Morgan Scalley watched the Minneapolis Miracle and his heart sank.
He is not a New Orleans Saints fan, per se. But he is a big fan of Marcus Williams, the Saints safety who made – or failed to make – the unforgettable play. It was Scalley who recruited Williams to Utah.
“Oh shoot,” the defensive coordinator thought. “He didn’t know what to do.”
The highlight that lives on is of Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs coming down with a third-and-10 pass from Case Keenum and scampering 61 yards unbothered into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in the playoffs. Almost immediately, there was a national outcry over Williams’ error. He missed the tackle and indirectly impeded a teammate from stopping Diggs. There was the typical social media inferno, a combination of outrage and some sympathy. Until that moment, most football fans had no idea who Williams was. Quite a few figured he would be ruined by the moment.
Scalley knew better.
To those who understand the sport and the position, Williams’ predicament on that play was the constant risk that comes with the job of safety. Do you launch yourself and risk pass interference? Or do you take a safer route, and time a tackle? Williams was actually in that position because of good instincts: he had correctly anticipated and arrived early on the play. That, in a way, made it tougher. He was too aggressive and he made a mistake that happens from time to time. But that nuance was lost in all the mourning and memes.
About a half-hour after the game ended, Scalley called up Williams. His former player was “devastated,” but he knew which words might help.
“Hey, brother,” he said, “you’ve been here before.”
Williams was a rare find for the Utah program. The Utes were coming off a 2013 season with only three interceptions. They needed a resilient leader in the secondary, and they had to find it in recruiting. They zeroed in on a California kid who wasn’t even much of a college football fan. He hadn’t spent all his life dreaming of USC or UCLA.
“He was our top safety for that class,” says head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Our coaches loved his competitiveness. He had nearly a 40-inch vertical. Good basketball player. Great range.”
He was also more mature than his 17 years. “There wasn’t anything we had to fix,” Whittingham remembers. Williams refused to cuss and could be heard at practice saying, “What the duck?” (He quickly earned the nickname “Duck Boy.”) When he was introduced to a blitz called “Ass Kill Zero” he called it “Butt Kill Zero.”
He would need to grow up fast. In the first month of his career at Utah, he played in a whirlwind of a game in which the Utes blew a 21-0 lead and lost 28-27 to Washington State. Williams had nine tackles, but he also gave up a touchdown when he got beat over the top and couldn’t stop another score at the end of the game when he – yes, you guessed it – missed a crucial tackle. It was only his fourth collegiate game. He was benched the following week.
“He was so young,” Scalley says. “He was still getting to know his teammates. He hadn’t established himself. It was really hard on him.”
Sound familiar? It did when Scalley called to remind Williams of that awful game from his freshman year. He didn’t have to remind Williams what happened next: he was all-conference the following season.
“Are you going to listen to the haters or pick yourself up and work?” Scalley asked Williams.
There didn’t need to be an answer. “He’s a competitor,” says the coach. “He’s a giver. All he does is everything you ask.”
It should be no surprise, then, that Williams has had a stellar camp. He has picked off Drew Brees on three consecutive days and the future Hall of Fame quarterback has compared him to Ed Reed. “You had to do a good job of looking off and try to get him leaning one way, and still you’d throw the ball and be like, ‘How did he get there?’ ” Brees told reporters. “Marcus makes some of those plays, where you’re like, ‘How did he get there? Where did he come from?’ ”
Williams addressed the Minneapolis Miracle in a short news conference, saying he had already moved on, and it’s clear to his teammates that he has.
“That play was one of the very few mistakes last year,” says receiver Michael Thomas. “We always knew the potential he has.”
And that makes sense. A miracle play, by definition, is extremely rare. The chances that Williams arrives early to a key situation again is high, and the chances he errs again are low.
“He’s one in a million in terms of kids that come into your program,” Scalley says. “Shows up early, stays late. Then for people to question him? All they see is No. 43 missing a play. I know where his heart is.”
Scalley went to New Orleans over the summer to grab a meal with his former player. He knew by then there weren’t any lingering effects from last season. Williams had already posted a motivational workout video on his Twitter feed, which starts with the play and then fades to him waking up before dawn to work out.
— Marcus Williams (@MarcusWilliams) March 7, 2018
Nobody wants to see a Miracle happen to a favorite player, but if it has to happen, you want it to happen to someone who can come back to work without baggage. Someone who has already bounced back from a wretched first-year game. Someone who doesn’t wallow.
Someone like Duck Boy.
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