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Pursuit: The many football talents of Owen Willis

Probably the most dominant lineman in the city’s high school football scene in recent years, chats with a couple of coaches on what makes Willis different
Former CFL lineman and a 1986 Grey Cup champion with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Mike Derks chats with talented Lively Hawks lineman Owen Willis, recent winner of yet another Mike Derks Award.

It’s one thing to establish yourself as the most dominant high school football lineman in the city, walking away with the Mike Derks Award in back-to-back-to-back years.

It’s a whole other thing to get the opportunity to spend some time with the former CFL lineman and Grey Cup champion (1986) for whom the honour is named.

Owen Willis can now relate to both.

The 18-year-old, four-year veteran of the Lively Hawks recently had the chance to spend some time with Derks, the long-time physical educator and football coach at Lasalle Secondary who was tackling (pun very much intended) a supply teaching assignment at LDSS recently.

“I just wanted to congratulate Owen on his very distinguished accomplishments,” said Derks, a graduate of the Cincinnati Bearcats NCAA program who went on to play six years with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, hoisting the hardware as CFL champions in 1986. “Most players don’t even start three years in a row.”

While Derks hasn’t necessarily seen Willis in action all that often, there is nothing too shocking of the advice he would pass along. 

“Just keep doing what he’s been doing because it has been successful,” said Derks with a laugh. “As far as tweaking anything, there are so many good YouTube videos from great coaches that are out there now.

“Watch the one on one matchups; watch the techniques – both for offense and defense.”

Long before he met Mike Derks, Owen Willis understood the value of his words.

“In Grade 11, when I first went in, it was all pure strength,” he said. “I really didn’t have any technique. I was just bigger than a lot of people so I could over-power them. Then I spent one season with the senior Spartans (NFC) which made me a lot better.”

His quest for continual improvement did not go unnoticed.

“One of the more recent parts of his game that has improved was his pass protection – his technique and footwork on pass protection,” said Lively head coach Reg Bonin, a former NFC quarterback who is as appreciative as anyone about the importance of talented lads in the trenches.

While Willis is clearly larger than the overwhelming majority of SDSSAA football players (he lists his stats as 6-1, 315 pounds), he is also not the tallest and heaviest high-schooler in town. There is an understanding to his role that is more than just a tad impressive.

“He’s a very intelligent lineman,” said Bonin. “He knows what he has to do on every play to get good positioning and leverage, and then you couple that with good feet, because he moves really well.

“We were probably the smallest (offensive) Line in the league,” said Willis of his experience with the U18 Spartans of the OSFL this past summer. “Other teams had guys that were 6-6, 300 pounds. We didn’t have anyone like that, so it’s good to have technique.”

And while Willis emphasizes that he is far more an offensive lineman than a defensive one, he also has spent considerable time on both sides of the ball. 

“Your ability to play both sides of the line allows you to counter one with the other,” said Derks. 

“At the end of a long drive on offense – and we were a run heavy team at Lively, with lots of run blocking – we would maybe kick a field goal or score and I would just turn around and play defense and not come off the field,” said Willis.

That kind of passion for football is at the root of so many successful gridiron stars – Owen Willis among them.

“He just loves the game,” said Bonin. “He’s flamboyant about it. He loves all aspects of football. Given the chance, he would probably play a whole bunch of positions. It would have been neat to see what else he could have done. He’s really quite athletic for a big guy.”

Randy Pascal is a sportswriter in Greater Sudbury. Pursuit is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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