PLANT CITY — Receiver Mario Williams was all set up for his signing day ceremony Wednesday morning in the Plant City auditorium, and there was Raiders coach James Booth talking to several hundred folks about his 7-year-old son, Connor.
“Connor had to have shiny blue cleats because Mario wears shiny blue cleats,” Booth said. “Connor draws pictures of Mario playing football and then tapes the pictures all over our refrigerator. And for Christmas this year, Connor asked Santa Claus for a University of Oklahoma football jersey because that’s where Mario is going to play football next year.”
And Connor is not alone in his admiration. Folks in Plant City simply adore Mario Williams.
Principal Susan Sullivan gushed a few minutes later: “One day Mario came over and helped me and my husband move into our new house. He just volunteered. … I absolutely love Mario. I call him my nephew.”
How is it possible that the nation’s No. 1 ranked slot receiver by Sports Illustrated, who also is one of the nation’s top baseball prospects, can be so humble?
Couldn’t all the attention — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart landed a helicopter last year on the Plant City football field to meet with Williams — make his head at least a little bigger?
Booth emphatically answered no. “Mario has never acted any differently, no matter how much attention he has received.”
Williams’ mom, Ashley Turner, believes her son is grounded because deep down he’s always believed he had something to prove: “Some people looked at him and said, ‘He’s too short and small (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) and not strong enough to be great.’ I told Mario, ‘Don’t ever give anybody any reason to doubt you.’ I told him, ‘If you score then nobody can doubt you.’”
Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that Williams — who pretty much has always been faster than everyone on the field with 4.4-second 40 speed — also has outworked everyone.
“He honestly is the first one to arrive at practice and the last one to leave,” Booth said. “He has worked out harder than everybody and pound-for-pound he became the strongest player on the team (265-pound bench press, 450-pound squat).”
Williams, listed as the top local recruit in the state this season by 247 Sports, listens to all the praise, shrugs and speaks softly: “I don’t get caught up in all that outside stuff. I just want to see my mom and my family happy, and see everybody around me happy. If I can do that, then I’m happy.”
He was plenty happy Wednesday, taking hundreds of photos with fans like a movie star. Happy, he said, to be in Plant City.
Several other high schools in the area, and some not (like Bradenton’s IMG Academy), tried to lure Williams away, but he never blinked. “Plant City is my home. All these people are like family to me.”
Williams is graduating early and will enroll at Oklahoma in January. In the spring he will play baseball and practice football for the Sooners, and no matter how the professional baseball draft goes, he plans on playing both sports in the coming years.
Williams finished his career at Plant City with an eye-popping 160 catches for 3,191 yards and 45 touchdowns, and leaves behind hundreds of well-wishers and fans like Principal Sullivan and Connor Booth.
From behind the podium Wednesday, Coach Booth looked over at Williams and summed up what many people in the auditorium seemed to be feeling: “I’m so thankful to be a part of your life. You have meant so much to me and my family. Thank you so much for everything.”
Great class for local receivers
Few times have there been so many Tampa Bay area receivers or tight ends recruited heavily on the national stage.
Alongside Williams were the likes of Bloomingdale receiver Agiye Hall and Carrollwood Day School tight end Michael Trigg, four-star recruits who signed with Alabama and Southern California, respectively.
“When Hall gets in that weight room at Alabama and puts some muscle on him, look out,” Bloomingdale coach Jake Coulson said. “He’s already 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and is the most athletic kid I’ve ever coached. He’s so strong and fast and has tremendous hand-eye coordination, but he can get even stronger. He’s the type of player who could end up playing (in the NFL).”
Other top receiver/tight end signees included Jefferson’s Gage Wilcox (Florida), Berkeley Prep’s R.J. Garcia II (Kansas State) and Lakewood’s Artez Hooker (Florida International).
Armwood receiver Charles Montgomery, another four-star recruit, was expected to sign with UF on Wednesday, but Hawks coach Evan Davis said Montgomery will wait until February.