Willis Lincoln Hardaway III TELLS HIS STORY
by Willis Lincoln Hardaway III

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younger generations have more access to wisdom that they never use
There is a lovely woman in the small town  where I attended school, Brownsville, TN in Haywood County. Her dreadlocks are long down to the back of her knees. She would twist my hair when it grew long into matted locks till the skin was tight and the new growth was a part of a new length. In this store she rambled constantly as if her hands had a mind of their own and would perform their duty on my scalp regardless of her distracted conversations. She once spoke of the previous generations and how they were so much tougher and not afraid to bleed for a plan, but the younger generations have more access to wisdom that they never use and squander our gift to be consumers, instead. I’ve yet to see a child ever pick up a stick in the busy bustle of the city and find a way to play a game.

My early years

I find myself conversing with Ethiopian and Kenyan friends about games they use to play that required athleticism and made them sweat. They are remnants of my countryside childhood in the agricultural fields and farm life of the United States. They remind me of the athleticism that it took simply to participate in recess. We would have gymnastic gatherings with tumbling and flips as if it were common skill to perform ariel techniques. We would have our own olympic games after school before the buses came to take us home. The masses of speedsters would take turns on grass, gravel, or pavement to race the fastest kid in school and he made no excuses. He would defeat every bold challenge until his legs were burning too fiercely to even stand. We would have wrestling matches with no weight classes and regardless, the smaller man would still sometimes win. We played outside until our skin was dark and leathery. We played in the snow until our limbs were red with frostbitten. We splashed in the rain until our clothes turned to weighted rags of soaked cotton. We would walk on muddy sidewalks with no shoes because our mothers would be appalled if our new school footwear were ever covered in dirt. I was a child and a heathen; a quiet, unruly and yet respectful artist that saw only my potential to become the great chimera of my families influence.
One day I would bare eight heads for each of my uncles. I would have the body of my grandfather at his peak toughness. I would have the wings of my father that willed me with the ambition to go anywhere without attachment or hesitation. I would sprout a bouquet of tails for reminders of the respect and light steps of my aunts. My voice would be that of my cousins’ whose collective knowledge and wisdom evolves with each day but began at the young age of one hundred. Finally, I would breathe bright white fire, like my mother’s unyielding spoken mind. But one characteristic would take shape into something that would belong only to me. I have earned a pair of horns that outcast me just enough to be seen as something dangerous, and as an old indigenous saying goes, “being dangerous is sacred.”
I grew up around five uncles. The other three died before I was born. Two uncles died the year I was still in my mother’s womb. My uncle T.J., who they affectionately called “Jun Bug” as a variation of “Junior,” died in heroic fashion. He calls his brother Darren on the phone one day and says,”I’m having some issues, could you give me a diagnosis.” After explaining the situation, my uncle Darren responds,”Jun, you’re having a heart attack, go to the hospital now!” My uncle T.J. hangs up the phone and the next time his family sees him he is dead on a hospital bed. Later, they discover that during the time between him hanging up the phone and going to the hospital, he had picked up his children to buy them food. He then goes to the post office to handle some affairs. After making a call to his wife to tell her where he was going, he picks her up from work. He had performed all his daily responsibilities before arriving at the hospital, but by the time he reached the hospital stretcher, he was dead.


My uncle James was the second uncle. He died from walking pneumonia. My mother would say, “He was too cool to know he was sick.” This is a testament to my mother’s grief. She bore a child that had grown during the dreadful year that her two older brothers both died, one after the other. She had cried so much during that year, that when I was born, I did not cry out like a newborn should. I whimpered silently and tears rolled down my cheeks.

This was the moment that my mother insisted that my name be T. James in honor of her fallen brothers of whom I would forever remind her of. My father did not approve.

He insisted that he would not have a child with an initial for a first name. Three years later, in a courtroom in Memphis, it was determined that I required a name to attend school or daycare and that it was illegal for me to have been removed from the hospital without an official name. My mothers exact words were, “name him what you want, but I’m going to call him T.J.”

My father then decided, after verifying with his brother, Willis Lincoln Hardaway II, that he would not have a son, that I should be named after his father as Willis Lincoln Hardaway III. Later, my uncle went back on his word, had a son, and named him exactly that. Therefore, there are two Willis Lincoln Hardaway III in the United States; one in California and one in Tennessee. This was foundational for my future lack of commitment to a label. I’ve played 6 college sports and I was known by a different name in each one.

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I will be an ambassador for the city of Memphis to elevate the environment as a place for rugby to flourish. I will be eternally grateful for any help provided and if my campaign is successful, be assured that I will give back to Memphis and the Intercity Ruby organization.
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“lack of commitment to a label”

In highschool, I played soccer, cross country, and eventually track & field then football my senior year.

I was so determined in soccer for all 4 years, however, that I would often skip lunch  to simply play with my soccer ball on the school lawn. In the mornings, the Hondurans, Mexicans, and Salvadorians would gather around to juggle before class and sometimes frantically playing a harmless game of futsal in the front entrance of the school drop off.

I even earned a scholarship to Bethel University who had previously won the NAIA National championship the year before my arrival. However, my recent senior experience with football couldn’t have changed my perspective at a worse time. I had decided prior to graduation after playing football and running track that soccer did not offer me the opportunity to pursue my full physical potential.

So it wasn’t long after my first semester into soccer at Bethel University that I made the transition to gridiron football at University of Memphis.

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The year I arrived to Memphis for the gridiron is still regarded as one of the most gruelling summers in Memphis football history under head coach, Justin Fuente.
The 110 degree weather in combination with the unforgiving melting turf made the elimination process during training relatively affective. The support of my Uncle Kenny, who had recently been released from prison and was living with us at the time, made my hopeful perseverance of faith seem to be worth some essense of sanity. The swift drop of athletes of whom I considered to be high caliber individuals and quality friends left me surrounded by teammates whose skill level would hold me to a standard of physicality and true grit that I would constantly seek to surpass. I had made a name for myself as “The Hardaway” in the weightroom and on the field for my relentless play. I was seen as something of a second coming of a Hardaway legacy after everyone became aware of my connection to the famed Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.


However, after an undiagnosed concussion, my performance declined and I drew doubt and speculation from coaches of whether or not I had fallen from grace due to the intensity of college play or if my lack of experience had finally caught up with me. After the winter break, however, I was recovered, well rested, and my mind had regained it’s previous sharpness. I performed astoundingly during the spring and ranked my way to third string running back.

Still, there was a lingering lack of acceptance that I felt among my piers., I received news that my Uncle Michael had undergone a major laps in his sickle cell condition. I was asked to be his caretaker for the summer by my family members due to their busy schedules. And as I replay the intended response in my mind of, “I can’t, I have football practice,” it seems more and more ridiculous with every attempted rehearsal. So I said, “yes,” instead. The lack of comradery with my teammates, feelings of manipulation by the people who were immersed in the politics of football, and the dangers I realized football imposed on my mental health, made it less difficult to walk away from a successful year.

As his health declined

That summer taught me more patience than any sport ever could. I learned how to help someone in need, especially if they didn’t ask for it.
My uncle’s health was declining quickly, soon he lost the ability to walk properly. I had never seen him so thin and he was a skeleton wrapped in skin. How could a man who had been the epitome of confidence and humor be so cursed with such a deadly inherited trait with no cure. He had lived with sickle cell his entire childhood and lived long beyond his diagnosed life span.

He had shown all the realists and doctors that he could live as long he decided he was still needed. But his son was a grown man with a family now, and his daughter was about to graduate college. It seemed he was nearing the end of his purpose in life. I remember there’d be times he would make cruel and scolding remarks that were not characteristics of the father figure I had loved sense my existence, and my mother would say,”he doesn’t mean it,” or “ he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Later, I understood that this man was giving me more truth and honesty than anyone I will ever meet again, and it was because he knew he was near death.

As his health declined, he became meaner and more relentless in his scolding. But daily tasks kept him going and sometimes I would see glimpses of my beautiful uncle Michael.

“I would breathe white fire, like my mother’s unyielding spoken mind”

However, when a faithful day came when he fell and suffered a heart attack, I came to visit him in the hospital. But we had been around one another for so long, his first reaction was to roll his eyes. Still, there was something about hearing him hum his favorite song that reassured me that he still loved me regardless. It was then that I realized that he was singing because that’s when it hurt the most. My whole life he had no skill to sing, but it was only about loving the song, because he was just trying to let the pain pass. Later, his son gave permission for a controversial medical procedure and the result was my uncle Michael going into a coma. It was then that I watched my uncle take his last breath. As my cousin gave the permission for the doctor to “pull the plug,” I was holding my mother’s hand as we walked into the room.

My uncle Michael was only a few years younger than her, and she had taken care of all her younger siblings, but he was her first baby brother. She had always held his hand in the hospital and when his condition hurt the most, he would say,” Re, it hurts so bad im gonna cry,” and she would say,”don’t cry Michael cause I’ll cry too,” and they would just cry together. It was very strange to see a father figure die and then have the majority of my family ask me what he was like in his last days. I was told to remind them to remember him in his best days and remember the very best version of Michael White. I made a choice to be with my family over sports and it was the last time I saw my uncle Michael alive; how could I regret that choice.

I had planned to transfer to another school to continue playing football and hopefully find a group of people that didn’t want to destroy one another.
Later, I found myself playing rugby after being heavily persuaded by a new friend to come to a practice. And as my knowledge of the game improved, so did my standards for play. It took one summer of 7’s rugby for my knowledge of the game to reach a point of true commitment to the sport. I received honor after honor until it occurred to me that I was competing on a level I had already mastered. It was then that I made a 6 hour drive to Knoxville, TN to tryout for the USA South national team. Fifteen minutes into the practice, I injured my groin and could not continue. However, that 15 minutes was enough for the coach to consider me for selection.

That January when I received that amazing email that I had been selected for the Savannah tournament, I knew I finally had an opportunity to take control of a new chapter in my life. I could still be, “the second coming”. But even more so, I could be take that old toughness and use it with this new wisdom to be my own Legend.

rugby begins

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