Dec. 22, 1997
Wills Makes Notre Dame Dream a Reality
By Brian Lucas
Since the 1971-72 season, Notre Dame has had 31 student walk-on players. Prior to this season, only two of those non-scholarship athletes competed on the basketball team for four years, Tim Healy (1976-80) and Marc Kelly (1978-82). This season, senior Nick Wills enters that exclusive group.
"When we're looking at walk-ons, we want to find people who can help us simulate offensive or defensive situations that our opponents may run," coach John MacLeod says. "We look for kids that are willing to take the time needed for this commitment, because it is a commitment."
Wills, a 6-5 forward, obviously fits that description. He made the team as a freshman in 1994, one of three walk-ons taken that year (Matt Vankowski and Kevin Ryan were the others). A native of Mendota Heights, Minn., he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds his senior year at St. Thomas Academy, earning all-conference honors. When looking for a school, there was really only one choice.
"I thought about going to a lot of different places, even some Division I schools," Wills says. "But since I was very young, about fourth grade, my dream has been to play basketball for Notre Dame. When I got in here, it was all over."
Wills has made the most of his athletic and academic opportunities. Entering the fall semester, he owned a 3.416 cumulative grade point average after earning a 3.773 in the spring of 1997 and making the Dean's List. With practice taking up at least two hours of every day, the balance between athletics and academics is a delicate one but one that Wills has learned to handle.
"It's really difficult, but everyone does it," Wills says. "Labs are tricky but you really learn how to organize your time. It's one of those things that will hopefully help you later in life."
Enrolled in the College of Science with a pre-professional major, Wills plans on going to medical school after graduation in hopes of becoming a doctor.
"A lot of my time here has been spent trying to prepare to be a doctor," Wills says. "Basketball takes up a lot of time but right after that is preparing for medical school. I've wanted to be a doctor for as long as I've wanted to play basketball for Notre Dame."
Becoming a doctor is a long, hard road. But so was making the basketball team. Each year tryouts are held and students compete for the two or three walk-on roster positions. In the couple of days that tryouts last, the players have to make an impression on the coaching staff that they are willing to work and dedicated enough to make a commitment for such an unsung role. Wills did that.
"What impressed me was that he was so darned aggressive," MacLeod says. "He went to the offensive boards very hard and gave a great effort every day."
That effort has paid dividends for Wills. He takes his position on the team seriously and works diligently to improve his game. Though he sees most of his action in practice, Wills prepares for each game as though he will see significant playing time.
"You have to learn a lot by watching, which is really difficult in athletics," Wills says. "Coach MacLeod is great and gives the walk-ons a lot of opportunities in practice. In addition, I get to guard Pat Garrity which is probably the best preparation a person could have."
Wills got the opportunity to put that practice time to use on January 23, 1996 when the Irish traveled to Coral Gables, Florida to take on BIG EAST rival Miami. With center Phil Hickey not making the trip, Wills traveled with the team to face the Hurricanes. Already thin upfront, the walk-on forward received playing time when Garrity and Marcus Young got into foul trouble in the first half. Though he played only two minutes and didn't attempt a shot in the 72-64 loss, Wills' contribution didn't go unnoticed.
"Nick is very bright," MacLeod says. "We had some foul trouble and when we put him in there, he knew exactly what to do. He had the poise and intelligence to do the things we wanted him to do."
Wills got another chance eight days later, this time playing in Madison Square Garden against St. John's. The Irish won the game 86-83 to claim a road BIG EAST victory. Wills saw time in important stretches of critical games.
"It was amazing," says Wills. "Playing in Madison Square Garden was one of my greatest athletic moments. What really made me feel good was that coach trusted me enough to put me in a tight spot. That was about as good as you can hope for, playing in an important game in the Garden."
Being ready for anything is fairly easy for a kid who earned varsity letters in five sports in high school. In addition to basketball, Wills was the starting goalie on the soccer team, hit .380 as a centerfielder on the baseball team, and competed on a golf team that finished second in the state. He also became the first athlete in school history to play football and soccer in the same season, as he handled kicking duties for the football team. Being successful in so many different endeavors is a tough chore, Wills not only flourishes on the playing field. His attitude goes a long way towards making him successful off the court as well.
"He is a great representative of Notre Dame basketball," MacLeod says. "He has a super attitude and loves being a part of Notre Dame and of this basketball team."
"I've gotten so much more out of playing basketball here than I could have ever put into it," the senior says. "It's been a wonderful experience."
The only way that experience could get any better would be for Wills' parents to be able to share more of it with him. His father never missed a game when Nick was in high school but the trek from Minnesota is too long for that now. These days, Wills' parents make the trip to South Bend about two or three times a year.
"I get really pumped up when they're here," Wills says. "It's not like high school where I know I'll be playing all the time but it's definitely special. Things are right when they're here."
It takes a special person to endure the hard work and dedication that is necessary to be a walk-on, spending most of your time playing outside of the spotlight. For four years, Nick Wills has done it and he has enjoyed every minute of it.