FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Orey Willis spent the latter part of last week fighting nerves, waking up in the middle of the night and staring at the ceiling and thinking about what was waiting for him Saturday.
That probably made him a lot like of the other 500 prospects that descended upon the Falcons' facility, 45 miles northwest of Atlanta, for the weekend's Regional Combine.
What separates him is the phone call he made when the time came to get in the car and drive over.
Orey hit up his older brother Patrick, the six-time All-Pro 49er linebacker, for some final words of wisdom. The older sibling told the nerve-wracked semi-pro running back to do three things: Relax, Focus and Have Fun. And you better believe that Orey Willis took the words to heart, because if it wasn't for Patrick, he probably would've thrown in the towel on his NFL dream a long time ago.
"Just watching my brother play, and us coming out of high school together, and watching him in that time and asking myself the question, and knowing I can play this game also if I can just get a chance to get that look," Orey said after the combine, "that's what keeps me up and going all the time."
Different guys at these combines -- there are 10 of them leading into the Super Regional in Detroit in April -- stick out for different reasons.
Here in Georgia, there was a quarterback who plans to go to one of these each weekend, having driven in from one in California, then out afterward to another in Seattle. There was a 4-foot-10 running back who didn't play a down of college football. There was also a receiver who ran a 40 in the 4.3s, and odds say that a number of the guys here will make their way into minicamps and training camps.
Willis' last name sticks out. The road he took, when juxtaposed against the others, doesn't.
He starred in high school as a tailback, and garnered Div. I offers, but academic struggles landed him at Northwest Community College, near his brother's alma mater in Oxford, Miss. When he arrived there, he says, he fell victim to a numbers game that allowed only a certain number of out-of-state players to occupy roster spots on the football team.
From there, he shifted gears and got a welding degree, started work rebuilding car engines, moved back home to Bruceton, Tenn. and took nearly five years off from the game.
Then, in 2009, an uncle of his called and said they were starting a semi-pro league in Jackson, Miss. and asked if he wanted to give playing again a shot. That season, he suited up for a team called the West 10 Heat. He joined the Jackson War Eagles in 2011, spent 2012 in San Francisco training with his brother, and last year he jumped to the Nashville Storm, back in his home state. That team's owner, Bill Caldwell, found him on Facebook, and it was Caldwell who pushed him to this step.
"I had a decent season with the Storm," he explains. "And coach Bill, who's the owner, he told me they had an NFL combine coming up. And he pulled some strings and got me in this combine."
A little strange that Willis had Caldwell, and not his brother, calling on connections to get him his shot?
Sure, it is. But Willis wanted to take the last step on his own merit, and not his lineage. And so it was that without a program, finding the younger brother of an All-Pro in the masses on Saturday would be a needle-in-a-haystack proposition.
Willis was OK with that, too. It's like, he says, what he hears his brother say to the rest of the Niners on Sundays. This part is, very much, up to him.
"If you want something, just go get it, no matter what. And stay at it," Willis said. "Watching him speak on Sunday to the rest of his defensive players, that motivates me. I feel the same he feels. It's being physical, it's -- like I said -- being willing to go get it."
Willis will hear mid-week whether or not he makes it through to the Super Regional in Detroit, held on the second weekend in April. On Saturday, he ran a 4.8 40-yard dash, and at 28 years old, he didn't leave Flowery Branch with a great chance of being one of the select few from these ranks that wind up making it to an NFL camp.
But the fact that there's a chance at all has to be considered a win.
The well-documented struggle of the Willis children -- who spent parts of their impoverished formative years in foster care -- alone makes Orey's story an unlikely one. That he's still playing now, a decade after washing out post-high school, only adds to it.
"There's some stress relieved (being here)," he said. "I never thought I'd be at an NFL combine. Some of the time, some of things I've been through, there have been times when I wanted to give up. But something told me not to. So I just kept going and kept going, and finally I'm here today at this NFL combine. It always takes back to that -- just don't give up. Keep going for it."
Sometimes, Willis allows himself to drift off and envision looking across the line of scrimmage and see his older brother there, ready to take him down. In that scenario, the younger Willis says with a smile, "It's gonna be me or him."
Is it likely that one plays out in the fall? No, it's not.
But given the road he's taken, it's hard to blame Willis for dreaming a little.