Less than three minutes remained in Howard University's season-opening game last weekend against Southern University at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Bison held a 26-21 lead, but Southern, with Nathaniel Harrison, one of the top quarterbacks in Division I-AA, was 49 yards away from taking the lead.
"I had been sitting out for a while because my shoulder was aching and I have a pulled groin," said Howard defensive end Gary Willingham. "But when our defense went on the field, I didn't ask anyone -- I just went back out there on my own. I am a senior and I had to be out there for the last drive. I figured I had all week to heal."
Southern had moved to the Howard 30 with 1:30 to go when Harrison aimed for wide receiver Cornell Johnson in the end zone. As Harrison released the ball, Willingham's hand went into the passer's chest. The ball fluttered short, enabling Bison cornerback Walter Price to intercept at the 4.
To relieve the pain of the groin injury, Willingham had spent several days prior to the game on crutches. But before 10 minutes expired in the Los Angeles Football Classic, Willingham had already sacked Harrison twice and tackled Southern tailback Barry Kimbrough for a three-yard loss.
Willingham is a 6-foot-3, 260-pound fifth-year senior from Atlanta who has spent more of his time at Howard nursing injuries than chasing quarterbacks. Entering this season, he had 15 career sacks. Sunday, he finished with three and was named the game's most valuable player.
Howard Coach Steve Wilson said this year's Bison are different from last year's version, which finished a surprising 8-3 and won its final four games. Wilson said his current team has no clear-cut leader.
"If we have a rah-rah guy, it is Gary," said Wilson. "But he backed that up in this game. He dominated the game. I have always felt a leader is not someone you choose. Leaders rise to the occasion to make the big play and we saw that from Gary on Sunday. He was on crutches last week and then he plays like that. Gary is a guy who, if he can walk, he will play."
Before the season, defensive coordinator Rubin Carter said Willingham's play would dictate much of Howard's success.
"Gary Willingham must have an excellent season for us," said Carter. "He is a big play man. He gives us strength and quickness."
Willingham, nose tackle Brian Taltoan and right end Ransom Miller were the main problems for the Southern offense, said Harrison.
"We could handle their secondary," said Harrison. "But those guys up front just kept coming all day."
Overall, Howard had eight sacks Sunday. That overshadowed the fact that the Bison allowed only 66 net yards rushing.
The Bison are likely to face only three other opponents that primarily throw the ball. One of them will be Morris Brown, Saturday's opponent for Howard's home opener.
Although Wilson does not expect the Bison to approach their statistical success of last season when they led Division I-AA in total defense and scoring defense, he saw enough Sunday to issue a warning to future opponents.
"If you can't run against us," said Wilson. "You better be prepared to handle the pressure we will put on your quarterback."
Wilson said he expects Willingham and quarterback Donald Carr, who left Sunday's game twice after taking hard shots, to start this week. . . . Howard is 15-2 at home since Greene Stadium was refurbished in 1987. . . . Morris Brown, a member of the NAIA Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, will play on only five days rest. The Atlanta school (3-7 last season) was a 13-9 winner over Clark College Monday. The Bison are 18-1 against non-I-AA opponents since losing to Winston-Salem State in 1985.