May 23, 2017

Willis Still Has Lots In The Tank

Photo Credit: Johany Jutras

While Odell Willis is building up his strength and conditioning to play a ninth CFL season – and his fifth one with the Edmonton Eskimos – his mother is slowly deteriorating back home in Alabama.

Patricia Willis used to be a strong woman, raising four children mostly by herself after her husband died of a massive heart attack in 1989.

“She went from walking marathons and stuff to a walker now,” said Odell, a two-time CFL all-star defensive end. “If she walks from the chair to the dinner table, she’s dog tired.”

“She’s had MS (multiple sclerosis) 20-plus years,” he continued, pointing out that she’s the only family member with the disease. “It’s been breaking her down each year. Sad to say, but it’s almost like watching a flower die.

“Even though I say that, I’m still thankful and blessed that the Good Lord lets her still be here with us. I look at it as the cup half-full instead of half-empty.”

By the time Willis joined the Eskimos as a free agent in 2013, he had learned the importance of taking care of his own body from veteran CFL players like Keon Raymond of the Calgary Stampeders and Doug Brown of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He no longer considers maintenance things like ice baths and steams rooms, where it’s hard to breathe, to be bizarre. He’s big on chiropractic and acupuncture treatments. There is actually some benefit to stretching and having a healthy diet.

“I had a season where I reached my peak around Week 4 or 5 and it was almost like a struggle to finish the season, but I didn’t know why,” he said. “I was just thinking like, ‘Aw, I was tired. I went a little harder,’ but I wasn’t really doing the right things. I wasn’t getting enough rest; I wasn’t eating properly. That’s when I realized that in order to grow, you have to change.

“That’s what it came down to; like I’m drinking a smoothie right now. I’ve got almond milk and fruit.”

Willis, 32, also realized that he needs to slow down at times, too.

“I can’t go work out and at the end say, ‘Let’s go kick it with the boys,’ ” he said. “That’s just part of getting older, period. Your body needs more rest to recharge.

“Other than that right now, my diet has changed. I eat a lot healthier, I don’t eat pork, I rarely eat bread. Just continue to do the things that you should do as a pro to stay in this game for a long time because I feel like I could play for another nine years.”

In an attempt to do the same things he did at age 22 while reducing the punishment on his body, Willis changed his off-season workouts this past winter to include circuit training – including a trampoline and water row machine – at Orangetheory Fitness three times a week in addition to twice-weekly sessions at Commonwealth Recreation Centre.

“I found it was really intense,” he said about the Orangetheory program. “It was a challenge for me at first, but that’s really my main thing right now with my strength training. It really gets the job done. I feel like more older athletes should look into it because it’s easier on the joints and you’re going to get your full workout in regardless.”

Willis has missed only three games during his CFL career, one due to a separated shoulder and two because of a coach’s decision with the Eskimos in 2013.

In 2014, he racked up an incredible array of stats, including a career-high 32 defensive tackles, 13 quarterback sacks, six pass knockdowns, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions and scored two defensive touchdowns.

“I remember that being one of the hardest training camps of my life,” said Willis, who knew it would be intense with Chris Jones as the new head coach/defensive co-ordinator because he had played for Jones in Calgary when he first came to the CFL in 2009.  “Me and Adarius (Bowman) were just talking about it. When (training) camp started, nobody knew what was going on. We were just out here running. He didn’t care what you did as long as you ran. It was like, man, it’s crazy.”

The intensity and the success of the team that season was a welcome change for the well-conditioned Eskimos after a disappointing 4-14 performance in 2013.

“We had a bunch of guys who just wanted to win,” Willis said.

What Willis didn’t expect was playing all over the defensive line and even the entire defence. He might be in his usual spot at defensive end one play, at linebacker on another and even play defensive back occasionally. The latter two assignments could include one-on-one coverage with a receiver.

“I’m like, if I really learn what I’ve got to do and where I need to be and where people are, I feel like I can make a lot of plays and that’s really what started happening,” said Willis. “He would put me in so many places and it forced me to basically start learning the whole defence. I can thank him for that. He took my game to another level in ’14 because now I can see something and know right off the top, on the first day, where everybody is supposed to be.”