RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It’s no surprise to read that a local sports star dreams about playing professionally.
Sometimes, though, they don’t even make it into the college ranks, and that pro dream is shattered.
Among those locals dreaming of someday earning a living in the NFL is former Cleveland High two-sport standout Marcus Williams, 22, heading into his senior season as a tight end at the University of New Mexico.
Recently, he found himself named as a second-team tight end in Athlon Magazine All-Mountain West Team.
“It feels pretty good — it’s a big-time magazine,” Williams said.
Just a few weeks later, he was named the 39th-best player in the MWC — and a “rare kind of offensive weapon” on the MWC “wire.”
“Only a few tight ends per year tend to make a lot of noise in their teams’ passing games, but the next player on our countdown of the Mountain West’s top athletes did so to a degree that, in some respects, we’ve never seen before,” the accolade read. “Though he’s received playing time for New Mexico over the last three seasons, it wasn’t until 2019 that Williams truly broke out as a dangerous receiver. … nine of those (26) catches went for 20 or more yards, the most by a Mountain West tight end since Wyoming’s Jacob Hollister had 11 in 2016, and his 16.46 yards per catch ranked sixth among all pass-catchers in the conference.
“According to our research, that also happened to be the highest single-season per-catch average by a qualifying tight end in conference history.”
Williams led Lobo tight ends in 2019 and was second on the team with 26 receptions and 428 yards, with one touchdown. He caught at least one pass in 10 of 12 games, including a career-high six receptions against Nevada, good for 74 yards, plus a five-catch day against Colorado State.
As a sophomore, he’d also led the team’s tight ends with 13 receptions for 138 yards and three touchdowns. His first two catches of the season went for touchdowns of 33 and 10 yards against Incarnate Word, and he caught a career-high three passes for 32 yards with a touchdown against Liberty.
As a freshman, Williams played in all 12 games, but only caught one pass, covering 27 yards, against Colorado State.
Going two ways with the Storm
As a senior, he caught a team-best 56 passes for a team-high 967 yards and 13 TDs, recording 55 tackles as a defensive back with six interceptions for 142 yards. Two of his touchdown catches came in the 6A champion Storm’s 63-27 rout of Mayfield in a 2015 semifinal.
In his junior season, Williams caught a team-best 35 passes for a team-high 639 yards and nine TDs, with 39 tackles as a defensive back, to go with four tackles for loss and two interceptions.
His highlights as a sophomore were TD catches in victories over Cibola and Rio Rancho, as well as the frustrating 34-33 loss to Mayfield in a semifinal at Lightning Bolt Stadium.
In the winters, Williams played four seasons of varsity basketball, often scoring in double figures for the Storm, including a career-high 26 points in an exciting 76-75 victory over visiting Rio Rancho in the district championship game of 2014-15.
In football, Williams was an All-State second-team wide receiver in 2014, and a first-team wideout and second-team defensive secondary selection in 2015. He also was a two-time All-State first-team basketball player as a junior and senior, graduating from CHS in May 2016.
The funny thing is, he originally hadn’t thought much about playing football in high school.
How it all began
“Marcus Williams was a basketball player — a dang good one, too,” recalled his CHS coach, Heath Ridenour.
Michael and Diedra Williams moved the family to New Mexico from North Carolina in 2008; Williams said his sports role models then were LeBron James and Allen Iverson, “my main guys” in basketball, and Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Michael Irvin, Zach Ertz and Travis Kelsey in football.
As Ridenour tells it, “His freshman year, he walked across the track as his buddies were out on the field playing 7-on-7. I said, ‘Don’t you think it would be more fun to be out there with your buddies than over here on the side? If you want to, we can go check you out some equipment right now.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it,’ almost like he was calling my bluff.
“I immediately checked him out his equipment,” Ridenour recalled. “That is how Marcus became a football player at Cleveland High School.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Williams said. “He used to see me at the park every now and then.” Williams played on Storm teams in YAFL, along the way meeting future CHS teammates Gabe Ortega, Henry Hattis and Ryan Anderson.
“Marcus from the beginning was a tough player, just a tough kid that made everyone around him better, and a human highlight reel,” Ridenour said. “He made the greatest catch I’ve ever seen a high school kid make against Clovis in 2015. If you’ve seen it, you’d agree.”
Ridenour never dissuades a student-athlete from playing more than one sport, so Williams was able to play hoops for coaches Brian Smith and Sean Jimenez.
“I never tried to make Marcus love football more than basketball. My goal was to just give him options as he left high school: Don’t put your eggs in one basket, so to speak,” Ridenour said. “No matter what Marcus chose to do after high school, it wasn’t going to affect the way I felt about him or how close of a relationship we would maintain. We were going to stay right regardless. I just wanted the best for him.
“All of these years later, he is a pivotal piece to the UNM football program — he is a guy you can build any offense around. He isn’t scared of the big moment or making the big play,” Ridenour said, proud of his former player. “He was born to make those big plays in key moments.”
Williams said “eventually” he’d probably have come out to play football for the Storm: “It was just a matter of time.”
His favorite Storm memories? “Probably just the fun in the locker room, grinding together with the guys. In my senior season, I had a bad taste from losing (in 2014), and it paid off (with a state football championship in 2015).”
Speaking of bad tastes, he said, was “losing in the state championship game in basketball (60-56 to Hobbs in 2015). But it was cool to play in The Pit.”
Looking ahead to this season
The Lobos are slated to open their season on Saturday, Aug. 29, when Idaho State visits Dreamstyle Stadium.
Williams, you can be assured, will be ready for it.
“I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of staying in shape,” he said. “I work out five times a week, sometimes seven, trying to stay agile and fluid. I’ve been running some routes, (catching passes from my older brother), just chucking it around.”
He’s happy to have a new head coach, Danny Gonzales, and staff.
“I think everybody’s really excited,” he said. “Coach Gonzales, being a New Mexico guy (Gonzales played for and graduated from Valley High School), he knows what it’s like — a guy from New Mexico, giving us more confidence, trying to instill some Lobo experience in all of us.”
As for assistant coach Rocky Long, a former UNM head coach and most recently the head coach at San Diego State, Williams says, “He’s a cool due. He talks a lot about Keshawn (Banks. Former Rio Rancho High two-sport standout and a defensive lineman at SDSU).”
Although the Lobos’ schedule is partially up in the air, due to the pandemic, Williams said he’s doing his part to “stay healthy and keep my distance, ensure I’m doing my part to keep everybody healthy.”
Williams was asked what he thinks his chances are of being on an NFL team’s draft board in 2021.
“Definitely, I think I have the capabilities,” he said. “I have to stay healthy and try to get better at everything, be a better tight end — just play bigger than I am, weight-wise. I think I have everything; the guys have given me confidence and I have confidence in myself.”
He’s got a Plan B, as he’s majoring in liberal arts, favoring the business world.
Thus, if he’s not a draft pick, he said, “I’ll probably go back to grad school, get into sports psychology or sports management — we’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
Lobo lowdown: The Mountain West released its official preseason polls Tuesday, and for the Lobos, that poll was a reflection of the past. UNM was picked to finish sixth, or last, in the Mountain Division. Gonzales didn’t really give it much thought: “Don’t care.” he said. “We won’t be picked last for long around here.”
Citing the rise of positive COVID-19 cases among young people in the state, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday sent a letter to the leadership of the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University strongly urging both to suspend contact sports this fall, including football and soccer.
Lujan Grisham, who earlier this month ordered the New Mexico Activities Association to postpone all fall contact sports at the high school level until 2021, is now urging the governor-appointed regents and university leadership at UNM and NMSU to take similar steps. The letter states it is “critical that you postpone collegiate athletics in this moment of escalating danger,” saying there is potential they could be resumed in late 2020 or early 2021. UNM and NMSU said while they plan to continue working closely with the governor to put the health and safety of students first, neither has made a final decision on the governor’s request.
Director of Athletics Eddie Nuñez’s response: “The University of New Mexico Athletics Department had 106 COVID-19 tests the week July 5-19. There were 85 student-athletes tested and 21 coaches and staff. Of the 106 tests, 102 came back negative with four positive tests. Of the positive tests, three were student-athletes and one was a coach/staff member that hadn’t had contact with any of the student-athletes. Following protocols, all four individuals are currently in quarantine and safe. All are feeling well and are asymptomatic. Overall, UNM has now had 225 tests conducted with six positive results, four student-athletes and two coaches or staff members.”