A member of the media asked Bengals wide receiver Damion Willis if he could interview Willis before a preseason practice just a little over a week ago.
Willis agreed — and watched as a handful of cameras seemingly came out of nowhere. The media members asked Willis how it felt to be starting in the Bengals’ season opener against the Seahawks on Sunday.
“I asked, ‘What are y’all talking about?’” Willis recalled. “Everything was a bit of a shock, because I didn’t know anything.”
Willis, a Southeast Lauderdale alumnus who played college football at East Mississippi Community College and Troy, would later find out from the Bengals’ coaching staff that he would start Week 1. Once he found out, Willis said he couldn’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity.
“I know this is a business and that I can be replaced at any time, so I don’t take it for granted,” Willis said.
Following his senior year at Troy last fall, Willis signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent in April. In three preseason games, Willis accumulated 118 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions, and his work during both the games and in preseason practice earned him a starting job following receiver A.J. Green sustaining an ankle injury during a practice.
“It’s like a dream come true, because I’ve always dreamed about playing in the NFL, and now that I am, it’s a blessing,” Willis said. “But I don’t take it for granted, because I know how hard it was for me to get here.”
A story by ESPN staff writer Ben Baby (https://es.pn/2lAuYTK) quotes Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd saying Willis likes to go up and get the ball when it’s in the air, rather than waiting on it to come to him. Willis said he’s had that mentality ever since he was catching passes at Southeast Lauderdale.
“I’ve always considered myself to be a jump ball guy, a guy who wins the 50-50 battles,” Willis explained. “If the ball is coming my way, it’s a chance for me to impress the coaches, so I try to be aggressive and catch the ball at all times.”
Since he went undrafted, Willis said he felt like any misstep could potentially cost him a shot at staying on the roster, which is why he’s taken a perfectionist’s approach to every preseason practice and game.
“I’m not going to say I was overwhelmed (by the pressure) — I wasn’t saying to myself that I needed to do this or that — but I did feel like I had to make this play or make this block (when I’m out there),” Willis said. “I was undrafted, so I can’t half-heartedly do something. Each rep I have to go hard and do what I’m supposed to do.”
After news got out that Willis would be starting in Week 1, he said he’s gotten non-stop text messages and social media alerts, and Willis said he’s grateful for the congratulations and the well wishes.
“I had to turn off all my notifications on Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat, because sometimes it would go off all night and I couldn’t sleep,” Willis said. “I’ve tried to text everybody back that’s texted me, but I haven’t been able to.”
The Bengals begin their season at 3:05 p.m. Sunday when they play at Seattle, and Willis said he’s expecting a loud atmosphere at CenturyLink Field.
“I’ve been studying our game plan, and I’m just going to worry about what we have to do and our game plan,” Willis said. “At the end of the day, it’s just football. It’s just another man in front of you.”