Caleb Williams spreads anti-bullying message to local middle schoolers

Williams welcomed students from Audubon Middle School on Friday and spoke to them about tackling bullying — a personal matter.

A photo of Caleb Williams and Audubon Middle School students posing for a photo, holding up the victory sign.

Caleb Williams’ hopes to be a difference-maker on the football field at USC will have to wait until the fall to kick into full gear.

His goal to be one off it, though, is well under way.

Friday was the debut event of a partnership between USC Athletics, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Caleb Cares Foundation, Williams’ personal charity dedicated to fighting bullying, empowering youth and promoting mental health awareness. Williams met with students from Audubon Middle School following the students’ tour of USC’s athletic facilities at Heritage Hall, John McKay Center and Galen Center, where Williams spoke about anti-bullying and the importance of reaching out for support.

The quarterback opened up about his experiences being bullied himself, including over his January transfer from Oklahoma. He said his decision sparked hate mail — via email, physical mail and social media — that he still receives to this day, even four months later. “They have a very, very supportive system of fans when you’re there,” he said of OU. “But when you’re not there, you leave or anything like that, they’re not SO nice.” Williams emphasized that his parents and coaches helped him through it, and he encouraged the Audubon students to find their own support system on which they can rely the same way he did.

“If you ever get bullied or anything like that, you’re not the only one,” Williams said. “As people like to say, I’m this highly talented kid and things like that and everything’s so good — but I still get hate. I still get bullied.”

One of the Caleb Cares Foundation’s core pillars is “empowering the underdog,” a principle that inspired Williams’ longtime nickname, “Superman.” (He said his mother wanted to name him Superman, an idea his father rejected, much to future Caleb’s chagrin.) When Williams got to high school, coincidentally enough, one of his coaches had a saying that “Superman always wears his cape” — and Williams got the inkling that the moniker should stick.

“It’s a pretty cool name, I have to say,” Williams said. His foundation’s website explains that Williams fell in love with Superman at a young age because he believed he could do anything, and that belief still lives on in the 20-year-old.

Following his speech, Williams presented the students with a gift bag, which included a custom-made shirt. Along with his No. 13 and the words “Fight On,” the shirt features his name (he reminded the students not to let anyone tarnish their name) and the victory sign with the ‘SC logo painted on the nails.

That lattermost feature was inspired by Williams’ habit since high school of painting his nails for game days. He writes symbols or brief messages about beating whichever particular opponent is on the other sideline; the anti-Texas “Horns Down” symbol, for example, was in the repertoire last year at Oklahoma.

Williams said that as a male, the practice of painting his nails has been another source of bullying.

“I am a male, and I paint my nails, and I’ve had some people say things about that too,” Williams said. “Maybe you can think of a few things that people might have said. And it hasn’t been nice, normally.” USC Athletics Director of Community Outreach McCall Hall, who led the tour and moderated the speaking portion, emphasized the importance of “being your true, authentic self.”

Williams said he wanted to establish his foundation at Oklahoma until his abrupt transfer made that difficult. Now that he’s settled in at USC, he plans to continue working with the students, including by supporting USC Athletics and the LAUSD in providing resources and workshops, inviting the students to games and practices in the upcoming season and visiting Audubon if his schedule — actually, he corrected himself, head coach Lincoln Riley — permits it.

“We’re thrilled to work with Caleb,” Hall said of USC Athletics’ work with the Caleb Cares Foundation. “His story and journey will inspire many students from the Los Angeles Unified School District and beyond.”

The students were selected from the Humanizing Education for Equitable Transformation Community Schools Plan, which supports African American students’ social-emotional health and academic success.

“This has always been important to me,” Williams told reporters on Friday. “Being able to get up there and talk to them and be around them just helps me to keep going so I can keep doing things like this and bigger things for them.”

Williams, originally from Washington, D.C., was also joined at Galen Center by two aforementioned figures prominent in his own support system: his parents, Carl and Dayna.

“It’s a really proud moment,” Carl said, “to have him being able to pour into kids like we’ve been trying to pour into him all of these years.”

And as far as Williams’ impact on the Audubon students goes, the early returns seem promising.

“How he goes through bullying a lot, and he has a sweet community around him to help him with that,” said Deonna Brown, one of the students, of her key takeaways from Friday’s event. She said she also admired Williams’ writing his goals on his phone lock screen (which include, Williams said, to eventually be better than Tom Brady).

That first message is exactly what Williams said he wanted the students to take away. That’s why he chose the anti-bullying message as the core of the Caleb Cares Foundation and his work with his new community in Los Angeles.

“As a kid, you get bullied — that could change your life if you don’t have people around you that could help you move along or make sure your mentals are straight,” Williams said to reporters. “It could impact you very deeply in the future.

“You can’t do it by yourself. Including me. And including Superman himself.”