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Keith Willis

Sport: Football

Born: July 29, 1959

Town: Newark

Keith Willis was born July 29, 1959 in Newark. Fast, strong and solidly built, Keith was a standout in youth football and became the star defensive player for Malcolm Shabazz High in the mid 70s. Reggie Brown, who went on to star at running back for Oregon, was the team’s main offensive weapon. Keith was considered undersized at 6’1”, but earned a scholarship to Northeastern.

Northeastern had a winning record in 1978, but fell below .500 in each of the next three seasons, one of which Keith missed with a knee injury. In his final season with the Huskies, Keith shared the line with future NFL All-Pro Sean Jones. There was minimal interest in Keith heading into the 1982 NFL Draft, and he went unclaimed that spring. However, the Steelers invited him to training camp and he made the team as a reserve nose tackle and defensive end for that strike-shortened season.

Keith worked his way into the starting lineup in 1983 and demonstrated an uncanny ability to get to the quarterback. He bulked up 25 pounds and actually got quicker. The result was a franchise-record 14 sacks (Joe Greene’s sacks in the 70s were “unofficial”). He was a big part of Pittsburgh’s playoff teams in 1983 and 1984, as the Steelers tried to stretch their Steel Curtain glory years into the 1980s. In 1986, Keith notched double-digits sacks again, finishing the year with 12.

With the exception of 1988, when he was sidelined with a neck injury, Keith remained a starter into the 1991 season, when he shared duties at left defensive end with Aaron Jones. Keith played 1992 with the Buffalo Bills and made it to his first Super Bowl. In the playoffs that January he had two sacks against the Steelers in a playoff victory. He finished his NFL career in 1993 with the Redskins.

Keith became a defensive line coach, working for several top college programs, including BC and NC State. At BC, he coached his son, Keith Jr. Keith coached the line for the CFL Montreal Alouettes from 20013 to 2015 and then joined Mike Vrabel’s coaching staff on the Tennessee Titans. Keith is a member of the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame.

 

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