Just one day before Weddington’s regular season finale against archrival Marvin Ridge last season, Grayson Willingham found out he would be the Warriors’ starting quarterback.
David Bayha, who had been the starter, went down with a fractured fibula.
Willingham had started the first 10 games of the season at safety, registering 37 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble. But the junior was now faced with the task of taking over the offense for a Weddington team that was 9-1, just one game before the postseason.
Willingham proved he was ready for the challenge. He went 13-for-21 passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score as he led Weddington to a 37-10 rout of Marvin Ridge.
Willingham’s magical run continued into the postseason as he led the Warriors (14-2 last season) to five straight wins, helping his team to playoff wins over South Iredell, A.C. Reynolds and at Asheville and at Cuthbertson, before falling 14-7 to Northern Guilford in a heartbreaking 3AA state championship game.
Willingham passed for 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for three more scores, going 5-1 as the starter.
“I try to look at the positives in every situation I’ve been in, in my football career,” said Willingham, who spent his freshman and sophomore years at Grey Friars Academy (in Matthews) while playing quarterback for Carolina Pride. “I knew when I came to Weddington that it was going to be tough to win the starting quarterback spot immediately.
“It ended up, they needed me to play safety for the first 10 games. But, I was glad to get an chance to show what I could do at quarterback.”
Weddington coach, Tim Carson, said Willingham is always eager to help his team.
“Grayson is not a selfish guy, he goes and competes at a high level no matter what position he has played for us,” said Carson. “So, when David (Bayha) went down, he was ready to step right in and keep everything clicking.”
Willingham had a strong summer as he got bigger (now 6-foot-2, 190 pounds), faster (4.8, 40-yard dash) and stronger (240-pound max bench, 405 max squat) while attending college camps at Clemson, Davidson, Elon, Furman and Princeton.
The senior quarterback has been in contact with those schools and believes he will get an opportunity to play college football.
Willingham has helped lead the Warriors to a 6-1 start this season. He has passed for 959 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for another 84 yards and six scores for an offense averaging 37 points per game.
Willingham has gotten a lot of support from a variety of offensive weapons including tailback, Christian Sanchez (520 yards rushing and six touchdowns), and nine different receivers, led by Blake Arthur-Wong (19 catches, 267 yards, two touchdowns), Joe Bensch (18 catches, 193 yards, three touchdowns), Mark Tyulyu (15 catches, 143 yards, three touchdowns), Richie Laughlin (eight catches, 127 yards, one touchdown) and Joey Hobbs (eight catches, 67 yards).
“I’ve made a big improvement as a quarterback not just physically but mentally knowing the offense and making smart decisions with the football,” said Willingham. “I had a good run last year, but I feel like a whole different player this season. I have a lot of great players around me, all I have to do is get them the ball.”
Willingham and company have also benefited from a suffocating, Weddington defense that only allows 13 points per contest this season. In fact, the Warriors defense surrendered 45 points in a three-overtime loss to Monroe and has allowed only 46 total points in their six other games combined.
While Weddington is focused on winning another Southern Carolinas Conference title with the meat of the conference slate in the next month, they also are eager to get back to the 3AA state championship game.
“Now that we know what it takes to get to the state championship game and what it feels like to get there, I believe this team is even hungrier to get back and win,” Carson said. “This team has been very focused each week. We just need to keep it going and make sure we finish each game strong.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.