By JIMMY WIGFIELD
MONTGOMERY — In one watershed moment, Ryan Williams was holding the coveted Mr. Football award, emblematic of the best high school player among the 30,000 who put on pads last season in Alabama.
Four hours later, after driving back to Saraland through parts of a winter squall, he was catching 150 balls in a 90-minute workout to help make sure he doesn’t lose his grip on it or the Blue Map the Spartans won in December.
And you can bet the luminescent smile that stretched the corners of his face while holding the plaque in a hotel ballroom was still present when he sweated through cone drills and conditioning later that evening.
Who knows? Williams might have lost a half step on the way back from Montgomery, which is unacceptable.
“It’s to the point it is who he is now,” said his father, Ryan Williams Sr. “It’s all he wants to do. It’s like he’s obsessed with it. I’ll tell him to go chill out and take your girl out. But if you cut him down the middle, he loves the hard work. It’s like he finds his safe haven in football.”
The Thursday drill is typical for Williams and his father no matter what, not even after winning Mr. Football.
“We don’t want to lose our foundation,” said Ryan Sr., who works out with his son three days a week at home in addition to his required sessions at school. “He does the things other people aren’t doing.”
That obsessive desire to make himself better every day, along with his epochal talent, is why Williams — rated the nation’s No. 25 recruit in the Class of 2025 by 247Sports.com — has already committed to Alabama and is one of the country’s most decorated five-star college prospects.
Upon returning to Saraland, the first sophomore to win the state’s Mr. Football carefully placed his newest award on a shelf in his home to go with plaques declaring him as the Super 7 MVP and the Class 6A back of the year.
“He’s filled up two rows of that cabinet pretty quick,” his father said.
“It’s surreal,” his son said, “not just being the first sophomore to do it but to even have a chance to win Mr. Football.”
Toiling for greatness
The immediate days after winning Mr. Football were marked not only by workouts but with a celebratory dinner, an offer from new Colorado coach Deion Sanders and a trip to Tuscaloosa Saturday to see the Alabama-LSU basketball game with Spartans teammate and quarterback K.J. Lacey, an emerging major college prospect himself, and Myron Dunklin, who has transferred from Blount to Saraland, coach Jeff Kelly confirmed.
But aside from those interludes, Williams relishes the constant, rewarding toil greatness requires.
Williams is so uncommonly mature, he said he will not repeat the mistakes he made in the seventh grade — yes, the seventh grade — which ingrained in him the cost of laziness.
“I know the harder you work, it will all pay off,” he said. “I know what happens when you don’t work. I’ve been on the other end of that when I was in the seventh grade. I didn’t have a great season because I didn’t put the work in. I played up but I didn’t play up to my expectations. So, I’m going to put as much work into it as I can and whatever happens after that, I will accept. … I said I wanted to set a legacy and I feel like I’m doing that.”
That legacy is not only being recorded by mind-twisting statistics but by his example, as Williams knows he’s not only watched closely by his teammates but by his little brothers, ages 9 and 7, who sometimes work out with him.
“They want to be like big brother,” Ryan Williams Sr. said.
And he shows them how he’s gotten this far.
“I’ve tried to teach him not to get into the flip-a-switch mode,” his father said. “He is on always-go mode and works out at such a high level. He wants his workouts as close as possible to being like in the game.”
Added Kelly: “He loves the Monday and Tuesday workouts just as much as the Friday nights.”
Williams (6-1, 175) finished the 2022 season with 2,387 yards of total offense and 40 touchdowns, scored an average of every three times he touched the ball, averaged 16 yards per play and had 18 TDs in the playoffs as the Spartans swept to the Class 6A state championship.
A year after being moved from quarterback to wide receiver, the player known as “Hollywood” led the state with 87 catches for 1,641 yards and 24 TDs, ran for 700 yards and 15 TDs, returned two punts for scores and threw a touchdown pass.
“I wasn’t too big on moving at first because I played quarterback all my life,” he said. “But now I love it. It’s something how things can change in such a short amount of time.”
About as quickly as Williams can reach his full, elite stride.
“By the time he graduates — and there are a lot of unknowns — he’s definitely on track to be one of the best players to come out of our state in a long time,” Kelly said. “Ryan is at his best in the big moments, the big games. He’s got so much flexibility in what he can do, whether it’s at wide receiver or running the ball or returning punts. If we put him on defense, he’d probably be one of the best DBs around. He has unbelievable God-given ability.”
If he continues performing at his 2022 levels for the next two years, Williams is on a pace to set state records for career yards per carry, receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
“His work on the field speaks for itself,” Kelly said, “but he’s one of the hardest-working dudes I’ve ever been around. He’s also the kind of guy you want to root for because he does all the things the right way. He’s got a great family and he’s a humble leader in the locker room and a tremendous teammate.”
Williams joined four exclusive clubs by winning Mr. Football. He was the 41st Mr. Football and Class 6A back of the year in Alabama, is among only 15 of 38 Gatorade Alabama Players of the Year to have also won Mr. Football and was named a first-team sophomore All-American by MaxPreps.
In fast company
The first player to win both Mr. Football and the Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year was Vigor running back Darrell “Lectron” Williams in 1988 and the other Mobile-area players to win both include Leroy quarterback Clint Moseley (2008), Foley wide receiver Julio Jones (2007) and Williamson quarterback JaMarcus Russell (2002).
With two years remaining in his high school career, Williams — who turns 16 in February — has a chance to surpass each of those all-time luminaries by becoming the first player to win multiple Mr. Footballs.
“I try not to focus on the expectations, just focus on ball,” Williams said.
But asked who he thinks will win Mr. Football next year, he grinned and replied: “God willing, I plan on winning it again.”
He won’t do it by propping up his winged feet and watching highlights of his landmark season.
“Ryan is super grateful and we understand what a huge honor this is — there is so much tradition and history surrounding Mr. Football,” Kelly said. “But this ended that today. Now it’s back to training his body to improve.”
While Williams has committed to Alabama, Sanders showed many schools will continue to pursue him. He also has offers from Auburn, where his father played college football, Florida State, Tennessee and Michigan, among others.
“As an athlete, you’re proud of that,” Ryan Williams Sr. said. “He’s made a decision (to commit to Alabama) and I tell him to just enjoy it. Football is a hard sport and it’s good to see players enjoy the fruits of their labor. There are so many bad things in the world and it’s good to see kids pursue their dream.”
The Alabama Sports Writers Association Mr. Football banquet was presented by ALFA Insurance and the Alabama High School Athletic Directors and Coaches Association.