Mother knows best
Landon Collins' brother will inform his mother of his decision ahead of time
As one of 2014's top defensive prospects, lineman Gerald Willis III is about to see his life get more interesting. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound end already has offers from Florida, LSU, USC and Alabama, among others, and has been named to the ESPN Watch List. He's also fresh off helping Edna Karr High (New Orleans) win Louisiana's Class 4A state title.
So once his slate of college visits kicks off this year, coaches will certainly be out to impress his mom. That's because Willis' mom, April Justin, isn't just any mom. You might remember her as the mother who visibly and verbally disagreed on national television with the decision of her eldest son, Landon Collins, to attend Alabama last January.
A striking blonde, clad in hot pink and purple, Justin sat next to Collins, the No. 1 safety in the 2012 class, with a look of equal parts devastation and disgust during the Under Armour All-America Game. Then she told ESPNU cameras that her son had made a mistake, saying "LSU Tigers, No. 1." The clip went viral, and within days, Justin became the accidental face of the overbearing football mom, all while Willis looked on.
"Landon and I talked about his choice the night before," Willis said. "We decided not to tell Mom, though, because we thought it would be funny. But man, we had no idea things would get so crazy."
Their mother's reaction, while dramatic, was genuine.
"I didn't know the camera would ever turn to me, or that I'd be on the microphone," said Justin, a New Orleans native and lifelong LSU fan, "but I wouldn't change anything because that's how I felt. I still feel like LSU would be a much better place for Landon than Alabama. It's hard as a mom to see your kid make a decision you feel in your heart isn't right."
Any concerned parent would likely have the same sentiment, but because Justin's reaction was so strong, and televised, her reputation in recruiting circles has inadvertently affected her younger son. At Justin's behest, Willis' recruiters are pushing school first and a guaranteed starting spot as a close second.
"The coaches all talk to her first once they get the courage," Willis says. "And they all want to focus on academics. You know that's not targeted at me."
Justin has made no secret of her criticisms of Alabama. She claims Nick Saban never bothered to discuss curriculum, disrespected her and Landon's father, and that he made playing time commitments to Landon that he couldn't keep. (Saban declined to comment for this story.) While Alabama has extended an offer to Willis, the Tide aren't high on his list. "I just don't feel comfortable there," he said.
Justin admits Willis might be down on the Tide because of her.
"He saw how they courted Landon for two years, and his experience has not been comparable. They don't want anything to do with me because I won't put up with their bulls---," said Justin, adding that Alabama coaches who used to always pick up her calls now pass her off to assistants. (NCAA rules prohibit Alabama coaches from commenting on recruits, so none were allowed to be interviewed for this story.)
Ultimately, Justin says she would like to see her sons on the same team, and if Willis changed his mind about Tuscaloosa, she'd find a way to cope. Still, it seems unlikely.
"One of the reasons I wanted Landon at LSU is that I thought that was the place with the best chance for them to play together," she said. "Gerald's always loved purple and gold."
With more than a year left before signing day 2014, Willis' top choice for the time being is actually Florida.
"When I went there for a camp, I just felt really good about Coach Muschamp's staff and about them wanting a big lineman who could play as a freshman," he said.
As for his mother, she is open to Gainesville -- for now.
"I like the town, but it's even farther [from home] than Tuscaloosa," Justin said. "I don't know enough about the coaches yet to say if I would support that decision or not. I still think they're a little afraid to talk to me. I just want what's best for my son. If that's the place, then I'll be wearing a Florida jersey just like I wear an Alabama one to Landon's games."
Mom is also doing her part to be prepared if and when the camera finds her again.
"I want to get better," said Justin, who is taking business and communications classes at a local community college. "If I'm going to manage my sons' careers -- even though they say I'm not, I am -- I need to be prepared to represent them well."
So what if Gerald chooses a place she doesn't approve of? "I'm not going to hold my tongue," she said. "Bring on that camera."
As for Willis, he's determined not to let his mom speak for him when it's his turn.
"I learned from Landon's mistake," Willis said. "No surprises for Mom. She'll be finding out before we get on TV."