Standing beside two of the best high school football players in Class 1A on Dec. 2 at Nissan Stadium, Greenback School’s Holden Willis sighed a deep breath of relief when he heard his name called as the 2019 Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award winner.
“First of all, getting that award is big time and it’s something that’s not been done a lot, especially at Greenback,” Willis said. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that play in the state of Tennessee. To limit that down to 16 people, then limit it down to three and then limit it down to one winner in each division, that means a lot.”
Willis edged out South Pittsburg High School’s Ronto Tipton and Huntingdon High School’s Hunter Ensley for the prestigious award and is the second consecutive Greenback player to win the award, following quarterback Bryce Hanley last year. Josh Silvey was the first player in program history to win the award in 2016.
“It’s a blessing, and there’s a lot of people that deserve it but don’t get the chance because the percentage is low,” Willis said. “When you get the chance, you’ve got to really enjoy moments like this. That shows a lot, especially coming from a smaller town like that — you don’t see that a lot. We’ve had three in Greenback history, and all three have been within the past four years. ... That just means a lot, especially going toward the program and Coach Ryan.”
“(He’s) very well-deserving. Holden’s a great representative of the school and the community and the football team,” Greg Ryan, Greenback head football coach, added. “Obviously, his leadership on and off the field has been a great asset for the team, and his athletic ability is next to none. He really worked hard in the offseason of getting bigger, faster and stronger and getting to be a better all-around receiver. It’s another recognition to Greenback, and that’s just another great thing for us.”
Willis finished the season with 73 receptions for 1,729 yards and 32 total touchdowns. He was a playmaker on defense, recording 45 tackles, 34 assists and one interception. In addition, Willis also served as the team’s punter, averaging 40.4 yards per punt.
“Obviously, people develop in different ways, and as a young guy, he definitely had the motivation,” Ryan said. “I’m sure even Holden, ever since he was a little kid, had the desire to not only be on a winning team but to have the chance to play football at the next level. Any person that’s got that type of desire and is willing to push theirselves ... you can see that from a young age, he was willing to do whatever it takes to be the best that he can be. He’s done that, and he’s still working every day trying to get even better.”
Willis credits Ryan for his success as a player.
“Coach Ryan is a wonderful coach, and I’ve been able to work out under him and get better, run better routes, read defenses better and just understand football in general,” Willis said. “I’m sure if we brought Bryce (Hanley) back, last year’s attendant of this, he’d say the same thing. I mean, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Coach Ryan for what he’s done.”
Now that the high school football season is officially over, Willis will turn his attention to the recruiting process.
He holds six Division 1 offers for football from schools, including Tulane, Massachusetts, Austin Peay, Jacksonville State, Indiana State and Georgetown. The biggest news came two weeks ago when he was awarded a preferred walk-on offer with the University of Tennessee.
“It was kind of unbelievable at the time, I mean, when they first told us that, it was just kind of unexpected,” Willis said. “We went in there just thinking it was going to be just another game. We got to go watch and they talked to us. That came a little early, and we did not expect that. That’s big time, and that means a lot to our family, especially growing up in this state.”