USC welcomed a handful of new walk-ons to the team in 2013, each having walked a different path that led them to Troy. One such athlete is Chris Willson, who returns to his native Southern California after an unsatisfying stint at Wake Forest.
“I was caught up in a whole bunch of different things; they say the grass is always greener on the other side, and I truly feel that way,” Willson says about his new-found career with the Trojans. “Its incredible being an older guy now, I can truly begin to lead the younger players.”
This is just a glimpse of the roller coaster ride transfer athlete Chris Willson has endured, now proudly bearing the Cardinal and Gold. In what he calls a “whole new college experience,” Wilson has been playing football with a completely different perspective on life, now older and wiser from when he first left for college four years prior.
“If I am out here for a couple of years throwing the football, and see where it takes it, then maybe down the line I could get back on the bump one day,” said Willson, the former collegiate pitcher who has set his sights on playing Football only this season.
Following an outstanding two-sport career at St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs, Willson earned scholar athlete honors in baseball and football and was selected to the 2009 Area Code Games, leading to an offer from Wake Forest.
An injury-riddled career derailed his dreams of athletic success at Wake Forest and a slight sense of home sickness started to surface. After hearing of an opportunity to play football under Lane Kiffin’s pro-style offense–which he said best fit his talents and ambitions of playing quarterback–Willson elected to enroll at USC for this year.
“Right now I am taking it one step at a time, see where God takes me,” Willson said about playing baseball again. “When I was playing baseball at Wake Forest I was so set on playing baseball. If you were to ask me three years ago, I would have had no idea.”
The So Cal native is eligible to play this season in football and due to medical redshirt reasons, could have up to three years of eligibility remaining. Just arriving on campus this summer for workouts, Willson remains amazed by the changes coming his way in his second college experience.
“It’s kinda funny the places God takes you,” the devout Catholic says. “I know that being an 18-year-old kid coming out of school, that living close to home would have not worked well for me. Now that I am matured, and on my own a bit, I am happy to be closer.”
Willson plans to use his life experiences away from the football field as motivation for anyone fighting through injuries or hardships in their career.
“I am an older guy, all I’ve been through with injuries,” Willson said, describing his two shoulder surgeries that medically stripped him of time during his freshman (2 months) and junior seasons (entire year) at Wake Forest. “I have been through it, and I can help guys through it.”
Willson loves the engaging environment that comes with playing such a team-oriented sport like football, already developing a deeper relationship with many of his teammates.
“There is a lot of faith in the locker room. When you get guys bonding on a spiritual level as well it can carry through,” Willson says about the connection with some of his current teammates like Cody Kessler and Max Browne. “Out here in football you get that team and family element towards it.”
Every day, he excitedly takes to the gridiron to the sport he never got to play at Wake Forest. The Deamon Deacons run more a read-option, quick-hitting offense, which certainly does not fit the big-armed, 6’6″ statured Willson, who has shown some strength throwing the football in practice.
Quarterbacks Coach Clay Helton and Lane Kiffin approached Willson early in camp about switching from quarterback to tight end, where he would have more opportunities for playing time. He took the position change in stride, and is adjusting to life in his new role.
“Don’t let personal ambition get in way of the mission,” Willson mentions as his go-to motto towards life and sports.
Now playing with the likes of Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Jalen-Cope Fitzpatrick, Willson truly believes his experience under center has helped him make the adjustment.
“Mentally being a quarterback helps you a lot, because I know the reads the coverages and the protections and different things like that,” Willson said.
That being said, the adjustment has been fun to watch. In the absence of the scholarship tight ends due to various injuries, Willson has made crucial catches the past few days.
“Just getting the steps down and the blocking was really tough,” Willson said before adding, “It’s fun and I am happy to be out here. [It's] definitely a blessing to play with this team.”
Looking forward to playing his first ever collegiate football, Willson continues to refine his skills under center as well.
“If guys do end up coming down, I need to be comfortable out there,” he said, speaking on conversations he’s had with Coach Helton. “Physically out there I know I can make the throws, I just need to stay sharp on the mental side of the game.
Hoping to suit up against Hawaii next week, Willson continues to offer humbling expertise for his younger and impressionable teammates looking for guidance on and off the football field.