Senior Tahj Willingham meets eyes with Assistant Football Coach Dave Kimura in the hallway. He shouts out a quick ‘What’s up, coach?’ and great. They discuss their upcoming road trip, not as player and coach, but as two guys just talking football. Willingham was meant for this. He was built to be a leader, and as a senior, he is stepping into his role with maturity.
“The cliche goes ‘We’re only as strong as our weakest link.’ No matter how good we are individually, we’re much better together,” Willingham said. “It was a little different this offseason, we had a lot more senior meetings — just time with the seniors. When you have that many people who are sick of being average, sick of going .500, (in the season) things change.”
The change began with the coaching staff. They gave the team more autonomy, placing a lot of trust in the group of 23 seniors charged with leading this year’s team. For Willingham, that meant finding his consistency.
“This offseason, I was trying to prepare for the task placed before me,” Willingham said. “I was voted a captain, so I knew coming into the season that I was going to be looked at by the rest of the team as someone they need to see be able to remain calm, cool, composed and collected when we’re out there in the games. It was really a mental battle for me, just trying to be the best leader I can. (Human Performance coach Brett) Wells and I talk all the time, and he’s just instilled in me ‘Stay consistent. Stay consistent. Stay consistent. Don’t get too high; don’t get too low. Just stay consistent.’”
A consistent mentality is not always easy to come by, especially in football, when players are tasked with staying as energized as possible so that they may literally run people over. This difficulty became evident early in the season, as they fell behind Peru State 21-0 in the first half of their season opener. While it would have been easy to roll over and give up, that was not what this team had prepared for. They came out and scored 25 unanswered points in the second half, staging the largest comeback ever by a Hastings College football team.
“The thing that really kept us together and going was we didn’t get too low when things were bad, and we didn’t get too high when things were good. We stayed really balanced and just found a way to come together as a team, play our role and do our job,” Willingham said.
Willingham has seen time on the field since he was a freshman, but last year was his breakout season, rushing for 1,430 yards and 18 touchdowns. Willingham wants to continue upon his dominance this year, and while his main priority is team success, he will not sugar coat it and say that records are not on his mind.
“Of course I want to put the team’s success before anything, but anything that comes along with it is definitely a bonus,” Willingham said. “Those records seem attainable, and they seem reasonable. I’m not going to sit here and lie and tell you that it’s not something I want to achieve, but it’s not my main priority this season.”
His main priority? A playoff berth. Hastings has not been to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season, when they lost in the first round to Ottawa University. Willingham feels like this would be the perfect parting gift from the seniors, who have poured their hearts and souls into the program, to head coach Tony Harper.
“Coach Harper has changed so much as a man, so much as a person, so much as a coach. To see his growth and his change the past few years — he needs to be rewarded,” Willingham said. “Anything less than eight games this season, I’d be kind of disappointed.”