Stories of Steel: Willis Was a Standout Defensive End for the Steelers of the 80s


It was a game that would remind us to never give up till its over. The greatest comeback in NFL history pitted a Moon led Oilers team against Jim Kelly’s Frank Reich’s Bills. Buffalo fans were not shy about showing their disappointment when their team went down by 32 points. After emptying their 4-letter vocabularies, most left shortly after halftime. To say the tides turned would be say Harry Potter made some money at the box office, but turn they did. The Bills came back and won that game. As the game turned around, fans who had fled the game and headed home, left their cars on the freeways and tried to climb BACK into the stadium to see the finish. Keith Willis, on the field that day, called that game “electric”. It was one of the last games he would ever play in, the end of a storied twelve year career in the NFL.

Chuck Noll took chances on a lot of guys who didn’t exactly look like good picks on paper. But what those guys didnt have in stature or stats, they more than made up for with a desire to prove themselves as players; in 1982 Willis was just that, an overachiever in a sense. How does a scrawny 235 pound guy record 14 sacks in just his second season, with 3.5 in the Seattle game alone? The answer, is with speed and agility and a rock solid belief in his ability. Willis learned early on to keep things simple, see the ball – get the ball. That paralysis from analysis philosophy landed him near the top of the Steelers all-time list in sacks. (The sack wasn’t actually recorded as a stat until 1982, so that takes guys like Greene, Greenwood out of the official equation). Willis shared his quarterback hunting moves with NBC commentator Paul McGuire in a 1988 pregame show. (note that no animals or television personalities were harmed in the filming of this clip).

Fast forward to an august afternoon in North Carolina. The sun is scorching and the heat unrelenting. The Wolf Pack is practicing, readying themselves for the upcoming ACC season. The Defensive Line coach, wearing full sweats, including a hoodie despite the raging temperatures, is teaching his guys some new drills. “When I was with the Steelers, Coach Kolb used to make stuff up, on the spot. I guess I do that now too.” What he learned as a Steeler, and is now teaching his team today, is to look at their jobs from an offensive perspective, see how those guys are moving and counter. At State, he’s got his work cut out for him, showing an inexperienced bunch how to bull rush a quarterback and defeat a trap block. Could be a tough task for some guys, but for an ex-NFL lineman who made the team as a free agent in ‘82, and was deemed to be too small to make an impact, its nothing. He knows a little something about beating the odds. (note the Pack finished 8-5 this year, with wins over #8 Clemson, where they held the tigers to just 13 points, and UNC-Chapel Hill. I live here in Carolina. I know that if you beat your cross town rival its great. if you shut them out its mardi gras. State won that game 13-0).

Willis went out in 1988 with a neck injury and missed the entire season. The next year he recorded 6.5 sacks and 32 tackles to earn him the team’s Ed Block Courage Award, given to one player on each team, voted by their teammates as role models of inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage. He would only play one more season for the black and gold before finishing his career as a reserve, with Buffalo in a loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII.

Willis grew up in Jersey, and didn’t even touch the pigskin until late in High School. He then started all four years at Northeastern, leading the team in sacks 3 times. He says it was pure luck that he was discoverd, scouts never really ventured that far north to a game in New Hampshire.  Funny thing, it wasn’t even him they were looking at.  But Willis  had a great game and the scout, a guy named Bill Nuun took notice. Who would have ever thought an undersized guy from Northeastern would lead the Pittsburgh Steelers in sacks for two seasons. Keith Willis did. That’s who.

He’s a modest guy, unassuming. He’s not one to brag about his playing days and on most occasions you’d have to prod him pretty good to get him to talk. The players he has coached respect him for what he has done, but more importantly relish him for bringing out their best. He’s all in with these kids. He says “the one thing I try to stress to the players is that they believe in their abilities…I try to get all of our defensive linemen to reach their potential”.

Willis retired from the NFL in 1993 and soon after took a position as the D line coach at ‘The Rock’, where he helped the team to reach the Division 2 semifinals. From there he went to Cincinnati and immediately made an impact in just two short years on the staff.  Wanting to return to his roots on the far-east coast, he took a job with Boston College in 2001 and brought the defense to a number one Big East ranking in 2004, and that is also where his son later joined the team, as a defensive tackle. Both have since moved south to NC State in Raleigh North Carolina, where Willis is still coaching the Defensive line, “I love it, I love coaching these young men and being able to use my experience getting to the NFL to help these kids”.

Willis speaks fondly of his days in Pittsburgh, going against Tunch Ilkin in practice, learning how to give the media a whole bunch of nothing from Larry Brown, locker room pranking with Bradshaw– who Keith calls a ‘goofy dude’. But really, “the fans made me, they accepted me and I owe them so much… the fans in Pittsburgh kept me going”. Hear that Steeler Nation?