"I'd like to own some business – like a record label," said Ponder, a 6-0, 205-pound wide receiver from Southeast Missouri State. "I want to have a lot of assets. I'm a money guy." Ponder certainly was an asset to the Southeast Missouri University football team during his two seasons there, following stops at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College and the University of Tulsa.
Last season, Ponder broke three Ohio Valley Conference and Southeast Missouri records with 87 receptions for 1,453 yards (16.7 average) and 15 touchdowns. The Associated Press, American Football Coaches Association and The Sports Network named him to the I-AA All-American first team.
In addition to Ponder's talents as a big-play receiving threat, he also offers impressive special teams skills as a kick returner (12 for 257 yards in 2002) and wing (edge rusher) on the punt-return unit. Against Tennessee Tech last season, Ponder returned a blocked punt 16 yards for the winning TD in the game's waning seconds. Moments later, playing defensive back, he preserved the victory with an interception that he returned 51 yards.
Despite these credentials, Ponder wasn't invited to February's NFL combine in Indianapolis. "Why wasn't I invited? That's a big question that hasn't been answered yet," he said. "I worked out for one guy last year and he told me, ‘I just don't know why you're not at Notre Dame or some other bigger school.' "
Although he grew up in a tough Tulsa neighborhood, Ponder said he did not succumb to the potentially dangerous temptations of the streets due to the positive example set by his mother, Benella – who raised and supported Willie, his brother and two sisters in a single-parent household. Benella is a longtime employee of Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
"Your mind's got to be strong or you can get in trouble in my neighborhood," he said. "But my mother was the biggest influence in my life. She showed her strength when we were growing up. She carried on for us, and always told me to ‘be strong.'
"Mom would always tell me, ‘think before you react in situations; be focused and stay focused.' "
Ponder is now focusing on his new career in the NFL, while also keeping an eye on future opportunities in the music industry. "I have some friends that are rappers," he said. "They're from Tulsa and they're called ‘The Young Hustlers.' They're just waiting for a [record] distribution deal.
"I'd like to do something in an executive capacity with them. They just need an opportunity to get their foot in the door – just like I need an opportunity to get my foot in the door in the NFL."
Has natural hands and good burst off the line of scrimmage; has size and strength to escape press coverage. Good route runner with fluid change of direction and ability to find seams in zone. Reputed to have concentration lapses at times, dropping catchable passes and sometimes turning and running before securing the football.
Where he fits in
Could immediately become special teams contributor, as kickoff return guy as well as edge rusher on punt return team. Is kind of a "tweener" possession-speed receiver, who may see a lot of action in the slot. His strength and ability to charge aggressively for the ball in traffic should be an asset in red zone, particularly in third-down situations. He has the inside track on the fifth receiver job.
"Willie Ponder has explosive speed. He's raw coming out of Southeast Missouri. He was the player of the year in that conference and had a lot of production. This kid has home run speed. He's a tough-minded kid. He'll play on special teams and play tough. He's a fast receiver with some vertical speed. We clocked him at 4.44." – Director of Player Personnel Jerry Reese