The varying perspectives of 500 yards and six touchdowns
Jaelyn Perry had his back to the field so he didn’t see the play unfolding until he caught a glimpse of the video board. He saw No. 5 in white breaking free down the sideline. He shook his head. Touchdown. He wasn’t surprised. He’s been watching this show since middle school.
Devin Brown saw it from the opposite sideline. He knew the play call. He watched as it developed — the hole opening, the safety crashing down, the anticipation, the cut back, the score. Same move he would’ve used. He roared in satisfaction, a delighted coach, barely removed from his own playing days, proud of his star pupil.
Brody Hopkins had a slightly elevated vantage point, a few rows up the visiting stands. The standout wide receiver can read the defense a little better from there. He knew his buddy was gone the moment he reached the second level. They’ve raced a few times over the years, as kids will. It’s debatable who’s faster. Depends on who you ask or when you ask or if it was on grass or maybe in the street. What’s certain, though, at least in Hopkins’ mind, is that nobody on that field was catching up tonight. He raised his hands toward the sky as his friend raced away.
Wylie McCall was perched even higher, atop the stadium press box suspended a couple hundred feet into the night sky. Details can be hard to distinguish when you’re up that high. Some of the emotion of the game is lost up there. The players seem to shuffle around on the field below like little wind-up toys. But one in particular, identified best by the way he separates from the rest, elicits excitement as he flows across the field with everything else scattering around him. McCall and the brave few others nesting up top on the concrete box are reinvigorated at the sight and cheer in unison.
Keegan Williams accounted for 519 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in Oceanside’s 56-42 win over Woodland in the third round of the Class AA state playoffs Friday in Dorchester. This is how it looked from his perspective, as well as that of an opposing player, his running backs coach, one of his best friends and the film crew in the booth.
“I didn’t even realize it, really,” Williams said of his 500-yard night. “I mean, I knew we were having a good game. The whole offense was having a pretty good game. I was just trying to win honestly. So I just tried to keep running.”
Williams is methodical in his routines on game day, and even most other days. He’s up before the sun rises, and pulls into Chick-fil-A before most are awake. He orders a No. 1 for breakfast — a chicken biscuit, hash browns with a sweet tea. He’s back for lunch and orders something similar, a No. 2 — the spicy chicken sandwich, again with a sweet tea. It’s a routine that’s worked for him all season. Too important to break, he thinks.
“Some people switch it up for lunch and go to Moe’s or whatever,” he says. “I don’t know why you would go to Moe’s. I just stick with what I do.”
Williams spends most of the hour-plus bus ride to Woodland watching Netflix on his iPhone. He’s seen this episode of All American before, but replays it anyway. The television series features a standout high school football player who transfers across town into a more affluent community. You can draw your own comparisons between the show and Williams, who transferred two years ago from Summerville to Oceanside in Mount Pleasant. He’s seen this episode before.
Williams swaps out the show for music as the bus winds down Highway 78, deeper and deeper into the forest of pines on the way to Woodland. He shuffles through a pregame playlist of DaBaby, Stunna 4 Vegas, YoungBoy, headphones beating, blocking out the rest of the world. The last text message he reads before stepping off the bus is from former Oceanside linebacker Jakari Moultrie, who essentially, in so many words, reminds him of the stakes and to be himself tonight — as if Williams could ever switch things up.
“He knows the level of play he can produce,” said Brown, who was a Shrine Bowl all-star his senior year at James Island before accumulating different All-American, all-conference and Player of the Year honors during his college career at Coastal Carolina. Now he coaches running backs at Oceanside.
“It’s just that mindset he has, like, ‘I can’t be stopped.’ There’s not a lot of people like Keegan.”
Williams steps off the bus and bounces a little to the stadium music already blaring. It’s unusually warm outside tonight. He’s wearing a cut-off t-shirt. Oceanside’s first postseason game was played in below 40-degree temperatures. The second was played in a monsoon. Williams takes a quick peek around the facilities, the video board, the high-rise stands, and breathes in deep.
“Oh yeah,” he says softly to himself. “We’re about to tear this up real quick.”
Random shouts of things like “it’s time to show up 5” are hollered from somewhere inside the locker room as Williams is getting taped up during pregame. He catches a glimpse of Oceanside defensive coordinator Rashad Jackson, who fires back a slight grin with a head nod that seems to carry weight with Williams.
“He gets me hype,” Williams explains. “If you know Coach Jackson, you just know what he was telling me. That just means it’s time to go.”
Woodland scores just 20 seconds into the game. The Wolverines lead 7-0. The home side dances in delirium. The visiting side shuffles about anxiously. Williams seems unperturbed as he fidgets with his gloves waiting to take the field.
Hopkins’ senior football season came to an end in the second round of the playoffs four days ago. Seated next to him in the stands tonight is Cole Messina. Both are standout baseball players at Summerville, the school Williams attended as a freshman. Hopkins has signed with the College of Charleston. Messina is committed to South Carolina. They’ve both known Williams most of their lives. They all have a running group conversation together on Snapchat. It’s been lined this week with words of encouragement, if you want to call them that, for Williams. The chatter reads more like friendly threats. If they’re coming to the game, Williams’ friends insist their buddy puts on a show.
“I think I’m leaving at halftime,” Messina tells Hopkins and the few others with them after Woodland scores again, stretching open a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the first quarter. “This is about to be a blowout.”
“All right, but you’re going to miss everything,” Hopkins replies. “Keegan hasn’t even really touched the ball yet.”
“Put the team on your back,” Brown urges Williams on the sideline below as Oceanside prepares for its second series.
Almost on cue, Williams and the Oceanside offense begin to roll. The Landsharks move into the Woodland red zone for the first time with an 11-yard burst from Williams. He finishes it a play later with a few more broken tackles during another 11-yard run up the gut.
“You still want to leave?” Hopkins asks Messina, rhetorically.
“Nah,” Messina assures him. “I’m staying.”
From where McCall is positioned atop the press box on the home side, she didn’t have the clearest view of Williams’ second score. McCall not only teaches at Oceanside, but is an assistant on the volleyball staff and, on Fridays, films games for the football team. Williams seemed boxed in against the far sideline. He disappeared in a mob for a moment, then reappeared slashing into the end zone. She hardly believed her eyes. She rewound the film on her iPad to be sure.
“Wait, did that just happen,” she asks aloud. Landsharks junior varsity head coach Jamaal Birch shoots back a look of amazement. They both start to laugh.
Williams began to absorb contact at the Woodland 15-yard line. He broke free from one tackle and ended up in the arms of another defender at the 12-yard line.
“They had him wrapped up,” Brown said. “But it’s like, you know that’s not going to be enough.”
Williams pushed forward.
“When he hit off the first dude I just stood up with my hands up,” Hopkins added. “I knew he was going to score. I was laughing because it just didn’t make any sense. I didn’t understand it.”
Williams plowed through two more would-be tacklers, driving one ahead of him into the turf with another grasping onto his back.
“Oh my gosh. He just shoved that guy down,’” McCall said replaying the scene. “He was just carrying people.”
Williams kept his balance through the chaos. He was spun around at about the 5-yard line and, now facing the wrong way with two defenders grasping at him and the football, he backed his way into the end zone to even the game at 14-all.
“Dang, bruh. He’s doing it again,” Perry said to himself, watching from the Woodland sideline. Perry knows offense. He’s second on the Wolverines in receiving, ahead of an ACC commit. “After that, it was like he couldn’t be stopped. But that’s him though.”
Williams’ third score came much easier. He went nearly untouched on a 5-yard jaunt that not only lifted Oceanside ahead, never to trail again, but put the senior over 2,000 yards for the season. Williams hardly celebrated — a light chest bump with a teammate and a casual trot back to the sideline were enough.
“That’s just how he is. He doesn’t let anything effect him, good or bad,” Hopkins said. “He just kind of does whatever he does, whatever he has his mind set on, like it’s nothing. If he wants to go score six touchdowns, he will.”
Williams nearly broke one more on the final play before halftime. He began toward the right side at the 41-yard line, before cutting back across the defense and finding a gap. He navigated to Woodland’s 5-yard line before running out of space against the sideline. He was clearly frustrated as he trotted toward the locker room.
“He thinks he can score every play,” Brown said. “He really does. So even when he makes a great play like that, if he doesn’t score, he’s not happy.”
McCall often knows the play calls before they happen as Birch is beside her communicating with the rest of the staff below. She asks a lot of questions. Sometimes they get ignored, just momentarily until Birch can break his concentration long enough to answer.
There was no heads up this time. She thought it strange she didn’t hear the call yet. It began as many do, with Williams stretching a pitch around the edge. He took one step up the field and then let loose a 33-yard pass down the sideline that dropped right in over the shoulder of Joel Osteen. First down.
“No he didn’t,” McCall said.
“I don’t think he realizes how much fun he makes the game,” she’d later add.
“I came into the game trying to be optimistic,” Perry admitted. “I thought he would probably make a big play or two because that’s what he does. But really, I already knew he was coming to do his thing. He was making plays out there like 15 yards and 30 yards and you’re just like, ‘dang, somebody stop him.’’
Williams ran for 186 yards by halftime. He cracked 200 early in the second quarter and surpassed 300 early in the fourth. He scored three times in the second half. The first, a 3-yard plunge in the third quarter. The next, a 27-yard catch and run in the fourth. The screen pass looked like it might drop to the ground before Williams snagged it from down near his shins. He shook an initial tackle, then another 5 yards later, then a third 5 yards after that, wiggling free down the sideline for the score. The receiver in Hopkins appreciated this one the most.
“It shows he’s not just a running back. He can come out and catch the football too,” Hopkins said. “He barely even caught it at his ankles. The hand-eye coordination and then still being able to make a play like that, that’s crazy.”
His final score, a 30-yard run, includes a mean sidestep that resembles something of a pro hop in basketball. He grew up thinking he was more of a basketball player than a football player. One plant, cut, hardly any momentum lost and he’s off again. The defensive back is left whiffing air while Williams charges ahead for the score.
“It’s like playing point guard, finding the little window and stuff,” he said. “You don’t really have time to think. It just happens. You’ll see a little pathway and hit the hole. Kind of like basketball.”
“His jump cut is by far the best I’ve seen in high school,” Brown said. “We’re always talking about different cuts we can do, techniques to get off tackles. He’s always telling me he wants to try this or try that. He has so many little moves. And he’s so good at them, just naturally, that it’s hard to really teach him. We just perfect them.”
Williams and Perry meet at midfield after the game. All Perry can do is smile and laugh, even after the loss. He and Williams have been playing with or against each other since their days together at Gregg Middle School. Now they’re both seniors. They share a hug and catch up some.
“Ya’ll know you better go win state now right?” Perry insists.
“That’s the plan,” Williams slips back.
Williams checks his Snapchat on the bus ride home. It’s filled with cell phone videos from the game with text laid over them reading things like “Keegan went crazy.” He laughs at the attention. Different tweets on Twitter say different things. Some say he put up 300 yards, some 400. It was really more than 500.
“Doesn’t really matter,” he assures. “As long as we’re still playing.”
It’s nearly 1 a.m. by the time he makes it back to his house that night. He texts Hopkins, asking what he’s doing tonight. Too late. Hopkins is home by now and isn’t coming back out.
There isn’t much else happening. Not anymore. The best thing going tonight was Williams. And everyone was watching.