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Caleb Williams, the top NFL draft pick, traces success to an interception at age 9

University of Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams is expected to be the number one pick in Thursday's NFL draft. His stellar on-field performances can be traced to one play as a nine-year-old.
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University of Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams is expected to be the number one pick in Thursday's NFL draft. His stellar on-field performances can be traced to one play as a nine-year-old.

Updated April 25, 2024 at 8:45 PM ET

WASHINGTON — Tears cascaded down Caleb Williams' face. The then-9 year old couldn't believe the mistake he made.

Williams was starting his first game at quarterback for the Bowie Bulldogs in Maryland. He'd previously played running back and linebacker in the three years leading up to this moment.

But after Mark McCain saw Williams throw a 40-yard pass on the dot ... as his team's third-string quarterback the season before, McCain, Russell Thomas and Carl Williams, Caleb's father, agreed to try the fourth grader at signal caller.

So here was Williams, in his first contest – a 7-v-7 game – and his first throw was an interception.

He attempted a 15-yard pass but made the wrong read. He disregarded what he saw the defense had set-up, and paid for it immediately.

"Since I was 4, when I lost, I cried," Williams told The Pivot Podcast. "One thing about me is my guys know I care ... and winning is the most important thing to me. ... There is a time and a place for it and understanding, even if it's raw emotion, and it comes out then and there, but being able to control it and hold it in until you get home."

His tears, the frustration with himself and that initial failure weren't for naught, though. In fact, those mistakes proved to be invaluable. This was the first pivotal moment in Williams' development at quarterback.

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the second half of the team's college football game against UCLA on Nov. 18, 2023, in Los Angeles.
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AP
Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the second half of the team's college football game against UCLA on Nov. 18, 2023, in Los Angeles.

The legend begins

The second happened three years later. He was then playing for Bowie Elite, a youth football program. McCain, his new coach, benched Williams during the team's playoff game after he went the wrong direction on a handoff, fumbled a snap and didn't throw to the right places.

It was after that game when Williams, now the No. 1-overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, flipped the switch and altered the trajectory of his career. It's also where Williams' legend actually begins.

"That really kind of started that; when he realized that it was deeper than just going out running routes and seeing who was open," McCain, who co-owns the Athletic Republic with Thomas and Carl Williams, told NPR. "It changed his vision of the game."

"There was a switch [between seventh and eighth grade] where that energy that he was taking – when he was upset with losing – the switch kind of made him, somehow [take] away the uncontrollable emotion. All of a sudden he didn't feel pressure anymore. He just kind of seized the moment."

Williams' path to the NFL Draft

The start of Williams' ascent doesn't begin with winning the starting job as a freshman at Gonzaga College High School in 2017.

Nor when he helped the Eagles erase a 20-point deficit and tossed a 53-yard Hail Mary to cap Gonzaga's improbable win in the 2018 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference final.

Caleb Williams of the USC Trojans speaks to the media during the 2024 NFL Draft Combine on March 01, 2024 in Indianapolis.
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Caleb Williams of the USC Trojans speaks to the media during the 2024 NFL Draft Combine on March 01, 2024 in Indianapolis.

Or when he led the Oklahoma Sooners to an unfathomable 55-48 comeback victory over Texas Longhorns in 2021 as a true freshman and playing only half of the contest.

These moments occurred because those first two experiences taught him exactly what it would take to master the position, and Williams hasn't looked back since those initial growing pains.

"I worked with the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed," McCain said. "None of them have that competitive drive that [William's] has. ... It's unmatched. He simply does not compute losing. He doesn't accept failure at all.

"Going into high school, he would want to watch film of the game right after. He didn't wanna wait until Monday or Tuesday or talk. He wanted to immediately...see the things that he could have done better and figure out how to do them better. ... That's really how he developed his game. Doing something, seeing himself doing it and working on that thing until [he] couldn't do it wrong. ... And then he'd keep building on it."

These are a few of the reasons NFL experts anticipated that when the Chicago Bears put in the selection for the opening pick on Thursday, William's name would the one that'd be read off the card.

Gonzaga quarterback Caleb Williams (18) rolls out against Good Counsel linebacker Jalen Green (10) during a high school game.
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The Washington Post/Getty Images
Gonzaga quarterback Caleb Williams (18) rolls out against Good Counsel linebacker Jalen Green (10) during a high school game.

Williams, 22, has shown an uncanny ability to not only elevate his game, no matter the circumstances, but also the players around him, too.

The latter part frequently contributed to Elijah Brook's decision to award Williams the most valuable player honor all four years he participated in his camp. The former coach at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School met Williams in fifth grade as one of his campers.

Williams' desire to lead, always go first – even as one of the youngest players – and penchant to absorb criticism stood out to Brooks, who now coaches running backs for Virginia Tech.

In due time, Brooks expected Williams to be a problem.

One coach's loss, another's gain

"He was a leader," Brooks said. "He was physically dominant. He was popular amongst the campers. From a very early age, he just separated himself from the pack as special. I'm a firm believer that some kids just have the 'it' factor, and it was easy to see that he had that at a very early age.

"To this day, that was probably my biggest recruiting loss."

And it worked out to be Randy Trivers' massive gain.

When his high school coach was asked how Williams got on his radar, Trivers responded with a better question.

"It's not so much as how did he get on your radar, as how could he not be on anybody's radar really?" Trivers said.

By the time Trivers met Williams, he was an advanced quarterback prospect. Williams expressed a desire to attend a high school with a strong football program and academics, but also where he would develop as an overall person.

Trivers never promised Williams the starting gig if he came to Gonzaga, but the 10-year coach of the Eagles did promise Williams would receive a fair opportunity to compete for it.

Caleb Williams (C), then a sophomore at Gonzaga College High School, stands with sports performance coach Mark McCain (L) and quarterback trainer Russell Thomas (R) at Athletic Republic in District Heights, Maryland in 2018.
Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post/Getty Images
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The Washington Post/Getty Images
Caleb Williams (C), then a sophomore at Gonzaga College High School, stands with sports performance coach Mark McCain (L) and quarterback trainer Russell Thomas (R) at Athletic Republic in District Heights, Maryland in 2018.

And that was all Williams ever needed – a shot.

Once Williams was finally on the team, Trivers observed how the freshman quickly bought into Gonzaga's motto of "Men for Others," and won over his new teammates with his work ethic, charisma and selflessness.

"'Men for Others,' it's like living a Christ-like life [and] doing things that are not necessarily for you and yourself, but for others," Trivers said. "So, living your best life for you, your family, your friends, your teammates, your classmates, your community."

Williams endeared himself to his new teammates, Trivers and former teammate Trey Jamison said. He was the first on the field, and the last to leave. Williams studied furiously. When a teammate made a mistake, Williams didn't shy away from him on the next play. Oftentimes, he showed his faith in them by going back to the player.

His teammates then rewarded him by lobbying for him to start.

Jamison, a linebacker for the U.S. Naval Academy, still incorporates a lesson Williams taught him when they were 14 years old. When one makes a mistake, use positive self-talk. Williams eliminated negative outbursts and emotional responses following the benching.

Instead, Jamison said, Williams was frequently heard saying, "C'mon, Caleb," after a bad play or refocusing by dribbling the football like a basketball off the turf.

"He got good at that, and it made me want to do that, too," Jamison said. "It definitely helps out. It's something I use to this day, if it's something with school, mentally, or to get through [something.]"

Even when Gonzaga faced a third-and-33, and Williams had to play the final minute of the game with an injured foot, he didn't waver.

Gonzaga College Eagles quarterback Caleb Williams looks to pass during the WCAC football game between Gonzaga and St. John's College at Paint Branch High School on November 4, 2017.
Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post/Getty Images
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The Washington Post/Getty Images
Gonzaga College Eagles quarterback Caleb Williams looks to pass during the WCAC football game between Gonzaga and St. John's College at Paint Branch High School on November 4, 2017.

Instead, he responded with a 50-yard completion and then an 11-yard touchdown. With just 29 seconds left, Gonzaga had its first lead. But it didn't last. Their opponent, DeMatha, scored on the ensuing kickoff.

What happened next spoke volumes to McCain about Williams' response.

"Russell was sitting right beside me, I said, 'He's about to be legendary.' I could see how cool he was," McCain said after seeing William's composure.

Remember that pass Williams threw at age 9, that was intercepted? Fool Williams once, shame on him. This time, Williams completed a 13-yard throw to set up the ensuing Hail Mary with four ticks left.

"The only thing I said to my offensive coordinator was get me in range," Williams told The Pivot Podcast. "Once I was in range, I felt like the game was over. ... It was the craziest game ever."

The rest was history. Williams heaved the ball to the back of the end zone. In between four defenders, his receiver caught the toss. On his 16th birthday, Williams threw three touchdowns, rushed for two more and even caught a touchdown – to help the Eagles win their first WCAC title since 2002.

Jamison couldn't watch. Trivers was nearly brought to tears.

"Those [referee's] hands go up, and I collapsed on the field right there," Trivers recalled.

Brooks said his heart dropped.

"That was my last high school game, so thank you, Caleb," Brooks said with a laugh. "I appreciate you for that."

That experience in the WCAC championship was a building block for Williams three years later. When former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley inserted him into the game facing a 35-17 deficit, Williams didn't wilt, because he'd been through the fire before.

Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams visited his high school alma mater Gonzaga to attend a pep rally to honor the USC quarterback for his award. Williams, center strikes a Heisman pose along with members of the student body in the school's gym on May 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.
John McDonnell / The Washington Post/Getty Images
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The Washington Post/Getty Images
Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams visited his high school alma mater Gonzaga to attend a pep rally to honor the USC quarterback for his award. Williams, center strikes a Heisman pose along with members of the student body in the school's gym on May 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.

'The Caleb era has just begun'

"When they put him in, I said, 'The Caleb era has just begun. He's never coming back out, ever,'" McCain said. "And he went on to win that game."

Going to a program like the Sooners, with not only an incumbent, but one that has preseason-Heisman hype, too, and saying, "I can do this," takes a certain confidence. And that's what makes Williams unique.

While others kept tabs of where players at their position were committing, Williams didn't, McCain said. It wasn't a factor in his decision making at all. Williams wanted to be coached by Riley. When Riley became coach at the University of Southern California, Williams knew he had to go with him. So he transferred and never looked back.

"I am never shocked at anything he does," Brooks said. "I'm on record, he goes and wins MVP of the league or leads Chicago to a Super Bowl or what have you, it is not going to surprise me at all.

"Some people just have it, and they were born with it. And listen, he works tirelessly on his craft, so when you can combine all of those factors, that's what you get. So whether it is him leading a comeback at Oklahoma or him winning the Heisman or him getting drafted No. 1 or winning his high school championship on the Hail Mary, I ain't surprised at all."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhiannon Walker
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