COLUMBIA — As "crazy" as he can be on the field, Battle High School's Marshall Willingham is a man searching for peace when he's off the gridiron.
Willingham was at peace — or, perhaps more accurately, tired — following Tuesday's practice. He and his teammates had just finished running a series of down-and-back sprints, and he took a knee in the corner of Battle's practice field.
Battle High School (1-1) at Butler High School (1-1)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Butler High School
As his teammates left the field and the sun began to set, a shirtless Willingham placed his No. 44 practice jersey and shoulder pads on his right side. The Spartans' stadium was visible over his right shoulder. Behind him, a player and a coach remained on the field, throwing a football.
Willingham had tan lines on his shoulders where his pads had rested. His arms were red from another practice in the hot afternoon sun. He leaned in and smiled as he talked about his role as the Spartans' "hype man."
"I'm like the hype man for the team," he said. "On the field, I'm gonna be screaming, I'm gonna be hyping up and I'm gonna try to scare the other team. It's ... making sure our guys come out with all the intensity they have in their body and ready to play."
Willingham and the Spartans are scheduled to travel to Class 2 Butler High School on Friday. Butler is coming off its first win of the season.
Battle's "hype man" is an intense player who sees time at several different positions. He's racked up some impressive stats in his first two games of the season. While his emotions sometimes get the best of him, he's learned to play with a "short-term memory" and be a role model for his teammates. When he's off the field, he's a completely different person, likening himself to a "big teddy bear."
The 5-11, 200-pound junior is the captain of the defense and plays middle linebacker. He also stars at running back, fullback and on special teams. On special teams, he likes his role on Battle's "crack squad" — the kickoff team — because he gets to go down field and lower the boom on opposing players.
As a linebacker, Willingham says he has a "knack for getting to the ball." His stats back up that claim. He leads the team in solo tackles (15), assists (eight) and tackles for loss (three).
His offensive numbers are equally impressive, especially considering the stable of productive running backs the Spartans have.
On just 11 carries, Willingham has racked up 224 yards and has found the end zone three times. He's averaging 20.4 yards per carry. His numbers are second only to teammate Nash Sutherlin, who's scored five times and has amassed 229 yards on 26 carries.
While Willingham is aware of his stats and has a personal goal of rushing for 1,000 yards, he says he doesn't get too hung up on the numbers.
"Stats are stats at the end of the day," he said. "You worry about stats too much, you forget the team aspect of it. You forget what you're trying to accomplish as a team."
Willingham's team orientation is apparent when you talk with him, and it's the main reason he's working to curtail his emotions on the field. He's an intense player — he got flagged for a celebration penalty in his first game after scoring a touchdown (the touchdown was negated by a holding call, and the yardage from the celebration penalty was tacked on).
"They're silly penalties, but I'm just a crazy guy. I let loose," he said. "It got me in some trouble, 'cause people had kinda targeted me as a guy who was supposed to lead the team. It's hard to settle yourself down. ... It's a work in progress for me. Next week if I score, I won't have that problem."
Willingham is cognizant of the mistakes he and his team have made, but he said it's important to play football with a "short-term memory."
"You're gonna get angry," Willingham said. "Dropping a fumble, you're letting your entire team down ... but at the end of the day, you've got to let that play go."
Willingham is a believer in short-term memory, and he's trying to exhibit that philosophy for his team. The Spartans are a "young team," he said, and added that dwelling on bad plays hurts everyone's performance.
As intense and emotional as he is on the field, he's a completely different person off of it. A self-described "country boy," Willingham said he likes "big trucks and going mudding." In particular, he likes bow fishing and "finds peace" in the activity.
"I'm a guy that likes to find peace. I'm very crazy on the football field, and that's the only place I wanna be crazy. When you're out there bow fishing, it's nothing but the outside and you, trying to get a gar or a catfish," he said, a grin creeping onto his face. "That's a place where you can find peace right there."
Willingham compares his split personality to J. J. Watt, the Houston Texans' defensive end. Like Willingham, Watt is "absolutely nuts" on the field, a "big teddy bear" off of it. He said that fellow students around school refer to him as a "big softie" when he's not on the gridiron.
Willingham's confident that Battle learned a lot and proved something despite suffering the first loss in program history last week against Hannibal.
"Not every loss is completely bad," Willingham said. "You can take something from anything. At the end of the day, there's a positive out of everything. To look at (the Hannibal game), we took the positives out of that. We took a team that (was) very senior-heavy and showed them that youth has nothing to do with it. We have talent, speed and strength, and we're gonna give everything a 110 percent of what we have. And that's it."