Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Everybody's All-American

For a college football junkie, kickoff weekend (which ended last night with Florida State's victory over Miami) is as good as it gets. I'm an NFL fan, too (the New York Giants are my favorite pro team), but there's something special, even magical about the spirit, tradition and atmosphere that surround a college football match-up, and SEC games in particular. If you've never tailgated in "The Grove," sat in "The Swamp," watched one "between the hedges" in Athens, taken in a night game in Baton Rouge, or been part of that Sea of Orange in Neyland Stadium, well, you really haven't experienced college football. (Apologies to all you Big 10, Big 12, and ACC fans out there).

Every college football season produces its share of compelling storylines--teams that unexpectedly contend for a conference championship, or players who appear out of nowhere to become stars on the gridiron. There are also stories of players who overcome tremendous odds to achieve success, both on and off the field. This year, one of those players is Patrick Willis, the All-American middle linebacker for the University of Mississippi.

Marlon Morgan of the Memphis Commercial Appeal profiled Willis before the season began, recounting his struggles against poverty and a family that literally fell apart. Willis's mother left her children when he was young; his father struggled to keep the family together, but eventually, social workers stepped in, placing Willis and his siblings in foster care during the football star's senior year in high school. Despite those obstacles, he still graduate and was named "Mr. Football" in Tennessee and received a football scholarship to Ole Miss--one of only three Division 1-A schools that thought he could play at the collegiate level.

At Ole Miss, Willis's talent and work ethic were immediately obvious, but he was relegated to the bench under former Coach David Cutcliffe's system, which game most of the starting slots to upper-classmen. Willis eventually worked his way into the starting line-up in his sophomore season, and has been a star ever since. Last season, as a junior, he led the SEC in tackles, despite playing with foot, knee, and shoulder injuires, plus a broken hand that forced him to play with a club-like cast on one hand (if that sounds like an advantage for a linebacker, think about trying to tackle someone without the ability to "wrap up" the opposing player. Then think about doing it 119 times in the nation's premiere football conference, and that will give you some idea of Willis's ability, determination--and heart).

Despite his family's financial needs, Willis turned down a chance to leave school and enter the NFL early, electing instead to return to school, finish his degree, and play one more season for the Rebels. In Sunday's season opener against Memphis, Willis was his usual, dominating presence on the field, one of the few bright spots in a young defense that surrendered over 300 yards of offense to Memphis, in a 28-25 Ole Miss victory. With Memphis driving toward a score late in the second half, it was Willis who made the key stop, stopping a Tiger ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage, and forcing them to go for a field goal instead.

Read Morgan's article, and you'll find the story of a remarkable young man who has already dealt with more than his share of life's trials and tribulations--and overcome them with a sense of optimism and determination that is inspiring. If you have access to the Fox Sports channels on cable or satellite, tune in to the Ole Miss-Missouri game this weekend, and look for #49 when the Rebel defense is on the field. And remember what Patrick Willis has endured in becoming an All-American.

P.S.--As Marlon Morgan notes in his article, Willis endured his family's greatest tragedy just weeks ago, as pre-season honors for his football skills were pouring in. In late July, Willis's younger brother Detris drowned while swimming in a gravel quarry with friends.

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