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A Matter of Choice : Willis Makes Religion a Priority and Ends His Football Career at Pacifica

October 07, 1987|MIKE CORNWELL | Times Staff Writer

Ray Willis is a 17-year-old with longshoreman arms, a chest swollen from lifting barbells, and doe eyes that look uneasy as they shine from a face round as a cake.

He is sitting, back pressed hard against a booth, holding a menu that is trembling. And when a petite waitress happens by, he talks to her in a shaky whisper like that of an actor who suddenly forgot his line.

Maybe that's because not many people listen to Willis these days. An all-Empire League running back his junior year at Pacifica High School, Willis quit the football team before his senior season to spend more time with his newfound religion. He became a Jehovah's Witness in November.

Willis' former teammates accuse him of abandoning them, and people who don't know him slam doors in his face.

But then Willis pulls a Bible from his pocket. And it doesn't quiver. And his voice grows loud as he soars from Old Testament to New, the pages fluttering wildly as he reads.

"I was pretty down because people used to bug me, and they still do," said Willis. "They didn't understand. People on the football team thought I'd quit on them.

"Now I don't care who I tell about my beliefs because I really believe them. Before, I was afraid. When you just begin something, you really have your doubts about it. But I don't have any doubts anymore."

He said he had to think a very long time about quitting football, a sport he had played since Pop Warner league. He thought about leaving football every day for two months before he made up his mind.

Once made, the effects of his decision would not quickly vanish. He still had to face teammates who thought he had betrayed them, an uncomprehending coach, a disagreeing principal and, when he went home, a father who believed he was ruining his future.

But when Willis realized football had become much more than just recreation, that it would detract from the three to four hours daily of studying and practicing his religion, he knew he had to quit.

"It was the hardest decision of my life . . . a lot of people take football too seriously," he said. "It's like it takes over their lives. I wanted to pursue my spiritual goals."

Willis' mother, Norma, a Jehovah's Witness herself, was pleased with her son's decision. She says he seems happier now.

But most of the other people who know Willis are confused. Louis Willis, Ray's father, says he doesn't know what to do, that his son is cheating himself out of a college scholarship.

"When he said he wasn't going to play any kind of football this year, it just blew me away," said Louis Willis, who isn't a Witness. "I wanted him to go to college, and all of a sudden I was slapped in the face with him not going to do it. I wanted him to get everything he could get because of his given abilities. I'm upset because people just don't get opportunities like that."

Pacifica Coach Bill Craven doesn't want to discuss losing an all-league running back who last season rushed for 909 yards, seventh best among underclassmen in Orange County. "It has to be one of my bigger disappointments to see this happen to a kid," Craven said. "But he did this on his own."

Even Pacifica Principal Don Wise has called Willis and his parents into his office numerous times.

"He thinks I'm cutting myself short," Willis said about the meetings.

Said Wise: "This is a man who made a big decision, and I think you're opening a lot of old wounds just to sell newspapers."

Willis has been going to the Kingdom Hall of North Garden Grove with his mother on Sundays for the last 11 months.

"I used to hang out with the football crowd and go to parties," he said. "But I'm the kind of person who looks at things. I just went to the Hall and have been going back ever since."

Last spring, Willis told some teammates that he wasn't going to play his senior year. But he could not bring himself to tell Craven, who was also his physical education teacher.

Still, his teammates were surprised when he didn't report to practice this fall. Willis' name and photograph are even printed in Pacifica's football program.

Oscar Ravelo now has Willis' former position. Ravelo has been a friend of Willis since junior high.

"Everybody on the team was bugging him, and at school, people just ignored him," Ravelo said. "We would have had an excellent backfield if he was here; they probably would have moved me to fullback. Right now, everything's working well, and I'm taking up the slack pretty good."

Willis now spends his afternoons studying his new religion and going door to door, quoting Biblical passages to anyone who will listen.

Willis, who has no plans to attend college, says he sometimes misses football. He still plays pickup football with neighbors. He still lifts weights, though only half as often as he used to. And he was in the stands of Bolsa Grande High School when Ravelo scored the lone touchdown as Pacifica defeated El Modena, 6-0, Sept. 25.

Said Willis: "I was sitting next to a man at the game who didn't know who I was and he said: 'It looks like the football team will do all right without Ray Willis.' I asked him how he felt about the guy and he said, 'It's good . . . if he really believes it.' That made me feel good. A few times, I saw myself running plays out on the field."

Which is what many of his friends hopes he will do. They still hope he will come back out for sports (Willis has been a sprinter on the track team), maybe talk with some of the colleges who have been interested in him.

Willis says his decision is long behind him.

"I don't want to be rich and have all those material things. I just want to get by," Willis said. "I want to build my own house. That's one of the things I really want to do. I want to build my own house."

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