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The Perfect Storm to Greatness
Not that it would have taken a trained eye to spot the little kid running up and down the field during little league football in Issaquah. Gervais, as well as Taylor – his receivers coach at the time – liked to check out the lower levels, see who might be coming around the bend at Skyline, then a high school in its infancy.
‘Gerv' relished the thought of building a program from the ground up. That's what took him to the Plateau. Taylor knew he was in good hands too, because he wanted to have a future coaching the game. Same could be said for Gervais' Defensive Coordinator, Chad Barrett.
But this kid running around, he was clearly cut from a different cloth. They would find out later the kid's name. It was Kasen Williams. "He could run. He was dominant as a runner," Gervais said. Watching him run was the easy part; getting him to stick around the east side might take some doing, as private schools were always known to look around and do their own little bits of recruiting.
"We just wanted to make sure we could get him to Skyline." Gervais would say.
Kasen's family was looking hard at Skyline. They liked the fact that Gervais was having success. The Spartans had already won state titles. Kasen's mother Rhonda was especially interested in one aspect of Gervais' program – no freshmen were allowed to play.
"That was a good rule," she said. "I liked that."
It wasn't that Rhonda didn't think Kasen could handle himself. But she wanted him to be able to learn and grow at the appropriate pace. Kasen's father Aaron – a former receiver at the University of Washington – had absolutely no problems with this rule either. It just made sense.
Even Taylor was usually apprehensive of rushing along talented players too quickly. He was concerned about a loss of confidence if they got thrown into the fire and didn't react the right way.
That was before the Spartan coaches realized what they really had.
During spring football of Williams' eighth-grade year, Gervais and Taylor were convinced. They had to bring Kasen along with the high school team during their summer camp at the University of Puget Sound. This was not at all an uncommon occurence. Typically, talented freshmen-to-be would camp with the other high schoolers so they could get an early jump on Skyline's offensive and defensive philosophies, including the terminology. They had done that with quarterback Jake Heaps, who was a class ahead of Williams.
After the UPS camp, it was clear Williams wasn't going to be playing freshman football for Skyline, or for the sophomore team, for that matter. Like a savant skipping grades, Williams moved straight into the big-time.
Gervais and Taylor had no intentions of playing Kasen his freshman year, but by having him with the varsity it could expand his knowledge of the Spartans' offense in a way he would never get by toiling at the lower levels.
"There were some things he could do to where it was wow, let's keep him up," said Taylor. Plus, with Kasen spending time with the varsity, there was a real balance in leadership. The Spartans' top receiver at the time, Gino Simone, was a junior; Heaps was a blossoming sophomore; and then there was Kasen.
Taylor talked to Aaron and Rhonda about a plan for their son. The coaches wanted Kasen to be with the varsity at least through the first game, so it would be an easier transition back up if they needed him. Taylor would be there every step of the way, coaching him up every day. He would be in all the drills with Gino, who took Kasen under his wing. When he was on scout, Taylor was there too.
Per WIAA rules, Williams was allowed to play up to five quarters of football a week, and the coaches were bent on making sure he was submerged in football at all times. And he was. During one particular week, he prepared to play Wednesday in a freshman game against Issaquah. He also played in a JV game Monday, and did his normal practicing for the varsity game that Friday.
That Issaquah game was the only game he would play with his own class that year. It was at a time when ninth-graders on the Plateau, whether they would eventually end up at Skyline, Issaquah, or somewhere else, happened to all attend the same school. Williams pleaded with his coaches for a shot to play. "I just wanted to play with my own age," he said. "And they were at my school, so all the time in school I was hearing how Issaquah was going to beat Skyline."
All of this was going down at a time when the Williams' family called Skyline their home away from home. Kasen's older sister Kiana – now a sophomore soccer player at Arizona State – had two games a week, and Kasen now had all these new-found football obligations. Rhonda assumed Kasen would have a nice, smooth transition. He did. She just didn't know it would happen so quickly.
For his part, Aaron took it all in stride. "I wasn't concerned at all," he said.
He remembered talking to another parent - David Cree – during youth football, about how Kasen and Cree's son Connor were probably destined to take paths different than most they were playing with. David thought Connor and Kasen would play on the freshman team.
Not Connor and Kasen, Aaron thought to himself. Not those two. Just look at them! But David reminded Aaron about Gervais' freshman rule. "If that's the rule, that's the rule," Aaron said.
But deep down, he knew Kasen had what it took, at least physically. He had seen it that spring. During eighth grade track, he had been held out because his grades had dropped. Once he got them back to where his parents wanted them, there was only one week of practice left. It meant he could participate in the last meet of the regular season.
So with a week to get to work, what did Williams do? He jumped six feet in the high jump and 18 feet in the long jump, both records at the time. in track after a week of practice.
That's when the lightbulb went off in Aaron's head. "He's got a little hop there," he thought. "He's alright."
As it turned out, as the Skyline program evolved from its own adolescence, Gervais had to adopt to the times. And an offensive lineman, Brett Thielke, had not only played as a freshman the year before, but he had basically started the whole season. So the precedent was set. And even though the coaches didn't want to play Williams unless they absolutely had to, a series of injuries forced Kasen into action.
First, Andrew Gray tore his ACL early in the season. Then talented, feisty Phil Tushar went down with an injury. By the end of the season, Williams was needed in some three-receiver formations that also included Simone and Gervais' son Riley.
And just as events transpired to put Williams in the game, it was another perfect set of circumstances that led to Kasen's first touchdown as a Spartan. He got it against Sammanish High School. Because he was so new to the program, he only knew 5-10 pass plays really well. One of them was included a simple hitch route.
The play was called and Kasen went out wide. The corner guarding him came on a blitz, and the hitch from Heaps was right on the money. Williams turned and found nothing but green in front of him.
You could say it's been like that ever since for Williams. Not that any of the Skyline coaches were surprised. "Why in the hell aren't you starting him?" Barrett would ask Taylor. "He's killing us."
Williams would get his chance in the playoffs. In a game against Lakes, a hamstring injury to Will Chandler forced Kasen into extended minutes. And then Simone suffered a concussion in the state quarterfinals against Kennewick, really pushing Kasen to a whole new level.
"We threw him out there, and I think he had 150 yards receiving, and the next week in the semifinals, he was a starter," recalled Taylor.
The Spartans faced O'Dea in the state 3A title game, and Kasen was a huge factor. You know he was a huge factor when coaches differ as to what their favorite Williams play of the game was.
Taylor liked Gerv's call down 28-7 when Kasen ran a go route and Heaps heaved the ball down the field as far as he could throw it. "At the last minute, he just squares his shoulders up, catches the ball and falls over a guy going backwards," recalled Taylor. "It was a tremendous momentum-builder. The next play we throw a screen pass for a touchdown."
Gerv liked the play Kasen calls ‘the biggest hit I've ever taken'. It was delived by O'Dea DB Johri Fogerson, now a running back at Washington. Williams held onto the ball.
"That was like an NFL highlight film," Gervais said.
"I feel like that's how it should be," added Williams. "If I was going to get hit super-hard, it would be when I was young and not really paying attention to my surroundings...just focusing on catching the ball and getting hit."
It also means the biggest hit Kasen may ever take at the next level could happen in the next 12 months. It could even happen in practice, although Fogerson would have to switch back to safety to get another crack at reliving some high school glory.
If it never happens again, Rhonda Williams would be thrilled, that hit still vivid in her memory. She wasn't super-excited about the idea of him playing so much anyway, but that hit almost sent her to the Tacoma Dome concourse. The one comfort she could take was that it was the last game of the season.
For Kasen, however, it was just the beginning of something much bigger.
One month removed from Skyline's state 3A title, Kasen and his teammates were busy getting ready for another run. Football nowadays, even at the high school level, has become a 24/7, 365-day religion. If you aren't doing something to get better, you're getting worse.
Word had spread of Williams' ninth-grade exploits, as well as the Spartans' offensive firepower, and soon after came the publicity. ESPN Rise had a magazine cover with Williams, Simone and Heaps on the cover. They were the backbone of a group at Skyline destined for big things – like multiple state crowns.
Williams never quite got all the fuss. For all he knew, freshmen from all over the country were doing the same things, catching passes, listening to their coaches, having success.
"Back then, it was just me playing football," he said. "Coach would tell me what to do, and I was just making catches. That feels like forever ago. There was so much hype surrounding me, Gino and Jake because we were on the cover of that magazine."
Gervais had since moved on to a coaching position with the University of Washington, and Skyline felt like promoting from within would be the best bet, considering Gerv's legacy and his worthy lieutenants.
Taylor was hired. Roughly a week after his appointment, the young head coach was shopping at a local QFC with his two boys. His cell phone rang.
It was Rick Neuheisel. He wanted to offer Kasen a scholarship.
But he's only a freshman, Taylor remembers thinking to himself. Right around that same time, Washington was gearing up for an offer of their own. Boise State quickly followed suit.
"I was thinking for a really long time that UCLA offered first," admitted Kasen. And that suited Williams just fine, because the Huskies were on the heels of a winless season, and he was feeling everybody but Washington.
"I wasn't even thinking about ‘em," he said, matter-of-factly.
The family still isn't sure as to who technically offered first. A message was supposed to be relayed through Tyrone Willingham's family (Willingham's son Nathaniel was Williams' Skyline teammate), but it didn't become clear until UCLA had communicated their verbal offer through one of their coaches.
And while many former Huskies wear their colors proudly, Aaron's loyalty to his alma mater lies a lot closer to his heart than on his sleeves.
"(Kasen) grew up a Cougar fan," Aaron said. Turns out that Justin Lester, one of the Williams' neighbors, was also a Washington State fan growing up, and he was one of Kasen's best friends. The Lesters drove down to Pasadena in 1997, knowing they should take advantage of a possible once-in-a-lifetime chance to see WSU play in a Rose Bowl.
Justin was a year ahead of Kasen He's now a freshman at Washington. "He loves it," Rhonda said. "It's so funny. Everybody in his family are Cougars, and he's a Husky." If Kasen only knew he'd be following in Justin's footsteps.
Early on, Williams was bent on leaving home. And it wasn't because he necessarily wanted to, but he knew Washington, in its present state, was never going to turn his head. "Their record, not winning a game, the coaching staff was just really dry - and what I mean by dry is that they were boring...no excitement and not a lot of energy," he said.
His sister was different - she wanted the experience; she wanted to leave the nest.
For Kasen, he is a rare exception; mature enough to handle life away from home, yet so close to his family to benefit from the stability of everything that brings.
With the three offers, Williams was in uncharted waters. As a young sophomore, he was trying to figure out which of the three offers was the best one. Because for all he knew, those were the only ones he was going to get.
His life changed altogether on December 8, 2008. Steve Sarkisian entered his life. Sarkisian took time that first day as Washington's new head coach drove specifically to Bellevue and Skyline. Sure he wanted to make a big impression with BHS Head Coach Butch Goncharoff and the newly-hired Taylor. But he also knew he could turn Kasen's head, whether Kasen knew it or not.
"There was a lot of hype around him," Williams said of Sarkisian. "A lot of people thought he was going to be the guy to change it and turn things around. As soon as they came on, I had a good feeling from it, a good vibe from the coaching staff."
Rhonda and Aaron were also following the news of Sarkisian's arrival. "I thought he was making a big impression on the high school coaches in the state, going out to see some of the kids and making contact with the coaches - especially two of the biggest ones right here in his own backyard," Aaron said. "I thought it was awesome."
Kasen wanted to see more. He wanted to see how the season went. He wasn't convinced. The California schools had a big lead for his services after his sophomore season. As a 10th-grader, Kasen and Rhonda had taken a trip to UCLA to attend their junior day. He was the only sophomore there. All told, Williams visited UCLA three times. "I was thinking UCLA strong," he said. "UCLA and Cal."
Williams continued to grow on the field, catching 56 passes for 909 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2008, including the winning score to beat Bothell Skyline's second-straight state championship.
He was sold on the west coast thing. Until Sarkisian's arrival, Williams was all about leaving the nest like Kiara had. After all, what was the point of playing for a team that had no momentum, no future, no hope of doing anything at all?
Sarkisian changed all that. "The more the junior year went on, the more I was leaning toward U-Dub," said Williams. "But the California schools were still ahead of U-Dub." While Sarkisian was changing the culture and the product on the field at Montlake,
Williams continued to churn out ridiculous numbers; he had 1,209 yards and 20 touchdowns, including three in the state title game in 2009. Three for the three-peat. It all made sense.
Whatever Sarkisian did, it had an effect on Williams. "From my junior year on, the Cal schools never moved any higher," he said. "It was all U-Dub, U-Dub, U-Dub, U-Dub, U-Dub."
While he seemed content, his parents wanted to make sure. Offers were piling up from schools all across the country – and why not? He was billed as a future U.S. Army All-American, like his former teammate Heaps, who had matriculated to BYU.
"If he had wanted it, he could have had 110 scholarship offers," Taylor said with a chuckle.
"I didn't really want to influence him, because it was his decision," Rhonda said. "In the back of my mind I was thinking it would be nice if he stayed at home, but at the same time - when you've got offers from all over the place, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't look at them. You don't want to look back later and go - what if?"
At the same time, the family was not interested in taking Kasen on a world tour. Some schools made sense; others didn't. Taylor remembers sitting with Rhonda as they were getting film together to send to colleges.
He's not going there, so we're not going to waste their time, she would say.
In the end, five schools won out; Washington, California, Notre Dame, LSU and Florida. "As a receiver, you want to go to a place that has a great quarterback, and if you have that in high school you might as well run with that for as long as possible," Williams said.
BYU was not an option; he ruled them out almost immediately – despite the fact that Heaps threw the recruiting kitchen sink at him. Kasen, Gino, and Jake had all talked about playing for the same team in college, but that plan went awry when Simone signed with Washington State.
"As soon as Gino went to WSU, I was like, ‘That's not happening,' said Kasen. "And honestly, as soon as Jake went to BYU, I was saying the same thing." Kasen believes to this day that if Jake had been in his class at Skyline, Washington would have been a real player in his recruitment.
The summer before his senior season he took more fact-finding missions with his mom - this time to LSU, Florida and Notre Dame. Kasen really liked the campuses at LSU and Florida. He liked the way ND threw the ball, but wasn't a huge fan of their campus. During the unofficial visits, Kasen and Rhonda would call home and give Aaron a trip report, including what they liked and what they didn't like.
"(Aaron) would always come back with something negative about the school," Kasen said. "All the time."
"Underneath it all, Aaron was the one going, ‘You don't need to go to all these places!'," added Rhonda.
Kasen knew it too.
For instance, because of Neuheisel's rocky stay at UW, Aaron was wary of UCLA's new head man - and he let his son know about it. And if there was a chance to give the other side of the story, he never hesitated to tell his son what he thought.
"Except UW," Kasen said.
"I would downplay U-Dub," countered Aaron.
"No he wouldn't," Rhonda said.
"Sarkisian was an unknown," added Aaron. "I loved his energy. We hadn't seen the offense. We were just waiting to see what was going to happen. I wanted to see if it was going to be a nice package. It worked out for me, nicely."
The first couple games into the 2009 season, and Williams was sold. "I wanted to still make sure it was the best fit for me. I wasn't going to U-Dub just because they were playing good football, but they were competitive. They were doing more as far as recruiting. You talk to other guys from around the state, and they were all talking about U-Dub."
Simply put, when you put out an attractive product, it acts as a lure to those looking for the next big thing. And Williams feels he has found that at UW. Even this summer at the prestigious Gridiron Kings in Florida, all the west coast players were talking up two Pac- 10 schools; USC and Washington.
Long Beach Poly linebacker Corey Waller was always asking guys if they were thinking about Washington, because he was thinking hard about them. Top receiver Victor Blackwell was too. "U-Dub was still at the top for some of these California guys, and two years ago, they wouldn't be thinking U-Dub at all," Williams said. "They probably didn't even know U-Dub had a football team."
The perfect storm of events had brought Kasen right back to where he always wanted to be – Washington. Deep down, he had always wanted to play at his father's alma mater, and he wanted to beat all of Aaron's record. Didn't matter if it was football or track, Kasen was inspired from an early age to compete and be better than anyone else – especially his father.
"Records are made to be broken," Aaron said stoically. And it's that approach that has worked so well for the both of them over the years. Ever since Aaron knew his son was going to be a great athlete, it's been his job to get Kasen to the point where he could break his own records – and then start smashing his own.
"I'm his coach, and I'm trying to get him there."
From his middle-league soccer team to baseball, Aaron has always coached Kasen. The only time he didn't was at Parks and Rec basketball, where they wouldn't call traveling.
There have been the occasional father-son flareups that occur in everyday life, but Kasen wouldn't change the dynamic he has with his dad for anything in the world. "Everything he told me I tried, and it worked," he said. "I listened to him. I had faith in him that he'd tell me the right thing to do.
"Everything I've learned in every sport, I've learned from him. Obviously breaking his records is a goal of mine, but I'm trying to set my standards higher. I want to go even farther."
His ambitions are as gaudy as his football statistics; Williams wants to be an Olympian. It doesn't matter in what track event, whether it be high jump, long jump or triple jump. He wants the honor and pride that comes with the distinction.
Because of the foundation laid by his parents, Williams has developed a work ethic second to none. When his teammates go home tired and sore after a Friday night football game, Kasen watches the game.
Over and over.
His parents have filmed every sporting event their kids have ever done. In a closet they have racks of tapes going all the way back to fifth-grade Seattle Rotary basketball, which included a young Tony Wroten; pee-wee football; to Kiara's soccer and basketball games. Starting two years ago, Rhonda began taping Kasen's track meets, going from event to event and filming everything Kasen would do.
It's become a bit of a routine. The Saturday morning after a game, Williams would go to Skyline and pick up two films - one of that game, and one of their next opponent. And once his homework was done, Kasen would pour over the films, watching the game up to three times to pick apart every catch, every route, every nuance.
"I think it advances me as a player, because I know myself and I know what works and what doesn't," he said.
"He really is a study of his own game," added his mother.
And before you think this is some little league family run amok, this all comes from Kasen. "He's the one wanting to see film right after the game," said Rhonda. "That's just him."
The weekend the Bellevue game this past fall, Williams estimates he watched that tape, as well as their opening-week loss to Liberty, seven times. Half the critique of his game comes from him; the rest is supplied by his father. "He knows what I'm going to say, because we've been doing this a long time," said Kasen.
"He's usually prepared for me by the time I get to the film," added Aaron. "When I come in, he's usually showing me stuff."
This kind of study has allowed Williams a chance to give back to Skyline. He put it upon himself to teach the younger guys, like when Gino Simone would hold him accountable as a freshman.
"He helped develop the kids behind him," Taylor said.
That's why it came as no surprise Kasen wanted to make his college announcement in front of the Skyline community, the same people that had been there every step of his incredible journey. It was the ultimate show of respect.
The only problem was, how was it to be done? The hat dance has become cliché; just saying where he was going didn't feel big enough for one of the top receiver prospects in the country. By now the family knew how Kasen felt about Washington, so they set about their preparations.
Aaron remembered he had a couple of his No. 2 Washington jerseys still laying around somewhere. The perfect storm was headed for a fitting conclusion. Kasen would do the hat dance, but then he'd look to his father, who would have his old jersey on underneath his Skyline coat. Dad would unzip the coat, revealing his UW jersey, and Kasen would pick up the hat at the same time.
And then, in a symbolic gesture, Aaron would take off his jersey and pass it along to his son, while the Spartans in attendance would cheer wildly for the favorite son who chose to stay close to home and play for his dad's team.
"It was incredible...very special," Aaron said, recounting the event.
It was as if Aaron wanted to say – here you go Kasen. This jersey has been very good to me. I expect you to take care of it.
And he will.
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