The bar was set pretty high for Drew Willy when it came to excelling at sports, but the competitive fire that burns inside the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback didn’t come from his male role models.
“My mom is definitely where I get my competitiveness from,” Willy said this week during an interview with The Canadian Press.
“She never lost a game of basketball throughout her high school career. She’s in the Nebraska sports hall of fame for high school for three sports: basketball, track and volleyball.”
While his mother, Diane Minihane, supported her children in their sports endeavours, she’d also occasionally rib them about her winning streak.
“Whenever we lost a game in high school, she was quick to point it out — but in a loving way,” Willy said with a grin.
He was also a three-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball and baseball in Randolph, N.J. It was football, though, where he stood out, setting Randolph High records for career passing yards and touchdowns.
His accomplishments grew when he went to university, and soon he’ll have his own hall-of-fame induction on his sports resume.
The 27-year-old is being inducted into the University at Buffalo Athletics Hall of Fame on Sept. 11, although he can’t attend as the Bombers have a game two days later in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions.
Willy started all four years at the state university of New York and graduated in 2009 with 15 school passing records. He led the U at Buffalo Bulls to a 2008 Mid-American Conference (MAC) title in a game against undefeated Ball State. The victory was the Bulls’ first in program history over a Top 25 team.
“It definitely means a lot to me,” Willy said of the induction. “Where we were as a program when I first got there, we weren’t winning too many games.”
That scenario is familiar to Bomber fans, who watched their team plummet to a league-worst 3-15 record last season.
But all that started changing when the six-foot-three, 215-pound Willy was acquired from Saskatchewan in the off-season in exchange for receiver Jade Etienne.
Willy, who’d spent two seasons and made four starts for the Riders, was set to become a free agent, but the Bombers signed him to a deal and then named him the starter.
He returned that vote of confidence by helping the team open with a 5-1 mark, sparking overjoyed fans to call their home city “Willypeg.”
Willy gives an embarrassed smile when the unofficial name change is brought up, but he understands fans are starved for a team to cheer about.
If Willy can engineer a victory for the Bombers (6-3) on Sunday against his former team, who knows, fans might start calling the province Drewtoba. The defending Grey Cup-champion Roughriders (6-2) have won the past nine Labour Day Classic games.
Willy’s connection to the CFL began years before the Riders signed him.
One of his mentors at U at Buffalo was Danny Barrett, Saskatchewan’s former head coach and long-time CFL quarterback. Barrett was the Bulls’ quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach during some of Willy’s time there and they still text each other.
Barrett had talked to Bombers assistant general manager and director of U.S. scouting Danny McManus about Willy’s work ethic and his intangibles.
“He just says, ‘What Drew has is what every quarterback needs to have, he has a short memory. He doesn’t think about what just happened, he’s always thinking about what’s going to happen,’" McManus recalled in a phone call from Florida.
“That really got me because that’s one of the things that me and Danny Barrett talked about back when we were playing. Once the play’s over, you’ve got to forget about it and go to the next one.”
It was that kind of info McManus, a CFL pivot for 17 seasons, passed along when Winnipeg’s football brass was brainstorming about acquiring a quarterback in the off-season.
Willy has been cool under pressure, guiding the Bombers to four fourth-quarter comebacks this season. He said he learned patience from his stepdad and his father, both who played sports.
His mother and father, Steve Willy, divorced when he was two years old and his mom remarried Chris Minihane three years later. His father also remarried and the blended family includes Willy, three brothers and two sisters.
His step-dad, a property manager, took Willy to high-level sports camps. His father, a former high school quarterback, is a golf pro and manages golf courses in Atlanta.
Despite his parents’ breakup, Willy said they’ve watched him play two home and three away games this season.
“They’ve done a great job of supporting me,” he said. “Even when they come to games, they’re able to sit together, able to go to dinner afterwards. They’ve done a good job being able to co-exist as parents. They just want the best for their kids.”
Willy also has another strong supporter in fiancee Hillary Turkovitz, whom he met in college and will marry this coming April.
A registered dietitian, Turkovitz tries to keep the balance in their lives.
“She’s always telling me to kind of just get away from football sometimes and put my mind on something else,” Willy said. “I’ll go home and watch the film right after the game and she’s telling me to put the iPad down for a minute.”
Bombers receiver Nick Moore, who rooms with Willy on the road, said his teammate enjoys joking around, but he’s really a “business-first guy.”
“He goes to sleep really early, around 9:30, 10, so I try to be as quiet as possible, keep the TV off, keep the noise down to a minimum,” Moore said.
“He wakes early, around eight, 8:30, goes gets breakfast, comes back, watches film all day and then around 15 minutes before it’s time to leave (to a game), he finally puts his iPad down.”
Brief stints with four NFL clubs helped hone Willy’s work ethic, especially while with the Indianapolis Colts and star QB Peyton Manning in 2009.
“You watch from a distance, at walkthroughs, media sessions, in the meeting room. Just the way he looks at film, the way he’s in meetings,” Willy said.
“He’s very well-spoken and at the same time he can relate to a lot of different people. He has that charisma about him that he can bring everyone together. I think that’s what makes him such a great leader. He’s so well prepared, he knows everyone’s job. He knows what he wants to get accomplished, he has a plan and he sticks to it.”
Funny, those are some of the traits Willy’s Winnipeg teammates use to describe his development into a leader.
“He’s like a robot,” veteran Bombers offensive lineman Glenn January said.
“The way that he leads is to be consistent. You can’t tell if we’re up by 30 or down by 30 whenever he enters that huddle. That quiet confidence is the easiest way that he’s found to motivate the offence.”
It’s that type of belief in Willy that Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea was hoping to see ever since he made the bold move of anointing him the team’s starter after his signing.
“I didn’t hesitate,” O’Shea said. “I thought it was the only way to go in this marketplace.
“You’ve got a guy you believe in, you let everybody know that you believe in him so that now there’s someone players can follow. There’s a starting point.”