Before St. Louis Blues winger Ryan Reaves’ career as a pro hockey player was launched, his father, Willard, made his mark in the CFL and played in the NFL, too. He then became a sergeant in the Manitoba Sheriff Services.
Here’s a look at the elder Reaves’ life a decade ago, 15 years after he played in his final NFL game.
This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 1, 2004.
Headline: Reaves doesn’t shy away from limelight
By Ed Odeven
As a pro running back, Willard Reaves was never shy about praising the valuable but oft-neglected efforts of his team’s offensive linemen. As a public figure, the Flagstaff native and former NAU back, is quick to mention the impact Jesse Rodriguez has had on his life.
More than 30 years ago, Reaves, was a ninth-grade student at East Flagstaff Junior High School and took a public speaking class taught by Rodriguez.
“I was a homeroom rep in student council and one of the things that he wanted to get us familiar with was not to be afraid to speak in public,” Reaves said Friday from his Winnipeg, Manitoba, home. “I learned my speaking through him and some of the techniques the class was being taught.”
Fast forward to 2004 and Reaves is a sergeant with the Manitoba Sheriff Services and a well-known figure in his adopted hometown.
“I didn’t want to play professional football,” Reaves admitted, chuckling. “I wanted to be a police officer in Flagstaff. That was my lifelong dream. I never, ever changed my dream.”
It did, however, take the advice of Scott Ross, his best buddy at Coconino High School, to convince him to first pursue a career in football.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to make it in professional football. I don’t care about anybody else. They don’t have what you have. You are going to make it in professional football and you’ll see that.'” Reaves said, recounting Ross’ words. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Oh, really.’ I guess what Scott was saying was true.”
The prediction was precise. Reaves earned all-state honors and Phoenix Metro’s player of the year award while he played at Coconino. He starred for the Lumberjacks from 1977-80, earning All-American honors in 1979 after rushing for 1,084 yards. Reaves played two season for the Green Bay Packers, five with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers — highlighted by his 1984 season in which he rushed for 1,733 yards and 18 TDs earned the league’s player of the year award and “smashed a couple of records,” he says, pausing to laugh, “more than a couple.” — and then two years with the Washington Redskins. He retired in 1990 after a final season with the Miami Dolphins.
Public speaking has been a big part of Reaves’ live ever since. Instead of shunning his fame, he has embraced it.
“It’s been great because now I speak before thousands of people,” Reaves said.
The biggest thrill he’s ever gotten standing in front of the podium occurred in January 1985, when he was the keynote speaker in Toronto at the Conn Smythe celebrity sports dinner, an annual event in Canada attended by thousands of celebrities, including Canada’s deputy prime minister. Dan Marino was the other featured speaker that night.
Oftentimes, Reaves speaks at charity fundraisers and school functions, such as career day. A motivational speech he gave at a Winnipeg high school plagued by gang influences stands out as a memorable event in Reaves’ live. After positively inspiring one young male student in the audience to clean up his act, he began attending classes regularly, dropped out of his gang, went on to have perfect attendance and later earned a college degree in engineering.
The biggest surprise? Years later, Reaves bumped into the former student at a mall and met his wife and young son, whose middle name was Willard, in honor of Reaves.
“I think I’ve done a really good job with a lot of people here,” he admitted proudly, “and people are still coming up to me to say thank you for it.”
Even though he’s achieved fame and fortune, Reaves has never forgotten his humble roots or the value of common courtesy.
“Because you choose a profession (where) you are in the public eye, by golly, you have to give yourself to the public. … Allow the people who have enjoyed watching you play football the opportunity to just come up and talk to you,” said Reaves, whose parents, Jim and Vera Peeler, still reside in Flagstaff. “I retired in 1990 and there are still people coming up and talking to me about this, about that.
“I am recognized on every corner of Canada, and that’s something I’ll cherish and try to protect as much as I can.”
Reaves and his wife, Brenda, have three children: daughter Regina, 21, who lives in Phoenix, 21; and sons Ryan, 17, and Jordan, 14. Ryan, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound right wing, plays for the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and is a bona-fide NHL prospect.
“When he gets on the ice, you can feel a complete change in the other team’s approach,” the elder Reaves said, describing what scouts say about Ryan, “It’s more stand-offish. They don’t want to ruffle his feathers too much. … He changes the game completely around. When he’s off the ice, they go back to their regular plan.”
Like father, like son. Willard Reaves was a physical, imposing force on the football field. Off the field, he lets his actions do the talking.