The Florida Gators basketball team played to a packed out crowd on Saturday January 31. One person in the crowd was freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis.
He hung out in the student section, having fun with teammates and friends.
When his mother, April Justin, heard about this, she couldn’t help but express a little shock.
“I’m just surprised he was at a basketball game to tell you the truth”, she laughed. “But I’m glad he was socializing.”
You see, April knew what else was going on Saturday. While Willis was there, attempting to have a good time as a Florida student, he was dealing with an internal struggle — whether or not he wanted to even remain a student-athlete at Florida.
Willis’ one year as a Gator has been littered with turmoil.
He racked up 14 tackles during his five appearances, and one forced fumble that arguably saved the Gators bowl game against East Carolina. Yet it was his off the field exploits, and on the field sideline altercation, that most fans associate with Willis.
The first came during a fight with Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg following a practice. At the time, former head coach Will Muschamp brushed it off as a scuffle and compared it to a fight two brothers would have.
The second was more publicized, when Willis took a cheap shot on FSU quarterback Jameis Winston on the sideline during a game between the two teams.
Muschamp, who had already been fired by that game, told reporters afterwards “If I was still the head coach, he wouldn’t be on the team anymore.”
The final straw came after the bowl game during a third altercation. That was enough for administration, who kicked Willis off the team.
He will now be transferring to the University of Miami, where he will sit out a year to redshirt, per NCAA regulations.
In his National Signing Day press conference, Miami head coach Al Golden touched on Willis, saying “He’s a heck of a football player. Great motor. A guy we coveted a year ago.”
Willis and his mother spent most of the month of January trying to keep him at Florida, appealing the suspension and attempting to have Willis placed back on the football team.
According to Justin, the final altercation was with an alumni’s son and she felt that caused the UAA to act swiftly instead of properly.
“They could’ve suspended him”, she argued. “They’d rather just kick him off the full scholarship…but the NCAA doesn’t allow it. They tried to tell me that he wasn’t eligible to stay on scholarship but he’s eligible because if he’s eligible to play in a bowl game then he’s eligible to continue his academics until his scholarship runs out. They tried to throw out some days that he’d missed class, but when I spoke to [NCAA] Clearinghouse they said if he’s academically able to play in a bowl game then his academics are still there to continue his scholarship, throughout his scholarship. They have to honor it.”
With that information, Willis was able to be reinstated academically, and was attending classes again on scholarship. During that time, mother and son began appealing the football decision.
Justin told Gator Country back on January 13 that Willis goal was “ to remain apart of Gator Nation, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for that”.
Now on February 4, they say the uncertainty has grown too large, and it’s time to move on.
“I was fighting for him to be reinstated because I love being a gator mom, but due to circumstances, we can’t live off possibility…[Florida] might come back and say ‘all our scholarships are given away, we can’t reinstate you’ or they might say ‘we can’. But we can’t go off possibilities. And that’s what the possibility was.”
There was another possibility becoming much more real though, and that was to join the Miami Hurricanes program.
The Canes actively recruited the New Orleans native out of high school and he has a former Edna Karr High School teammate, tight end Standish Dobard, currently on the Miami roster.
Dobard, along with coaches that remembered Willis, started actively recruiting him again and at the end of last week Willis gave his mother a call.
“He calls me and was like ‘Yo mom what do you think about Miami?’ and was like ‘Miami?!’ and I was trying to talk him into staying, saying ‘You know there’s a possibility, there’s a chance, and you know they don’t have a pass rushing guy that they’re recruiting.’ And he said ‘Mama I can’t live off chance. This is my career and it wasn’t fair at the get-go so what makes you think it’s gonna be fair in the hearing?’”
Florida did end up signing a highly touted pass rusher in CeCe Jefferson. The 5 star defensive end picked Florida over Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama.
Stability won out and on Tuesday, Willis, a former 5 star recruit himself, called his mom back with a decision.
“He decided [Tuesday, February 3], he said ‘Mama I’m just gonna go for it’ and I said ‘I’m with you all the way, if that’s where you’re comfortable at.’ I wanted him to stay, but he has to be comfortable and he’s not comfortable there anymore… I’m happy that he did have the opportunity to do it, and be happy where he’s going and not be concerned about his future, waiting on what they’re gonna say at Florida. We didn’t know how long the process of being reinstated was.”
While recruits all over the country signed their national letters of intent, Willis and his parents signed the necessary paperwork to send him to Miami.
Now they begin one more waiting process, but this one they know the timeline for at the outset. Willis will sit out a year and then it’s back to the field.
“He’s gonna be hungry come 2016”, Justin assures.
“He’s gonna rip some heads off in the ACC. It’s just a learning experience and it’s a growth and maturity experience. So everything right now, I live by faith, so everything happens for a reason. “
When head coach Jim McElwain was asked about Gerald Willis transferring, he respond as if this was news to him, shrugging, before saying, “Ok good. Way to go.”