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June 2, 2016

Willis: I’m all about Eskimos football

When the CFL season kicks off with a Grey Cup rematch June 25 at Commonwealth Stadium, Odell Willis will have reached a milestone of sorts.

This will be his fourth season with the Edmonton Eskimos for the defensive end. That’s as long as Willis has been at any stop in his career.

Now entering his eighth CFL season, Edmonton is starting to resemble home after stops in Calgary, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan.

He’s seen the bad times in Edmonton when he arrived in 2013 on a team that finished 4-14. He’s been part of a core group that reached the good times in 2015.

He was instrumental in the 2014 turnaround season for the franchise, a defensive beast that helped earn him his second CFL All-Star nomination.

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Willis has come a long way from his dirt-poor upbringing in rural Alabama.

He has never forgotten his roots, the life he left behind to ply his trade in a foreign and sometimes frozen country.

It’s given him an appreciation of how far he’s come as he has given back to the community without much fanfare.

How far the group has come in three short years is not lost on Willis.

“It’s a good locker room with good leaders and now we’re at the top,” Willis said. “When I first got here, we had nothing. This year, we’re trying to defend our crown. We started from there and now we’re here.”

Willis has given homage to his roots with his twitter handle@KuntryKane205.

The 205 part is the area code where he grew up near Yantley close to the Mississippi border in southwest Alabama.

“It’s just a metaphor for being King of the Country,” said Willis. “I’m from a country place. Dirt road, back woods and all that stuff. For me to make it out, I’m like a king. I always felt like I was a king, so I just put two and two together and spelled KuntryKane in the way country people talk instead of spelling it the correct, proper way.”

Fair enough. Life was plenty hard for his family and growing up was not without its challenges.

“It’s in very rural Alabama,” said Willis. “Actually, it’s one of the poorest places (Choctaw county) in the United States. There’s lots of farming. We grew our own crops. We had a farm with horses, cows, tractors, the whole nine yards. Anything you can think of living in the country.

“We baled hay, chopped wood, hauled wood, we did it all. Country boys are a lot stronger than you think they are.”

His down-to-earth style has increased his fan base and his followers tend to be the most passionate of Eskimos fans.

“This league is all about the fans,” said Willis. “I like the fans because they get me going. Why not bring the game to the fans? They pay good money for the seats. Why not give them a chance to interact as close as possible.”

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Willis has never been shy about stepping into the stands after a big win and giving fans an up-close-and-personal contact.

A couple of years back, a fan had a T-shirt printed up that declared Willis to be the Mayor of Commonwealth. It could have been a huge marketing deal but Willis had other ideas.

This off-season, he started giving back more than he ever has and that gave him a different level of satisfaction.

“That was cool, but this off-season I was trying to do more for the kids,” Willis said.  “I can entertain the folks when I’m between the lines but this year I had my first football camp, which I thought was really cool. The feedback I got from the parents took my attention off trying to make money off T-shirts and stuff like that.

“I redirected my attention toward the kids. I had a camp this year and next year, I’m going to have many more. I have a facility now that can help me have camps.”

The Odell Willis camps were a personal initiative, something he did in Edmonton on his own time without imposing on the Eskimos.

“This was just me giving my personal time to the community,” said Willis. “At the end of the day, I’ve had my time. Why not give what I have to kids, which is our future?”

Even though Willis was ranked among the top elite among the gamers in the virtual Madden football world, he’s taken a more focused approach to the real world.

“Naw, I’m done with that,” Willis said. “I’m all about Eskimos football now.”