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Willis leads by example

When the Storm's quarterback saw a way he could improve, he did. And teammates noticed.

They'll tell you about his toughness and his composure, traits Peter Tom Willis' teammates rally behind and try to emulate.

But there is an introspective side to the Storm quarterback many haven't discovered. After last season's 62-31 loss to Orlando _ in which he threw an ArenaBowl-record six interceptions _ it was a side that served Willis well.

"I sat down, after the disappointment wore off a little, and tried to evaluate my year and see how I could get better," Willis said. "One thing I wanted to do this year is cut down on the interceptions and throw the ball away more when nothing is there. And I'm proud of myself for doing that because I feel like I've helped our team."

By most accounts, Willis is a more efficient passer and more effective leader in his third season with the Storm. His yards (3,233) and touchdowns (65) actually are down slightly from a year ago. But so are his interceptions (a career-low eight).

"That tells you something," Storm coach Tim Marcum said. "He's seeing where to throw and where not to throw."

Excluding the championship game, last season was not a debacle for Willis. He tied a Storm record with 70 touchdowns passes and cut his interceptions to 10 from 19 his first year. He also threw for a career-high 3,411 yards.

But Willis was able to find room for improvement amid the glitter of fancy stats.

"P.T. has come a long way," receiver Lawrence Samuels said. "He's a lot more comfortable. I wouldn't replace him with anybody in the league."

As far as many of Willis' teammates and coaches are concerned, P.T. should stand for "poise" and "toughness."

Two seasons ago, Willis played several games with broken ribs. He sustained a thumb injury and a bulging disc in his neck against Arizona on July 19. He did not return after leaving the game, which had been close, in the second quarter. The Storm lost 60-41.

Willis did not miss a start, however, and led the Storm to a season-ending six consecutive wins.

"They say the leader of the pack is the wolf," rookie receiver Melvin Cunningham said, "and he's our wolf. He's the kind of guy you'd want to go to war with."

Willis' toughness is a product not of machismo, but of years of hard work that began, he said, as young as 5 or 6 in Morris, Ala. His late grandfather, T.J. Willis, had a cattle farm, where P.T. picked peas and built barbed-wire fences.

Early football lessons reinforced that work ethic.

"I guess I feel that if I can throw the ball, I'm gonna play," Willis said. "I feel I owe it to the team."

Willis worked his way to a scholarship at Florida State, and he led the Seminoles to a Fiesta Bowl win over Nebraska as a senior. In 1990, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round.

After four seasons of backup duty with the Bears, Willis was released and was out of football until joining the Storm in 1997. What might have been in the NFL does not haunt the 32-year-old.

"I've always been a happy person whether I was in the NFL or not," he said. "The way I look at it, there are a lot of guys who didn't get the opportunity to play for four years. I probably don't ever think about (getting back)."

In his first year with the Storm, Willis had to adapt to a new game and replace a league legend: Jay Gruden, who led the Storm to four championships and is widely regarded as the league's best ever. Willis was unspectacular with 41 touchdowns and 2,846 yards.

"The expectations were high, especially with his background, getting drafted high into the NFL," said Gruden, Orlando's coach the past two seasons. "But this is a different game. My first year, I didn't put up great numbers either."

It wasn't until last season that the Storm wore Willis' brand. He stepped out of Gruden's shadow and led the Storm to the title game. But Gruden won the ring.

"The thing that bothers me the most about that game was I let one or two mistakes turn into a bunch of mistakes," Willis said. "It's like in golf, if you make a double bogey you can't dwell on it. You have to put it behind you. I didn't do that. I tried to make up for my mistakes."

Willis, who lives in Valrico with his wife, Kim, and their two sons, has interests away from the field. He's a scratch golfer and plays in celebrity tournaments. He does color commentary for Florida State's football radio network.

It seems a fulfilling life awaits Willis after he retires. What will it take before that happens?

"It's a year-by-year thing," he said. "My body's pretty beat up right now. It'll depend on how I feel, and what my wife thinks. But I'm still enjoying playing."