How Notre Dame running back Kyren 'The Siren' Williams is handling his newfound fame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Standing beside her daughter, Grace, Taryn Williams watched in disbelief as she heard fans chanting her son’s name.

Kyren! Kyren! Kyren!

A fence separated those fans from players leaving the locker room at Notre Dame Stadium for a quick rendezvous with their family and friends. As Kyren Williams made his way to greet his loved ones, Irish fans started repeating the name of the Notre Dame running back.

Taryn knew Kyren — fresh off running for 140 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries — just had the best performance of his young career. She knew he played a major role in the Irish downing top-ranked Clemson, 47-40, in the double-overtime thriller on Nov. 7. She knew he was becoming a star.

But it felt surreal to Taryn once she saw how fans reacted to Kyren. This was different than the occasional fan approaching him for an autograph or picture. She noticed they were taking photos, reaching out their hands through the fence and doing all they could to catch his attention. 

Reality started to set in: Kyren’s life had significantly changed.

“To hear the excitement from everyone just because of his presence was pretty unbelievable,” Taryn said. “It doesn’t even seem real yet.”

Williams’ celebrity has since continued to grow in the past month. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, one of Williams’ sports idols, contacted him following the Clemson game. When Notre Dame defeated North Carolina 31-17 last Friday, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James tweeted about Williams.

And when Williams is in public now, people know who he is without necessarily needing to see him in Irish football gear.

“Him being recognized around campus and people asking if they could take a picture, that’s something that you have to get used to,” Grace said. “I always wonder, ‘Why do people want pictures with my brother?’ I don’t really understand that he’s a big deal now. I still see him as my older brother who I grew up with and is my best friend.”

Younger sister Grace (left) and mother Taryn (right) pose for a picture with Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (middle) after a game this season.

Simply reaching Williams nowadays requires a creative strategy.

“He’s getting bombarded by phone calls and text messages. It’s to the point now where he doesn’t even answer text messages anymore,” Taryn said. “He’s getting a lot of people coming out of the woodworks to try to get in touch with him and celebrate his success.”

How Williams reached this point makes his seismic rise all the more dramatic. Only a few months ago, Williams was a relative nobody in the college football world. As a true freshman last season, Williams redshirted. He recorded 26 rushing yards on four carries and caught one pass for three yards across four games.

Coming into this season, Williams was not expected to be Notre Dame’s leading rusher. But the training and dieting Williams did before rejoining the team in June paid off. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Williams shed 15 pounds and noticeably improved his straight-line speed. Two months later during preseason camp, Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced him as the starter.

Through nine games this season, Williams is on pace to capture one of the more prolific seasons by a running back in Notre Dame history. Williams turned 160 rushing attempts into 901 yards and 12 touchdowns while hauling in 21 passes for 235 yards and a score. He’s also a revelation as a pass blocker, particularly with blitzing defenders.

With the help of Williams, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) has clinched a berth to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C. on Dec. 19. All the Irish have left this regular season is Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium.

As Williams carved himself that featured role on one of the nation's top teams, fame followed him. Navigating through the increasing hype he receives figures to be a challenge going forward.

To his family, Williams is handling the attention well so far.

“It blows my mind to see who is recognizing what he’s doing now,” said Larry Williams, Kyren’s father. “It just brought joy to my heart to see. You couldn’t tell by talking to him. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I’ve got to get ready for Syracuse.’”

Handling the hype

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) rushes past North Carolina's Jeremiah Gemmell (44) for a gain of 11 yards in the fourth quarter last Friday.

At North Carolina, Williams barreled through the end zone for a one-yard rushing touchdown to effectively end the Tar Heels' chances with 1:20 remaining in the game.

To commemorate the moment, Williams mimicked LeBron James’ patented celebration, “The Silencer.” James begins the move by pushing his hands down three times, palms facing the ground. Then he beats his chest two times before letting out a yell.

James saluted Williams via Twitter for using his celebration.

“It was a really big blessing for me,” Williams said. “That was my superhero as a kid and right now. Seeing the way everybody looks at him and how he’s changing the world, it’s something that I will never forget and will always be grateful for.”

Earlier last month, Williams heard from another notable sports figure: Ezekiel “Zeke” Elliott. Both Williams and Elliott are from the St. Louis area. Williams attended St. John Vianney High, an all-boys Catholic school in Kirkwood, Mo. He grew up watching Elliott play for nearby John Burroughs School and continued to follow his career at Ohio State and on the Cowboys.

“Kyren reached out to him to talk about what kind of training he did when he was in St. Louis to basically develop a mentor relationship and see if he had any insight on anything back in St. Louis that he could work on himself with different trainers and things like that,” Taryn said. “After the Clemson game, Zeke reached back out to him and noticed that he was doing his thing. He congratulated him on the game.”

Handling that attention could be challenging for someone who turned 20 in August. Williams’ family members said he’s equipped to keep his composure largely because of his upbringing.

“We knew he had all the talent he needed,” Taryn said, “but we didn’t want him to turn into one of those cocky athletes who walked around with a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t that type of kid.”

Of all the wall decorations hanging in their house, Taryn said there’s only one picture featuring Williams in a football uniform. It’s also not a picture from his time at Notre Dame or Vianney. It’s a picture of Williams from his first organized football tournament in the second grade.

“I wanted him to first be Kyren Williams, be himself, who also happens to play football,” Taryn said. “I didn’t want him to just identify himself as a football player."

Father Larry (middle) and younger sister Grace (right) pose for a picture with Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (left).

Faith, family and academics are among his top priorities. It’s why he picked Notre Dame as a recruit in the 2019 class.

“He doesn’t even like talking football really. He is more about family and wondering how everybody’s doing,” Larry said. “Once the game is over, it’s over. It’s time to move on. Time to go hang out with friends or play video games.”

On the field, Williams exudes confidence. He rolls up the front of his jersey to expose his midriff, a look Elliott recently popularized. With the ball in his hands, Williams embraces contact by lowering his shoulder into defenders and falling forward for extra yards. In pass protection, Williams is not afraid to surrender himself to more physically imposing defenders and put his body on the line.

“Off the field, he’s humble,” Grace said. “He’s grateful for all the things that he has and everyone that has stuck with him. He just likes to have a good time and make people laugh. He enjoys making people happy.”

“His personality on the field and off the field are two very different things.”

How Williams is wired beyond football helps him not dwell on his newfound fame.

"I really try to see myself as if I’m the same person that I was last year," Williams said. "The one-year difference, it has been huge. I never would have guessed where I’m at right now. It speaks to the work I put in through quarantine, the six months that we went through away from here and the dedication.

“Just making sure that no matter what it was, if I put this work in, no one is going to outwork me. So having that mentality and coming through this has been helpful.”

'Kyren the siren'

Younger sister Grace (left) and older sister Kaylyn (right) pose for a picture with Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (middle).

During his childhood, Williams earned the nickname “Kyren the siren” from a neighbor.

It wasn’t exactly a compliment.

“You could hear him two blocks away,” Larry said. “He was the loudest kid in the neighborhood.”

Williams also loudly made known his ambition of wanting to be an NFL player. He often wore the jersey of St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson. To emulate Jackson’s dreadlocks, Williams put on Grace’s Dora the Explorer wig underneath a Rams helmet.

“He would wear that like everywhere we went,” Taryn said.

The look was probably received as bizarre. His goal wasn’t. The Williams imagined his success long before it materialized. Taryn recalls telling a friend that Kyren would play college football one day.

She said he was in kindergarten at the time.

“Since Kyren started sports in the second grade, he’s always been the all-star. Whether it was baseball, football, basketball — it didn’t matter,” Taryn said. “You could tell at that age that he was good.

“Everything is coming full circle. Everything that he grew up and dreamed of is now happening to him.”

That vision coming to fruition can feel peculiar at times for the Williams family, even though they believed he would be where he is long ago. It's that the world just recently learned about Williams. And now he’s suddenly being heralded as one of the best running backs in college football and garnering recognition from LeBron James and Ezekiel Elliott.

As Williams looks to continue his ascension, he will remember what he learned from his family.

“My parents have always taught me to be a leader, to always lead and never follow others,” Williams said. “Ever since I’ve been playing sports, I always had that natural ability to lead. No matter what it is, they look to me to bring that energy and juice. Every day now at Notre Dame, I have to bring that juice. I have to bring that energy for everybody.

“Then from there, that’s contagious. Confidence is contagious. Once you see one person with confidence, it’s hard to look at your brother and not be confident when he’s confident. My parents have always told me to have confidence in myself, because there’s nobody better than me.

“If I just keep working, there is nobody that outworks me. Having that confidence that you can’t be stopped and won’t be stopped is where I’m at right now.”

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) stiff-arms Clemson safety Nolan Turner before scoring a 65-yard touchdown on the first official play from scrimmage on Saturday night.

Who: No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Syracuse (1-9)

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 33 1/2