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Former Ole Miss and NFL great Patrick Willis to give 2020 UM Commencement Address

Former Ole Miss and NFL great Patrick Willis will give the University of Mississippi’s 2020 Commencement speech next month.

The school announced on Monday that Willis will give the speech during the Class of 2020’s morning convocation inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at 8 a.m. on May 8.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford, chief executive officer for Habitat for Humanity International, is the speaker for the Class of 2021’s morning convocation, also at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, on May 1.

A four-year letter winner on the Ole Miss football team from 2003 to 2006, Willis finished his career as one of the top defensive players in program history.

Willis said he intends to focus his speech on destiny and the strength that comes from lifting others as we rise.

“When I received the call, I had to take a moment to catch my breath and let it soak in,” Willis said. “I am truly humbled that the university has invited me to speak at the Commencement.

“Through my comments, I hope to share a side of sports that most don’t see: the nitty-gritty about how intense it is for college athletes to manage sports while also excelling in the classroom.”

As a senior, Willis was a consensus All-American in 2006, winning the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy as the nation’s best linebacker. He twice led the Southeastern Conference in tackles and was selected to the most first-team All-American squads by a Rebel in a single season with 13 honors. Willis was also a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

Ranking sixth all-time at Ole Miss, Willis finished with a 355 career tackles and is tied for fifth with 33 career tackles for loss. Willis won the Conerly Trophy in 2006 as the top college football player in Mississippi and named the Chuck Mullins Courage Award recipient.

“It’s an honor having such an accomplished, esteemed and beloved member of the Ole Miss family speak to our 2020 graduates as they themselves return to Ole Miss for a well-deserved celebratory Commencement,” said Ole Miss Chancellor Glenn Boyce.

In the NFL, Willis played eight seasons and made seven Pro Bowls and voted All-Pro five times. He finished with 950 tackles, 712 of them solo, 20.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, eight interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.

Willis retired from the NFL in 2015. In 2019 he became the 10th former player or coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as an Ole Miss Rebel. Willis was also enshrined at the Mississippi and Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and was a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist in 2019 and 2020.

During Commencement, Willis said he seeks to impart lessons to the Class of 2020 about following one’s path even if the route is difference from what was expected.

“We each have our unique journey, goals and vision for the our futures,” Willis said. “There will be obstacles, but by building your strength, you are better able to take the hits as they come, doing a little bit each day to grow, connect and learn. At Ole Miss, students have a huge opportunity to create relationships and other connections to make the path easier.”

The Class of 2020 Commencement exercises will take place May 6 through 8, while the Class of 2021 Commencement exercises will be held April 29 through May 2.