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NEW YORK CITY — Caleb Williams talked for nearly 13 minutes in his Heisman Trophy speech Saturday night, after winning college football’s top honor and stamping his name among the sport’s all-time greats.
The ESPN broadcast ran well past the end of the scheduled hour, but nobody was going to tell the USC quarterback to cut it short.
Williams spoke movingly and at times emotionally about finding his drive at the age of 10 to be the best at this chosen craft, about how his parents, mentors and coaches helped him create and execute the plan to make that reality, of his relationship with USC coach Lincoln Riley and all they’ve been through and, finally, a message to any young person who aspires to chase a dream the way he did.
“I used to write down my goals in a journal, and what used to just be words on a piece of paper has me standing here today. So everyone, dreams really do come true. Thank you. Fight On,” Williams said in closing.
Williams punctuated his incredible sophomore season by becoming USC’s eighth Heisman Trophy winner — breaking a tie with Oklahoma, Ohio State and Notre Dame for the most by any school all-time. (Yes, counting Reggie Bush.)
And he won it convincingly, receiving 544 first-place votes (and 2,031 points) out of 870 media personnel, 58 Heisman winners and one fan ballot, distancing himself from TCU QB Max Duggan (188 first-place votes, 1,420 points), Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud (37/539) and Georgia QB Stetson Bennett (36/349).
RELATED: Former USC Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart explain what makes Caleb Williams such a special talent | Full transcript of Caleb Williams’ Heisman speech | Watch Williams and coach Lincoln Riley discuss the Heisman victory
“I’m a part of a fraternity. I’m the 88th winner of the Heisman Trophy, so it will change my life. I just don’t exactly know how yet,” Williams said in a press conference afterward.
He knows what it will mean for his legacy, though.
Williams was asked about the significance of being part of such a rich Heisman history at USC. He had spent the morning talking with former Trojans Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart over breakfast.
“It’s pretty cool. I hang around them all the time when they’re at USC or even here today — just kind of talking to them and the experience, it’s a blessing. The craziest part to me is the guys that I was talking to, the Heisman winners in the past, the crazy part to me is they all have their jersey retired and now once I leave USC it’s probably the coolest thing to me that my jersey will be retired,” he said.
Williams had already won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year, Walter Camp Player of the Year and Maxwell Award honors in the run-up to the Heisman.
He has completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 4,075 yards, 37 touchdowns and 4 interceptions while rushing for 372 yards and 10 touchdowns and leading USC to an 11-2 record after the program finished 4-8 last year prior to his arrival.
He broke the program record for total touchdowns in a season — previously 41 by Matt Barkley (2011) and Cody Kessler (2014) — and his 4,447 total offensive yards rank first on USC’s single-season list (Sam Darnold previously held the record with 4,225 total yards in 2017). Williams’ 372 rushing yards this season is also the most by a USC QB in the last 70 years since complete records were available.
Former Trojan Cody Kessler currently holds the USC record for the lowest rate of interceptions in a season with 1.1% (5 in 452 attempts in 2014). Williams is currently at 0.9% (4 in 407 attempts) and on pace to overtake that mark too.
Williams trails only Darnold for the single-season passing yards mark (4,143) and could overtake both that and the completions record (315 by Kessler) if he plays in the Cotton Bowl next month.
But his place in program lore is now secured in the most meaningful of ways.
Like the Trojans’ two Heisman QBs before him, Palmer (2002) and Leinart (2004), Williams will now forever be linked to bringing USC football back to national prominence yet again — he and Riley, that is.
Williams is now the third quarterback of Riley’s in the last six years to win the Heisman Trophy (following Baker Mayfield in 2017 and Kyler Murray in 2018 at Oklahoma).
“They’ve all been great in their own right,” Riley said. “Caleb’s combination of all the things that he physically does well combined with I think this fearlessness at a young age … to me, I know he’s not to you guys, to me he’s still a pup. He’s a year and a half into playing college football. It’s been fun to see that we can coach him hard and we can push him hard and he’s continued to respond and he’s so hungry to get better, but he’s also so fearless in the moment and he’s going to get better and better as time goes on if he continues at it. I know he will.
“Physically, he’s got what all of them have, and honestly, there’s some things he probably has naturally that are better. Which is hard to do, because those other guys are all obviously elite players.”
Williams’ Heisman also caps a wild year for he and Riley and their relationship.
When Williams formally entered the transfer portal a little less than a year ago, it seems there were a variety of opinions within his support system of family and mentors about where he should go in moving on from Oklahoma.
One can read between the lines and deduce that not everybody was on board with Williams choosing to follow Riley to USC after Riley had surprised him — and everyone else in Norman, Okla. — by leaving the Sooners for the Trojans.
“I kept him guessing for a few weeks,” Williams said of Riley, reflecting back on the pivotal decision earlier this week. “I ended up saying to my dad, ‘This is where I’m going.’ And my mentors. It was a lot of other stuff that had to go with it that was going on. There was a lot going on at the time. There was a couple arguments, there was a couple heated arguments that happened throughout that process, but I’m here now and it’s been great.”
That’s one word for it.
Williams was asked to clarify whether those heated conversations were with Riley or his family.
“Not with Linc. We had a couple real conversations and deep conversations just trying to make sure everything is how it should be, but the heated arguments was with my family and mentors because there was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of other people’s opinions going on and things like that,” Williams said. “My dad always told me, ‘When you make a decision, go with it.’ I made a decision and I made sure that my decision was what I wanted and was best for me. The only person that can know what’s best for you totally is you.”
Just like he knew the first time through that process as a top high school recruit out of Washington, D.C., Williams again wanted to attach his future to Riley — the star young coach who had produced those two Heisman Trophy winners and a Heisman runner-up in his first three seasons at Oklahoma.
This is always how it was supposed to work out, as Williams envisioned, playing for the coach he believed could bring the best out of his highly-coveted skill set and allow him to prove what he already believed — that he was the best quarterback in the country.
Yes, they had talked about the Heisman during his initial recruitment — about Riley’s very relevant history producing winners of the award and about how Williams had the ability to get to that point as well.
“Obviously, it was mentioned. This is a very special award. So obviously it was mentioned, but I obviously already knew that he had two previous Heisman winners and J Hurt [Jalen Hurts] being a finalist. I already knew all that, but it was mentioned,” Williams said earlier this week. “I thought of myself before college as being the best player — that’s not to anything being cocky. I worked for it. Obviously, I had an offer from Coach Riley and he doesn’t give out offers like that. I thought I was one of the best players coming into college and wanted to be the best when I got here, so that’s kind of what one of these awards brings to you.”
Williams has indeed proven all of that — and if others needed the formal Heisman win to see it, he now has that too.
As for USC, it would have no doubt been headed in the right direction with Riley regardless, but landing Williams expedited the rejuvenation — or restoration — of this proud program.
Interestingly, the origin for that aspect of it all was a recruiting visit to Norman, Okla., back in early 2020 and the relationship that formed that day between the coach and QB, while persevering through the transfer portal and those tough conversations last January.
Nobody — most certainly the Trojans and their fans — knew they’d be the ultimate beneficiary of that budding connection.
(It’s been a wild year for everyone connected to USC.)
“I went on a visit one time and we went to a room to watch film and we were supposed to only probably be in there for about 20 minutes. We ended up being about two hours,” Williams said of one of his first — if not first — recruiting visits with Riley at Oklahoma. “So there was just a certain click that we had and it’s been chugging along or booming ever since.”
As he stood in front of a Heisman backdrop freshly crowned as the top player in college football, fulfilling a goal he’s had saved in a notes file on his phone and one that he and Riley discussed way back when, Williams reflected again on his relationship with his coach.
“On and off the field, he holds me accountable. We’ve been through a good amount more than a lot of QBs and coaches have been or players and coaches have been. Relationships are built on trial and tribulation and we’ve been through a good amount of it,” Williams said. “Like I said in my speech that no great book or great story can be without adversity, so we’ve been through it and our relationship and all of that has been chugging along and we’re going to keep chugging along.”
Said Riley: “One of my favorite parts of it is, from the beginning, from a first phone call or a first school visit, to see these guys and just first get to know them and be able to celebrate and enjoy nights like this together, it’s cool to see these guys living out their dreams.”
Williams’ lofty goals were formed well before he met Riley, of course.
As he said in his Heisman speech, this was a plan more than a decade in the making.
“The journey really started when I was 10 and the season ended and I had to turn my equipment in. There’s one thing I vividly remember is telling my dad on the car ride home that this is what I wanted to do for my career — I wanted to be a football player, I wanted to be a quarterback. I loved it, I loved everything about it,” he told the Heisman crowd and national television audience. “Fast forward a couple of years later, I’m crying in a hotel room, and many of you have probably seen me cry after a loss. My team and I just lost a national championship and I didn’t get the chance to play. My coach told me I was too small. That night a fire ignited in me. That night I decided to play quarterback, and not only be playing quarterback but to be the best quarterback. …
“And if you know me and my dad, very plan-based, we stayed up all night putting together a plan. And the journey/plan went like this … 5:30 a.m. ‘breakfast club’ workouts. We also had 6:30 p.m. lift, running, conditioning, getting bigger, stronger and faster. We had nutritionists, sleep patterns, sports psychologists, coaching experts and learning and playing the game. The more I learned, the more I wanted.”
And he’s not satisfied yet.
As the ESPN broadcast revealed, the goals Williams has listed in the file on his phone stipulated two-time Heisman winner.
One down …
One incredible season followed by one momentous night holding up one of the most significant trophies in sports.
“I’ve watched it and to now be a part of it and to be a part of this fraternity, it’s a blessing and it’s everything I dreamed of,” Williams said.