For the love of the game
Troy Graham (39) and Blake Willis (59) at a recent practice.
Troy Graham (39) and Blake Willis (59) at a recent practice.
For three years they have worked in obscurity for the JU football team and there’s a good chance not much will change in their senior seasons.

Linebacker Blake Willis and defensive back Troy Graham, however, play for the love of the game.

Both have seen more than their fair share of action on the junior varsity and not a lot of work at the varsity level over the years. They have invested a lot of time and energy for little glory, but both seemingly wouldn’t trade their experience and their coaches wouldn’t want them to trade.

Willis, a math major from Fernandina Beach, Fla., lost his senior year in high school with an injury to his left knee. Like many, the loss gave him new love for the game and since he has no current girlfriend it’s his first love.

“Not playing my senior year, having football taken away from me, I didn’t know if I’d get to ever play again,’’ he said. “When I was cleared to play I wanted to find somewhere to go and be part of something special. They had just won the championship here the year before so I wanted to be part of something like that.’’

Upon arriving at JU, the plan was to play a little JV to get the knee back in shape. Willis never thought it would be three years of scout team and junior varsity.

“I have been on scout team and JV pretty much my whole career, I just like the learning experience and like football a lot, it’s really important to me,’’ he said.

It must be. He has been on the receiving end of barking by defensive coordinator Jerry Odom since 2009 … and doesn’t mind.

“I know he’s yelling for a reason,’’ Willis said. “He’s trying to get me better. He’s yelling because he knows I can do better. I’m going to try to be a coach in high school and getting to learn under coach Odom is really good because he knows a lot of stuff.’’

Graham, from Jacksonville, is trying to savor the moment and has an eye on the future.

“I’m definitely out here for the love of the game,’’ he said. “I am just blessed being here. I’m already above average with young men my age. Being in college, getting an education, playing football, I am blessed.’’

The communications major says he sometimes thinks about high school classmates who haven’t done what he has been able to do and what he sees makes him pause.

“Seeing where they’re at and when they are looking back on their life and are they happy or not,’’ he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to play football and you’ll never know what happens when you’re out there giving all your hard work you never know what can be in the future.’’

Although he is relatively happy with his stack of cards, Graham says playing more on the varsity would be nice.

“It does matter,’’ he said. “I always had the dream of going to the NFL and I was always a starter wherever I went. In high school I played football, basketball and track and I started at a Class 6A school, a big school, I always thought my college career would be better than what it was but all I can do is work hard and savor the moment. It could be worse, I’m still playing and it’s fun. It’s an opportunity to still play the game.’’

Odom doesn’t attempt to hide his admiration for the pair.

“I love those guys,’’ he said. “I’m a big fan of both those guys. They’re both good guys, super students and do a good job on and off the field. What they may lack in God-given ability they have in desire, attitude, effort and knowledge of the game.’’

Willis, he said, is going to be a success both as a math teacher and coach for a variety of reasons.

“He’ll be very, very good if that’s the area he wants to go. He’s patient, he understands the game and he’s smart,’’ Odom said. “I know I can put Blake in there and know that he may not do it as fast as I want him to, but he’s going to go to the right place, read the right thing and try to get us in the right coverage, make the right check. He’s a lot more patient than his coach is.’’

Like Willis, Odom looks at Graham’s upbringing as one of the reasons he has high character and work ethic.

“Troy is the salt of the earth,’’ Odom said. “I think a lot of him and his family. He’s a hard working kid and every day he’s going to bring good effort, do what he’s asked to do and we try to take care of those type guys as much as we can. If we can travel them or get them in a game those are the two type guys I’d jump on the table for and try to get them on a trip or game.’’

He’s also taken by the idea the each knows and accepts his role.

“Everybody’s got a role on this team,’’ he said. “You have to have the guy who is unselfish, who understands he might not be the best player but being on the team and being part of something means something to that guy. As long as we have that we’re in good shape.’’

Odom also said they are taking life lessons with them as they go.

“I think they’re learning that lesson that some of our guys struggle with. Being on time, how to hold a job and sometimes you’re going to do things that are thankless and people won’t know about it and those are the kind of guys who will stick with it,’’ he said. “And I have a tremendous amount of respect for those kids for that.’’