Just days before Isiah Willis executed slashing runs and skip passes during the recent state tournament, the University of Mary Washington Mother’s rugby player received some motivational news. The freshman outside center became the first ever UMW club sports player to be awarded a national athletic scholarship.
Willis is among only eight players nationwide to receive the 2010 Kevin Higgins College Scholarship that honors former U.S. team rugby player Higgins.
“It means a lot to receive this award,” Willis said. “It’s taken a lot of work and I feel like I accomplished something. It’s shown me through the good and the bad in life, there’s always something waiting for you.”
During this fall’s state tournament in Mechanicsville, Willis demonstrated the positive attitude of the athlete that the award honors.
The day before Willis and the Mother’s rugby team faced James Madison University in the championship game, UMW defeated Radford in the semifinal—in what the Mother’s Rugby director describes as one of the toughest games he’s seen the team play. Both the semifinal and championship matches were riddled with injuries, but Willis encouraged his team to remain positive.
“My role there was to keep everyone focused and help them remember we’re still here to play rugby,” Willis said. “I said, ‘our teammates worked hard, they got injured and now we have to show we appreciate what they did for us’.”
“His performance on the field has been stellar, scoring two tries in the state final against JMU and becoming probably our best backline defender,” said Tim Brown, director of Mother’s Rugby.
Although the UMW club fell to JMU, Willis remains committed to the sport.
With rugby a staple in his life since he joined the St. John’s College High School team in Washington, D.C. in 2007 at the urging of friends, Willis played for three seasons on the Calvin Coolidge High School lineup, where his teammates unanimously voted him team captain.
Raised with two of his brothers by his aunt in inner-city Washington, Willis spent summers playing rugby as a member of the Washington D.C. U19 program. There, he was scouted by UMW’s Brown.
As Brown introduced him to UMW by showing him the campus and inviting him to a practice, Willis sought a college scholarship to match his personality. He found it in the Kevin Higgins award.
The scholarship, presented by the United States Rugby Football Foundation, is open to graduating high school rugby players in the U.S. who pursue the sport at the collegiate level.
Three months after applying for the grant, Willis became the first D.C. youth rugby player to enroll in college and continue playing the sport. Indeed the Australian Embassy recognized him this fall as a standout among D.C. youth athletes.
“Since his admission to Mary Washington, Isiah has shown leadership on and off the field,” Brown said. “Isiah has volunteered to help talk to high schoolers in D.C. about the college admission process and I have seen these kids listen and look up to him.”
With the encouragement of his UMW teammates, and now the support of the Kevin Higgins award, Willis’ academic and rugby career will continue to be shaped at Mary Washington.
He says his reason for playing the game is simple: he loves the sport. “If you have a passion for something, you stick to it. Rugby is my passion,” Willis said.
Amidst a heavy schedule of practices and games, Willis credits upperclassmen players and Brown with helping him learn to balance classes and rugby.
He plans to major in psychology and pursue a master’s degree. He also frequently returns to the district where he mentors area children and encourages them to pursue a college education. In the future, he wants to become a sports therapist practicing psychiatry.
“After I can’t play rugby anymore, I still want to do something positive,” Willis said.
First, his goal is to represent rugby and the nation at the 2016 Olympics.
He’ll continue preparing for that dream at UMW during the spring rugby season. The Mother’s club finished their fall season with an 8-1 record, securing the number two spot in the spring Mid-Atlantic Rugby Foot Union tournament.
“Rugby is taken seriously here,” Willis said. “I’m getting the most of what I can out of rugby at Mary Washington.”