Macen Williams had big plans for 2018. Then a junior at Gardena Serra High, where his older brother Max was already a star senior, Macen envisioned a dominant season for the brothers who trained together their whole lives for a moment like this. Macen would cement his spot in the starting lineup and boost his recruiting profile. Max would put a perfect ending on a dominant four-year varsity career.
Then Max tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the season opener.
“I was really hurt,” Macen said, “because there wasn’t anything I was looking forward to more than balling out with my brother.”
Five years later, the brothers get a final chance to share the field on the college level as Max’s fifth-ranked USC Trojans visit Macen’s Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday at Mountain America Stadium.
The timing hasn’t always been ideal for the siblings. They missed each other in 2020 while Macen redshirted. Max sat out in 2021 because of his second torn ACL.
Last year was the first time they faced off. After Max helped USC to a 42-25 win with four tackles, the brothers walked off the field shoulder-to-shoulder with their helmets in hand as their parents and younger brother met them for a long-awaited picture.
“It takes us back to childhood memories,” said Max, a redshirt senior at USC. “Us working out together, competing against each other and now we compete against each other on different teams. It’s an amazing feeling.”
With three football-playing sons on different teams, it’s not often the whole family can be together during fall. Maxzell Williams Sr. keeps a detailed chart of the football season, mapping each of his son’s games: Max at USC; Macen, now a redshirt junior, at Arizona State; Marcelles at St. John Bosco High, where he is a senior cornerback committed to USC.
Max is primed to make the most of the rare family reunion. The redshirt senior safety is USC’s top-ranked defender among players with more than 70 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He has nine tackles without missing a single attempt and grabbed USC’s first interception of the season against Stanford.
Finally, “Mad Max” is back.
The former Serra star is the healthiest he’s been since 2020, when he played in all six games of USC’s pandemic-shortened season, starting three, with 22 tackles. It wasn’t just that he suffered his second season-ending knee injury the next year, robbing him of a key breakout opportunity, he’s also had three defensive coordinators and three head coaches during his tumultuous career.
Wanting to make a good first impression on the first-year coaching staff last season, Max fought through a sports hernia during spring camp and didn’t undergo surgery until the summer. He was tied for the team-lead in tackles, but Maxzell could tell his son didn’t have his normal level of explosiveness. It was most obvious late in the season when he missed five tackles in the final four games, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Max’s mistakes on display for all to see at defensive back, fans dissected every disappointment on USC’s struggling defense. Now fans are approaching Maxzell at the Coliseum to tell him they still remember that kid from Serra who electrified audiences with special teams highlights and tough tackling.
“He’s rewriting his story,” Maxzell said.
Maxzell trained his boys from a young age, lobbing footballs at Max in the front yard at age 4. As they grew into top prospects, training sessions got so heated that the brothers wouldn’t talk for hours afterward if one dominated during a tough workout.
Competition was, and still is, ingrained in everything for the Williams family. H.O.R.S.E games in the garage on a mini basketball hoop get as boisterous as any football game. Maxzell says he wins. Max denies it.
“It’s me,” Max said, “don’t let him tell you any different.”
Macen is battling with Marcelles to stay out of the basketball basement. Macen even bought a hoop to keep at home in Tempe, Ariz., so he can practice for his next trip home.
“The competitiveness really shaped us into who we are,” said Macen, who has three tackles in three games for the Sun Devils (1-2) this season.
All three were groomed to be defensive backs, said Maxzell, who played the position at El Camino College and Nevada. Since scoring his first touchdown at 5 years old, Max took to football immediately. He was undersized, but even as a scrawny 5-foot-8 freshman, Max earned a starting job at Serra.
Fans packed the stands to watch him play, standing in anticipation each time he fielded a punt off the bounce, gasping each time he broke through a tackle on the return and cheering when he scored. He tackled fearlessly on defense despite his smaller frame and caught passes on offense. Even some of Macen’s current teammates hailing from as far as Alabama remember watching Max’s high school highlights.
“Max was one of those people who was just good at everything,” Macen said. “Like Shohei Ohtani, he’s just good at everything for no reason.”
Maxzell sees himself most in his middle son. They share a penchant for smack talk on the field, Maxzell said, and while Max and Marcelles enjoyed immediate success on the field at every level, Maxzell and Macen are underdogs who had to work for their achievements.
Macen, a 5-10, 180-pound cornerback, didn’t break through at Serra until his junior year. As a senior three-star recruit, he transferred to Narbonne and committed to Arizona State.
After getting constantly overshadowed by his brother, Macen takes pride in any head-to-head win, like when they faced off in the 100 meters at the Culver City Invitational Relays in 2018. Macen, a sophomore, took first place. Max finished one-tenth of a second behind in second.
“I know that hurt him for sure,” Macen said. “He might be a little quicker, but ain’t no way he’s faster than me.”
While watching Macen attain success, it’s still this brother’s speed that stands out most, Max said. He’s excited to watch Macen’s career continue.
Finally getting to see Max play like the best version of himself again makes Macen most proud.
“It’s so easy to be like, ‘All right, I’m just going to give up,’ but he never had that mind-set,” Macen said. “He always fought. He’s always been a fighter.”
Max grabbed his first interception of the season against Stanford, his first pick since Sept. 24, 2022. As Max returned it for 39 yards, Maxzell, in a carefully chosen, roomy aisle seat at the Coliseum, was running in place and cheering on his son.
The play felt overdue for Max. The night before, the family group chat was alive with conversation about how Marcelles had two picks in his first four games with St. John Bosco. His older brothers were still sitting at zero.
Now Macen is alone at the bottom of the standings. Saturday’s family affair would provide the perfect audience for his first.
“Hopefully I get one vs. ‘SC,” Macen said. “I really want one.”