When it comes to recruiting players to the rejuvenated USC, Riley told me that Williams’s experience demonstrates what’s unique about the school at this new moment in the game. “A guy like him shows the advantages of playing college football at a place like this, especially in this day and age,” Riley says. “I mean, we got a lot of guys on our team that are doing equity deals with companies—not just a simple, ‘hey, I get a deal and I go jump on a commercial or do a social media post.’ You got guys that are connecting and networking with some of the most influential people in so many different industries, and that’s just kind of a common daily occurrence here. It’s so different. It’s so unique. To be here in this moment with all that happening is a little bit of the perfect storm right now.”
So far, things are going (mostly) according to plan: the Trojans are 2-0 and ranked sixth in the country, and Williams has already racked up a handful of instantly viral highlights. Of course, there’s always room to improve. “I can’t say I’m, like, disappointed with how he’s played,” Riley told reporters after the team’s 52-point blowout over Nevada, in which Williams threw for over 300 yards and five scores. “But he’s got to get better.”
At the Dodgers game earlier this summer, signs of Williams’s good fortune—present and future—are everywhere. Beneath the stadium, we bump into a cozily dressed white-haired man, who is introduced to me as one of Williams’s friends and mentors. Later, I’ll learn that he is Lew Wolff, real estate mogul and former managing partner of the Oakland Athletics. (I’ll also spot Williams’s father sitting next to Wolff in first-row seats behind home plate.)
Eventually, we make our way to the field, where Williams gets an early look at his bobblehead. The toy shows Williams in a USC jersey and a Dodgers hat, hitting the iconic Heisman pose. Williams, a happy participant, cradles the figurine and assumes the position for photos. Before long, he’s on the rubber for his first pitch, rocking into an old-timey windup. He steers his toss just a bit outside—not a perfect strike, but nothing embarrassing either. Down the concourse behind home plate, Williams signs autographs for children and grown men alike. He’ll take pictures with anyone who asks, flashing the Trojans’ victory V with his fingers.
The whole scene underlines the fact that a player like Williams could not have existed until now—the NCAA formerly being too restrictive to allow someone like him to earn even a fraction of what he’s worth, and the NFL, until very recently, being too hidebound to value his freewheeling skills appropriately. He plays football the way kids raised on Steph Curry’s roof-scraping threes play hoops. Unbothered, unbound. He is nothing less than the promise of postmodern football fulfilled. Next summer he will in all likelihood be preparing for his first NFL training camp. The stakes will be higher. The media, less forgiving. The opposition, meaner. He will, for the very first time, not be in meaningful control of his career.
It’s a strange thing to realize: On draft day, for the first time Caleb Williams won’t get to decide what happens. “I’ve always been able to choose the team that I’ve played on,” he tells me. “And then everything’s been scheduled for me. I’ve had a plan for treatment, I’ve had a plan for workouts, I’ve had a plan for eating, I’ve had a plan for nutrition and things like that. Vitamins. A lot of shrimp and chicken breasts and fish. But now, going into this next part of my career, it’s weird ’cause it’s so uncertain. You don’t know anything. You can’t control anything but you and how you act. That’s honestly the weirdest part for me, is the uncertainty.”