December 30, 2020 : By Ted Allen/Liberty News - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Liberty University redshirt junior quarterback Malik Willis was a man on a mission this season, his first with the Flames, culminating in Saturday night’s 37-34 Cure Bowl victory in Orlando, Fla., over previously unbeaten, former Big South Conference rival Coastal Carolina.
After transferring from Auburn in 2019, Willis was forced to sit out last fall due to NCAA transfer rules. He was content to cheer on his teammates from the sidelines as they clinched their first-ever bowl win at last year’s Cure Bowl.
But this year, Willis literally wore his faith on his sleeve at the Cure Bowl, watched by approximately 2,000 Flames fans on hand in Camping World Stadium and millions more remotely on ESPN.
Sporting an armband reading “God’s Plan,” Willis dazzled the crowd and eluded the Chanticleers, rushing for 137 yards and four touchdowns (a personal and program record as well as Cure Bowl record) to earn MVP honors.
Willis wrote about his transition, and spiritual transformation since arriving at Liberty, in a story titled “Trusting God’s Plan” published in a Flames Illustrated game day program this fall.
“I’ve actually improved as an athlete after sitting out the year, which is something that wouldn’t have happened if I went ahead and played,” Willis wrote. “Maybe it was God’s way of forcing me to slow down and go back to the basics. Perhaps all of this was just His way of humbling me. … My journey to Liberty has given me a chance to find myself as a football player and as a man. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for dragging me through everything He did to ultimately put me in this position.”
Liberty completed a storybook 10-1 season and joined Appalachian State as the only two FBS programs to win bowl games in their first two seasons of eligibility. The win over the Chanticleers (11-1) was the first for the Flames over a Top-25-ranked FBS opponent, capping the best season in program history. (Coastal Carolina ended their regular season ranked No. 9 by the Associated Press, No. 11 in the Coaches’ Poll, and No. 12 in the College Football Playoffs poll.)
The renewed rivalry with Coastal Carolina at the Cure Bowl was a bit unexpected after the previously scheduled season-ending clash was canceled on Dec. 5 due to members of the Liberty team and staff testing positive for COVID-19, including Willis.
That could have been the end of the story for Liberty, which, as an independent, didn’t have any guaranteed bowl ties. But God had a better plan, Willis said.
“God put us in this position for a reason,” he stated in a virtual Cure Bowl press conference on Dec. 23. “Nobody could have written this out any better. We were supposed to play on (ESPN’s) College GameDay, and now we’re playing them in prime time in the postseason. We are successful because of God’s favor on us, and being able to go out and do the things He allows us to do.”
Through trials and challenges, Willis has learned the value of being patient and staying humble.
“If life has taught me anything, it taught me to take everything one day at a time,” he wrote in the story. “It taught me not to worry about things outside of my control. It taught me that God’s time is the only time. There are no certainties in life but the here and now. As long as I work hard and lean on my faith in God, everything else will fall into place as it should.”
Willis affirmed those truths after Saturday’s long-awaited showdown with the Chanticleers, finally clinched when senior defensive tackle Elijah James blocked a field goal in overtime. In the virtual post-game press conference, he gave all the glory to God for his record-setting performance.
“I was just trying to take what they gave me, using my God-given abilities,” Willis said. “It’s just a big blessing. I’m really happy, really excited. We can’t do anything but thank Him and show love.”
Flames Football Director of Spiritual Development Ed Gomes said Liberty’s coaching staff and Willis’ teammates welcomed him with open arms when he arrived last summer, and he has formed strong bonds that have helped him mature into a dynamic player and a person of godly character.
“I’ve been honored to be a mentor to Malik, and he’s a fine young man and we’re excited that he’s with us,” Gomes said. “He’s just a great example to his teammates, and I’m excited about having had a small part in his life.”
Second-year Head Coach Hugh Freeze, who came down with COVID himself after the canceled game at Coastal, helped the Flames navigate through the pandemic as he coached his third FBS team to a 10-win season before improving to 5-2 in bowl games for his career.
Gomes said Freeze has lived out Liberty’s mission of Training Champions For Christ by fostering a culture based on hard work and spiritual growth — creating chemistry among the coaches, support staff, and players while challenging them to pursue excellence in all spheres of life.
“There’s an awareness of God’s presence, and it begins with our head coach and it trickles all the way down through the program,” said Gomes. “We’re all on the same page. We’re unified, we all work together, we serve each other… I know it’s important to Coach Freeze to use football as a tool to honor and glorify God. When God allows you to have success, this causes (media and other teams) to have to talk about you. That goes back to what (Liberty founder) Dr. Jerry Falwell always said, that we use athletics as a platform for evangelism and discipleship and a tool to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The message that Gomes preaches to the Flames has not fallen on deaf ears. When given the opportunity, Willis and senior kicker Alex Barbir used their platform of addressing the student body at Convocation this fall after the Flames victory at Virginia Tech to remind the school that faith is the foundation for everything they do.
“Whether (the kick) goes in or not, that will not determine who my God is,” Barbir said regarding his mindset prior to his 51-yard game winning kick in Blacksburg.