Derek Lewis knows what it is like. Growing up in Louisiana every kid that straps on a helmet dreams of one day running out of the tunnel on a Saturday night in Death Valley. It’s part of the reason Les Miles has been so successful keeping the most talented players the state has to offer close to home.
Lewis bucked that trend, opting for the University of Texas. His familiarity with the area as well as being able to share the experience of leaving the state for college is part of the reason Florida uses him as the recruiter for the state of Louisiana. Lewis, however, had never been able to sway a recruit from his home state to Gainesville until last year. Lewis can’t get all the credit; Florida got a lot of help from a very unlikely source.
Flashback to 2011, April Justin was mad and she let her feelings be seen and heard on national television. Her first son, Landon Collins, had just opted to attend Alabama and not LSU. Justin let her feelings be known, she wanted her son to stay close to home and he just announced that he would be going some 300 miles away for school.
“Going against the wishes of my mom was very hard because we didn’t speak to each other,” Collins said. “To see the outcome now she’s very proud of what I’ve done.”
Justin’s younger son — Gerald — stood on the stage that day and watched his brother make his college decision. He took it all in knowing that in a few short years, he would be up on that stage, making the same life changing choice.
Much like his older brother, Willis narrowed down a long list of suitors to just two schools — the home state Tigers and the Florida Gators.
In the cutthroat blood sport that can be recruiting, it’s not common for a rival to help you out on the trail. But Florida had a friend across enemy lines in the form of Collins.
“I just said follow where your heart wants to be and he told me that he didn’t want to let any coaches down. I said it’s not about the coaches; it’s about where you want to be and where you’re comfortable at.”
Collins and Willis were very close growing up. The two competed at an early age and pushed each other throughout their childhood and into high school. They grew up in New Orleans and it’s not easy to leave home. Gerald watched his brother do it and watched him achieve success at Alabama. But still, it doesn’t make leaving the state easy. Collins says he still gets grief from people in Louisiana about the decision he made three years ago and he’s advised his brother that he’ll get the same treatment.
Gerald looked up to his brother and when the time came for him to make a final decision on what school he would attend, Collins was an integral part and reason in Willis ultimately landing at Florida.
“I played a big factor in that because he questioned me on what he should do and what he should look for and what questions to ask,” Collins told Gator Country. “I told him what the keys where and he knew some of them because he was on every visit I took and he was with me through the process. He knew he could call me anytime.”
So April Justin sat on the very same stage she had three years earlier, another son ready to make a life-changing decision.
“I’m going to take my talents to Gainesville, Florida. Florida Gators,” Willis said sitting next to his mom. He sealed the commitment with a Gator chomp. When asked how she felt, Justin responded, “It is what it is. Florida Gators, that’s where we’ll be. But LSU is still number one.”
She had lived through this once before but that didn’t make it easier for her.
“It wasn’t easier for Gerald with my mom either,” said Collins. “She wanted him to stay home but he wanted to go somewhere else. She didn’t get as mad with Gerald because she knows her sons and she knew they didn’t want to stay instate.”
Luckily for Justin, both of her boys will be in the same stadium at least one time this year when Florida travels to Tuscaloosa. She’ll be in the stand and, for at least one day, she’ll get what she wanted. She’ll be able to watch both her boys play in the same stadium.