The old saying "you can never go home again" might be true in some cases, but for former Auburn linebacker James Willis it couldn't be further from the truth.
Following a successful seven-year NFL career and a brief stint in the defunct XFL, Willis came back to Auburn and has prospered. He has earned his bachelor's degree and found the profession that he's been looking for since he gave up the game in late 1999.
With the help of Auburn assistant coach Joe Whitt, who has been a mainstay on the staff since 1981, Willis returned to Auburn to finish his degree. Taking advantage of a program called Operation Follow-Through, which encourages former athletes to return to earn their degrees, Willis came back to Auburn to finish something he started more than 13 years ago.
As a senior at J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Willis was one of the top linebacker prospects in the South. He had his choice of just about any program in the country, but his decision came down to three colleges–Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee. Making visits to each of his favorites, Willis says his decision was made for him on an exciting day in early December of 1989.
"I came here on my unofficial visit for the first Iron Bowl here," he says. "I'm telling you the honest truth--after that game and that atmosphere, nothing could compare to that. That was perfect timing for that to be the first game in Auburn and me to be here. Alabama was ranked high and Auburn had come off a few games winning streak, but had a tough year.
"The way that team came together and pulled through, that's something I wanted to be a part of. They were tough guys, blue-collar, hard working guys and they got the job done. That's what really sold me on Auburn."
It didn't take long for Willis to make his mark in college. He burst onto the scene as a freshman, leading the Tigers in tackles and earning SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in the process as Auburn finished 8-3-1 with a victory over Indiana in the Peach Bowl. Even though he had more success than most freshmen enjoy, he says the most memorable day that season came the first day of practice.
"We might not have had the best athletes in the nation or even the state, but one thing we prided ourselves in was being physical, being hard-nosed and being tough," Willis notes. "That started with day one. My first practice I went on the field and wound up throwing up. All Coach (Wayne) Hall said was get back in there. I got back in there and everything was fine. Starting with day one the whole thing was physical. If you can't be more athletic than your opponent or outsmart them, you can be more physical. That's one thing you have control over. We prided ourselves in being physical."
A productive player at middle linebacker for the Tigers in his career, Willis led the team in tackles as a junior in 1992 when he had 126 total stops. That total is the second best for an Auburn player in the last 11 years, topped only by Takeo Spikes' total of 136 in 1997. With 344 career tackles and a nose for the football, Willis decided to take his game to the NFL after Coach Pat Dye announced his retirement prior to the 1992 Auburn-Alabama game in Birmingham.
In his three seasons at Auburn, the Tigers failed to live up to the performance level of the years preceding his arrival, winning a total of just 10 games his last two years and failing to make a postseason appearance in those seasons. Despite the disappointment, Willis says he wouldn't trade his time at Auburn for anything because of the friendships he made and the lessons he learned in both the good and bad times.
"In practice there were a lot of one-on-one drills," he says of his playing days on the Plains. "There was a lot of toughness built. That's something that really carried over into the NFL. I learned good work ethic and understood it took hard work to get to where you want to be. It was all about producing and knowing what to do on the field.
"We've got a reputation here at Auburn of breeding good players as well as good people," Willis adds. "In the NFL every day is a test. If you don't wake up ready to stand up to that test you'll get left behind. Thank God that's one thing I did get here from Auburn is to learn how to work through hard times and look adversity right in the face and go through it faithfully."
James Willis is shown at practice during his tenure as a graduate assistant coach at Auburn.
That faith would be tested early for Willis as his first season in the NFL was a learning experience for a player accustomed to being one of the stars on defense. Selected in the fifth round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, Willis joined a team with a veteran group of linebackers still in its prime. That meant scout team and special teams duty, something he had never really done on an extensive basis. Luckily for Willis he had a big brother figure to emulate and learn from in former Texas A&M star Johnny Holland. Now a coach for the Detroit Lions, Holland was already instructing during his playing days and was a big influence on Willis.
"Johnny was a student of the game," Willis notes. "I learned from him a lot as far as how to study film and how to look at formations and situations and know what's going to happen. He taught me a lot. I had a lot of great guys to learn from."
The learning didn't stop with Holland. In his two seasons at Green Bay Willis had the luxury of playing with and for some of the top names in the game such as Brett Favre, Sterling Sharpe, John Gruden, Mike Holmgren and Ray Rhodes. Watching and learning every day from established and studious men, helped Willis when the path led him to Philadelphia in 1995.
"The biggest thing was seeing how these guys worked and how they prepared week to week, seeing how they prepared for practice," Willis says. "That's the whole difference in how you do things day-to-day. You don't just go through practice and stay out there. Even though those guys were being paid a whole lot of money, they still came out and produced and worked hard in practice. You saw them getting better and better every day going towards the game. I had a lot of guys to sit back and watch and learn from. That was a blessing for me coming in my rookie year."
Following two seasons of little action in Green Bay, Willis moved to Philadelphia and that soon changed. Earning a starting job his first season with the Eagles, Willis started 44 games the next four seasons and accumulated 313 tackles along the way with four interceptions. His best season came in 1998 when he had 96 tackles, but he says his fondest memory occurred against the powerful Dallas Cowboys late in the 1996 season.
Leading just 24-21 late in the game with Dallas driving for the possible winning score, Willis made the play of the season when he intercepted a Troy Aikman pass six yards deep in his own end zone and returned it 14 yards before passing it back to teammate Troy Vincent. By the time Vincent had crossed the goal line the Eagles had sealed the victory and Willis had his name etched into the NFL record books for the longest interception return in NFL history.
Although the record was later broken, Willis says he still thinks back fondly to that day. Although the city gets a bad rap for its fondness to boo the home team, Willis says that playing in Philadelphia was one of the highlights of his career. Passionate about their football, he says the fans made him feel at home and he cherishes the city to this day.
"Philadelphia was a great place to play, it really was," he says. "I was there for the hard times and the good times. I was there when we were going to the playoffs every year and I was also there when we went 3-13. It was just a great city to play in. Green Bay is also, but it's a lot like Auburn. There's just something about Philadelphia. I guess it may be because Philly really gave me my first chance to get on the field and show what I can do. I was able to keep a starting job there for four years straight. It's known as ‘The City Of Brotherly Love' and it truly is."
Following his successful career in the NFL and one year in the now-defunct XFL where he earned league Defensive Most Valuable Player honors for the Birmingham Bolts, Willis was at a crossroads in his life. Not sure what was in store for him, he says that he knew he had to make a change if he was going to be happy for the rest of his life. "It was scary. After I retired, luckily I had some money saved up, but I wasn't a multi-millionaire. I couldn't sit back and not work the rest of my life. I worked out for a month or two because I thought maybe I might want to give it another chance. I started selling insurance because at this point I still didn't have a degree. I was trying to find a way to make a living for my family."
That was when fate stepped in. Sitting at home following the birth of his son Jalem James, Willis got a phone call from Whitt that would forever change his life. Willis learned that there might be a way he could come back to school and finish his degree. Something he had thought about for a long time, he decided to see what was available.
"My son was born in 2000 and they had a thing here with the coaches where you can send honorary scholarships for ex-players kids," Willis notes. "My son's scholarship went across Coach Whitt's desk and he signed it. He thought about it and said, ‘Wait a minute, James hasn't graduated yet.' He picked up the phone right then and called me. He wanted me to come down to the homecoming game and talk about Operation Follow-Through."
Learning more about the program that encourages and pays tuition for ex-athletes to come back to Auburn and finish their degrees, Willis knew this was a good opportunity. Coming back to Auburn in the fall of 2001 to finish his degree in Adult Education, Willis began helping out with the football program as an administrative assistant and served in that capacity for two seasons.
It wasn't until the spring of 2003 that his future became clear though. After earning his degree, he was promoted and became the defensive graduate assistant. He helps with all areas of the defense and concentrates on coaching linebackers with Whitt. Willis says he realized that he might want to make this his career in a practice session with Auburn linebacker Dontarrious Thomas.
"What got me one day was DT was at practice and they ran a play-action pass," he says with a smile. "I can remember telling him when he gets a play-action pass the ball is coming right behind him and not to expect the ball right at him. I told him how to handle that and he went out and did it. The look on his face when he had that success, I felt it. From that moment I knew this is what I wanted to do. I saw something I was doing was helping these kids get to where they want to get. It felt good. I really feel comfortable in what I'm doing now. I enjoy this business. I enjoy the game of football. I always have, but this is another way I can get out and enjoy it because I love the game."
With experience at the professional level and a history of playing for some of the best defensive coaches in the NFL, Willis will likely have no problem finding a job in the professional ranks in the coming seasons. While that would be impressive, Willis says he feels right at home in the college ranks and has no thoughts of doing anything else.
"Right now I like the college level for a couple of reasons," he notes. "I'm 31 years old and I'm not too far gone from where a lot of these guys are trying to get to. I feel like I have so much to share with these guys, not only football, but some of the things they might face out in the real world. That's why I'm so happy to be here and doing what I'm doing. I can kind of help out both ways and I get a kick out of that."
Now deep into his second stint on the Plains, Willis says there is a good vibe coming out of the program under Coach Tommy Tuberville and his staff. With Chette Williams on board to guide the players spiritually and players becoming more mature, Willis says that while his teams at Auburn featured some good guys and good players, the current edition of the Tigers has a chance to be something special and he's glad he's a part of it.