In a backyard in Charlotte, a father and son are playing football.
Anthony Williams, in his early 20s, is teaching his son drop steps. Take the snap, explode back three steps, plant and fire. He runs slant routes, so his son can have a moving target and build his arm strength.
The boy is just 3 years old but, already, his father knows he’s special. Williams sees the same ability he had.
When Williams was in junior high, a high school quarterback in his neighborhood taught him how to throw. Williams’ father was not a part of his life. As a child, he had nobody in his life to catch his throws. Nobody to teach him out routes.
“Growing up not having your dad around,” Williams said, “it kind of taught me, ‘Don’t be like that guy,’ and what a real dad should be like.”
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, that 3-year-old boy who is now UNC’s top wide receiver and an All-ACC First Teamer, may claim the spotlight on Saturdays in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
He may have returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and caught 630 yards worth of passes in 2017. And he may be the spark the Tar Heels need to ignite a bounce-back campaign after a 3-9 season.
But Williams, Ratliff-Williams’ father, is the co-author of his story.
He and Ratliff-Williams were not just father and son; they were best friends. They competed in sports and video games, like Madden and 2K.
“We’re real competitive with that,” his father said with a hearty laugh. “We’d end up arguing sometimes, and my wife will have to come in there and be like, ‘Y’all just cut it off.’”
Williams was never able to have those moments with his father. Raised by a single mother, he grew up in inner-city Charlotte. His uncle was killed in a robbery, and he saw more violence and turmoil than he ever wanted his children to see.
When Williams was 18, his girlfriend, Dinah Ratliff, learned she was pregnant. The Garinger High School quarterback had a choice: play college football or start a family. He’d seen firsthand what happened when a child grew up without a father. He wouldn’t let that happen to his own.
Cayla was born on Jan. 7, 1995. The couple’s second child, Anthony, was born on June 17, 1997.
And then, a new story began — one where Anthony Ratliff-Williams blossomed into a star with the help of his father.
‘Sacrifice for the bigger cause’
By the time Ratliff-Williams reached middle school, Williams decided the family needed a change. He wanted his child to be surrounded by people who were earning scholarships and going to college.
Those were the dreams he once had. Now, he could provide them for his son.
“So, we moved to Matthews,” Williams said. “We couldn’t really afford it, but sometimes you have to sacrifice for the bigger cause.”
In terms of distance, Matthews was just around 12 miles from Charlotte. But Williams had to wake up at 6 a.m. every morning, to work at a tree nursery in Fort Mill, S.C. The family only had one car, and Williams didn’t want to take it away from Dinah and his kids. A friend picked him up for work every morning.
Anthony made his way to Butler High School, a football powerhouse, to play for head coach Brian Hales, the man who described Ratliff-Williams and his dad as “two peas in a pod.”
“Almost like a best friend relationship,” Hales said. “Dad still, I mean, he didn’t trade in his dad card to be his friend. He’s still parenting him up, but just their relationship, they’re so close. It was kind of like father and son, but it was almost like they were brothers, too.”
Ratliff-Williams backed up Riley Ferguson, a standout quarterback who later attended Memphis, as a first-year. He played some quarterback as a sophomore, while splitting time at receiver. As a junior, he quarterbacked a young Bulldog offense to the NCHSAA 4A State semifinals and threw for 34 touchdowns.
All the while, his father was there as his biggest supporter.
“Me and my dad have always been so tight,” Ratliff-Williams said, “just because he’s always been able to understand.”
Before Ratliff-Williams’ senior season, his parents got married. The two had been hesitant to do so for years, due to failed marriages in each of their families. But they wanted it for their son, before he went off to college.
Ratliff-Williams continued to shine as a senior. He was a consensus three-star prospect and the No. 1 quarterback in North Carolina. He chose UNC over Clemson and Mississippi State.
The day he dropped his son off in Chapel Hill, Williams said, was one of the toughest of his life.
“We were together every day, and now he’s not in the room beside you anymore,” he said. “I think I got right there before you come up to that light up at (N.C. Highway) 54. It kicked in then.”
But the father and son spoke every day while Ratliff-Williams was away. He redshirted as a first-year and then made a position change from quarterback to receiver the next season, while playing sparingly. As a redshirt sophomore, he exploded onto the scene as both a receiver and return man. Williams had given his son advice in text messages and phone calls, especially about his time coming soon.
“I told him, ‘Hey, life changes. The process at the school is kind of the same as what happened at Butler,’” Williams said. “But like I told him (back then), ‘Once you cross the goal line, all this stuff is going to change.’”
‘I told you’
With just under 11 minutes left in the third quarter of the Tar Heels’ second game of 2017, Ratliff-Williams awaited a kick return against Louisville. He caught it at the six-yard line.
As the defense charged toward him, he wove through, as if he were a blur of blue and white, streaking 94 yards to the end zone, for his .
But it wasn’t until exactly two months later, in a Nov. 9 game against Pittsburgh, when he fully announced his arrival as a star.
The night before the game, Ratliff-Williams was on the phone with his father. His dad wanted to make the trip up to Pittsburgh, but he couldn’t.
“I told him I wasn’t going to make it,” Williams said. “So I was like, ‘Man, I guarantee you’re going to run this kickoff back. I can see it happening. So you might score more than one.’”
The words proved prophetic.
On the first play of the game, Ratliff-Williams ran back a kickoff for 98 yards for a touchdown, breaking four tackles on the play.
He wasn’t done there. On a second-quarter trick play, he took the ball on a reverse. The former quarterback used his drop step — just the way his dad taught him — and uncorked a perfect spiral into the arms of wide receiver Josh Cabrera for a 35-yard touchdown.
The icing on the cake came with 6:18 left in the game and the Tar Heels trailing 31-27, when quarterback Nathan Elliott found Ratliff-Williams for a 3-yard touchdown. It was his third score of the game, and it proved to be the winner.
It also made Ratliff-Williams just the third FBS player in the last 21 years to throw for a score, return a kick for a score and catch a touchdown in the same game. At the time, it was just the second win of the season for UNC, and its only win against an ACC foe.
“‘Told you,’” Ratliff-Williams said. “He just said, ‘I told you.’ Of course, you got to agree with him, because he did tell me. But those kinds of things you look back on it and really think, ‘Wow I really can do what I put my mind to.’”
With the help of a father who sacrificed so much, and worked so many long hours, the wide receiver was doing just that. He finished 2017 with six receiving touchdowns, two kick-return touchdowns and two passing touchdowns. Media selected him for the 2018 All-ACC Preseason Team, as a return specialist.
Just like Williams said, everything changed for his son when he returned that kick against Louisville, in September 2017.
But, really, everything changed when he came into this world, with Williams there to guide him and groom him.
As Ratliff-Williams embarks on his redshirt junior campaign, his father will be there, watching. Williams does not have a favorite football moment from his son. He loves all of them the same.
Ratliff-Williams will likely get drafted this spring, if he decides to forego his senior year. And in that moment, everything Williams had wanted for himself, and now his son, will all be there.
“I told him I wasn’t going to cry until he got drafted,” Williams said. “All the other times he’s seen me cry before that was when I had to drop him off at Carolina.”
Ratliff-Williams has only seen his father cry a few times.
But his father has seen a young man grow, far away from the turmoil that surrounded the former’s childhood, blossoming into a star while Dad looks on — a smile forever on his face.
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