Former Southeast Lauderdale receiver Damion Willis will make his first NFL start when the regular season begins in two weeks.
Willis, who played college football for East Mississippi Community College and Troy, was named a starter by the Cincinnati Bengals when the Bengals open the season at the Seattle Seahawks Sept. 8. The news was shared by Troy football’s official Twitter account Sunday evening.
Willis signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent following the NFL Draft in late April. He’s starting in place of Bengals receiver A.J. Green, who is nursing an ankle injury.
EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens said Willis has come a long way.
“He had tremendous potential ever since the days he was at Southeast Lauderdale, and especially the days he was (at EMCC),” Stephens said. “He’s been an overcomer his entire life, and I’m just so proud and happy for him and his entire family. I know his mama’s very proud.”
At Southeast, Willis recorded three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and had his jersey retired in April. After seeing little playing time his freshman year at EMCC, he led the Lions with 34 receptions, 640 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore.
“He’s very much a team player,” Stephens said. “He’s very much a guy that is just fun to be around. He’s always where he needs to be.”
After transferring to Troy, Willis caught 98 passes for 1,496 yards and 13 touchdowns in 24 games, over two seasons.
He has impressed during the NFL preseason, with a five-reception, 59-yard performance against Washington, and a three-reception, 55-yard game against the New York Giants, in which he scored a touchdown.
Stephens said Willis will be ready to prove how good he is when the regular season hits.
“He’s a keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy. He’s going to show everyone he can play, and he’s driven, and he’s motivated,” Stephens said. “That’s a characteristic that so many people lack. He’s driven to get the most out of every day.”
Southeast Lauderdale librarian Donna Sprabery said Willis would often come visit her in the library when he was a student and talk about life. The two still keep in touch today, and Sprabery said she heard from Willis when he found out he was starting for the Bengals.
“He was always a goal-setter,” Sprabery said. “It’s very exciting. I’m very proud of him. I told him (Sunday) he could have set a goal to be anything and I would have been just as proud of him, but the fact that I’ve seen him go through all he’s been through — going from Southeast to Scooba then to Troy and now Cincinnati, it’s just a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication.”
When they spoke Sunday, Sprabery said she could tell how excited Willis was to get the opportunity to start in an NFL game.
“Can you only imagine?” Sprabery said. “It’s a dream come true, something that very few of us in our lifetime get to see. A lot of kids work really hard, but to see him get to that final level is an amazing thing.”
Centel Truman, Willis’ receivers coach in high school, said Willis is remaining humble about the opportunity he’s been given.
“He knows it’s just an opportunity right now,” Truman said. “He has to continue to push and prove to everybody why they gave him the opportunity.”
Truman also said if there’s anyone deserving of a chance, it’s Willis.
“He worked and did it the right way,” Truman said. “He earned it. He did everything he needed to do in the classroom and outside the classroom in the community. That just shows you hard work pays off. His competitive spirit, work ethic and determination are the first things (that sets him apart). Those were the characteristics he had when I first met him, and that’s what’s keeping him going. He’s always been the underdog, so this is nothing new for him. This opportunity he’s going to get is only going to show everybody what we’ve seen the whole time.”
Having a Southeast Lauderdale alumnus start an NFL game will hopefully open the eyes of talent evaluators to look at other athletes from Lauderdale County, Truman said.
“A lot of times in Lauderdale County (talent) is overlooked,” Truman said. “There is talent here, and it goes to show you we have talent here, and people should take better notice of that.”