Football: After long wait, a player’s college plans are set

Riverhead senior lineman Eddie Willis III will play football for the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He was joined in a signing ceremony Thursday morning with his parents, Ed and Caroline, and Riverhead coach Leif Shay. (Credit: Bob Liepa)
Riverhead lineman Eddie Wills III will play football for the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He was joined in a signing ceremony Thursday morning with his parents, Ed and Caroline, and Riverhead coach Leif Shay. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

Tears of joy flowed. They were the first sign that Eddie Wills III had gotten what he wanted.

When the phone call came from the United States Merchant Marine Academy’s admissions office last week, Wills’ mother, Caroline, became the first family member to learn what college her son will attend and play football for. An undoubtedly anxious, and observant, Eddie stood nearby while his mother took the call. “She started tearing up, so I knew it was some good news,” he said.

And it was. Wills, a Riverhead High School senior, had been accepted into the USMMA at King Point.

“I was elated,” Caroline said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Wills’ admission into the USMMA followed a long process that started the summer before his junior year. Getting into the USMMA is no easy task. He needed a congressional nomination, interviewed with a former congressman, Tim Bishop, and his representatives, underwent multiple medical exams, passed a physical fitness examination, solicited teacher recommendations and figures he took ACT and SAT tests a combined nine times.

“It took a lot of work,” he told reporters Thursday morning during a signing ceremony in Riverhead coach Leif Shay’s office. “This whole process was tough but in the end it’s all going to be worth it.”

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Wills started on both sides of the ball for Riverhead last season as a center and a defensive end. An all-division choice, he made 30 tackles to help the Blue Waves go 7-3 and reach the Suffolk County Division II semifinals.

Shay described Wills as a “very determined, very disciplined player, a hard-nosed kid, strong in the weight room. He was able to play in the trenches and hold his own.”

Wills’ father, Ed Wills Jr., said his son started playing football as an 8-year-old with the Riverhead Giants in the Police Athletic League.

“He said it right away,” the elder Wills said. “He told us when he was playing PAL he was going to play college football somewhere.”

Wills made his dream come true through hard work and perseverance. After two years on the junior varsity team, he made his varsity debut as a junior, starting at center the last five games of the 2013 season when the position opened up. He experienced the Blue Waves winning a Suffolk Division II championship and reaching the Long Island Class II final.

“Riverhead football was a blast,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade these four years for anything, the friendships that were made, winning the championship, you know, just multiple experiences I will never forget.”

Wills was recruited by 10 schools. He narrowed down his list to five New York schools: SUNY Maritime College, the University of Rochester, St. Lawrence University, Hobart College and the USMMA.

It sounded, however, as if the USMMA, which wears the United States flag on its helmet, held true appeal to Wills, who holds the flag close to his heart. Considering the quality of education and postgraduation opportunities offered at Kings Point, Wills said: “It was just too good to pass up. The fact that I can give back to my country is special.”

The USMMA, an NCAA Division III team, plays in the Liberty League. Last year the Mariners went 2-8.

Speaking about the next phase of his football life, Wills said, “I’m truly thankful for this opportunity to continue to play football at the next level. It took a lot of hard work.”

In the classroom, too. Wills, who will study marine engineering, has prepared for the USMMA’s rigorous academic standards. He will graduate high school with at least 13 1/2 college credits and has maintained a 3.2 grade-point average while keeping up an advanced placement schedule.

“It should be a challenge, but I’m up for the challenge,” he said.

As one of Riverhead’s captains, Wills was the leader of the offensive line, calling blocking schemes. That line included the 6-5, 325-pound Ethan Greenidge, who two months ago accepted a full athletic scholarship from Villanova University.

“He was a team captain for us, so the leadership ability, you can’t put a number on that,” Shay said of Wills. “He was a big part of us last year.”

Wills’ twin brother, Erik, a skier, has played football, too. He will attend Albany University, but will not play football.

Football, however, always seemed to be in Eddie’s gameplan.

“It was never a consideration not to play football,” Caroline said. “That had to go hand in hand for him.”

It was a long waiting game for Wills, who hoped to hear the response from the USMMA that he did last week.

“If you have a goal, just never give up because this whole process was a very long road, but I always kept my eye on the end product,” he said. “It finally all came into place.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Wills’ last name.