View Full Version : Work pays off for Broncos wide receiver Matt Willis

Denver Native (Carol)
09-08-2010, 08:59 AM

Even for a guy known for his speed, this was a little ridiculous. When the time came for Matt Willis to make his pitch to play football, all he got was 30 seconds.

Willis was a track standout at UCLA in the spring of 2005 with an itch to join the football team when he ran into Bruins football coach Karl Dorrell in a hallway. So what if it had been five years since Willis had last worn a helmet, or caught a pass? Willis knew this was his best shot.

"Football was something I always loved doing. I got that bug and I knew that if I didn't take the opportunity to play, later on in life it would be something that I regret," Willis said. "I said to (Dorrell), 'Do you have two minutes I can talk to you real quick?' He looked at his watch and said, 'I've got 30 seconds.' So I thought right away that it was an uphill battle."

Yet it was one that eventually paid off.

It might appear to Broncos and NFL fans that Willis has come out of nowhere to make the Broncos' 53-man roster as one of the team's six wide receivers. But the 6-foot, 190-pound Willis has been on a long, at times frustrating, journey to the NFL. At age 26, a decade after he quit high school football because at barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds he was too small to play, he's finally on an opening-day roster.

"I really like what we've seen out of him, and I'm very happy for him, too, that he's made it, that he's created a role for himself on our team," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said.

And it all started with that half-minute conversation in a UCLA hallway.

Willis was convincing enough for Dorrell to send him to talk to an assistant coach, who set up an unofficial tryout after a spring practice. UCLA's coaches already knew Willis could run he was on a track scholarship and excelled at the 400-meter hurdles, but they wanted to see if Willis could catch. Willis snared a few balls, and just like that, his track career was over and his football career was beginning.

Willis gave up his track scholarship to become a football walk-on, with his mom, Lynn, paying tuition.

"I gave it all up just for the opportunity to play football," Willis said. "At the time, it was a really hard decision. It was very stressful because it wasn't just me, it was my mom, and now she has to pay for school. It was a very tough family decision."

He played sparingly that first fall in 2005, spending more time watching and learning from then-UCLA assistant coach Eric Bieniemy, a former University of Colorado star. As a senior in 2006, he started three games and caught three touchdown passes.

It was hardly a resume NFL scouts drool over, yet Willis found a spot in the Baltimore Ravens' training camp in 2007, and played in five games that season after signing as an undrafted free agent. He was released by the Ravens in September 2008, signed to the Broncos' practice squad three months later, and spent the first 16 weeks last season as a practice squad player.

"It stinks, because everyone wants to play. So practicing all week, being around the guys and then not being able to play, that's the worst part," Willis said of his practice squad tenure. "It's a good opportunity, though, and a good way to keep your foot in the door. You just have to try not to get down about it."

He made the active roster for the final game last season when Brandon Marshall was benched, and started against Kansas City but did not make a catch.

Willis made an impression on his Broncos coaches and teammates throughout the season. This last offseason, Willis finished in the top two in voting by teammates for workout awards, McDaniels said, and then he wowed onlookers with a consistently impressive training camp.

He caught 13 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown in four preseason games an average of 20.2 yards per catch to secure his roster spot.

"He's kind of the epitome of the good that can come from hard work and putting a player on a practice squad and developing him. He never got discouraged all he did was work harder," McDaniels said. "Obviously he made a lot of plays in the preseason, he shows up in the kicking game. He'll play in a lot of situations on Sunday, I would imagine."

09-08-2010, 09:38 AM
At least ex-bronco coach dorrell did 1 thing right at UCLA. Hope "WHATCHOO TALKIN' 'BOUT" Willis can continue to shine.
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09-08-2010, 09:44 AM
Being a track star has worked out great for Charles in KC.

09-08-2010, 09:54 AM
Being a track star has worked out great for Charles in KC.
KC got a steal! That lil' sumbich always lit up OU in the 4th Qtr.
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