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Ryan Williams is the greatest high school football player in Alabama history

Saraland quarterback K.J. Lacey, left, and Spartans receiver Ryan Williams enjoy displaying Williams’ history-making second Mr. Football award Tuesday in Montgomery. Lacey should be a favorite to win it after the 2024 season. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)

 

 

 

MONTGOMERY — He wore jersey No. 1 and was not shy in his belief that he was the best player whenever he stepped on the field. He wasn’t alone in that assertion.

But does the fact that Saraland’s Ryan Williams is the only player in state history to win Mr. Football twice make him the greatest high school player of all time in Alabama?

Not by itself but there are plenty of other good arguments to back up that claim.

Saying someone is the best ever in anything is subjective and difficult to put into context, especially when you consider eras from 50, 60 or 70 years ago. But remember, we’re considering who might be the greatest high school football player in Alabama history, not who went on to become even better in college and the pros.

I’ve replayed in my mind all I have been privileged to see in nearly 50 years as a journalist and concluded that Williams is the best high school player this state has ever produced.

“I feel like after winning this award again, anyone who disagrees can argue with their mama,” Williams laughingly said after collecting his second Mr. Football plaque.

Despite the fact the first football he remembers catching was with his face, not his hands, Williams was a park legend who is now a high school legend. That’s no guarantee he’ll be a legend at Alabama or in the NFL but I wouldn’t bet against it.

 

All the great traits

 

Those who saw Williams at Saraland still have a hard time comprehending what they saw or believing some of the stories surrounding the man called Hollywood.

He didn’t walk on water, like Bear Bryant was reputed to do, but he ran so fast he skipped over it like a rock. How about the time Williams went to the top of the RSA Tower without using an elevator, the stairs, a rappelling rope or helicopter. Or the time he caught a bazooka shell between his index finger and thumb (while securing a football under the same arm). Or the time he used his sharp, geometrically impossible moves to cut down a tree without touching it. Or the time he went to Talladega, told Denny Hamlin’s pit crew not to bother changing a tire, grabbed the front bumper and took off sprinting, pulling Hamlin’s Toyota into the lead.

It’s all been said — Williams has the speed, leaping ability, toughness and ability to separate; those are vital technical aspects. His instantaneous speed was without peer in the high school game.

But let’s put it another way: If my life depended on him catching a football, even while being triple teamed, I’d choose him and feel good about my chances to continue breathing.

Great players in all sports have many of the same traits: Talent, work ethic, attention to detail, instincts, passion, intelligence, excelling in the direst of circumstances, leadership, courage, being a good teammate and making those around them better. Williams is all that and more — on top of everything else, I’ve never seen anyone play the game at the highest level of competition with the pure, undistilled joy Williams pours out.

Saying Williams was better in high school than these all-time greats from our state during their high school careers isn’t a stretch. They are:

Bart Starr (who won two Super Bowls), Lee Roy Jordan, Kenny Stabler, Johnny Musso, Richard Todd (Bryant said he was the best athlete he ever coached at quarterback), Ozzie Newsome, John Hannah (the best offensive lineman of all time), Cornelius Bennett, Keith McCants, Pat Sullivan, Terry Beasley, Bo Jackson, Darrell “Lectron” Williams, David Palmer, Willie Anderson, Terrell Owens, JaMarcus Russell (a former No. 1 NFL draft pick) and Julio Jones.

Starr, Stabler, Newsome, Hannah and Owens are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Anderson and Jones will be. Sullivan and Jackson won the Heisman Trophy. Beasley, Jordan and Jackson are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

We’re comparing someone who is 16 years old to those men. And that’s the point — we’re comparing someone who is 16 years old to those men. When has that ever happened?

“You’ve got different eras and I think Ryan’s story will continue to evolve,” Saraland coach Jeff Kelly said. “His best football is ahead of him. He’s certainly in the conversation of the best to ever come through. You’re talking about JaMarcus, about Julio. Some of that will be determined by what Ryan does from here on out. He doesn’t want this to be the highlight of his athletic career.”

 

It’s all about winning

 

While it’s been possible only in recent years, Williams is the lone person in that esteemed group who ended his high school career a year early to move on to college because another year of high school wouldn’t have helped him.

None of those players, at least not in high school, possessed the all-around versatility of Williams, who is a receiver, kick returner and a Wildcat quarterback who can break the big play running and throwing. He’s also as fierce a warrior, a competitor, as anybody who has ever put on the uniform.

When I asked him recently about the main factors in his college choice, Williams didn’t hesitate:

“Winning,” he said.

Statistics cannot be the only barometer when determining the all-time best. Williams holds no individual state records, which is perhaps as unbelievable as the case of all-time total offense leader Piedmont quarterback Jack Hayes until you consider Hayes played five years and Williams just two as a starter.

Hayes had 15,104 yards in his career. He never won Mr. Football and signed with Snead State.

Williams has 4,440 yards of career total offense but has been a wide receiver for only three years and is going to sign with Alabama. What will happen when he truly figures out all the nuances of the position?

 

Hollywood and humility

 

As it was, Williams could significantly alter a game even without the ball. Other teams would try to slow down the game when they had the ball just to keep it away from him. Teams would try to kick and punt away from him and it would cost them field position.

Even in the two losses Saraland experienced in the last two years, Williams delivered the goods.

Theodore’s Will James did the best job anybody ever did to deny Williams the ball in the 2022 regular season and he responded with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the classic 2023 state championship game against Clay-Chalkville in December, he scored four touchdowns.

Those are reasons to lose one’s modesty but let’s hope Williams remains humble. The Hollywood in him enjoys the show and the attention — and he should enjoy it — but that is not what will earn him greatness at Alabama and into the NFL. Thousands of people do and will admire and respect the person he is.

Yards, touchdowns, tackles, blocks and interceptions are all gauges of greatness but I think it’s how a player goes about doing those things that counts more.

For Williams, the game will now steadily become more of a business, a profession, and there are forces who will want him to change his deeply rooted character, to make things that aren’t important suddenly important. But I am confident Williams will retain his inexhaustible joy, desire and dedication to being the best to ever play the game, whether the football is in his hands or not.

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