April 13, 2024

It’s only been two days since USC’s disappointing season came to a crushing conclusion against its crosstown rival, but Caleb Williams is already back under the lights. Cameras are rolling. A crowd is chanting his name. Ca-leb! Ca-leb! Ca-leb!

It’s the sort of scene USC’s star quarterback has grown increasingly familiar with through his second — and presumably last — season in L.A. as his exposure and expectations skyrocketed, a potent combination made all the more volatile by the Trojans’ second-half tailspin. Losing five of his last six only ratcheted only up the attention around the quarterback, challenging him in ways he’d never been challenged before.

By the end, as an ovation greeted him in the Coliseum tunnel after the loss to UCLA, Williams looked emotionally spent, worn down by an exhausting level of losing he’d otherwise never experienced.

A couple days later and a couple miles down Vermont Ave, Williams seems, at least for the moment, like he’s rejuvenated. He smiles as a crowd of kids, gathered at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South L.A., roar upon his arrival, hanging on his every word.

He was once a Boys & Girls Club kid himself, he tells the crowd. He’s been coming to this particular club periodically for the past two years, to lead an anti-bullying campaign and also help wherever else he can. Recently, his mom even dropped off Halloween candy for the kids, each bag inscribed with a greeting from Williams himself.

Today, he’s here on behalf of his foundation, Caleb Cares, as well as Dr. Pepper, to hand out a giant $50,000 check as part of Dr. Pepper’s Tuition Toss. His job — helping two girls to throw footballs into inflatable Dr. Pepper cans — seems to elicit genuine joy out of Williams, who hadn’t found much of that over the previous six weeks.

Soon after he hands out the first $50,000 tuition check to the winner, Kamari, he calls up the runner-up, Julieta, to tell her Caleb Cares plans to match Dr. Pepper’s contribution with another $50,000 in tuition for her. As he hands her a giant check of her own, her dismay turns immediately into stunned elation.

Putting disappointment behind him won’t be so simple for Williams, for whom the spotlight has proven particularly harsh of late. Not only did USC fall well short of the goals its quarterback had jotted down in his phone before the season — a Pac-12 title, a Playoff berth, a national title, a second Heisman — but in the process, Williams’ every move was carefully picked apart under a microscope, feeding perceptions from the darkest dregs of college sports fandom.

USC backup quarterback Miller Moss, left, consoles Caleb Williams in the closing moments of the Trojans' loss to Washington.

USC backup quarterback Miller Moss, left, consoles Caleb Williams in the closing moments of the Trojans’ 52-42 loss to Washington on Nov. 4.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When a tearful postgame embrace with his mom was captured on TV cameras earlier this month, the conversation continued for nearly a week. Some of the criticism was of his own making: In October, he clapped back at a trolling Notre Dame fan, boldly declaring himself “a lion” and noting that “everybody wants to be in these two 12.5 shoes right here.” Then, after the loss to UCLA, in what’s likely to be his last home game at USC, Williams avoided the media altogether.

Williams says he has tried to take speculation in stride, but anyone could see it has, at times, rankled him. Even so, he still dazzled on the field. Those close to Williams eagerly point out that his numbers — 303 passing yards per game, 3.4 total touchdowns per game — haven’t changed much from his jaw-dropping Heisman campaign of 324 passing yards and 3.71 touchdowns per game.

But however you frame it, even Williams won’t hide from the fact this past season was nothing like the one previous. The losing hit him especially hard.

“I’m still learning things I need to get better at,” Williams says.

He’s tried not to linger too long on the discontent, instead now focusing on the little things as much as he could — one day, one task at time — even as big-picture questions loom about his NFL future.

For the time being, Williams plans to tune those out. He’ll consider his options over the coming days, weighing pros and cons using the same process he and his father used to determine his transfer to USC, and spending any spare time with his bulldog, Supa, who has often been his best source of emotional support this season.

It’s certainly been an emotionally taxing year for Williams, and that’s before the painful churn of the draft process. But after mulling it over for 48 hours, the quarterback suggested framing his disappointing 2023 campaign in a different way.

“This was one of my most important years of playing football so far,” Williams said.

“I’ve never been in this situation, where I’m 7-5 and there are no playoff hopes at the end of the season. I’m dealing with it emotionally, dealing with it spiritually and physically. It’s been one of the most important years I think I’ve had. It’s tricky. I’ve had to have talks with [USC coach] Lincoln [Riley] — because obviously I haven’t been through it — or with my family members or people like that, just how to deal with this and lead, how to stay the same person I was before the season or after our first loss or second loss. So it was different. It was a learning process.”

“I’m dealing with it emotionally, dealing with it spiritually and physically. It’s been one of the most important years I think I’ve had.”

— Caleb Williams on his 2023 season with USC

Among the lessons Williams has tried to internalize, he says, is how to maintain better control of his emotions. Though, as he explains himself, it seems he’s still torn on what to take from his experience.

On one hand, staying true to himself is “what’s most important,” Williams says, and that means wearing his passion — or heartbreak — on his sleeve. On the other, he seems to understand the subtext that soon enough he’ll be the face of an NFL franchise, one with an owner that might be conscious of his quarterback crying in plain view after a difficult defeat.

“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Williams said. “But I’m far from ashamed about showing my emotion after any of the losses this year. It shows truth. It shows care. All that. I’m getting better at it, showing it in the right place and the right time. But if I won a national championship or a Super Bowl years down the line — if I was winning, nobody would be saying anything.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams reacts to the crowd as he leaves the field after beating Colorado at Folsom Field on Sept. 30.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams reacts to the crowd as he leaves the field after beating Colorado at Folsom Field on Sept. 30.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

But that wasn’t how this season went for Williams, and there’s little reason to think another at USC would leave him better positioned for his future, no matter how much he’s hinted at that possibility.

His father, Carl, already started a firestorm when he suggested to GQ in September that Williams had “two shots at the apple” and might return to school “if there’s not a good situation” waiting for him in the NFL. Carl Williams has done plenty of due diligence on the matter since, taking meetings and speaking to whomever he could, across different sports, about how to maximize his son’s leverage. But no one around Williams seems to consider that a likely outcome any longer.

“Carl isn’t out there to beat the system,” said a person close to the family but unauthorized to speak publicly.

Williams, for the record, told The Times it’s still “a game-time decision” whether he declares for the NFL.

“There’s a time and a place for everything. But I’m far from ashamed about showing my emotion after any of the losses this year. It shows truth. It shows care.”

— Caleb Williams on maintaining better control of his emotions

He can’t help but weigh, in some part, what he’s leaving on the table if he does. But his teammates at USC know he has nothing left to prove.

“He has earned everything he’s got,” said offensive tackle Jonah Monheim.

“He has that character, he has that attitude that you have respect for, that you want to play for,” center Justin Dedich added, “and I think who he is off the field is something that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

At the Challengers Boys & Girls Club, of course, they’d love to see him stay. Here, there are no questions about his football future, no doubts about his ability to lead. After every game Williams has played at USC, each of the kids at the club — 160 in all — writes him a card. It doesn’t matter if the Trojans have won or lost.

“When Caleb is around, these kids straighten up and fly right,” says Kim Washington, a vice president on the Boys & Girls Club’s executive board. “They want his attention.”

The mere mention of any negative discourse around Williams gets Washington worked up. She has seen too much from him to stand for it.

“Here you have an athlete who actually cares about his community,” Washington said. “We need more leaders like him that are in touch with his feelings and understand the importance of mental health and also how to ask for help and lead the way for others who may not want to ask. Everybody needs a leader sometimes, and he’s become that.”

Maybe that won’t move the needle for an NFL general manager. But talk to anyone around this club, and they’ll tell of the tremendous legacy Williams has already left in L.A., even if his resume never includes a Pac-12 title or a College Football Playoff trip.

“These kids will keep thinking about him and watch him regardless of where he’s at,” Washington says. “Do we want him to stay around? Absolutely. But we all want the best for him. And I absolutely believe he’ll continue to bring what he brought here somewhere else.”

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