By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Ryan “Hollywood” Williams is not the Wizard of Oz, a man behind a curtain who created fantasies which were much better than reality.
Williams is the Wizard of Awes, who has made reality seem better than the most spectacular fantasies since he was 6 years old, when he scored five touchdowns and a nickname in a Saraland youth football game against Bayou La Batre.
“He had fantasy numbers,” said his father, the man known as Big Ryan. “We were like, wow, he put on a show.”
Williams’ godfather started calling him Hollywood and it’s been that way ever since.
“He’d do something nice in a game and we’d scream ‘Hollywood!’ and then eventually everybody did,” Big Ryan said. “They forgot his real name.”
Hollywood the movie mecca is known for its fake stories and plastic, haughty, self-important celebrities. Hollywood the humble player has crammed a lot of genuine life achievements into 16 years.
He is the first sophomore to be named the state’s Mr. Football. The five-star prospect, already rated the No. 1 receiver nationally in the class of 2025, has been called a generational player by Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa coach Jamie Mitchell, who watched helplessly as Williams gouged six touchdowns out of the Patriots in a playoff game last year, then observed: “You don’t see talent like that very often at the high school level.”
Former Theodore coach Eric Collier, who has loaded buses with players bound to college football and the NFL, said Williams is the best player he ever coached against, including future Pro Football Hall of Famer Julio Jones.
“Julio was bigger and stronger but Ryan is the most explosive and dynamic player I coached against,” Collier said.
The man who has the pleasure of coaching Williams, Spartans coach Jeff Kelly, said the flamboyant nickname doesn’t capture the devotion and the backbone underneath jersey No. 1.
“I only see one guy, no Hollywood, just a 10th-grade kid who works hard every day and wants to play football,” Kelly said. “And the good Lord blessed him with the ability to do it at a very high level. He’s got the ability and competitive character to improve every day.”
Williams — who can get to full speed in the middle of a hairpin cut or in his first two steps — couldn’t comment on reports the U.S. military asked him to leap into the stratosphere to pop a Chinese spy balloon and stiff-arm a Russian satellite on the way down, saying it was classified.
But it’s no secret the A-list of college programs is pursuing him. He committed to Alabama, which caught him because defensive backs can’t, and with two more years of high school to go Williams said there is much more behind the curtain.
“I know there is a lot more in me I can bring out,” Williams said. “I try to get 1 percent better each day and I’m nowhere near close to 100 percent. That definitely has a big impact on my drive.”
That he is driven to greatness is not in dispute and the fact he is never satisfied with himself burnishes his reputation. He might be the nation’s top prospect before he is finished but knows the toll required to reach that destination.
“The challenge is just knowing I have to become a better receiver,” Williams said. “At the next level, everyone can run a 4.2, a 4.4, and I’ve got to be able to do more than run past people. I’ve got to make the catch in traffic.
“I want to get bigger. I want to make my teammates better day in and day out. I want to become an all-around better receiver, limit drops, block better. I want some pancakes. Run crisper routes.”
Williams is already such a prolific scoring threat from anywhere on the field — he averaged a touchdown every three times he touched the ball on offense or special teams last year — that opposing coaches would rather punt the ball into the stands than give Williams a chance to touch it. But they’re not so fortunate when the Spartans’ offense is on the field and four-star quarterback K.J. Lacey is throwing projectiles to Williams short and deep, into half-open windows and between minefields, or when Williams motions into the backfield and becomes a running back.
Williams has said he knows he is the best player on the field because he has worked for that distinction and not merely proclaimed it out of unmitigated arrogance.
“Honestly, I just know if I’m gonna feel like that, I have to put in the work to back it up, so with me working, I feel like I can do that,” Williams said. “I feel confident enough to say that when I get the ball, I’m confident that I’m the best player on the field. But that is just because of all the countless hours working.”
After all the work comes the fun on game days when, in the final hours before kickoff, he clamps on Beats headphones and listens to Drake and Future (“I gotta have my Beats, it just don’t feel right. That’s too much time sitting up looking at a wall,” he said.) He exchanges the Beats for a silver helmet and size 11½ cleats, which take him places much faster than anyone else dares to think possible on the field, where the wall is gone and fantasy becomes reality.
A pivotal moment
Williams’ competitive character was evident in his first vivid memory of the sport, when a football carrying life-changing consequences spun toward him and he was unsure of what to do with it.
He was 4 years old and playing catch in the back yard with his father, who was home from college, where he played for Louisiana Tech.
“He threw a football at me and busted my nose open,” Williams said. “I think I attempted to catch it but it just didn’t go like that.”
His father, ever the technician, was more concerned with why there was no gain on the play.
“I was more like, you have to catch it with your hands, you’ve got to frame the ball,” Big Ryan said.
His son, his nose stinging, could have run the other way, scarred for life and swearing never to touch a football again. Instead, something stirred inside the kid, lit a boiler, filled him with a maniacal resolve to work and spurred him to seek greatness.
“I learned to get my hands up,” Williams said.
Since then, the opposition has also learned to get their hands up — customarily while waving a white flag — after discovering they can’t throw a saddle on a lightning bolt.
Since then, Williams gradually developed the hands, moves, speed and toughness which remarkably diverted him from a lifetime of playing quarterback to become one of the nation’s top wide receiver prospects in just two years.
“He’s a second-year receiver,” Big Ryan said. “People have to remember he played quarterback all his life and he’s been steadily and slowly building up his bag. He’s so raw, there is always something to work at.”
Since it takes a billion years for the earth to form a diamond, Williams’ crash course on polishing seems not to be of this planet.
“I am never satisfied because I want to be the best,” Williams said.
‘A different switch’
Williams has also constructed the sturdy persona of a player who wants to deliver devastating blows, usually with a smile, usually with maximum effect, as if perfectly timed to snatch the breath from somebody when it hurts most.
When Williams drops a football or doesn’t run a route perfectly (“I am human, of course,” he said) or when the opposition succeeds in denying him the ball or uses his head as a plow — rarer still — he delights in turning those setbacks into a boomerang, usually jumping up with a smile and shoving a skewer through their guts.
“There’s nothing else on my mind except those lines and getting in there and winning the game,” he said. “I think it just happens. My instincts for the game take over. I don’t like to lose, so it’s a different switch, a different gear, when I feel like we’re getting counted out.”
Williams has been counted out more than once after being jackhammered to the turf by defensive backs and linebackers, only to arise and smite those who took their metaphorical best shot at him.
“Really, when I am in the game, I don’t even worry about that because I know it’s part of the game,” Williams said. “It’s going to happen even if it’s not on purpose. I’m just trying to focus on winning the game and whatever helps the team win.”
In the playoffs against Hillcrest last year, he was flattened twice in a span of a few minutes and could have been served as a new menu item at the International House of Pancakes.
The first time, Williams saw linebacker A.J. Quarles in a menacing position on a called tunnel screen and tried to signal Lacey to throw elsewhere.
“I looked at K.J. and I shook my head no,” said Williams, whose head was further shaken when Quarles eagerly air-mailed him without a postage stamp.
“He got blown up,” Lacey said, then sprang up as if he had been tickled by a feather.
“He’s tough,” a startled Quarles said. “I didn’t think he’d get up that fast. I was very impressed.”
A few plays later, pounded by two defenders and bloodied, Williams threw a touchdown pass to C.D. Gill and crumpled to the turf like a pile of laundry.
“I laid on the ground and I’m like, ‘Please crowd, please tell me he scored,’” Williams said. “It was silent. … Then I hear the screams.”
He didn’t know his nose was spurting blood until he got to the sideline.
“It didn’t faze him,” Lacey said. “He was bleeding from both nostrils.”
Properly patched, Williams scored two more touchdowns after that and finished with six.
Frustrated by the fierce physicality of Theodore cornerback Will James in a showdown of unbeatens near the end of the 2022 regular season, Williams nevertheless found a way to make a difference, scooping up a punt, leaving bodies strewn in his wake and racing 72 yards for a touchdown in a 27-26 loss, Saraland’s only defeat of the season.
A few weeks later, in the semifinals, Williams sawed off the edge of Theodore’s defense on a 43-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to send the Spartans to the Class 6A state championship game.
There, in Jordan-Hare, Williams never took his foot off the accelerator or Mountain Brook’s throat, scoring four touchdowns in the first half. When it was over, the Blue Map was snuggled securely in his hands as he carried it off the field.
That was a long way from a football whacking him in the nose when he was 4.
It’s always time to work
Williams didn’t want to move to wide receiver initially although he would have been one of eight players competing to be Saraland’s starting quarterback his freshman year.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I knew I was athletic enough to do it and I knew I wanted to be on the field my freshman year. My dad and I talked about it. It wasn’t easy. I knew when I was the quarterback, the game is in your hands and I was used to that weight on my shoulders. I knew what I’ve got to do to get open but I couldn’t feel the game like when I was at quarterback.”
Kelly had concluded Williams would be better at wide receiver after seeing him catching balls with a teammate. But nobody could have predicted how good Williams would be, although his perfectionist nature ensured his dedication to his new craft and an intolerance for mistakes.
“I try to do it until I get it right,” he said. “I try to do it until I don’t get it wrong. When (mistakes) happen, I think about it but I try not to think about it in the game. But after the game, oooooh. You have a flashback but when it’s time to work, scratch everything.”
Powered by Smuckers Peanut Butter-and-Jelly Uncrustables and Mott’s Fruit Gummies, Williams feels it’s always time to work, at school or on his own time with his father, lifting weights, catching balls, running routes and developing the footwork which he hopes will carry him to the highest levels of the game.
“You’ve got to earn everything,” Williams said. “It’s countless hours of work, even when you don’t want to, when nobody else is. There are definitely days I don’t want to work out but, you know, if this is what you want to do, you have to put in those days. They count more, really, the days you don’t want to because anybody can do it when they feel like it.”
Williams learned to savor work in numerous backyard sessions, with throwing and catching fitting in at odd times, sometimes in the middle of the night if he and Big Ryan were restless, sometimes while waiting on food.
“Anytime we were bored or had time, let’s go play catch,” Williams said. “I was playing quarterback then and if I made two bad throws in a row, we’re going to the house. He wasn’t making it easy on me.”
Sometimes it was about getting better. Sometimes they talked about things happening off the field. Whatever the reason, the more footballs he caught, the easier it got. After all, a football settling into Williams’ hands is soothing, a handshake with an old friend.
But sometimes, his father must call time out, break his son’s fascination with preparation and make him remember to be a teenager.
“I have to tell him to go enjoy yourself,” Big Ryan said. “I know if I would have had all the clout he has when I was coming up, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble. I had to make him go to a parade on Fat Tuesday. Man, go get some fresh air.
“The work, it’s all he wants to do. It’s like he’s obsessed with it. If you cut him down the middle, he loves the hard work. It’s like he finds his safe haven in football.”
Playing with joy
Williams is all about staying inbounds, on and off the field, because the NFL is his ultimate goal. Even now, he works on getting both feet down in the field of play during a catch, which is what the pros must do.
“I’ve got to work on it now so it’s natural,” Williams said.
His work ethic is supernatural, so he doesn’t make time for frivolous things such as trash talking.
“Some games, you have the guys, that’s just their personalities, so they’re not going to back down because of who they’re playing,” he said. “I like the ones who talk smack the most because then I can make them be quiet. Like give me another reason.”
James, who signed with Mississippi State, became friends with Williams and works out with him, said Williams is stoic on the field.
“Ryan doesn’t talk in games, he just plays,” said James, who admitted throwing shade Williams’ way. “I was doing all the talking. After a while, I shut up and just played the game.”
Williams plays the game with joy — “It makes me happy to be blessed to do it,” he said — and knows it could end on one snap, as it did with his father.
“I want him to learn from my mistakes,” Big Ryan said. “ACL injury, non-contact, it could be over tomorrow. Knowing that in the back of your mind, that kind of keeps you humble right there. You can’t take it for granted. You have to make every rep count. A lot of people worry about stats — I just want him healthy after the game. A lot of people see Hollywood but that’s my child, my baby.”
Big Ryan knows dreams can be safeguarded only so far. He was an all-state defensive back at B.C. Rain, was offered by Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, Ole Miss and South Carolina, among others, signed with Auburn and eventually found his way to Louisiana Tech, where his career ended with a non-contact knee injury early in the 2011 season against Central Arkansas.
It’s in his hands