When Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Stranahan Top247 wide receiver Hykeem Williams steps in front of the CBS Sports HQ cameras on Friday at around 2:30 pm EST to announce a verbal commitment, many will just assume that it’s a moment that he has been thinking about since he was a little boy.
While there might be some truth to that, anyone close to Williams will be quick to tell you that Williams wasn’t always tracking to be the big-time football recruit he is now (No. 26 overall in the 2023 Top247, No. 5 among all receivers). In fact, there was a time when Williams was once afraid to jump into the pool at a district swim meet.
So, how did Williams go from a scared freshman swimmer to a top priority for Texas A&M, Florida State, Georgia, Alabama and plenty of others?
Stranahan assistant basketball coach Robinson FanFan credits two of Williams’ teammates for steering him towards the gridiron.
“I’ll never forget,” FanFan told 247Sports earlier this week. “Hykeem was playing [junior varsity] for me and two of his friends were going out for football. He said, ‘Coach can I play?’ I said, ‘Hell no. You’re a basketball guy.’ But, he kept begging and begging and I just finally let him because I knew it wasn’t going to be fair to let the two other kids play and not him. So, the first game he goes out there and has like three touchdown catches and like 180 yards. After that, that was all she wrote.”
Stranahan head football coach Travis Harden remembers that first football season for Williams like it was yesterday.
“I knew he was going to be a dude in the first round of the playoffs against Miami Northwestern,” Harden said. “He was a freshman that we moved up to varsity late in the season. He dropped every single ball in the pregame. Every. Single. Ball. He was so nervous and frustrated. I took him aside and told him, ‘Don’t worry about it because you’re going to be the next great thing to come out of Stranahan.’ I just felt it that night.”
A RARITY ON THE SOUTH FLORIDA FOOTBALL SCENE
Stranahan isn’t your typical South Florida football factory. Built in 1953, the magnet school has had a few alumni make the NFL. But, they haven’t had an All-American since defensive line Rubin Carter wore the orange and blue back in 1971.
To an outsider, this might not seem like a big deal. Blue-chip prospects emerge from all different types of schools — and towns — in other parts of the country. But that’s not usually the case in the 954 or 305. Most Power Five prospects from the Fort Lauderdale and Miami metros are recruited from a young age out of the local parks and enrolled at either one of the private powerhouses in the area or a top public program that consistently sends kids to the next level.
According to Harden and FanFan, Williams had plenty of opportunities to leave Stranahan and was even courted by IMG Academy. Obviously, he never left and Harden believes that says more than enough about Williams’ character.
“He chose to stay and I don’t think you find too many kids with that loyalty these days,” Harden said. “Because of that, he’s getting everything that he deserves. I never had to try and convince him to stay and I think that just shows the type of kid that he is when it comes to loyalty. He stayed all four years, played all four years.”
“Now, he’s leaving as one of the greatest ever to come out of Stranahan. It shows that if you put in the work, remain loyal, do well academically and understand your why — you can be the next one. It’s a big deal, and I want the community to see that because there are a lot of young kids that look up to Hykeem.”
THE UNIQUE MULTI-SPORT BACKGROUND
OK, back to the pool. Some are probably wondering why a now-6-foot-3, 200-pound monster would be trying to learn how to flip turn. But, as FanFan explained, the swim team is the basketball team at Stranahan and Williams was at Stranahan because of hoops.
After winning some middle school championships at nearby William Dandy, Williams followed most of his teammates to Stranahan where the group found instant success on the hardwood. As a ninth grader, Williams was a rotational player for a Mighty Dragons squad that won a 5A Sunshine State title. His role expanded as a sophomore during a disappointing pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. By the time Williams was a junior, he proved to be a difference-maker for the Mighty Dragons. He helped propel them to state Final Four victories by posting back-to-back double-doubles
Williams — who was named to 247Sports’ Freaks List for the class of 2023 back in August — was never actually offered a basketball scholarship. But, as one college hoops contact noted, that’s likely because it became evident early on that he had a brighter future in football than he did on the hardwood. Still, when Williams was recently asked what he thought his most impressive athletic feat to date was, he said it was probably the double-doubles in the state tournament when his brothers needed him the most.
“If you have seen Hykeem play basketball before, it’s easy to see the correlation of his athleticism on the hardwood has led to continued success on the gridiron,” 247Sports national analyst Cooper Petagna says. “Even though you would label him as a small-ball forward in today’s age of basketball, his leaping ability, body control and brute strength make him a handful for opponents in each sport. Furthermore, we have seen many multi-sport athletes with basketball backgrounds excel at the receiver position at football’s highest levels. But it’s still pretty rare to see players as strong and as explosive as Williams at this stage.”
THE CONTENDERS IN THE RECRUITMENT
Williams is expected to have six hats on the table when the lights come on Friday: Texas A&M, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Georgia, Alabama and Miami.
As I noted Tuesday night, this is really a two-team race heading into the commitment ceremony with Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies and Mike Norvell’s Seminoles neck-and-neck heading into the final turn. However, I do believe that if there is a longshot that could pull off the upset, it’s probably Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers.
Various people in Williams’ circle seem to have different opinions on which way Williams is leaning. But, the general consensus is that Williams remains high on both Texas A&M (a school he has already visited three times unofficially) and FSU (a place where his good friend, former Stranahan linebacker Omar Graham, is on the roster).
Harden doesn’t think Williams can go wrong with any of his finalists.
“You know, Nick Saban landed his helicopter here on our field. And the funny thing about that is, back during Hykeem’s freshman year I told him that he was going to be the reason why Nick Saban landed his helicopter at Stranahan one day. He didn’t believe me, but I just told him to keep doing what he’s doing — and sure enough Nick Saban did that,” Harden said.
“Kirby Smart came down a few times and went to some of his basketball games. Same with Pat Narduzzi and Jimbo Fisher,” Harden continued. “They were all just here in the spring. For him to get that attention, it was well deserved. And not only that, but when you talk to him, he always brings up that they are coming for him, but he wants his teammates to get some recognition, too. He’s a team first type of guy. So, whatever program gets him is going to get the ultimate team player that’s going to come in and work hard.”
MOM’S TAKE AHEAD OF FRIDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT
Unfortunately, Williams lost his father at an early age. This means that when he sits down one last time Thursday night to go over his decision, he’s likely going to be leaning heavily on his mother, Donna Williams, for advice.
Donna is a clerk at the nearby courthouse that was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale. She joked Tuesday that the hardest part of the recruiting process has been all of the travel. In the past three weekends, she and her son have traveled to New Orleans for FSU-LSU, Pittsburgh for Pitt-Tennessee and College Station for Texas A&M-Miami.
“I’m still kind of shocked about everything,” Donna said. “I’m waiting to wake up. It feels like a dream to me right now. It has been exhausting, but also exciting. We have been able to travel to different places and meet new people.”
The staff that Donna has clicked the best with?
It sounds like the Aggies.
“That’s a no brainer,” Donna says. “I like the environment there. It kind of feels like home. Pittsburgh does, too.”
That might not sound all that promising for the Seminoles (who have been surging in the recruitment), but Donna quickly heaped some praise for the folks in Tallahassee.
“I like Coach Norvell,” she says. “He keeps me down to earth.”
Regardless of what mom might be thinking, the person who puts on the hat Friday seems to be the one who is making the final call.
“It’s his decision,” Donna said. “I’m behind him 100 percent wherever he chooses.”