In the beginning, he needed his mom to shed some light on his kicking.
William “Willie” Will — who had played soccer all his life and never donned a youth league football pad — was coaxed by some buddies into trying out for his suburban Chicago high school football team his sophomore year.
“He came home one night and said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna try out for kicker tomorrow,” remembered Karen Will. “I said, ‘Kicker? William, have you kicked a football before?’
“He said, ‘No,” and I said, ‘Well, don’t you think you ought to try? Don’t you think you should practice?’
“It was 9 o’clock and he goes, ‘Mom, it’s dark out. It’s late.’ And I just shook my head and said, ‘C’mon!’
“We went to our local field and I shined the headlights of my car out there and then held the football for him so he could kick. I did turn my head away because at the last second I worried, ‘What if he kicks me in the mouth or something?’
“Well, he kicked it right over the goalpost and I was like, ‘OK.’ So we moved back and he kicked it over again and we moved back even more and he did it one more time.
“That’s when I said, ‘William — I think you’re pretty good at this.’ ”
Although Will passed Mom’s nighttime audition, before dawn truly arrived for him as a kicker, things did get darker.
“Things didn’t go so well in my first game,” he said in grinning reference to his debut at Lincoln-Way East High in Mokena, Ill. “The very first PAT I attempted, I kicked the ball right off one of my lineman. The ball hit him right in the butt!
“Then I kicked off and the ball went about 15 yards. It was horrible.”
Karen remembers that first game, as well: “I was a parent sitting in the stands and I’ll tell you, the crowd can turn on you real quick. A hush came over them and then I heard someone say, ‘Oh, it’s the new kid.’
“Then a gentleman behind me suggested, “Maybe they ought to think of getting rid of that kid.’ ”
The coaches had seen enough by then, as well.
“They took me out of the game and put in a different guy,” Will said. “And that’s when one of the coaches told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘You can either kick in a game … or nothing . All the rest of it doesn’t matter. Anyone can kick in practice. You need to be able to kick when it counts.’ ”
And he has in pretty remarkable fashion.
As a redshirt freshman placekicker for the Dayton Flyers last season, Willie — as his teammates and coaches now call him — won first team All-Pioneer Football League honors. He made 10 of 12 field goals, 41 of 43 extra points, never bounced one off a lineman’s butt and led UD in scoring with 71 points.
Coming into this year’s Sept. 6 opener against Georgetown, Will is one of 36 players in the nation on the College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) Watch List to choose the top placekicker in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS.)
“As my husband said, ‘Sometimes you don’t pick the sport, sometimes the sport picks you,’ ” Karen said.
Although he’s now one of the celebrated kickers in the FCS, coming out of high school Will didn’t have a single scholarship offer.
He thought about going to Indiana University or Purdue and trying to walk onto the football team and he did draw interest from a few small schools in Illinois.
Then former UD assistant coach Kevin Hoyng, who recruited the Chicago area for the Flyers, showed up at his high school one day to talk to a group of uncommitted players.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dayton before he came to our school,” Will said.
His mother had, though. Their neighbor’s daughter went to UD and that girl’s mom told Karen that they should look into Dayton because it was “a good school.”
Will said he and his dad made a trip to UD on their own and he “fell in love with the school right away.”
He later returned with his mom and during that visit they met head football coach Rick Chamberlin.
“He was really nice and he was honest,” Karen said. “He said, ‘We don’t have a spot for you, but if you want to try to walk on, you have that opportunity. But no promises. Only come here if you like the school.’ ”
Will did come to UD and showed up for practice alongside some 15 other out-of-the-woodwork walk-on candidates.
“The first day he was out there, the ball just made a different sound coming off his foot than it did for the other guys,” said senior holder and backup quarterback Luke Johnson. “He had a great leg.”
Chamberlin saw it, too: “After three days of kicking we could tell Willie had a strong leg. Maybe he wasn’t real accurate, real consistent, but he had that leg. And Coach Turner (special teams coach Craig Turner) said, ‘This kid is showing us some things, let’s add him to the team.”
Will said the Flyers kept eight of the walk-ons, although today he thinks he’s the only one still left.
That first season UD had a veteran kicker so Will was red-shirted. He worked on fine-tuning his kicking in practice and established himself as a student. A marketing major with a 3.35 grade-point average, he was one of five Flyers on the All-Academic PFL team last year.
The spring of his freshman year he established himself as the top kicker in camp and by fall had won the starting spot.
And when it came time for his first kick for points in college, a 37-yard field goal attempt against Youngstown State in last year’s opener, he had far better luck than he did with that first kick in high school.
“The snap was good, the hold was good and I thought the kick was, too,” he said. “I immediately started to walk off the field, but then I heard the crowd and I realized the kick had banked off the upright and still went in.”
Some big kicks
When the conversation turns to all-league and watch-list honors, Will tries to direct the attention to Johnson, his holder, long snapper Rob Delaney and the line that protects him.
And those guys appreciate it:
“Rob and I took a lot of pride that Will was All-Conference,” said Johnson , who then laughed and added, “Actually, we each call ourselves one-third All-Conference.”
Chamberlin is especially appreciative of Will: “When your team gets down in the opponent’s territory, around the 30-yard mark, you always want to come away with points. After working so hard to get there, it’s demoralizing when you don’t.
“But with Willie we feel very comfortable. He did a whale of a job last year.”
For Johnson, the game that stands out was the Oct. 19 shootout with PFL powerhouse San Diego at Welcome Stadium:
“The week leading up to that, he came up to me before our very first attempt in practice and said, ‘All right Luke, every kick is a game-winner this week.’ I was like, ‘OK, glad to hear that.’ We were a few weeks into the season and he had never taken that approach before.
“And you know what? I don’t think he missed a kick all week in practice. And in the game he hits a huge field goal — 32 yards — in the third quarter, then hits two more PATS in the second overtime. He was perfect that day (6 for 6 PATS, nine points total), and we won a wild one, 45-38.
“I guess I should have known. He told me what he was gonna do.”
These days Willie Will shines his own light on his kicking.
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