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Ryan Williams began opening eyes on Mobile County park fields

Saraland star Ryan Williams got the nickname “Hollywood” in park football and was as explosive then as he is now. (Call News file photo)


Their mouths slowly opened and started sucking in air as the 10-year-old plunged toward them into the line of scrimmage. When he came out the other side, he waved them off, turned his back and ran away, like he was trying to be first in line for a hot dog at the concession stand.

On Saturday mornings, most kids his age would have been home watching cartoons. But on the gnawed-up fields from Eight Mile to Bayou La Batre to Saraland, people had a hard time comprehending what they were seeing springing from the dirt in real life.

Ryan Williams was carrying the football, deciphering by instinct where the holes and defenders would be and where he wouldn’t be when they arrived.

When he was 6, he scored his first touchdown at Saraland High School’s stadium, where his fame grew in his teenage years, with vision that seemed to come from a prophet.

While playing quarterback, he ran a bootleg, faked a handoff and reached the sideline when he saw two defenders running toward him from different angles.

“I cut in between them and they hit each other and I scored and I never turned back,” Williams said. “It’s natural, like it just happens. You have the feel for when they’re coming and it’s like I know what they’re going to do before they do.”

Nothing has changed in the 10 years since. His speed and skill are still superior and he’s still scoring touchdowns at Spartans Stadium, only now he is part of a state championship team and most major colleges are chasing him.

Cries of “Hollywood!” still come from the stands, just as they did on those Saturdays starting when he scored five touchdowns against Bayou La Batre when he was 6.

“We were like, wow, he put on a show,” said his father, Big Ryan. “His god dad came up with that. It started out like a little household name. When he’s playing football, he’d do something nice and we’d scream ‘Hollywood!’ and then eventually everybody did. They forgot his real name. Down here, if you play good football at a young age, it comes with a certain type of energy where people are constantly watching you.”

Watching Williams is one thing. Catching him is another.

“Ryan hit a switch from when he was 9 or 10 years old,” said Warren Washington, who coached against Williams’ teams from the time he was 6 to age 11. “I’ve been around football a long time and you could see he was different. He didn’t have the top-end speed like he’s got now but his field vision and awareness, man, was just unreal. He had more vision than speed early. He wasn’t slow by any means but right now he’s so fast it’s hard to put into words.”

Patrick Harbin, who coached Williams for four years beginning at age 5 with the Saraland Spartans in the Mobile Youth Football Conference, said Williams’ change of direction has always twisted defenders into knots.

“He had so many moves and could go around tacklers,” Harbin said. “I’d say, ‘I thought he was down. How can he not be down?’ And he’s 5 years old. He had the speed, too. He’d break away and you’d throw up your hands — touchdown.”

Harbin remembered Williams being much more fluid than others his age.

“We put him at wide receiver and he had better hands than the average 5-year-old and could run routes,” Harbin said. “He wasn’t running a button hook, going five yards and turning around. He was able to catch it in stride at age 5.”

His best play was called the Ryan bootleg.

“We put him at quarterback and he’d fake the fullback dive and bootleg around end,” Harbin said. “It was our bread and butter. I’d say 85 or 90 percent of the time he’s going to score and everybody on the other team knew it was coming. They still couldn’t stop it. It was like that in the (2022) state championship game. Mountain Brook knew he was good but not that good.”

That’s when Williams scored four touchdowns in the first half of a 38-17 win which brought Saraland its first Blue Map and helped him become the first sophomore Mr. Football.

But it might have been different if current Spartans star running back Santae McWilliams had been on the other side.

Going back to his park days, Williams would wave off defenders as easily as brushing off pesky but harmless gnats. But one day, McWilliams brought the flyswatter in a playoff game at West Mobile Park, resulting in the hardest hit Williams remembers absorbing.

“Santae,” he laughed. “I was playing quarterback and I made one of his teammates miss and I didn’t see him and when I turned my head, oooohh, weeeee, they had to come pick me off the ground. I think I made the cornerback miss because Santae played safety and I cut up and I looked and that was the last thing I seen. Oh, man, the pride was gone. I didn’t want to get up.”

But he did, of course, and continues to harbor the desire to be the best player on the field.

“He’s always been a hard worker,” Harbin said. “He comes from good stock, from his parents and grandparents. He got a lot of his dedication from Big Ryan. He’s always had a good work ethic. He’s always locked in on the things he wants to accomplish and he’s been the same since he was 5. To me, he still is and always will be Little Ryan. His hunger for greatness has not changed.”

Washington said he has seen players with Williams’ skills but not combined with the fascination for old-fashioned work.

“He turns into Hollywood on the field but he don’t talk north, there’s none of that,” Washington said. “To love to work out and want to get better like that is unreal. The things he’s working on as a receiver this offseason, you usually don’t worry about that until you get to the NFL.”

Harbin said Williams’ humility and eagerness to work endears him to his teammates and coaches.

“He was a very humble, loving kid, like he is now,” Harbin said. “He was ‘yes sir, no sir.’ A lot of kids have gifts and you see their attitude change but not with him.”

Washington said Williams is the best player he has seen from the Mobile area in at least 35 years.

“We go way back to Vigor High School and the national championship days (of 1988) and I can’t think of a player from our region that’s better than him at this point right here,” Washington said.

Harbin doesn’t dispute that contention.

“I have not seen anybody — and I have coached youth football in Mobile, Tuscaloosa and Fairhope — with that ‘it’ factor like him,” Harbin said. “Some kids you look at and just know. If he stays grounded, humble and focused, he’s going to be the next best thing.”

1 Comment

  1. Michael Coleman AKA Pops Mike or Pawpaw Mike on April 26, 2023 at 3:47 pm

    This is my grandson. Whom I am very proud of. Lil Ryan is being raised by a village. His other Grandfather Robert C. Who is Deceased. Played a major role in his development. RAW is a oldman in a young man’s body. RAW is very mature for a 16 year old kid. We the RAW, village would not have it any other way. Than for him to Remain Humble but Deadly!!. And respectful.
    Pops Mike.

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