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USC-Colorado a victory for quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Shedeur Sanders

Two young quarterbacks, whose fathers have guided them, represent the past, present and bright future

BOULDER, Colo. — For most of Saturday’s USC-Colorado game, Carl Williams stood at the end of the press box and watched his son, Trojans quarterback Caleb, operate.

Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, had led USC to a convincing 34-7 halftime lead. He threw four first-half touchdowns and looked flawless in doing everything a Heisman Trophy winner was expected to do: He ran the offense, directed traffic, put players in the right place, adjusted at the line of scrimmage.

Williams looked NFL-ready.

But by the end of the third quarter, things had gotten a bit tighter. Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders led a ferocious comeback that began when Caleb Williams made his only serious mistake of the game: an interception with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. Eight plays into the fourth quarter, on a fourth and 5, Sanders scrambled to his right and fired a rocket touchdown pass to freshman receiver Omarion Miller that cut the USC lead to 48-34. A game that seemed out of reach was now set up for a miraculous comeback.

Carl Williams’ expression never changed, though with about three minutes left to play, he decided to take a seat. I sat down next to him and as unobtrusively as I could and speaking more as a parent than a journalist, I said, “I don’t understand how you do this.” Parents go through hell watching their young athletes compete.

During the US Open, I’d watched tennis player Coco Gauff’s parents agonize as their daughter marched to her first major championship. For years, we watched Richard and Oracene Williams agonize as their daughters Venus and Serena played in championship matches. It’s all so gut-wrenching watching your children compete, at anything and at any level.

Williams just chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s tough.”

​After the teams exchanged possessions, Shedeur Sanders led Colorado on a drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Horn Jr. to pull Colorado to within a touchdown, 48-41 with 1:43 left to play.

Colorado ran out of time. After the game, Colorado coach Deion Sanders said, “If we would have got the ball last, we were going to go down and score. We knew that. Everybody in here knew that. His team knew that,” he said of Sanders.

We’ll never know and there is no room in the equation for if, ands or buts. As Williams said after the game when asked about his lone interception: “We won. Awesome.”

​The larger picture is that on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Boulder, and on an incredible stage, two young African American quarterbacks, whose fathers have guided them to this intersection, represent the past, present and bright future.

Colorado defensive lineman Bishop Thomas (right) tackles USC quarterback Caleb Williams (left) as he throws a pass during the second half of the game on Sept. 30, in Boulder, Colorado.

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

As co-owner of the Athletic Republic Capitol Region in the Washington area, Carl Williams made sure that his son received the best athletic training possible starting at an early age. Deion Sanders has coached his son Shedeur since he was 7 years old.

Williams and Sanders, both 21, have climbed steep mountains to reach this point.

Williams’ mountains were more about negotiating the process of big-time sports: going from high school in Washington, choosing the University of Oklahoma, and making the tough decision in 2021 to transfer and join former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to USC. Carl Williams saw his son win the Heisman Trophy in 2022 and he is projected to be the first overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft, though his father has suggested that it isn’t a lock that he will declare for the draft.

Sanders’ mountains have been steeper, even though his father, nicknamed Coach Prime, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a World Series participant as a MLB player.

Sanders has had to overcome the “coach’s son” stigma — ​that he was being favored, that he hadn’t really earned his position, but had it given to him by his father.

Coach Prime addressed that after Saturday’s game. “The kid can flat-out play,” Deion Sanders told reporters. “I know a lot of people doubted him and said that I just thrusted him into the starting position — don’t they call that nepotism?” To those critics, Sanders said, “All of you should look in the mirror and slap what you see.”

While Williams performed on the big stage at USC, Sanders had two outstanding college seasons on a smaller stage at historically Black Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. That stage was brighter because of the Coach Prime effect, but critics still wondered if Sanders’ success at Jackson State would transfer to big-time college football at Colorado and in the Pac-12. In three spectacular games to begin the seasons, Sanders played his way into Heisman consideration, though after the drubbing at Oregon on Sept. 23, the critics reemerged.

They were ready to pounce again at the half of Saturday’s game against USC, but Colorado roared back and Sanders proved once again that he was more than worthy. Indeed, he was Williams’ equal.

As he left the press box on Saturday, Carl Williams said he admired what Deion Sanders had done. “I’ve got a massive amount of respect for him,” he said. “He’s done a great job with Shedeur over the years, just a massive amount of respect.”

USC wide receiver Brenden Rice catches a pass for a touchdown in the third quarter against Colorado at Folsom Field on Sept. 30 in Boulder, Colorado.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

There were other minidramas playing out on Saturday. The game marked an emotional homecoming for USC receiver Brenden Rice, whose father Jerry is the Hall of Fame receiver. Rice attended Colorado after high school and spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons in Colorado. After two losing seasons in Colorado, Rice transferred to USC. “When you get a chance to play with Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley, you got to take it,” he said.

Rice said his homecoming was amplified by the presence of Coach Prime, who is close with his dad. “Deion Sanders is a legendary player, a legendary coach. I have a lot of respect for him,” Rice said. Sanders coached Rice in the Under Armour All-America Game. “To be able to go back and play against him and play against Shedeur was huge.”

Rice caught two of Williams’ six touchdown passes on Saturday in a game where Williams completed 30 of 40 passes for 403 yards. He said that USC fans may not fully appreciate what Williams is doing. “People definitely take what he does for granted,” Rice said. “It won’t be until he leaves that people will really realize the greatness that they’re watching and what they get to see every day.”

Asked about Sanders, Rice said: “He’s the real deal. From what I’ve seen time and time again, he’s the real deal. He’s a great pro-style quarterback that can leave the pocket if necessary, as you saw today. He makes the right decisions, the right timing. Right off the break he throws the ball, and he gets the ball out of his hand so quickly it got our defensive linemen tired and that was a huge factor in today’s game.”

There are times when a loss feels like a loss and times when a loss feels like a win. Last week Colorado suffered a 42-6 loss at Oregon. That felt like a loss. Saturday’s defeat by USC will go down as a loss but feels like a win on so many levels.

Sanders proved that he belonged on the same stage with Williams, though when asked whether he relished being on the same stage as Williams, he pushed back. “I feel like my stage is my stage,” he said. “He’s a great player but it’s not his stage, or anything like that.

“It’s not really a stage,” he added. “It’s just a big game. That’s it.”

The next big game is in Tempe, Arizona, on Oct. 7 against a supposedly beatable Arizona State team. Colorado’s dilemma — the flip side of hype — is that the Buffaloes will get every team’s best shot.

Without consistent winning, how much longer can Deion Sanders keep Colorado front and center as a pivotal story in college football? After Saturday’s loss, he offered a perspective about why he believes his approach and the Colorado story has staying power.

“I am happy and thankful that we are a voice of hope and desire,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s touching souls around the country, that down-and-out person, that person who no one believes in, and that person that no one desires, the person that is stepped over, stepped by, step through, stepped past. We represent that person because no one wants to see what we’re doing, they don’t want to see us accomplish what we’re doing.”

Because of Colorado’s recent dismal football history, Deion Sanders will get a pass this season — to a point. This much is clear: Saturday’s loss was a resilient victory for hope.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.