‘OK, he’s really different’: Seven stories that explain Bears QB Caleb Williams

'OK, he's really different': Seven stories that explain Bears QB Caleb Williams

Conner McQueen had been the offensive analyst for the Oklahoma Sooners for mere hours in March 2020 when he heard the buzz about the visiting quarterback on campus.

McQueen’s first day on the job coincided with Caleb Williams‘ first visit to Norman. McQueen hadn’t even met face-to-face with his boss, former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley, because everyone in the football offices was occupied with pulling out all the stops for the five-star recruit, who was a junior at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.

What was relayed to McQueen was that Riley, who had mentored Heisman Trophy quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, had found his next superstar.

“They were like … he’s with the ‘next one,'” McQueen said. “I’m sitting here thinking, well, [redshirt freshman] Spencer Rattler is here and Jalen Hurts just left. And Spencer Rattler is probably going to be the guy going into 2020, and they’re already talking about the next one.

“I’m like, ‘OK, who is this guy?'”

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Williams is the guy who would supplant Rattler as the starter midway through his freshman season in 2021 and then follow Riley to USC, where he won the Heisman in 2022 and was one of the most effective deep-ball passers in the nation last year, completing 53% of his attempts of 20-plus air yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Chicago Bears haven’t had many quarterbacks qualify as the “one” throughout their 105-year existence, but selecting Williams with the No. 1 overall draft pick Thursday night signaled that they think he can end generations of quarterback futility and become the team’s first franchise QB since Sid Luckman 85 years ago.

That Williams ended up with the Bears was no surprise. The Bears took the rare approach of hosting only one quarterback on a top-30 visit and Williams’ sole pre-draft stop was with Chicago.

Along the way, the team learned what makes this 22-year-old quarterback “comfy in my own skin” — as he put it before the draft — and about the lofty expectations he’ll bring to Chicago. He said Thursday night that his goal is “immortality” with multiple championships. His competitive edge endeared him to Bears general manager Ryan Poles. “I love it,” Poles said. “I think we all should have huge goals.”

But it’s not the goals that make Williams unique. It’s how he bugged Oklahoma’s director of player development to let him work out next to Rattler during 6 a.m. sessions even though freshmen weren’t invited. It’s how he accidentally broke his high school coach’s wedding ring and bloodied his finger, and how he reacted backstage Thursday when he learned that the Bears also drafted Washington receiver Rome Odunze.

Here are stories told by people who have a personal connection to the Bears’ new quarterback and understand what makes him one of a kind.

Caleb Williams is being viewed as the answer to the Bears’ decades-long search for a franchise quarterback. But there’s to more to the USC product than just football. Photo-Illustraion by Shawn Hubbard for ESPN

Playing catch with Williams can be a bloody pain

Each summer, the Gonzaga College High School football team made the two-hour trek to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, for a week’s worth of training camp practices that seemed like a scene from the movie “Remember the Titans.”

About halfway through a practice in 2018, Danny Schaechter, who was Gonzaga’s offensive coordinator, noticed his left hand started to throb and there was blood dripping from his ring finger.

“I’m like, ‘What the heck did I do?’ And then I realized, ‘Oh crap — my wedding ring is split in half,'” Schaechter said.

Williams had whipped a pass so hard that it splintered the metal of Schaechter’s ring and cut his finger. When the OC relayed the story to his wife, her anger quickly turned to disbelief over the velocity of the throw that came from a 16-year-old sophomore’s arm.

After getting his ring soldered back together, Schaechter began to loop the gold band onto a chain around his neck before he stepped on the field.

“Because of Caleb, I take my wedding ring off anytime I’m going to go do some football stuff,” Schaechter said. “I don’t want anybody to break my wedding ring, but he was the only one who actually did it.”

Crashing the 6 a.m. club

Chip Viney squinted down the hallway and tried to make out the figure standing outside the door to his office. It was early, and the former Sooners director of player development didn’t have his contacts in, but as he got closer, Viney started to fear the worst.

It wasn’t even 5:30 a.m. and there was Williams wanting to talk. Viney immediately thought of the worst-case scenario, that the freshman quarterback was homesick or realized he had made the wrong decision in coming to Oklahoma and wanted to transfer.

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“He’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve been wrestling with this all night,'” Viney recalled, “‘and I don’t know who to talk to.'”

The weight on Williams’ mind? How he could get into the 6 a.m. workout group.

“He goes, ‘I’m trying to take a crack at this starting job, and Spencer works out in the 6 a.m. workout group,'” Viney said. “I kind of relax — ‘OK, listen here, freshman. I hear you. I love that spirit about you, but that’s just not how it’s set up.'”

Williams wasn’t going to take no for an answer. The freshman went down to the locker room, got dressed and went to work out with the 6 a.m. group. Bennie Wiley, Oklahoma’s strength and conditioning coach, ran up to Viney’s office later that morning wondering why Williams showed up with the early lifters.

“This kid is on fire and wants to be on the rack next to Spencer Rattler,” Viney said. “He wants to work as hard as Spencer Rattler, not to show him up, not to embarrass him — ‘I want to gauge my work ethic versus the guy in this program right now.’

“And then I knew. I’m like, ‘OK, he’s really different.'”

Caleb Williams was joined by his girlfriend Alina Thyregod, and his mother, Dayna Price, at the draft. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fashion cop

Jacksonville Jaguars starting offensive tackle Anton Harrison protected Williams’ blind side as his left tackle at Oklahoma, and Harrison said there is a group chat with players from that team.

“We literally talk all the time in that group chat and we always joke around and stuff,” Harrison said. “He can dish it out and get it in return, too.

“But there’s never any hard feelings. It’s all love.”

Harrison remembers there was one topic at Oklahoma that Williams most liked to have fun with.

“The only thing he really got on me is clothes I wore outside of football,” Harrison said. “You know, he’s that big fashion guy, so that’s probably the only thing he really got on me about because I would be telling him I got better swag than him.”

Williams has a unique style and has made millions off NIL deals as the face of ad campaigns for Beats by Dre, Wendy’s and Dr Pepper.

Striking a pose

It was Nov. 26, 2022, and after Williams pulled a read-option handoff at the last second to run in a 5-yard touchdown nearing halftime against Notre Dame, his teammates begged the quarterback to strike a Heisman pose as he jogged to the USC sideline.

It wasn’t as dramatic as when former Michigan star Desmond Howard struck the pose in 1991 after scoring on a 93-yard punt return, but Williams got his point across.

After another Williams highlight-reel play later in the game, longtime radio play-by-play voice for USC football Pete Arbogast put in an unofficial vote.

“I said something along the lines of, ‘Did he pose like the Heisman? Because if he didn’t, he should,'” Arbogast said. “And everybody’s screaming, of course. I think I let on at that point that I thought he was going to win the thing.”

A Heisman ultimatum

Trailing by four points with time winding down in the fourth quarter at Oregon State in 2022, Williams scrambled around while looking to make a play on a fourth-and-6. It looked like Williams was going to be just short of the marker before former USC center Brett Neilon came up behind his quarterback and pushed him for a first down.

USC took the lead on that drive after the “Neilon Nudge” gave the Trojans new life.

Weeks later, when Williams learned he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, the quarterback arranged for his offensive line to join him in New York City for the ceremony.

“He covered everything,” Neilon said. “And I know he told us later when we got to hang out with him, he was like, ‘I told them basically I’m not going to the ceremony if my O-line’s not there.'”

During his acceptance speech, Williams had each of USC’s offensive linemen stand up as he called out their names. Instead of heading to a fancy dinner or making an appearance at the posh New York City establishments that sought to host the Heisman Trophy winner, Williams and his offensive line opted for a lower-key celebration.

“We were all kind of just like, let’s just spend time together,” Neilon said. “And so we just hung out in his room and we ordered some room service and then the night ended when he just was exhausted and passed out.

“And slept next to his Heisman.”

Hunting for wins

At the culmination of the 2023 season, Williams’ best friend, John Jackson III, moved into Williams’ downtown Los Angeles apartment. Jackson is a former USC receiver who finished his college career at Nevada.

The two sought a getaway where they could relax but also experience a new challenge, so they decided to go duck hunting in Northern California with Williams’ girlfriend, Alina Thyregod.

“We’re talking like, ‘Dude, I’m going to hit the first bird,'” Jackson said. “So, we’re trash-talking each other to the point where it’s like that was the only thing we talked about for three days straight.

“And sure enough, we get out there and we’re like, ‘I hope you’re ready.'”

The result wasn’t quite what they expected.

“The first bird that comes is perfect right over our head, and his girlfriend pops up and hits it first,” Jackson said. “I remember we looked at each other … there’s no freaking way.”

The next LeBron and D-Wade?

As he was about to sit down backstage at the draft Thursday to meet with Chicago media over a Zoom call, Williams learned that the Bears selected Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze with the No. 9 pick.

This was the pick Williams wanted most. Their mutual admiration began as competitors in the Pac-12 but it evolved into a friendship. A week before the draft, Williams hosted a throwing session in Los Angeles with current Bears receivers DJ Moore and Keenan Allen. Upon finding out Odunze was also in the area, Williams invited the player he was hoping would become his teammate.

Williams decided against spiking a full water bottle in excitement after learning that the Bears drafted Odunze, but he let out an emphatic roar and exclaimed, “We got our guy!”

When it was Odunze’s Zoom turn, Williams sneaked up on his new teammate to celebrate the moment.

“Rooooooome OH-DUNE-ZAY!” Williams bellowed as Odunze briefly paused his call to embrace his new quarterback.

The quarterback mimed a no-look pass that Odunze caught over his shoulder. Williams then invoked the names of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, reflecting his bold optimism by comparing the Bears rookies to former Miami Heat teammates who won two championships together.

“Hopefully, when we’re done with our careers,” Odunze said, “we’ll look back at this as the first moment we realized we were teammates.”

ESPN’s Michael DiRocco contributed to this report.

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