Priest Willis does it his way

LAS VEGAS -- Tempe (Ariz.) Marcos De Niza cornerback Priest Willis hasn't always just been a difficult matchup for opposing wide receivers. Growing up, he caused a few headaches for his mother, as well as a few teachers along the way.

Funny how things can work out. Now Willis is one of the nation's top prospects, a member of the ESPNU Watch List and holds nearly 30 scholarship offers. But it's been a long road to get to this point.

Tosha Gray always knew her son was going to be just a little bit different. As a baby, he began walking before he could crawl. And unfortunately for Gray, Willis never slowed down.

A single mother, Gray quickly turned to athletics as an escape for her son's excess energy. The early thought was that Willis was destined to run track. Gray ran track in high school and came from an entire family of track athletes. The sport stuck, but it still didn't allow for enough of an outlet. So the search began for additional exercise.

The first stop was baseball, but Willis wasn't interested in defense. He often let balls roll past him in the outfield while he wondered when he could hit. Next was basketball, and while he enjoyed it, Gray said it didn't feel like a good fit. Finally, football entered the picture when Willis turned seven years old.

"That seemed to wear him out," Gray said. "He was finally tired at the end of the day. And I used it to motivate him. I told him he was going to miss football practice if he didn't get his homework finished."

It's no coincidence that suddenly Willis became motivated in the classroom around then. A constant challenge and consummate class clown, Willis was able to reach an agreement with his second-grade teacher. In exchange for his full attention and help in the classroom, for the final five minutes of class each Friday -- provided he showed excellent behavior throughout the week -- Willis was invited to step forward and entertain the class.

"He always thought he was Will Smith," Gray said. "He would watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air thousands of times. He was always telling those jokes. He would try them out on me and I'd say, 'Priest, that's not that funny.' And he'd say, 'Mom, you don't understand. Everybody else is going to laugh.'"

In Gray, Willis has his biggest critic and most ardent supporter. Growing up, there was a time when Willis complained that he wasn't making friends and that the other kids weren't playing with him. Gray used that moment, as well as many others, to stress individuality and to help her son develop a sense of who he wanted to be.

"I told him to always be a leader," Gray said. "I told him he has a personality that is going to draw people to him. I taught him to be independent, focus on his grades and always stay humble."

But it may have been something she said years later that helped turned Willis into one of the nation's most coveted football prospects.

At a team banquet following his eighth grade Pop Warner season, the coach spoke about each player on the team. For many of them, he talked about how excited he was to see them at the next level or how great they would do as they progressed onto high school. When it came time to talk about Willis, who was still serving as the team comedian, coach simply said Willis was a special kid and quickly moved on to the next player.

"He didn't get the recognition that he thought he should have gotten," Gray said. "I said to him, 'Go prove them wrong.' I think that turned the dial up for him. From that point on, he was determined to prove them wrong, to say I am somebody and I will be somebody. Priest is the type of kid where if you tell him he can't do something, he'll push himself harder to do it."

Between that banquet and now, Willis has grown into a 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive dynamo. He has racked up 29 offers, as schools discuss the possibility of playing him at cornerback, safety or outside linebacker. Willis said he doesn't care where he ends up, as long as it's on the defensive side.

"I love contact," said Willis, who is competing in the New Level Athletics Elite 7-on-7. "I love being physical. I've loved football ever since I found out I can come out on the field and be as aggressive as I want."

Henry Bell, one of the founders of B2G Sports who works extensively with the defensive backs, has worked with Willis several times and still speaks in reverential tones when discussing his ability.

"It's his hips," Bell said. "When you look at a corner, it's always about the hips, and he has fluid hips for his size. He's just one of those natural athletes. He can play any position in the secondary, but he's a special corner."

Gray said Willis has honed that talent by studying college and NFL standouts. His competitive nature drives him to get better every day and the focus that sprang into action shortly after that banquet has yet to fade away. To Willis, the fact that there are better players out there right now simply means they won't be better for long.

"The day he told me he only wanted to focus on football, I said grades come first, but if that's what you want, you have to work hard," Gray said. "Everybody sees the NFL as the end result, but they don't know the story of how they got there. There's always going to be somebody that is going to be hungrier than you and always going to be somebody who wants it more than you. There are always going to be great athletes, but what makes that one guy stand out is that he has the drive, the passion.

"So one day he decided that's what he was going to do."

You won't hear much about his ability from Willis himself. That would fly in the face of his genuinely humble nature. It's also tough to get too high on yourself when a terrific play is met by your mother clapping and then quickly reminding you about the missed tackle earlier in the game.

On the recruiting front, Willis said he is going to take his time. With offers stretching from Arizona to West Virginia, Washington to Florida, Willis knows he will be able to take the process slowly. He said part of the reason he is in no rush is that he wants to bring as many college coaches out to his campus to allow his friends and teammates to receive a look from different schools. He'll take a trip to Virginia in the coming months, as his cousin, Demeitre Brim, is set to begin his career there this fall.

"Recruiting is pretty crazy," Willis said. "I'm just trying to stay humble, look at all my options and try to make the best decision I can. Coaches like how big I am, how fast I can move at my size and how disciplined I am. And they see that I have a lot of character."

Anybody who has spent any time in Willis' life knows that last part is no joke.