Caleb Williams is his ‘authentic self’ on and off the field. And the QB plans to use his confidence to lead the Chicago Bears to greatness.

Dayna Price had moved Caleb Williams to tears again.

On the biggest night of Williams’ 22 years, the public-facing work was nearly done. The quarterback already walked the red carpet. He heard his name called as the Chicago Bears’ No. 1 pick, roaring as he walked onto the Detroit stage to hug NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He shuffled to interviews on TV, over Zoom, at a news conference and even as a hologram projected into Soldier Field for a Bears fans watch party.

And then he finally sat down in his custom navy and silver suit for a moment by himself to absorb a video message from his mom.

Six months earlier, the image of Williams hopping into the stands after USC’s loss to Washington and crying in Price’s arms sparked national conversation about the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner’s public display of emotion.

On Thursday night, Williams wiped tears of joy and gratitude from his face while listening to Price’s video message reminiscing about his path to the NFL.

“You must have got that crying from me,” Price told Williams in the video as she teared up. “But continue to be your authentic self.”

Williams’ authentic self came up a lot in the last few months as the football world drifted closer to the draft and further from his two-year USC career that included 8,170 passing yards, 72 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Media talking heads — and social media critics — trying to identify which prospects would succeed in the NFL sifted through everything from Williams’ leadership qualities to his status as one of the first name, image, likeness (NIL) megastars. From the deliberate path his father, Carl Williams, helped him forge to the NFL to his hobby of painting his nails and, yes, his comfort with displaying his emotions.

As Price said in her video, Williams entered the world on a platform. “We didn’t know at the time that your platform would grow to be so large, that you are sharing not just with us but with the world,” she said.

Williams seemingly has handled that spotlight unfazed, declaring himself comfortable in his own skin several times during draft week as he bounced among interviews.

That included Friday in front of a crowd of reporters at his introductory news conference at Halas Hall.

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“I would say when you prepare mentally and physically and spiritually for moments like this, when you actually are in the moment, you don’t feel fazed,” Williams said. “You don’t feel nervous. You don’t feel the butterflies or anything like that. You’re ready for it. You’re prepared for it. … The feeling of being worried in these moments doesn’t ever really cross my mind.”

The confidence and ease with which Williams operates in the public eye will be significant as he parachutes in from the national stage to a Chicago market ready to christen him the next great hope. Plenty of past Bears quarterbacks have stumbled under such scrutiny.

And it’s significant because it extends to how Williams operates on the field, with an unfaltering belief he was meant to be great — and that he can lead the Bears there too.

“He’s not scared for greatness,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “He’s not scared to put it out there. He’s not scared to be himself, and you have to have that belief in yourself. You have to have that belief in the people around you, and it’s contagious. It is. When a leader or a quarterback feels that way about his team and about what they’re trying to accomplish, I think that it energizes the entire group.”

The Hail Mary

The player nicknamed Superman has an origin story of which thousands of words already have been written.

A 10-year-old football player, frustrated with losing, makes a vow to his father to do whatever it takes to be a great quarterback, setting in motion an elaborate plan filled with 5 a.m. workouts, private coaches, nutrition regimens and media training.

Years later, he makes a dramatic early entry into his lore. It’s a game the greater football world still goes back to when explaining the powers he can display, a game Gonzaga College High School coach Randy Trivers has heard people say is “the most exciting football game they’ve ever witnessed.”

It was the 2018 WCAC championship in Washington D.C., Williams’ second year starting. He also had started his freshman season, a rarity at Gonzaga. But Williams was different, in his physical gifts, his capable mind, his work ethic. And really, his aura, an ability to be confident but not off-putting, to connect with people on multiple levels despite his obvious uniqueness.

“He always had this great blend of humility and self confidence,” Trivers said. “And he’s just the guy that in the room early on, you could see, this kid has the right posture, the right facial expressions, the right demeanor, the right bounce in his step that says he believes in himself. And when you’re the quarterback, that’s vital, because that guy is driving the bus.”

Gonzaga needed that leadership on that November night when, in search of their first WCAC title since Williams was 1 year old, the Eagles fell behind DeMatha 20-0 in the first half. But Williams always gave his teammates the sense there was a chance as long as time was left, Trivers said, and so Gonzaga picked away at the lead, pulling within three before a wild final minute that featured three lead changes.

Williams threw a 50-yard pass and then an 11-yard touchdown to give Gonzaga its first lead at 40-36 with 29 seconds left. DeMatha then returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, sparking riotous celebrations with 15 seconds and no Gonzaga timeouts left.

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Williams, however, wasn’t done.The only thing he said to his offensive coordinator in that moment, he told The Pivot podcast this month, was: “Get me in range.”

After a short completion to a receiver who got out of bounds, Williams took the snap with 4 seconds left and moved back and forward and back and forward in the pocket before launching a 53-yard pass toward a heap of leaping players in the end zone.

“Caleb doesn’t fear those moments,” Trivers said. “Like some really, really talented athletes and talented people, once it gets a little bit — or sometimes a lot — uncomfortable, people will back down, or they’ll check out, or they’ll (say), ‘Maybe I’ll do something else a little different.’

“Sometimes people say they would love that (moment) when they’re sitting on the couch. But when it really has to happen, there’s only a few people that have that real, sincere, genuine, authentic, belief and want-to to really have that opportunity. And Caleb is one of those guys.”

Williams said he knew as soon as he saw wide receiver John Marshall’s white gloves reach to grab the football that they had won, and he dropped to the field to soak in the moment.

Trivers, watching from a distance on the sideline, could only look toward the official nearest the play.

“I’m just looking for his hands to either give the incomplete sign or the touchdown sign. And when those hands give a touchdown…” Trivers said, choking up as he remembered the moment. “It actually makes me emotional right now. It’s crazy. I’m sorry. It was just an unbelievable thing. But that’s Caleb.”

The takeover

The Oklahoma coaches had seen the flash in practice, the off-balance throws that somehow found their targets. They had seen the competitive fire as Williams came in as a true freshman behind incumbent quarterback Spencer Rattler and grinded to learn the offense while itching to get out of the backup role.

But still it was a lightbulb moment when Williams stepped into the 2021 Red River Showdown in the second quarter on fourth-and-1 and burned the Texas defense for a 66-yard touchdown. Williams went on to replace the struggling Rattler and accounted for 300 yards of offense and three touchdowns to lead a comeback in a game Texas had led by 21 points.

“There is no stage too big for him,” said USC passing game coordinator Dennis Simmons, who coached at Oklahoma then. “That kid is a competitor. Once he gets on the field, that competitive drive and competitive nature kicks in.

“Within two series, you knew. You knew. Just like, ‘Nah, this kid is special.’ ”

Simmons doesn’t remember there being a lot of conversations about how Riley would handle the situation with Rattler and Williams after that.

“There were a bunch of looks,” Simmons said. “Just like, ‘OK, Linc, what are you going to do, dawg?’ ”

The decision was clear-cut. Williams had displayed “the guts and the confidence” he needed to handle that game, Riley said. He had a certain charisma when he stepped into the huddle and could galvanize his teammates. He was ready for his next step to be the Sooners starter — and eventually the USC starter when he followed Riley to Los Angeles.

As he settled in, Williams began to show the qualities that made him the No. 1 pick. The arm talent to throw from different angles to all parts of the field. The spatial awareness and uncanny pocket feel. The quick release. And the artistry to make plays happen.

During Williams’ climb to win the Heisman in 2022, he also showed poise again and again, his favorite game when USC beat Notre Dame 38-27 in 2022. Williams remembered offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees asking his teammates before the game to raise their hands if they had beaten the Irish.

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“Nobody raised their hand,” Williams said. “I took that to heart.”

He had a passing touchdown and three rushing touchdowns in the game, and Riley remembered the calm and command with which his quarterback operated.

That poise in critical moments was one important piece of the Bears evaluation of quarterbacks, especially given the fourth-quarter struggles of Williams’ predecessor, Justin Fields.

“You look for poise, guys that the game kind of slows down for them in those critical moments,” Bears general manager Ryan Poles said. “That they’re capable of making those special throws when you need them the most, especially down the stretch. That clutch part (for Williams) is really, really, really good, and you need that to win games. For how many close games we have in this league, you’ve got to have guys who can finish, especially in two-minute drills and things like that.”

As he has watched Williams’ career progress, Trivers believes Williams is that guy.

“We didn’t win every game with Caleb. And nor did Oklahoma or USC. And nor will he win every game in the NFL, I don’t think,” Trivers said. “But he is that athlete that always gives your team a fighting chance. And you always believe with an athlete of his caliber and a competitor of his caliber that we have a real chance. And then the opponent is always gonna be on edge because you’re going against that guy — and he’s going to keep coming.”

The star

On the draft red carpet Thursday, Price, who walked in on the arm of her son, displayed her unique manicure for the camera — tiny photos of Williams as nail art.

Price has been a nail technician, and that’s how Williams started having his nails done. From expletives directed at opponents before USC games to two silver pinky nails to match his draft ensemble, Williams enjoys the art, and the relaxation that comes with having it done.

“It’s peaceful,” he said. “I go to a nail salon, I sit down, I throw on my Beats, I turn on a movie. … I’m chilling and not bothered by anything other than what I want to be bothered by.”

Williams offered that answer at a predraft event, and he was asked about his nails again on the draft red carpet. In some circles, the biggest topic surrounding Williams’ hand is his nail art — not how he throws a football.

In the wake of Williams’ Heisman year, that off-the-field attention grew intense. He threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Nationals game. He was in Dr. Pepper and Wendy’s commercials. A GQ article explained in great detail his family’s business approach with all the NIL opportunities.

Williams, who has a public relations team, seems to accept the dissection of his every move and how that might intensify in Chicago.

“I’m always going to have scrutiny,” he said. “I do things like paint my nails. I’m always going to have scrutiny over that. I wear funky clothes, things like that. So you know, just do my job on the football field and win games. I think if you win a bunch of games (in Chicago), you’ll make a lot of people — the majority — happy.”

Riley said when Williams followed him to USC after the 2021 season, they tried to bring staff members who were close to him in off-the-field roles who could help him navigate his rise. They enlisted the help of prominent athletes to provide some context and advice about what he would go through in the public eye.

But even still, Williams’ situation was different than previous elite USC quarterbacks such as Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer because of the moment it was happening.

“The amount of attention on these guys has changed a lot since those guys played,” Riley said. “And doing what he did in this city, in this era, there’s still a little bit of an unprecedented feel to it. So it was a lot. But I do think his family, his mom, his dad, those guys, they’ve done a really good job keeping him grounded. And considering all the attention that he’s gotten and all that has come his way, the people that know him best (will say) he’s handled it pretty darn well.”

The growth

The tears Williams shed with his mom in the wake of the loss to Washington weren’t his only postgame display of frustration in a 7-5 season at USC in 2023. After a loss to Utah, he sat downtrodden on the bench, hands to his forehead in disbelief, at one point throwing his head back in a photographed moment of anguish.

Williams had never been through such a season, and the emotional displays, he said later, came because winning is so important to him.

“It’s something that I really care about,” Williams said. “Not only winning the game but doing it with my teammates. Every time we lose I feel like I let my teammates down.”

The worst showing of Williams’ career came in the follow-up to his favorite game from 2022. Williams threw three first-half interceptions in a loss to Notre Dame.

Staying even through such failures was one part of the many lessons gleaned from that season, adversity Poles has said can be a good thing as long as Williams takes ownership of it and grows from it.

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The key, Riley said, was to challenge Williams. He’s a player who craves feedback and constructive criticism. And so when he was sifting through the disappointment, Riley let him know that how he handled such situations could be crucial to his future success.

“I just said, ‘Look, part of your ability to lead a team and become the player that you’re going to become is going to be your ability to handle failure,’ Riley said. ‘And sometimes you’ve got to go through it. You’ve got to struggle a little bit at some point and build up some scar tissue to get you ready for what’s coming. How you handle this is going to be maybe even more important than how you handle any of the success of the other things that have come your way up to this point.’ ”

Williams accepted that challenge.

“It’s been a process,” Williams said. “I haven’t always been this guy. I’m still learning. I’m still getting all the knowledge I can — and will be for as long as I play.”

That’s a balance that Williams seems to strike, between acknowledging he still has room to grow and being confident he will get there.

In the Halas Hall interview room Friday, he said he knows there might be growing pains at the next level but he doesn’t think about them. He sees no need to temper expectations.

He expects himself to be great regardless.

“Why wouldn’t I?” He said. “Obviously if there’s growing pains, you handle them. But that doesn’t mean that affects your greatness. There’s trials and tribulations that you go through. Why would I go somewhere, work so hard for so many years and then in every situation I go to believe I’m the best — and then I get here and I don’t believe that?”

As the next chapter in Williams’ story began, his parents sat to the side of the dozens of media members, taking in his words, including how he felt about Price’s video.

Williams said it made him emotional because they’re a tough family that tries to put being grateful for every day above self-congratulations. But this moment called for reflection.

“I tried to hold back the tears,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

As he watched it on draft night, Williams dabbed his eyes with a tissue as Price delivered her final messages, to thank him for pushing her, to remind him to keep having fun.

“And I’m sure,” Price said at the end, “there’s one more Hail Mary up your sleeve.”

Tribune reporter Dan Wiederer contributed.