LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ralph Wilson, better known as “Chopper” at Ninth Street Parlor, just shaved and cut his hair from Liberty University football coach Hugh Freeze. The 56-year-old hairstylist wanted the coach to look extra good because what he stressed was the greatest day of his life in this city, best known as the home of television evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.
“It’s going to explode,” Chopper said late Monday afternoon. “MAAA-on, it’s going to explode!”
Chopper spoke about the pro day at Liberty University, which barely bounced on the NFL radar through Tuesday. Instead of the typical eight to 10 scouts, who are barely enough to conduct the wide assortment of drills, there will be 120 NFL coaches, scouts and front office staff on campus.
Instead of one or two players hoping to be a late round pick or an undrafted pickup, 19 will be seen.
All 32 NFL teams will be represented, but some more than others. The Carolina Panthers, who are No. 6 overall and looking for a quarterback, will be in full swing with general manager Scott Fitterer, head coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and others, just as Pittsburgh did Monday for quarterback Kenny Pickett.
ESPN and NFL Network will host live shows on the campus surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
They’re all here for one player: senior quarterback Malik Willis, whose never-before-seen talent in this area has put Liberty on the NFL map in a way few, if any, have ever imagined.
Even the city manager called and offered his help.
“I don’t think I can quantify that [what this day means]’ said Frost. “All I know is that it’s huge.”
“This is monumental”
The school has spent weeks preparing for Pro Day, an event in which it has had little investment in the past. Chopper, who half-jokingly claims he looks like a combination of Magic Johnson and George Foreman, says people in the salon have been talking about it ever since Willis emerged as a first-round pick – maybe top 10 – to be could draft April.
It reminds Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw of the time Robert Griffin III (the 2012 No. 2 overall) had his pro day at Baylor when McCaw was AD there. He called that the turning point of this program because of the exposure.
McCaw said Tuesday was an even bigger one for Liberty, calling it a “unique event” like the Super Bowl coming to this sleepy town on the James River.
Griffin, now an analyst at ESPN, agreed. He recalled that Baylor attended a major conference and had a football history that Liberty as the FBS Independent did not.
RGIII had never heard of Liberty before McCaw came here in 2016, and even then he didn’t pay him much attention before Willis arrived as a transfer from Auburn in 2019.
“I thought Liberty was just writing on the Statue of Liberty,” Griffin said, laughing. “We all learned more about it through Malik Willis. Now the entire NFL community, the whole world, is going to know about it.”
Javon Hubbard, the NFL liaison for Liberty Football, hopes so. He oversaw the preparation of the facilities and planned every detail for the arrival of this “who’s who” group from the league.
Liberty had only one first-round pick in its history—tight end Eric Green, 1990 21st overall after Pittsburgh. Since then, no player has been selected higher than in the fourth round, and only three players were drafted at all during that time.
Fortunately for Hubbard, the facilities rival those of most major football programs, starting with a state-of-the-art indoor facility where most practices were held. So this part wasn’t difficult.
The rest was like drawing up a blueprint for a new house. He has transitioned from a few members of the football team and communications department organizing the event to having the entire sports department at his disposal.
It’s all hands on deck. All other football-related activities for the day have been canceled even though the team is in the middle of spring training.
Everyone wants to convey the message to those who have never been to campus that the football brand and facilities here are better than is perceived nationally.
That, in turn, could help convince more players with Willis talent to choose Liberty.
“This is monumental,” Hubbard said.
At his hair salon, Chopper vividly recalled when Coach Freeze sat in his leather chair in 2019 and talked about a kid he brought with him who had attempted just 14 passes in 15 games at Auburn. He recalled Freeze saying the boy didn’t know how good he was.
But Freeze told him that the boy was special that day and would change Liberty’s program.
That showed up on Tuesday.
“It’s an unprecedented branding opportunity,” said McCaw.
In a way, Freeze says Tuesday is bigger than his 2016 class at Ole Miss, which had three players — tackle Laremy Tunsil (No. 13), wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (23) and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (29) — go in the first round.
That’s because first rounds, or even great stories, weren’t new to Ole Miss. In 2009, the story about left tackle Michael Oher, who was voted No. 23 by Baltimore two years earlier, became a Hollywood hit in the film The Blind Page.”’
But Willis’s notoriety brings him into contact with many of the other players who might have been overlooked had he not become a star.
“I took a picture [on Monday]not just with Malik, but with all the other guys — some I think will surprise some people and have a chance to get into the rosters and do well,” Freeze said.
Griffin, who was Willis’ mentor at the NFL Combine last month, said that’s the attitude he had in 2012. As the Washington Commanders’ second pick that year, Griffin said he attended Baylor’s Pro Day to help others’ stocks. not himself.
“Malik does it for the same reason,” Griffin said. “He wants to put every other player at Liberty in the spotlight and show NFL teams that they have talent there.
“It means a lot because it shows me that he understands.”
Between spring training and preparing for pro day, Freeze has had little time to relax over the past month. Chopper did this in his barber chair for about an hour and a half.
“He was just snoring,” he said.
Tuesday was wide open, starting with check-ins at 9:00 a.m. and weight room testing at 10:00 a.m
The schedule calls for Willis, who led Liberty to a 17-6 record while passing for 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns in two seasons, not to appear until 1 p.m. lest he steal the spotlight early.
But Willis, considered undersized at 6ft, 225lbs, will steal the spotlight on draft day. The Panthers see him as a possibility, just like they are Pickett.
They are looking for a franchise quarterback after failing to trade for the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson last week, who chose the Cleveland Browns over the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Panthers.
The New York Giants (Nos. 5 and 7) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 8) could also attempt to draft a quarterback in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks (No. 9), Commanders (No. 11), Philadelphia Eagles (Nos. 15, 16, and 19), and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20) also have long-term questions about the quarterback.
Chopper and his customers try to figure out where Willis will end up every day. They can’t wait to celebrate the first round with a “really cold beer” at the opposite end of the Ninth Street Parlor.
Griffin believes that whoever picks Willis gets a “special talent” that can hit you with his arms and legs, especially when the protection breaks down. He believes the team will also get someone special, recalling that Willis was captured on social media homeless man harvesting a shirt from his suitcase.
But Tuesday, Griffin noted, was all about what Willis did for Liberty.
“It will do wonders for this university,” he said. “Liberty will see the benefits of Malik Willis for the next 10 years.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/33568671/nfl-quarterback-prospect-malik-willis-brings-once-life-pro-day-liberty Future NFL quarterback Malik Willis brings Liberty a once-in-a-lifetime pro day