Priest Willis receives UA jersey
ESPN 150 safety gave credit to everyone but himself at UA ceremony
On Friday afternoon, the 2013 American Family Insurance Selection Tour for the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game made its way to Tempe (Ariz.) Marcos De Niza High School to honor ESPN 150 safety Priest Willis.
The only problem was that Willis, who is the No. 4 safety in the nation, wouldn't allow the celebration to focus on him. Instead, the 6-foot-2, 199-pound defensive dynamo made sure credit for this accomplishment was heaped upon everybody who helped him get to this point: trainers, coaches, teammates, family and friends.
He put his teammates front and center and gave them credit for his accomplishments.
"Honestly, I feed off of them," Willis said. "How they work, it makes me want to be a better player for them. My teammates are great guys and I wish we could all play in the game [at the same time] because we have so much fun playing together. It meant a lot to me that I got picked and nominated for this, and I wanted to share it with the team and the Marcos De Niza program. It's not just about me. I'm out there to represent everybody."
But what Willis will never admit is patently obvious to those he includes in "everybody." It takes a special player and a special person to achieve what Willis has earned during his career -- roughly 30 scholarship offers in addition to roster spots at The Opening, Gridiron Kings and the Under Armour All-America Game.
This past offseason, not everybody got back to work a week after the season ended and spent three hours per day, six days per week on the field and in the gym.
He spent much of his time training with former NFL safety Toby Wright, as well as twin brothers Victor and Vincent Anderson, at Authority Fitness in Tempe. But it was Willis who put in the most work.
Now Willis is being courted by some of the top programs in the country, with scholarship offers from almost the entire Pac-12 conference, in addition to Florida, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. He has official visits scheduled to LSU and Nebraska and will take one to Notre Dame as well. Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Washington continue to push hard, while Willis still has 16 schools he is considering and will wade slowly into the final stages of his recruiting process.
Willis' stepfather, Michael Walker, has watched the young athlete blossom over the past several years. He marvels at Willis' work ethic.
"We've never had to push him to work out," Walker said of Willis. "Never. This summer I'd tell him to take a week off from training, then I'd get a phone call from him later asking me to pick him up from the gym. That gym is 30 minutes from our house, and somehow he'd have convinced his mom or a friend to drive him down there."
Eventually, Willis cut his workouts down to "only" four days a week. Although, that work was supplemented by a drive to Los Angeles virtually every weekend to take part in on-field workouts with B2G Sports.
The motivation comes from within for Willis, though there is a point of origin. During a celebration following a youth football season, Willis' coach spoke about each player on the team. He focused on how much he was looking forward to watching each player go on to the next level and continue his athletic career. When it came time to discuss Willis, who has always been something of a class clown, the spoken sentiment was very brief, with no mention of future football exploits.
Willis still remembers it.
"After that I said, 'From here on out, I'm going to be somebody,'" he said. "'When they call my name, I want them to have a long speech about me.' That inspired me to try to be great."
But on Friday, when the moment arrived, with Willis center stage and the long, glowing speech directed at and about only him, he couldn't help himself. He made it about everyone else.