By: Walter Villa, Special to USA TODAY High School Sports | August 9, 2017
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – People of a certain age may associate helicopters in pop culture with the 1970s-era TV show M*A*S*H or the 1987 movie Predator in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character famously yells: “Get in the chopper!”
But for a teenager such as Hollywood Chaminade wide receiver Xavier Williams, a helicopter is just the really cool mode of transportation that brought his future coach, Nick Saban of Alabama, to his high school campus this past January.
Chaminade coach Dameon Jones knew for a week that Saban would be arriving by helicopter, but he didn’t tell Williams or any of his other players.
Even Jones was taken aback when one of Saban’s assistant coaches told him of his plan.
“I thought it was Hollywood a little bit,” said Jones, referencing Hollywood, California rather than Hollywood, Florida. “But when he got here and explained, it made all the sense in the world.”
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Saban visited one school in each of three counties in South Florida – Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. And given the nature of traffic in this region, Saban opted for, as Arnold would say, “the choppah.”
When Saban landed on the adjacent baseball field, the players were stunned and excited. The kids took pictures, and Saban spoke for about 45 minutes with Williams and Jones.
“On the outside, he doesn’t look too pleasant,” Jones said about Saban. “But he’s a cool dude.”
Williams, a 6-1, 190-pound senior, said most people have the wrong impression of Saban.
“Everybody thinks he’s a strict guy,” Williams said. “Somebody told me when I visited Alabama, ‘I haven’t seen Coach Saban smile yet.’
“And I’m like, ‘I sat in the office with him 30 minutes ago, and all he did was smile.‘ He’s a down-to-earth guy, and he really cares about his players.”
Saban is also a really good judge of talent, and he seems to have a special knack for finding talented wide receivers in South Florida.
Amari Cooper, who hails from Miami Northwestern, is already – at age 23 – a two-time Pro Bowl receiver for the Oakland Raiders.
Calvin Ridley, from Monarch High, broke Cooper’s Alabama record for receiving yards by a freshman. Ridley produced 1,045 yards as a freshman and has scored 15 touchdowns in two years.
Next is Jerry Jeudy, a true freshman who graduated early and earned MVP honors for Alabama this spring.
Now along comes Williams, a receiver who has been battle tested.
On his summer 7-on-7 team, the South Florida Express, Williams practices against five of the top-20 cornerbacks in the nation: No. 1 Patrick Surtain, No. 3 Tyson Campbell, No. 6 Josh Jobe, No. 14 Al Blades and No. 16 Asante Samuel.
And Williams is eager to learn more from players such as Ridley and Jeudy.
“I have a great relationship with Calvin and Judy,” Williams said. “They tell me everything. They don’t sugarcoat. They tell me the bad and the good, and there’s not a lot of bad that I know of.
“They tell me how hard it is. Their coaches are on another level. They expect more from you. But I’m used to coaches being hard on me.”
Williams, who caught eight touchdown passes last season, has made an unusual transformation since his early days of football.
Tall for a seven-year-old, he was put on the offensive line for his Pop Warner team, the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes.
He was even named his league’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.
But his father, Eddie Williams, who played running back in high school, thought his son’s talents were being wasted.
“I tried to tell the coaches – he’s not a lineman,” Eddie said. “He’s a receiver. I saw him catch the ball every day in the streets. But (the coaches) didn’t see it.”
Williams wasn’t put at wide receiver until he was 12.
Before that, though, he was tried at tight end, and he began to show the coaches what he could do.
“The first time I touched the ball, I remember it like it was yesterday,” Williams said. “It was at Carter Park, and I ran a tight-end reverse. That was my first touchdown.
“I remember scoring. My dad and my family were on the sidelines, and I pointed at them. I felt like, ‘I can do this.‘ “After that, I just wanted the ball in my hands all the time.”
Williams gets the ball a lot these days, catching 26 passes for 643 yards last year, leading Chaminade to a 9-4 record and the Class 3A state final.
But as good as Williams has become at wide receiver, Jones believes he has one more position switch in his future.
“I think he’s going to end up playing defensive back,” said Jones, who said Williams reminds him of another South Florida product, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson.
“That’s just me. He probably wants to play receiver.”
Jones points to last year’s 30-13 regional finals win over Oxbridge Academy. On the game’s third play, Williams scored on a 79-yard pass play. But after Oxbridge’s C.J. Smith burned Chaminade on a 53-yard TD pass to tie the score 13-13, Jones made a move.
He put Williams in at cornerback, and the Chaminade star shut down Smith the rest of the way.
“Xavier is a freak of nature,” Jones said. “I’ve seen him make one-hand catches and crazy, insane stuff that you see on Youtube.
“He can play almost anywhere. But I feel like he has a knack on defense.”