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Learning the Ropes If he turns out to be as good at football as he is at jump rope, Nebraska's Willie Amos will be a pro

Sept. 10, 2001
Sept. 10, 2001

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Sept. 10, 2001

Learning the Ropes If he turns out to be as good at football as he is at jump rope, Nebraska's Willie Amos will be a pro

"To be good at double Dutch, or any sport, you should start by
doing it right. Beginning something the right way means that you
are slow at first, but later, as you keep practicing, you will
pick up speed and skill. If you start out doing things the wrong
way, you will never reach the same level as someone who did
things right from the beginning."

This is an article from the Sept. 10, 2001 issue Original Layout

--From the 1986 book Double Dutch
by David A. Walker and James Haskins

Growing up in Sweetwater, Texas, Willie Amos never did care much
for football. When the other kids crowded around their
televisions to bow at the altar of the Dallas Cowboys, Willie
preferred to read, often the Bible, or play veterinarian to stray
animals. Mostly, though, he skipped rope. Since he was nine,
there has been nothing that Willie has liked to do more, and two
years ago he proved he could do it better than anybody else at
the world jump rope championship.

Thing was, when a football was placed in his hands, Amos turned
out to be the best player in Sweetwater. For no reason other than
to follow in the footsteps of his brother Tyrone, Willie became a
running back in his freshman year at Sweetwater High. Willie
found daylight where there seemingly was none and finished his
scholastic career with 3,824 rushing yards, 37 touchdowns and
all-state honors as a senior. Near the end of Willie's senior
season Nebraska coach Frank Solich got wind of the youngster's
4.3 speed and natural athletic ability and flew in a private
plane to west Texas to watch Willie play. Shortly thereafter
Solich offered him a scholarship.

Last season, as a freshman free safety, Amos saw action in all 12
of the Cornhuskers' games, including the Alamo Bowl, and had an
interception, a fumble recovery and nine tackles. At the
conclusion of preseason practice this summer he was the only
underclassman to be awarded a traditional Blackshirt practice
jersey, given each year to members of Nebraska's first-team
defense. In the Cornhuskers' first two games, a 21-7 win over TCU
on Aug. 25 and a 42-14 defeat of Troy State last Saturday, Amos
made five tackles and had an interception.

Whatever his success on the football field, Amos's heart still
belongs to his childhood pastime. "Football's O.K., but in jump
rope you really get to express yourself," he says. Amos
discovered this as a nine-year-old, in 1991, when he joined the
Hop to Its club in Sweetwater. Liz Miller, the club's organizer
who became Amos's coach, remembers being amazed by the fancy
footwork of the slight little boy "so determined to do it right."

While most of the participants were girls who would move on to
cheerleading, Amos and two other boys, Cliff Forbes and Shaun
Hamilton, started spending two hours a day working on their
skills. Forbes was the fast one, and Hamilton was the powerful
tumbler, but Amos could do all the tricks. Amos learned how to do
handstands, push-ups and even backflips while jumping rope. "When
you get into a rhythm with a rope," he says, "there's no other
feeling like it in the world." He calls it the ups.

His obsession with jump rope helped to keep him away from the
less wholesome means by which others got their ups in his corner
of Sweetwater. The son of a single mother, Michelle, Willie grew
up on The Hill, a low-rent neighborhood where drugs and guns were
a temptation. "That stuff never interested me," says Willie. "I
learned pretty quickly from other people's mistakes."

The prime example was Tyrone. In January 1994, when Willie was
11 and his 17-year-old brother was the starting tailback as a
sophomore at Sweetwater High, Tyrone shot the mother of his
infant daughter three times, leaving her a quadriplegic. Tyrone
was found guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter and was
sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he remains. Willie grew
up idolizing his brother and is still close to him, writing to
him occasionally. (Tyrone was denied parole in June 1999 and is
scheduled to be released in 2004.)

After Tyrone went to prison, Michelle moved 40 miles east to
Abilene in July 1998, to take a better job and to be closer to
Amos's father, Willie Brown, whom she married in '92. Amos was
left behind. "I needed to get out of that town," says Michelle,
39. "[My son] wanted to stay [in Sweetwater] and finish school,
and I wanted him to stay there and finish school too." Amos, who
had just finished his sophomore year in high school and wore
Tyrone's jersey number, 1, was suddenly no longer living with his
family.

Although he was never adopted, Amos lived in the homes of two
Sweetwater families with his mother's consent, spending the
majority of the time with John and Patricia Hamilton, the
parents of his jump rope partner Shaun. To defray the cost of
their hobby, Willie, Shaun and their buddy Cliff performed jump
rope routines at various events, including in Seattle at
halftime of a SuperSonics game, for housing and meals. When they
could line up housing and transportation, the boys competed in
jump rope tournaments. Some Friday nights, when Amos emerged
from the locker room after a Sweetwater High football game,
Hamilton and Forbes would be waiting with the car running, ready
to drive overnight to a tournament. In 1999 Amos, Forbes and
Hamilton--calling themselves the Jump Sensations--earned a
fourth consecutive national championship berth, in Orlando, and
went on to beat teams from 13 countries to win the world double
Dutch team freestyle title in St. Louis. That fall Amos rushed
for 1,400 yards and the following spring won the state title in
the 300-meter hurdles.

After he had chosen Nebraska over TCU, the only other big-time
school to offer him a scholarship, the secretaries in the
Sweetwater High guidance counselor's office, where Willie
volunteered during his free periods, threw him a signing-day
party. When Michelle accepted Willie's invitation and came to
town for the party, only longtime faculty members, who knew her
as a former student, realized who she was. Later that summer
when it came time to pack for the trip to Nebraska, Liz Miller,
who took Amos in after the Hamiltons moved away, made him pick
out a new bedspread to take with him, along with a stack of
prepaid phone cards that the Sweetwater faculty had purchased.
"I got a call from a different person every night," says Miller,
"asking, 'What does Willie need?'"

Finally, a couple weeks before taking Amos to Lincoln for his
freshman year, Miller discovered that he didn't have a driver's
license. Prior to taking his driver's test in Sweetwater, Amos
didn't come close to passing the eye exam. "The kid is blind as a
bat, and no one knew," says Miller, who purchased contact lenses
for him. "How was he catching footballs?"

The confidence that he had developed in high school nearly
dissolved when he saw all the talent around him on his first day
of football camp. However, he felt better soon after he
participated in the first set of conditioning drills. "He's the
most athletic player I've seen at Nebraska," says senior
cornerback Keyuo Craver. This summer Amos put up an impressive
score on a test that included an agility run (he had the best
time), the 40-yard dash (his 4.45 tied for the fastest) and the
vertical leap (36.5 inches).

Though they knew he could cover a big chunk of field--"like Willie
Mays," says secondary coach George Darlington--the Nebraska staff
was initially afraid that Amos was too gentle a soul to deliver a
bone-crunching hit. He turned out to be a sure tackler but grew
frustrated while learning the intricacies of the Huskers'
multiple-scheme defense. "He's a perfectionist who wants to get
everything right on the first try," says Darlington. Whenever
Amos missed an assignment last season, the coaches quietly
corrected him. "You can't holler at Willie," says Darlington.

No one has had to. On a team beset by off-the-field problems--four
players were arrested in the off-season on charges ranging from
disturbing the peace to misdemeanor assault--Amos avoids trouble
the same way he did in Sweetwater. When he is not sketching or
hanging out with his girlfriend of eight months, Nebraska
volleyball player Jenae Dowling, he'll take a rope to the rec
center on campus and start jumping. Although he dreams of
traveling around the world putting on jump rope exhibitions, he
admits that the prospect of making a comfortable living as an NFL
player (and helping his family) is appealing. "I love my mom. She
had to do what she had to do," says Amos, who occasionally talks
to his mother and father on the telephone. "All I want is enough
money to give my mom and dad a vacation. I've been all over the
country, and they've never been outside Texas."

If he continues to play with the self-assurance that he's shown
early this season, Amos has a chance to join a long list of
Nebraska defensive backs who have made it in the pros. (Seven
are currently in the NFL.) "Willie perseveres on every play.
He's been doing that his whole life," says Huskers defensive
coordinator Craig Bohl. "He's got a big upside."

Speaking of ups, Amos got a fair dose of them while making his
first start two weeks ago in front of 77,473 Nebraska fans. After
that game against TCU, he even admitted that football might soon
become as much fun for him as jumping rope. "Now that I'm getting
comfortable enough," he says, "I can start putting a little style
into my game."

As he told an assembly of Lincoln elementary school students,
for whom he performed a jump rope exhibition this spring,
"Everybody has a talent. There's going to be a lot of blood,
sweat and tears, but you have to find your talent and keep going
with it."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Jumping for joy Since learning the rhythm of the rope at nine, Amos (here coming out of a flip) has found solace in the sport.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Opening shot In his first start, Amos made two tackles against TCU, which had lost him to Nebraska.
The Nebraska staff was afraid that Amos was too gentle to
deliver a bone-crunching hit.