CFL

Enigmatic rush end Willis hopes to turn page with Eskimos

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The Canadian Press
6/4/2013 3:54:37 PM
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EDMONTON -- Odell Willis is the happiest man on the Edmonton Eskimos who can't control his rage.

He's the ever-smiling great teammate who has become a CFL vagabond due in part to self-centred behaviour.

In other words, the newest Eskimos rush end is a walking enigma -- with 200 pairs of size-13 sneakers.

"Show me the mawnnnnaaaay!!!" Willis -- in his six-foot-two, 255-pound frame -- shouts as he walks amongst his teammates in the Eskimo fieldhouse, a mile-wide grin on his face, mimicking wide receiver Rod Tidwell in the movie "Jerry Maguire."

Eskimos camp is the fourth stop in five years for the 28-year-old import.

"Sports is one of the things you can get a clean slate at in life," said Willis. "So we're just ready to start clean, start fresh, new team, new look. Give this city something to smile about and be proud of."

It has been a long journey.

He was born in 1984 in Meridian, Miss., two decades after the area became the nationally infamous dark heart of racial hatred for the murder of three civil rights workers.

He starred at the University of West Georgia, then went on to dominate arena football, prompting the Calgary Stampeders to give him an audition in 2009.

He played half the season for Calgary, then got traded to Winnipeg. His sack total was 10 that year.

The next two years in Winnipeg were the high point, when Willis became an outsized, outspoken media darling, the self-styled "Mayor of Swaggerville."

He registered 11 sacks in 2010 and 13 in 2011 to earn CFL all-star recognition.

His big game was matched by a big heart. Sitting out a practice with a bad hip one time, Willis became the team's roving ambassador to a group of young fans, escorting them around the field, introducing them to players, making friends for life.

His big game was also matched by big talk.

"Who's Brent Johnson?" he once asked in a public war of words with the B.C. Lions legendary sack leader.

He made highlight reels for lightning-fast end runs, turning offensive tackles into turnstiles, followed by devastating hits to the quarterback.

But there were penalties, many penalties: facemasking, roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness.

Midway through 2011 his indifference to defending the run relegated him to passing downs only. He was not pleased and during the Bombers' preparations for the Grey Cup tweeted he'd rather be at home eating Thanksgiving dinner.

The end came when he demanded the Bombers release him from his contract so he could try his luck in the NFL. Instead, they shipped him west to Regina.

"Sometimes you have to make decisions based on more than talent alone," sighed then Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice at the time.

Riders GM Brendan Taman rationalized it the other way.

"If they can help you win games, provided they're not being a total idiot off the field, you have to look at bringing them in," Taman said in March 2012.

Two weeks later, Willis was arrested for alleged drunk driving in the pre-dawn hours in suburban Atlanta.

In Riderville, he saw his sack totals fall to six in 2012, while the penalties continued to mount.

"He's going full speed trying to kill the quarterback, and it's not about killing the quarterback," Saskatchewan coach Corey Chamblin told reporters last season.

"He just has to find more control and more balance."

When free agency arrived on Feb. 15, Saskatchewan stood by as Willis headed further west, this time to Edmonton, a team that has been bottom feeding for years and makes no secret of its willingness to adopt the league's reclamation cases (see Eric Tillman and Jerome Messam).

He joined the Esks three minutes after free agency began, an obvious violation of rules prohibiting teams and free agents from negotiating beforehand.

The Eskimos were fined $10,000 for tampering. The team paid up and wouldn't discuss it further.

Eskimo head coach Kavis Reed said he's had a heart-to heart-with Reed and the message is clear.

"Swaggerville will not be coming west," said Reed, who coached Willis in Winnipeg. "Odell is a phenomenal talent. He is a young man that his teammates are going to absolutely love.

"He loves to go to work and when he goes to work, he goes to work. But he also loves to make things fun. That's a good trait to have as a teammate -- but for us it's all about the team."

Willis agreed, to a point.

"The mayor (of Swaggerville) is here, but we're going to be more professional about ourselves this year, try to lead these young guys to a Cup," he said.

But the Odell Willis who mugs for the media, jokes with his teammates and lauds the "shoe connoisseur" who tracks down Michael Jordan sneakers for him from all over North America doesn't plan to change.

"You're going to see this 24/7, because this who I am," he said.

Notes: The Eskimos beleaguered offensive line took another blow Tuesday, when the team announced that Orrin Thompson has been lost for the year with a knee injury. The six-foot-six 320-pound tackle was injured on the first day of camp Sunday.

Odell Willis (Photo: Derek Leung/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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