The Hahnville High School football team had just wrapped up another practice in fall 2014.
Coaches and players at the school outside New Orleans were once again impressed by Anthony Williams, a freshman running back playing with the varsity who was too fast for others players to keep up with, let alone try and tackle.
One of Williams’ teammates approached coach Dominic Saltaformaggio in the locker room.
“Coach, you know (Anthony) doesn’t have any toes on his right foot?” he asked.
The season was half over. The coach didn’t know.
“You’re full of it,” he responded.
To Saltaformaggio’s surprise and shock, the player was right. Williams had lost the toes in a childhood accident but defied doctors predictions in not only walking but excelling at football — and track. Four years later, he’s now one of the prized recruits in Kansas’ 2018 recruiting class.
As a 9-year-old Williams was outside a relative’s house in nearby Luling, La., his cousin accidentally ran over his right foot with a lawn mower while attempting to beat an impending rainstorm.
At the hospital, doctors told Williams sports weren’t in his future because the accident cost him all five toes on the injured foot. Without that stability, doctors said he would never run another football.
Williams walked out two weeks later and decided he would play again.
“As soon as I got out of the hospital I was working and running and everything,” Williams said. “They told me not to run but I had to do it. I couldn’t give up that easy.”
One of the highest-rated prospects currently committed to KU, the 5-foot-9 Williams has had a phenomenal high school career on uneven feet.
Williams, from Boutte, La., resumed playing football the following fall. He knew he would be able to keep playing after scoring his first touchdown that season.
“It felt like I still had all 10 of my toes,” he said.
Learning how to adjust initially meant wearing a special pad in his shoe to protect his foot and make him more comfortable. When Williams realized he could play without the pad, he switched to an extra sock.
“I still haven’t seen (his foot) to this day,” Saltaformaggio said. “I don’t need to see it because I’ve watched him run the football and I don’t need to worry about anything other than that.”
Saltaformaggio knew he had something special in Williams after he saw him return the second-half kickoff for a touchdown against state power Southern University Lab as a freshman.
Williams began to hear from Kansas running backs coach Tony Hull, a Louisiana native, after a strong sophomore season in which he scored 13 touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 2,220 yards and 35 touchdowns. Saltaformaggio said Williams has 151 career carries and 35 touchdowns, which means he’s scored a touchdown every 4.3 times he’s been handed the ball in high school.
“Once he gets to the second level, you’re changing the scoreboard,” Saltaformaggio said. “It happens that quickly.”
Rated a four-star recruit by ESPN and three-star by Rivals.com and 247sports, Williams has been all over the field in his first three years at Hahnville. He’s lined up as a running back, receiver, defensive back and kick returner.
In track Williams runs the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds and placed third in high jump at the state meet last month by clearing 6 feet 6. He was also the state runner-up in the 100 meters.
Williams said track was one of the biggest reasons he’s able to run so well because it taught him how to run with balance and look ahead.
“You can’t look back in track,” he said. “Because if you look back you’re going to lose. In football, if I break a long run and look back, (the defender) is going to catch me.”
Williams committed to Kansas in February despite having offers from UCLA, Mississippi State, TCU, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Tulane, Texas Tech and Memphis, among others. He said his relationship with Hull and the opportunity to help turn around the program around were major reasons why he committed.
Saltaformaggio said blue-blood programs like Alabama and LSU have shown interest in Williams but thinks it will hard to get him to decommit.
“Kansas has done a very, very good job recruiting him,” he said. “He’s kind of relished on the fact that a lot of guys that have committed to Kansas have decommitted and he’s held his ground. He’s proud of that. I think he’s a pretty solid Kansas commit.”
Woody Wommack, the southeast regional recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, thinks Williams will have a great chance of playing immediately and could thrive in the Jayhawks’ offense depending upon how he’s used.
“I see him as an X-factor type guy,” Wommack said. “He can get a lot of carries in the right system. In a spread offense he’s the kind of guy to give 15-25 touches a game and get the ball in his hands and let him do what he does.
“If Kansas hangs onto him that’s a remarkable get for them.”
When he gets to Lawrence next year, Williams will be nearly 10 years removed from the accident that could have taken him off the field permanently.
He credits it for getting more out of himself and proving you don’t need all of your toes to take big steps in life.
“It’s something I can’t hide,” he said. “When the accident happened, I kept pushing. Everybody else could’ve given up but I took it in and kept pushing.”