High School Sports Offers Much
It could be said that the college athletic experience is superior to the professional one. Sure, the money and glory are nice, but there are too many problems attached.
Then again, at the college level guys are recruited, and once there, they must produce, knowing there is always someone ready to snap up their job.
In reality, the best time may be high school, when it’s even more carefree, and athletes don’t get scholarships, and play for the love of the game.
One such person who fits the bill is Wesley Willard, who attended Loyola High in Los Angeles in the mid-1990’s, where he was a three-sport athlete.
In more than 20 years covering sports, I’ve never met a finer person than Willard. A running back who returned kickoffs, punts, and who also played in the secondary, Willard never failed to give me his time before and after a game.
A football dynasty under Head Coach Steve Grady, the Cubs played a rugged schedule, but usually fared well.
Willard’s story is inspiring. Joseph, his father, was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and was left for adoption by his natural parents. An American family adopted and raised him. Hard-working and caring, he married and had three sons and a daughter.
Wesley was the middle son, and though he stood only 5-feet-9-inches and weighed 175 pounds, he developed into one of the best all-around athletes Loyola has produced.
Whenever I was assigned a Loyola football game, I always made a point of stopping and chatting with Joseph, who sold programs. We’d talk a while, and then I’d be off prowling the sideline.
It never failed that when I’d see Wesley, he’d come over and spend time with me. I’d wish him luck, and then we’d converse after the game.
Willard’s senior season was magical. In the greatest football game I’d seen and covered, the heavily-underdog Cubs faced Long Beach Poly in the CIF Southern Section Division I semifinals at East Los Angeles College.
The Jackrabbits were ranked No. 2 by USA Today, and were undefeated at 12-0. Most predicted the contest, which was played in a steady rain, would be over by the half. Well, it wasn’t, as Loyola played brilliantly, and even led midway through the final quarter. All they needed to do was hold on.
They couldn’t, because in a short span, the Jackrabbits scored on a punt return, added a touchdown, and went on to win. They claimed the title a week later, and were voted the top team in America that season.
Afterward, with mud caked on his uniform and tears streaming from his eyes, I congratulated Willard, and we spoke. After a tough loss, many would have declined to comment, but that wasn’t him.
An excellent student, Willard was accepted to UCLA, but he wanted to play football. Instead he opted to attend the United States Military Academy, where he played the sport he excelled at in high school.