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Storm's Willis is back in fighting trim

His new career started so well that no one watching could have guessed quarterback Peter Tom Willis hadn't played in more than two years.

Willis, the former Florida State star who was three seasons removed from a stint with the Chicago Bears, sparkled in his Arena Football League debut this time last season, throwing four touchdowns while leading the Tampa Bay Storm to victory in the opener against Arizona.

He made it look easy.

But he soon discovered it wasn't.

Arena football is a quicker game on a smaller field, and quarterbacks have the hardest time adjusting. Willis was no exception. He threw for 2,846 yards and 41 touchdowns last season but was intercepted 19 times. He suffered cracked ribs in June, and the injury plagued him through the rest of the season, which ended when the Storm suffered a heartbreaking loss _ to Arizona, no less _ in the semifinals of the playoffs.

Another thing that made last season difficult for Willis: He wasn't the only one who had trouble adjusting. Storm players still were not used to seeing someone other than Jay Gruden, the best quarterback the league had ever seen, behind center.

"This was still Jay Gruden's team," coach Tim Marcum said.

But Willis' ribs have healed. So has his resolve. He enters tonight's season opener against San Jose determined to play better this year _ and to lead the team to an ArenaBowl title, something Gruden did just two seasons ago.

"Jay's gone, and gone two years' past," Marcum said. "Now the guys know who's going to take them to the top. That's P.T. Willis. This is P.T.'s team."

The gut check started about a month before training camp. That is, Willis looked down and didn't much like the gut that he saw. At 31, he weighed more than he ever had.

So he bet good pal/Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer that he could lose more weight than Dilfer. Dilfer showed up after the Bucs' draft last month looking svelte. But the 6-foot-3 Willis _ now 15 pounds lighter at 205 _ won the bet.

He believes he looks better not just in uniform but on the field. His solid performance in Tampa Bay's two preseason victories was a confidence-booster.

"Last year was kind of hard," Willis said. "I really didn't know I was going to play (for the Storm) until right before the season. The other thing that was hard _ I really didn't have anyone around me that could tell me what (to expect). It's a quick game. Just the philosophy is different for a lot of things."

Willis is different from many Arena League players in that his mind's eye doesn't linger on the NFL. He has been there.

A third-round draft pick by the Bears in 1990, he spent four seasons backing up Jim Harbaugh, and completed 104 of 183 passes for 1,261 yards and six touchdowns in a mostly limited role before being released in 1994. The Bucs signed Willis in 1995 but released him before the season started.

Though there have been some rough times since the Storm signed him in March 1997, Willis has mostly savored his return to football. His new life is going well. He has a home in Valrico, a new (5-month-old) son, a 3-year-old son he can play ball with in the back yard and time for his other favorite sport, golf.

Being able to keep playing football, then, is a bonus.

"If I got an opportunity (to go back to the NFL), I would do it, but that's not the reason I'm playing," Willis said. "I want to play. I still have an itch to play.

"I definitely still think I can play in the NFL, but that's not really the reason (for playing). Do I want to go all over the country to get that opportunity? I don't know."

One thing Willis does understand: His playing career can't last forever. When the time comes to hang up his helmet, he said he imagines he might open his own business locally. He used to think he would coach and has even received offers but isn't sure he wants to move his family from city to city while chasing a coveted position.

Before he makes that decision, however, he has much work to do.

In the Tampa Bay organization, anything less than an ArenaBowl championship is considered a failure. Willis said he doesn't expectto fail again.

"I expect us to win the championship," he said. "I think that we were a pretty good team at the end of last year. We're doing better (now) than we were then."