For Willis, saying no to WNMU has worked out

Feb. 12—George Willis, a dynamic but undersized all-state quarterback for the Mayfield Trojans, had only one scholarship offer — that from Western New Mexico — after his senior season in 1977.

He turned down the WNMU offer because he had something else in mind.

Yes, Willis loved playing football, not to mention the other sports, basketball, baseball and track, at which he'd excelled growing up in Las Cruces.

He just loved writing about sports more.

"When I was 12 years old," Willis said in a recent phone interview, "I started passing out stats at New Mexico State home games."

Being around sports journalists such as Joe Muench and Mike Murphey of the Las Cruces Sun-News and Dennis Latta of the Albuquerque Journal, watching what they did, "I thought was a cool thing," Willis said. "I was always interested in sports, and my favorite subject in school was English."

Fast-forward to the present, and Willis is a freelance writer and published author after a 40-year newspaper career.

"(For) the career I've had," he said, "I can thank a lot of people who were mentors back in the day."

After high school — he quarterbacked the Trojans to the Class AAAA state final as a junior — Willis stayed home and attended New Mexico State. Muench, the Sun-News' sports editor, put him to work. During his undergraduate days he also worked as the Journal's Las Cruces stringer, covering the Aggies and the city's high schools for the statewide paper.

That experience led to his hire at the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1983, to Newsday in '87, the New York Times in '94.

One of his most memorable assignments while at the Times was coverage of a 1992 NCAA men's basketball sub-regional at the Pit in Albuquerque, where NMSU, his alma mater, gave UCLA a scare before falling 85-78.

"It was a great night to be in that building," he said.

After leaving the Times, Willis launched a 23-year-career as a lead sports columnist at the New York Post. His coverage of boxing for the Post led to the writing and publication of "The Bite Fight," a 2013 book chronicling the June 1997 fight during which Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear.

In 2018, Willis collaborated with attorney Jose Baez on the book "Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Final Days of Aaron Hernandez".

Hernandez, the former University of Florida and New England Patriots tight end, committed suicide in prison in 2017 after his murder conviction.

Now living in Miami, Willis continues to write for the New York Sun, an online publication.

He's an executive producer of "The Dream Whisperer," a documentary film tracing former New York Knicks guard Dick Barnett's successful quest to get the 1957-59 Tennessee A&I Tigers, whom Barnett led to three consecutive NAIA national titles, into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Willis still follows the Aggies. When the NMSU men's basketball team played Conference USA rival Florida International in Miami on Jan. 11, he was there.

Of that long-ago decision to pass on the WNMU offer, and of where that decision led, he said, "It's worked out pretty well for a kid from Las Cruces."