(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
The importance of preparation, as said here by Ret. Gen Colin Powell, is something BYU center RJ, short for Richard Jr., Willing tries to focus on more and more each day. Willing uses dutiful preparation to balance all aspects of his hectic life, including: a full class schedule, family time and football.
STUDENT COMES FIRST
“Academics have always been important in my life, that’s something my parents instilled within me while I was still young,” says the six-foot-five lineman from Hawai`i.
At 308 pounds, the senior center faces classes and tests the same way he faces mammoth defensive tackles every Saturday.
“I just prepare the best way I can. Classes here can be tough, but if I study before I take the test I know I’ll do fine,” Willing says.
“It’s the same with football every week. The better we prepare for our opponent, the better we will play. This is something that actually took me awhile to learn, and it didn’t really set in until after my mission, that’s where I learned how to study and prepare.”
The change shows. Willing has twice earned Academic All-Mountain West honors since returning from his mission.
“School is just as, if not more, important than sports,” says Emi (Emoani) Willing, RJ’s wife, a former softball player at BYU (see story on page 8). “But RJ knows that. He doesn’t need any motivation from me to do well in school, he just motivates himself.”
The two met in study hall when RJ was a redshirt freshman in 2004. RJ left on his LDS mission to Albuquerque, N.M. after that year and returned two years later, then married Emi, who is also from Hawai`i.
Marriage helps Willing’s focus on academics as well.
“Aside from my mission, marriage is definitely what turned around my focus on school,” Willing says. “Before the mission, I goofed around a lot in school. After coming back, knowing how to study and getting married, my habits improved dramatically.”
Willing’s educational focus actually started while he was in high school. He grew up in Kahuku, Hawai`i, a town on the north shore of the island of Oahu. However, looking to give their son the best education possible for as long as possible, his parents, Richard and Susan Willing, enrolled him in the Kamehameha School District at a young age.
Kamehameha High School is widely known as the top college-preparatory high school in the state of Hawai`i and it is also where his future wife went to school.
“I feel like Kamehameha really prepared me for my collegiate education more than other places could have,” RJ says. “But the best part was the school’s focus on Hawaiian culture. The school really helped me gain a better understanding of the Hawaiian part of my heritage and past.”
Before coming to Brigham Young University as a 17-year old freshman in 2003, RJ had spent his entire life in Hawai`i.
“Getting off the rock was definitely a priority when I was deciding where to go after high school,” recalls Willing. “I love Hawai`i, but I needed to experience something a little different in college.”
When the time came to choose a college, Richard and Susan Willing left the decision almost completely up to him.
“My parents let me choose which college I would attend, but they sort of chose it for me,” relates Willing. “They taught me the values I wanted to have in my life. So, even though I actually made the decision on my own to attend BYU, it was them who led me in the right direction my whole life.”
His father, Richard, showed his son how much he cared about him every day while he was in high school.
“Kamehameha High School is the best high school in Hawai`i, but it’s also an hour and a half from my house,” remembers RJ. “Every single day my dad would drive me to and from school. We wouldn’t get home until after nine almost every night. I knew anyway how much my parents cared about me, but the fact that he did that reassured me everyday.”
The environment his family provided as he was growing up helped prepare Willing for life as a husband and father. As he grew up in a loving home, he witnessed first hand examples of how to raise his own family.
“My home life growing up was great. I’m glad that it was too, because now I am getting ready to start my own family,” he says.
RJ and Emi are expecting their first child after football season. While they are still nervous about the idea of being first-time parents, they are preparing as best as possible.
“I don’t know about how prepared we really are,” jokes Emi. “But we have been learning from both mine and RJ’s siblings, all of whom have kids.”
The excitement of having a child on the way is enough to sustain Willing.
“I am really excited,” he says. “We found out that we are having a girl, and it’s going to be great. All of my siblings have kids, so I think we’re prepared and we will definitely have a lot of fun.”
ON A MISSION
Although Willing prepared for his college education at one of the top high schools in Hawai`i, school was not the only aspect of life involved in his preparation.
As a senior in high school, he was a national top-100 offensive line prospect. To go along with that high accolade, Willing was also named First Team All-State by the Honolulu Advertiser and was a SuperPrep All-Far West selection.
Willing’s high school achievements on the football field are even more impressive given the fact that he was a year younger than anyone else in his grade. His young age also helped with his mission plans, because he could play two years of football before leaving.
Coming out of high school he was recruited by not only BYU, but also Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Hawai`i. His choice was pretty easy.
“A mission was always in my plan, so BYU was the most logical choice,” relates Willing. “Other schools said they would be okay with me leaving for two years, but I knew I could rely on BYU to not only be okay with it but to support me as well.”
His first year on the roster was spent on the scout team while he was redshirting. His second year he entered the season deep on the depth chart, but ended up starting nine games at right tackle after injuries to other offensive lineman.
“Getting playing experience as a redshirt freshman really helped me understand what it feels like to actually be playing in a game,” says Willing.
“There is a big difference between being a back-up in going through warm ups and being a starter. Knowing your going to play and start, the preparation aspect really gets influenced because you prepare harder to get ready to play. And that experience of learning how to prepare helped a ton.”
While on his mission in Albuquerque, N.M. he learned even more how to prepare no matter what the circumstances. When he returned to the BYU team in 2007, he remained in a back up role. That continued into his junior season in 2008. In those two seasons, he used the study and preparation skills he gained on his mission to be ready for anything.
Those skills are evident now, as Willing has shown he is capable of playing all five positions on the offensive line. While tough to do, RJ is grateful for the knowledge provided to him by offensive line coach Mark Weber.
“Coach Weber does not teach positions along the offensive line, he teaches concepts that you can apply to every position,” says Willing.
That especially helps him now that he is the starting center. Not only does he know his own position, but he also knows the duties of the other four linemen so he can audible and make changes at the line of scrimmage.
“Knowing every position along the offensive line definitely helps when playing center, because you’re always directing traffic, but center still has the steepest learning curve,” he says.
KEEPING THE TRADITION
“BYU always has a good offensive line,” says Willing. The credit should go to the coaches and the style in which they coach. It’s a great tradition.”
With that in mind, he strives to be the leader of this season’s offensive line.
“As the only senior, and as the center, you sort of become the inherent leader. I think and hope that my teammates trust me and look at me as their leader. ”
Willing describes last year’s offensive line as more “business-like”. As the leader of this year’s line, his goal is to make this season as fun as possible.
“With so many newcomers, this year is more enjoyable simply because its so much more competitive. It’s really fun,” describes Willing.
While the burden of “keeping the tradition” weighs heavily upon Willing, it does not bother him. He is happy to be the leader of this young offensive line.
“Guys are always stepping up,” he says. “We will keep up the BYU offensive line tradition.”
As this season reaches its closing stages, he will begin looking towards the future. While playing football professionally would be great, Willing looks at it differently.
“Right now I’m not planning too far in the future. I just want to graduate,” jokes Willing. “Maybe I’ll go to graduate school, but that’s still up in the air. My main goal is to just be happy with what I do and support my family. Family is number one.”
RJ’s Wife Played BYU Softball
Emoani Snow Willing understands what her husband is going through.
As a member of the softball team for four years at BYU (2005-2008 and hit 28 home runs), she went through the same challenges as a student-athlete that RJ is experiencing.
“Its nice to really understand how he is feeling, so when he comes home and doesn’t want to do anything, I get it,” says Emi. “Its always nice to be truly sympathetic.”
Emi considers herself RJ’s number one fan. She attends most practices, and loves watching how the things they practice translate to a game.
“Watching practice helps me understand the game better,” says Emi. I watch film with RJ, too. Watching him get better with every practice--I enjoy that.”
While she enjoys watching every practice and game, she does not make a big deal about being married to a football player.
“RJ is just my best friend. That’s how I’ll always think of him. I don’t think of the football part until someone brings it up, then I remember that its pretty cool.”
RJ loves the support he receives from his wife on and off the field.
“Emi really helps me balance things,” comments RJ. “With a family, school, and football, its tough sometimes. But having her around really makes a difference.”