dreams to be attainable aspirations for him. “I didn’t set my goals on anything small,” he said. While mentioning some of the quarterbacks who have inspired him — Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson and Josh Allen — Williams said he wants to add parts of their skill sets to his game, so “maybe I’ll be better than all of them.” And he quickly followed up that by stating, “That’s the plan.”
“Our plan is to do this as long as we’re having fun. When we’re not having fun anymore, just like Barry Sanders, you walk away,” said Carl Williams, who raised his son to be a fan to the 1988 Heisman winner.
Williams is having too much fun to think about walking away now, taking some time this offseason to enjoy a Heisman victory lap. A few hours after throwing out the first pitch at the Nationals game, he took his mother on a two-week vacation through Europe, posting pictures on social media from his stops in London, Paris, Monaco and the Amalfi coast in Italy. And upon his return, he filmed a commercial for Nissan at the Heisman House and another with his mother for Dr Pepper. Williams was also invited to throw out another ceremonial first pitch, this time at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. But he wouldn’t participate without his lineman forming a fort around the mound.
“That’s real. It’s not a pretend deal,” Wylie said of Williams’s efforts to put the shine on his teammates. “Not for show, not for, ‘Let me see what they were going to say about it,’ but because that’s just what he feels is the right thing to do.”
And he hasn’t lost sight of “keeping the main thing the main thing.” Not that his mentors would let him forget. Thomas and McCain, former high school teammates of Williams’s dad, have been working with him from the time he was ball-hawking fifth-grade linebacker nicknamed “Bobby Boucher,” after the hard-hitting Adam Sandler character in “The Waterboy.” And they have remained part of his team, transitioning from trainers to serving as hype men — and providing tough love. Fashion inspires Williams, who wore a plaid Gucci suit for the Heisman ceremony and was a runway model at a Hugo Boss show last March in Miami, but there’s rarely an Instagram post or magazine cover that isn’t met with good-natured humor.
“He was just talking to me, telling me I always got jokes, I’m always joaning on him. I tell him that’s not going to stop,” McCain said. It helps Williams let the praise and criticism roll off his shoulders, McCain said, because “he knows he’s going to hear the unadulterated truth once he gets back to the village.”
“We dig into him all the time,” Thomas added. “You’re good at this football thing, but you’re not great at life just yet.”
As he prepared in May to walk up the stands at Nationals Park, for what became an impromptu selfie and autograph session with fans, Williams was relieved with his first pitch but expressed one regret. He wished someone had told him the mound was so high. Had he known he could look down on the target, Williams said, “I could’ve ripped it.”
Talent, hype and pressure have propped Williams to the top of the hill in college football, but he would rather be in this position than not. “Trying to be the best comes with a lot,” he said. Carl Williams expects his son to approach this season the same way he always has, by letting it rip: “Dive into it,” he said. “Face first.”
Spencer Nusbaum contributed to this report.
POST AUTHOR: Michael Lee