LOGAN — The path of Reuben Willis’ football career has not been as direct as some players.
Near the end of his senior season of college football, however, the Utah State linebacker has thoroughly enjoyed the journey and is determined to apply the lessons he's learned from football and apply them to the rest of his life.
Willis' topsy-turvey experience all started just two weeks before National Signing Day during his senior year of high school when San Diego State pulled his scholarship offer.
“By that point, everyone was done recruiting,” said Willis, a native of Lakewood, Calif. “My only option was the junior college route.”
Towards the end of his first season at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., Willis received a phone call from Utah State linebacker coach, Kevin Clune. Within three days, he had talked to other coaches, including USU coach Gary Andersen.
“This was all two days before Utah played in the Sugar Bowl, so I once I saw them take apart Alabama, I knew I wanted to come here and be a part of coach Andersen’s program,” Willis said.
Willis had made visits and had been talking to coaches from Nevada, Colorado State and New Mexico, but nothing felt exactly right. After talking to coach Andersen, he committed to Utah State without even visiting campus.
Eventually he did get a visit, and even though it wasn’t an ideal stop, as he came in on a Tuesday night in the winter, he went to a basketball game in the Spectrum and was even more convinced he needed to be an Aggie.
“I just thought, if this crowd is going to be in the stadium, this is where I want to be,” Willis said. “I was happy and eager to get out of the house. I was ready to try something new.”
Once he got to Logan, it took some time before he really loved it and felt comfortable.
“I got here and I liked it for a couple of days, and then it started snowing,” Willis said. “I just thought ‘Wow, what did I get myself into?’”
Between the weather, the change in altitude, and not really knowing anyone, it was a bit of a rough adjustment.
“Once I got used to it, it was fine. It is what it is,” Willis said. “Being with players like Bobby Wagner, Quinn Garner, Kellen Bartlett, guys like that, helped me get through it.”
Even after he was in Logan, the rocky road of his career did not really slow down. Plagued by injuries, Willis has spent a lot of time in recovery on the sidelines.
He made it most of the way through the 2009 season, seeing action in nine games before getting injured at Hawaii.
“Bobby and I were running an outside blitz and got blocked into each other. He ended up kneeing me in the face. My face mask came up so my face was totally exposed,” Willis said. “I lost a tooth and another tooth went through my lip and I had a concussion.”
He sat out for two games before seeing action in the last game of the year at Idaho.
Last year, he got playing time in just four games before experiencing season-ending nerve damage in his left shoulder. That injury has flared up again this season — this time in the right shoulder — keeping him sidelined while he works to get it healthy.
“I’m just in the process of getting healthy and talking to doctors, doing whatever I can to get back out on the field,” Willis said. “It’s my senior year and I want to play, be able to finish strong.”
Through all the injuries, Willis has stayed positive and has tried to see things from the optimistic point of view while he watches his team practice and compete.
“You learn patience. That’s ultimately what I’ve gotten from it. You learn not to take anything for granted,” Willis said. “I’ve gotten hurt every season I’ve been here, so it’s frustrating, but at the same time you learn how to be patient with it.”
As he patiently works toward full health and being able to return to the game he loves, he said the positive side is being able to see the game from a different angle.
“You learn how to see things differently. You can catch the mistakes being made and learn how to fix them in your own game,” Willis said. “You learn how to avoid making the same mistakes once you get back out on the field.”
Patience is one of the many lessons a life in football has taught Willis. He cited that and learning to overcome adversity as the main things that will help in the future, even without football playing this large of a role in his life.
“Our coaching staff has taught us, especially with the seasons we’ve had, to fight through adversity,” Willis said. “It only makes you stronger. I really believe that. That’s the main lesson I can take away from this experience.”
One of the other differences from season to season has been the number Willis has worn on his jersey. He’s back at No. 15 now, a year after trying something new.
“I’ve been 15 since I was in seventh grade. From high school to JC to here, that’s how it’s been,” Willis said. “My junior year I decided to switch it up and go to 55 just for kicks. Junior Seau was my favorite player all growing up and that was his number.”
After a year though, he was asked to switch again to appease a teammate.
“I changed back because we were recruiting Bojay (Filimoeatu). He wanted 55, so I was willing to switch back, especially when 15 was available,” Willis said. “I’ll finish my senior year with the number I started with.”
As the team heads into the final stretch of the 2011 season, things aren’t quite where they were expected to be. However, the team remains positive and optimistic in looking to finish strong.
“I just want to finish out the season. I want to get healthy and get out on the field and contribute,” Willis said. “We want to leave our mark, both as seniors and as a team.”
Megan Allen works for USU Athletic Media Relations.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company