The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

July 17, 2014

Former Laker Willis battles on

Running back headed to Bluffton

When Pymatuning Valley running back J.T. Willis went down with a torn ACL in Week 3 of his senior season this fall, it looked as though his football career had come to an end.

However, Willis is getting a second chance, now back to 100 percent health the powerful running back will suit up for Bluffton University this fall.

“I’ve already had orientation and visited, I really like the school a lot,” he said. “They offered me the most money. It was a good fit.”

It seemed Willis’ senior season was in trouble from the start.

In the opening game of the year, a 32-24 win over Berkshire, he suffered a tear in his labrum.

After he tried to play through those injuries, he suffered the season ending knee injury  in a 7-point loss to LaBrae.

“Oh yeah it definitely felt (like it wasn’t my year),” he said. “The first game I tore my labrum and had a fracture in the ball of my shoulder joint. Then I tore my ACL and fractured my tibia.”

The injury made for a long season of sitting on the sidelines and watching.

“It sucked,” he admitted. “I showed up to every practice until my surgery. Then after I had my surgery I was out of school for about month because going on crutches all day my knee swelled up real bad. It was tough.”

But, after six months of rehab that concluded on Feb. 17 Willis is healthy and ready to get back on the field.

“They want me in at running back so I’m really excited about that,” he said. “It sound like they want to run more of a power offense which is really good. I feel like it’s a good fit.”

Willis admitted he always wanted to play at the next level, but wasn’t sure if the injury would prevent that dream from becoming a reality.

“I’ve always wanted to play but I didn’t think I’d be able to,” he said. “Even after the injury I had no idea whether I was physically going to be able to play again.”

The fact that Bluffton wanted him despite the injury meant a lot to the former Laker.

“The coach knew I was hurt but that I was still wanting to go out and play and he still wanted me,” he said. “That really means a lot.”

Willis said while much of his football career at Pymatuning Valley blurred together, the opening season win against Berkshire was probably his favorite memory.

“I don’t remember a lot of it specifically honestly, but winning the first game of the season this year was great,” he said. “We beat Berkshire and we were expected to lose.”

The son of Shawn and Chris Willis said his parents support was helpful throughout his football career.

“They’ve been real supportive of everything I’ve always done,” he said. “They’ve helped push me through everything, too.”

He also said the Lakers coaching staff was a big help in his career.

“My dad got me started in football then Coach (Neal) Croston really helped me get noticed by some school, he was really helpful in the recruiting process,” he said. “Coach Brown helped with the lifting and Coach Healey helped with the work the work ethic that I needed for football.

“All of the coaches have been important for where I’m at today.”

For now, Willis will have to work on his patience and containing his excitement for the first day of practice.

“I can’t wait, it (Aug. 13) can’t come soon enough,” he said. “I love playing the game.”

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