It’s 2 p.m. on Oct. 21, just moments before kickoff at Concordia Prep in Towson. A strong wind has the trees swaying as the sun dips in and out from under the cloud cover, but it’s a mostly pleasant afternoon.

The school’s community turned out in force to support the football team’s seniors, who were being honored during homecoming. The atmosphere is festive as the music blares, and the aromas of hot dogs and hamburgers travel far from the grill near the concession stand.

But the game will not be pleasant for the visiting team, Long Island Lutheran.

A major reason for that is Concordia’s 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior defensive end Ernest Willor Jr., an Under Armour All-American from Perry Hall who is ranked among the top 300 players in the country by ESPN. He is considered the top defensive end in Maryland, with over 30 scholarship offers from the top college programs in the country.

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Ernest Willor stands in a defensive position during practice.
Willor is the 10th-rated defensive end prospect in the class of 2024, according to ESPN. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“The experience [at IMG Academy] really helped me to get better, to develop my body and my mind. I loved being there and learned a lot about football. The type of stuff they teach you about playing your position and the preparation that goes in at IMG is crazy.”

Ernest Willor Jr.

When Ernest Willor Sr. arrived in America after fleeing a civil war in his home country of Liberia in West Africa, he was a former soccer and basketball player who knew nothing about American football.

That would change a few years later when Willor Jr., who’d been playing organized basketball and soccer, was in first grade. The young son approached his father with a pamphlet in hand with information about a local rec league tackle football program.

“Dad, can you register us for football?” Ernest Sr. remembers his son asking him. “I was thinking to myself, ‘you have got to be kidding me.’ I knew nothing about the game other than nobody could catch [then-Miami Dolphins running back] Ricky Williams. And I loved soccer and basketball. But it was something he wanted to do, something he took the initiative to approach me about, so as a family we supported it.”

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While taking Willor Jr. back and forth to practices, Willor Sr. paid little attention to what was happening on the field. It wasn’t long before Ernest Jr. was recognized in youth football circles as an emerging talent.

“I was just being the parent, the driver, taking my kid to his practices and games,” Willor Sr. said. “I was just there. One time I was standing around and wasn’t watching what was going on. I started hearing all of these parents screaming, ‘Willor! Willor! Willor!’ I said, ‘What is my son doing to make all of these people scream his name?’ That’s when I really started paying attention to what he was doing and began studying, watching and learning about the game on YouTube.”

By 14 years old, Willor Jr. was viewed as a top college prospect after becoming a freshman starter for St. Paul’s School for Boys in Brooklandville.

The offers followed. During his sophomore season, one of the defensive coaches from Virginia Tech called to offer him a full scholarship.

“I was so happy in that moment, so ecstatic that I can’t even put it into words,” Willor Jr. said.

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Two years after that recruiting call, Willor Jr. holds 30 scholarship offers from powerhouses including USC, Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Michigan and Notre Dame.

“When I think about Ernest, the first thing that comes to mind is just how good of a human being he is,” Concordia Prep head coach Joseph Battaglia said. “For a kid that has so many accolades and so much hype surrounding him, with all of these recruiting opportunities because he’s one of the top-ranked players in the country, he’s so down to earth and selfless. He’s on the sidelines, cheering on his teammates, bringing them water when he’s not on the field. It’s really fun to coach him and be a part of his life.”

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Coach Joe Battaglia gestures with his hands raised as he talks to the team kneeling around him.
Concordia Prep coach Joseph Battaglia talks to the team at the end of practice last week. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“For a kid that has so many accolades and so much hype surrounding him, with all of these recruiting opportunities because he’s one of the top-ranked players in the country, he’s so down to earth and selfless.”

Concordia Prep coach Joseph Battaglia on Ernest Willor Jr.

After his sophomore year at St. Paul’s, Willor Jr. was approached by a coach from IMG Academy, the boarding school and football factory in Bradenton, Florida, that plays a national schedule and is routinely ranked among the best teams in the nation.

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Willor Jr. sat down with his parents, younger brother and sister to discuss the best way to move forward.

“As a father, it was easy for me to let him go to IMG,” Willor Sr. said. “I wasn’t worried about him. He had already been traveling across the country playing AAU basketball since he was 12. He is going to be a man one day. Eventually, he’s going to college, and this would help better prepare him for when he ultimately takes that next step.”

Willor Jr. thrived at IMG, playing for a dominant defense that surrendered an average of only three points per game.

“My parents were supportive and thought the opportunity to play with and against the best players in the country would benefit me,” Willor Jr. said. “The experience really helped me to get better, to develop my body and my mind. I loved being there and learned a lot about football. The type of stuff they teach you about playing your position and the preparation that goes in at IMG is crazy.”

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Last summer, his father convened a family meeting to share his thoughts on his eldest son’s immediate future.

“You’ve worked so hard for everything you’ve gotten at this point,” Willor Jr. recalls his father telling him. “I think it would be a good idea for you to come home and have a real senior experience in school where your family and friends can support you and watch you play before you go off to college. You didn’t go to IMG for exposure, and you already had everything you needed to get to the next level when you got there.”

And thus, with everyone at the table in full agreement, the decision was made for Willor Jr. to come home.

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Against Long Island Lutheran, Willor Jr.’s versatility, strength and explosiveness were evident from the first snap. He changed direction easily while chasing down running backs and a scrambling quarterback.

Concordia Prep held a 7-0 lead with 5:09 left in the first quarter as Long Island Lutheran faced first-and-10 from its own 25-yard line. Willor Jr. exploded out of his four-point stance and overwhelmed the right tackle. His bull rush move pushed the overmatched blocker into the backfield, allowing Willor Jr. to toss him aside and smother the running back for a 6-yard loss.

“His size and explosiveness is elite,” Battaglia said. “And, in addition to his raw ability, he’s a really hard worker that’s always training and looking to improve despite the fact that he’s such a talent already. That speaks well for what the future holds for him.”

With 2:19 left in the second quarter, Willor Jr. bursts off the line with one powerful step, then drops back into coverage. The pass sails at least nine feet above the grass.

Willor Jr. seems to snap back to his days playing AAU basketball. He soars to snag the pass with two hands, coming down with an impressive and improbable interception.

Concordia Prep’s defense dominates throughout the 26-7 victory in its last home game of the season, bringing its record to 7-1. The final two games are on the road against Boys Latin on Saturday and Mount Carmel on Nov. 3.

One of his former basketball coaches is not surprised by Willor Jr.’s athletic acumen, along with his hands and advanced footwork.

“Ernest changed the entire dynamic of our team just by what type of person he was,” said Nardie Bogues, who coaches for Team Thrill, NBA player and Baltimore native Will Barton’s local AAU program. “He was unguardable on the basketball court. To have seen him grow brings a tear to my eyes. He’s so respectful, and he comes from a great home. He has such a bright future.”

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As for what’s next, Willor Jr. said he won’t take official visits or make his college choice until after his senior season.

Although most elite high school athletes prefer to sign their letters of intent early, a few wait. Out of the top 100 players in the ESPN rankings, Willor Jr. is one of only seven players who has yet to commit.

He plans to gather as much information as possible before sitting down with his family to work through his final decision. The NCAA’s final signing date is April 1.

Until then, he’ll spend his idle time doing his favorite activity, listening to music.

“I try to listen to two new artists every day,” Willor Jr. said. “Music speaks to my soul. My favorites right now are Future, J Cole, Lil Baby, Brent Faiyaz, Tory Lanez and a few others, you know, that good stuff.”

He plans to major in kinesiology and thinks medical school might be in his future. But pursuing a career in coaching is also on the table.

“I love this game, and I like helping people get to where they want to go in life,” Willor Jr. said. “I come from a family that believes in helping others when the opportunity presents itself. I would love to be of service to whoever might need me.”

That is, of course, unless you’re an opposing quarterback.

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic. 

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