STRATFORD—Reggie Willis grew up loving the world of sports. He could never imagine his life without it.
His parents urged him to pursue that passion with one simple caveat.
Do it in the classroom and you can do it on the field.
Willis did both over his entire Stratford High School career and tonight it pays off with his induction to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“First of all, it’s humbling and very exciting,” Willis said. “I was just saying to myself, wow, after 40-plus years, it all comes back along with the images of the things you were able to do. It’s really a great honor and I’m looking forward to tonight.”
Willis will be one of three former Stratford High standouts to be honored at Vazzano’s Four Seasons Banquet Hall, joining Carrie Pfister and James Lofton.
Born in Georgia, the Willis family moved to Stratford when he was just three years old.
The family lived near the Birdseye athletic complex, giving Willis and his friends a vast playground to explore and compete.
“We lived right around the corner,” Willis recalled. “We played football, basketball, baseball there. Snow, sleet, rain, we were always out playing.”
He played in the South End Little League, Stratford PONY League, and Pop Warner, all setting the stage for his future athletic career.
One of the highlights of his youth career came when he played Pop Warner Football and was the starting end on the 1974 Stratford Jets team that went undefeated (12-0) and travelled to Evanston, Ill., to play in and win the Windy City Bowl.
“I was pretty much a three-sport kid, but my first love was always baseball,” he said.
By the time Willis walked into the doors at Stratford High, he was ready for a three-year varsity career on the football field and baseball diamond.
He was a multi-time all-league player in multiple sports and also a first team All-New York Daily News (Fairfield County) team his senior year.
Watching some of his new hometown’s best—Nick Giaquinto, Claude Patterson, Lee Drake—inspired him to become the best player he could be.
“One of my spring rituals was getting out there and watching the older kids play,” Willis said. “I’d try to emulate them and the drills they did in my backyard.”
His flourished on the baseball, first as a first baseman and then as an outfielder, leading Stratford High to the cusp of a shot at a pair of state championship game appearances.
“There were so many (memories), but the one regret I have was never able to win a championship as a team,” Willis said. “My sophomore and senior years, we were really close, just one game away from playing in the championship game.”
After his playing days at Stratford ended, and he graduated in the spring of 1978, Willis took his baseball talents across the country, to Arizona State University.
He walked on and made the Sun Devils roster, getting a shot to play alongside former Major League Baseball players like Marty Barrett (Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres) and Alvin Davis (1984 Rookie of the Year with Seattle).
Injuries, however, would take their toll on him during his college career.
“A lot of injuries,” he said. “Legs, arms, all that.”
Willis, however, knew he went West for one thing. So instead of chasing any dreams of a bigger baseball career, he followed in his parent’s footsteps.
“My intent was always to go out there and get a degree,” he said. “That was my first goal and I did it in four years.”
He played some semi-pro ball in Iowa, but has since hopped around the country—Texas, New Hampshire, Illinois and back to Texas.
He currently lives in Plano, Texas, one of the high school capitals of the world, where he got to watch Kyler Murray player against his daughter’s high school.
After spending much of his professional life working for big companies like Kellogg, Clorox and PepsiCo, Willis now in his third year as a regional sales manager for Essential Water.
He’s been married for 34 years to his wife, Elaine, and has two daughters—Melanie and Blayre—and one grandson.