TAKING ON THE COMPETITION — Justin Willibey took on two Alden players during an S-GI game, this past season. Photo courtesy of the S-GI football program.
SPRINGVILLE — Springville-Griffith Institute senior football player Justin Willibey said he went into summer camp with one thing on his mind: To be the starting, left tackle. Willibey got the job, and his breakout season gave him the opportunity to continue playing football, at the college level.
“Honestly, it was nice to be a starter, my senior year,” Willibey said. “It’s the year that you work up to. I would go to the weight room, over the summer, all the time, [because] I knew that I wanted to start, this year. I worked my butt off, to make it happen.”
Willibey made the decision to attend and play football at Erie Community College, where he plans to study criminal justice.
As a junior at S-GI, he backed up two senior tackles, Troy Studd and Evan Brand. Studd was a fourth team, all-state selection, that year, and Brand was an all-division honorable mention. Willibey’s senior year was spent starting on a team that was the Section VI Class B runner-up.
“I think he understood that the step up to the varsity level was a significant step,” said S-GI varsity football coach John Sopko, about Willibey’s junior year. “He had some guys ahead of him who were clearly deserving to be on the field. Subsequently, both tackles went on to play, at the college level. He came into camp like this year was his opportunity, and I think that he put his energy into that. He was realizing that this was his time, and he put his energy into fulfilling that.”
The 6-foot, 2-inch, 220-pound tackle was a cog on the Griff’s offensive line, that was one of the top rushing teams in Western New York. Willibey, along with Tyler Studd, Brandon Ball, Bryce Stedmen and Reed Lipowicz, paved the way for four players to finish the season, with at least 400 rushing yards. The triple-option offense calls for multiple backs, to carry the ball. The offensive line controlled the trenches, that allowed six players to run for a touchdown. Willibey was one of three seniors, up front.
“Justin is still a work in progress; I don’t think, in any means, that he has peaked or plateaued,” Sopko said, about the senior. “He’s still developing and for him taking the next step, this being to the [junior college] level, I think that makes sense. He’s going to the next level, where he’s continuing to progress in his ability,” Sopko continued. “Plus, I think that he still has some football in him, that he wants to explore.”
Willibey’s senior year came on the heels of his mother Patti’s death from cancer, during his junior year. The senior said he dedicated his senior year to her, in aftermath of that loss during his junior year.
“I love you,” he told her. “I’m proud of you.
“I was pretty lost, but I realized I still have my family, that I have to take care of and be there for. It’s been pretty hard, but she always wanted to see me starting, so I was going to do anything to make it happen, my senior year,” the player explained.
On the field, the Griffins started the season 0 – 4. A 1-point loss against Salamanca, a triple-overtime loss to Eden, a last second hail Mary and finally, against East Aurora. Three starters had been injured and the Griffs lost by a touchdown, to fall to 0 – 4, then rallied off five, consecutive wins and made it to Ralph Wilson Stadium, for the Class B final.
“Being able to go to the Ralph was pretty cool; it was a good way to end things.” Willibey said.
The road to the Ralph also included hardships, in other football player’s personal lives. Two of Willibey’s teammates lost a parent, during the season. Willibey said he took the players under his wing, to offer some advice to his teammates that he had learned, months earlier.
“I’ve always found Justin to be respectful and considerate,” Sopko said.
STANDING PROUD — Justin Willibey is pictured, center, with football coaches Rob Valenti and John Sopko. Photo by Dave DeLuca.
“The old saying is that the challenges forge character. I think things like that can either break your character or strengthen your character. I think, with him, it just furthered his character, with what he’s gone through, personally. I think he dealt with it because of his character.”
Although the team ended up losing to Alden in the Class B title game, Springville finished 5 – 5.
“When we faced those hardships, the team came together more and more, like a family,” Willibey said. “With everything that happened, it just shows how much we actually meant to each other.”
Willibey is also part of the East Concord Volunteer Fire Department, where he said he does his best to help people.
“It’s the same reason I want to go into law enforcement,” he added. “When you’re in a situation, where you can do something that can help another person, it feels good.”
After graduation, Willibey will be an ECC Kat, playing football where he said he will look to play either on the offensive or defensive line.
“It’s a lot of fun. It challenges your brain, it challenges your body and it’s something that you have to work hard for,” Willibey said, of why he plays the game.
“It’s a fun team game. You hang out with your friends, you make friends. It’s a great way to get together with people that you like. I haven’t had enough of it yet. I don’t want to stop playing.”