John Marshall looked into the deep night sky above Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium and everything else faded away.
The crowd was still buzzing from wild back-and-forth momentum swings over the previous 30 seconds of clock time. DeMatha High School defenders were doing all they could to make sure Marshall didn’t come down with a football thrown by Caleb Williams.
“It was almost a perfect beeline pass,” said Marshall, who is now a junior linebacker for Navy. “You can see the spiral from a distance and it kind of seemed like nobody else was out there on the field but me and him.”
Williams' steely mentality could come into play Saturday night against Oklahoma State in Bedlam. His Gonzaga teammates saw it on display during what some have called the greatest high school game ever played.
OU's spectacular comeback against Texas in early October introduced Williams to the national college football consciousness, but it was the 2018 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game where his comeback abilities were first showcased to a wide audience.
The WCAC — with not only Gonzaga and DeMatha but other D.C. area football factories such as Good Counsel and St. John’s — is widely considered the best high school football conference in the country.
Few who witnessed Williams’ performance in the biggest game of his high school career would doubt anything he could do on the football field.
That final play, a 53-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Williams to Marshall as time expired gave Gonzaga a 46-43 win over DeMatha, was only a piece of the story.
Just the fact that Gonzaga was in the title game was a feat.
DeMatha beat Gonzaga 27-21 in triple overtime in early October. In the regular-season finale, St. John’s handed the Gonzaga a 34-17 loss.
But in the first round of the WCAC playoffs, Gonzaga faced its archrival, St. John's again.
This time, Gonzaga took care of business. It defeated previously unbeaten St. John’s to advance to the title game and a rematch with DeMatha.
While the first meeting between the teams was nip-and-tuck the entire way, this time DeMatha had a 20-0 lead by early in the second quarter.
That’s when Williams went to work.
“He just really started taking over the game, making all the throws to me, John Marshall, Justin Ball, who’s at Vanderbilt, just dealing the ball all around the field,” said Dean Engram, a receiver on that team who is now a cornerback at Wisconsin.
With less than eight minutes remaining, Gonzaga still trailed 36-21.
Williams’ 25-yard touchdown run pulled the Eagles with nine points with less than six minutes left.
Gonzaga’s defense, led by current OU linebacker Joseph Wete, quickly gave the ball back to Williams and the offense. Williams followed up with yet another touchdown run, this one from 21 yards to cut the deficit to 36-33 with about three minutes left.
With less than two minutes to go, the Eagles got the ball back with a chance to give Gonzaga its first WCAC championship in 16 years.
Another quarterback on Gonzaga's roster, Sam Sweeney, was in line to run the offense that season. But the week of the season opener, Gonzaga coach Randy Trivers called Sweeney into his office and told him that a freshman, Williams, was going to start instead.
During the first game, Sweeney realized that the 15-year-old Williams had something special, not only with his arm and his legs but the confidence with which he carried himself.
So when Williams was sacked with a minute left, and briefly remained on the turf, in pain, Sweeney quickly went over to his teammate.
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“You’ve got to get up,” said Sweeney, who had moved to receiver while still serving as Williams’ backup. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
WIlliams had broken his foot, but he still popped right up to face a third-and-34, and hit Sweeney for a first down.
“A lot of people don’t know that he played the last minute with a broken foot,” said Sweeney, now a lacrosse player at Penn State. “But that shows the kind of character and player he is, just doing whatever he needs to do to win and perform at a high level.”
With 29 seconds left, Williams hit Sweeney for a go-ahead touchdown, setting off a celebration that ultimately resulted in a flag against Gonzaga.
The celebration was short-lived. DeMatha returned the kickoff for a touchdown to put the Stags back in front.
So when Gonzaga went back on the field with just 10 seconds left, needing 66 yards for a score, Marshall said he knew his team still had a chance to win, because of Williams’ arm.
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“He was keeping guys’ heads up on the sidelines, saying, ‘It’s not over until it’s over,’” Marshall said.
A quick pass to Engram moved the ball to the 47, giving Gonzaga one last hope.
The night before, the Eagles practiced that same situation. It didn’t work then.
But it did on this night, as Williams, broken foot and all, shuffled back in the pocket and let it fly from about the Gonzaga 40.
“The ball seemed like it was in the air forever,” Engram said.
When it finally came down, Marshall pulled it in to cap one of the wildest high school football games anyone involved had ever been a part of.
“Maybe you would’ve liked to have been that way, a little less stress, but catching a Hail Mary is surreal,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of something that sticks with you for a good amount of time, and I know it sticks with Caleb.
“Kind of built his empire that he has right now.”
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU football: Caleb Williams built legend with Gonzaga rally vs DeMatha