NFL Legend Patrick Willis Helps Fulfil Promise to 2020 UM Graduates

Published 9:00 am Monday, May 10, 2021

OXFORD, Miss. – Patrick Willis helped the University of Mississippi deliver on a promise one year in the making to the graduating Class of 2020 on Saturday (May 8) during the university’s 167th Commencement.

Willis, who was selected to seven NFL Pro Bowls and is one of the most decorated football players in Ole Miss history, addressed a crowd of nearly 3,000 gathered in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium during a breezy and overcast morning for the university’s Convocation address.

Willis told the 2020 graduates to go forward with purpose, vision and passion and reminded them that this Commencement is also a celebration of their success in the face of 2020.

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“Purpose powers the mind, vision drives the body and passion fuels the soul,” said Willis, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UM. “On your way to greatness, there will be happy days and sad days, but remember all the things that you will go through will shape you and mold you for the aim you have in mind.”

Willis told the graduates about how he grew up watching Dallas Cowboys games as a child and imagining himself on the field.

“I remember seeing myself, lights sparkling, running down the field, and I said, ‘I’m going to do that; I’m going to get that done,” he said. “Class of 2020, you are already on your way to fulfilling something you began to see a long time ago. So envision what is that for you, and get it done.”

Before welcoming Willis to the stage, UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce compared the Class of 2020 to the former first-round NFL draft pick, who was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in 2007.

“For all of us that remember this amazing image, it simply represented the strength and determination that highlight the exceptional characteristics of Mr. Willis’s spirit,” Boyce said. “You, too, know what it means to face challenges with grace and resilience.

“Your final months at Ole Miss were not what you thought they would be. But you persisted, you overcame the challenges, and we are all here today to celebrate you and that superb accomplishment.”

Boyce welcomed graduates back to the Ole Miss campus and thanked them for returning to Oxford for the much-anticipated celebration.

“This Commencement will be written about by future university historians and remembered by all of us present as a special celebration of your magnificent achievement against the backdrop of a global pandemic,” Boyce said. “I hope this weekend will be an opportunity for joy and a balm for the difficulties we faced, given the unprecedented and ever-shifting circumstances of COVID-19.”

Matt Lusco, president of the Ole Miss Alumni Association for the 2020 academic year, also reminded graduates that they have already overcome so much.

“The resilience, dedication and leadership shown by this class last year in completing your degrees under unprecedented circumstances really set the tone for what has been a very successful 2020-21 academic year at Ole Miss,” Lusco said. “While some of us wait many years in giving back to our alma mater, this class’ distinction comes in the legacy of leadership that you already gave during the pandemic crisis, and your university and your alumni association salutes you and thanks you.”

Keely Ann Kelso, who received a Bachelor of Music degree in May 2020, performed the national anthem onstage at Hollingsworth Field. Carley Grace Wilemon, also awarded her Bachelor of Music in May 2020, led the singing of the “Alma Mater.”

In separate ceremonies Thursday and Friday evening, the university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College graduates were celebrated, and recipients of doctoral degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony both at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Ceremonies to recognized graduates from the College of Liberal Arts, School of Engineering and School of Education, among others, also were hosted Friday.

Additional ceremonies are planned throughout the day Saturday at the Pavilion and the C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum. For a full schedule of ceremonies, visit the university’s Commencement website.

The Class of 2020 was celebrated last year during a live, virtual event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a commitment from university leaders that the day of an in-person ceremony would come. At that time, more than 5,000 degrees were conferred for December 2019 and May and August 2020 candidates for graduation.

To watch and download the full 2020 Convocation ceremony, including remarks by Willis, visit