He and his siblings later moved in with a basketball coach to flee an abusive, alcoholic father.
But Willis' remarkable story of empowerment and reinvention might not have happened this way at all.
This February, Athlon ranked Willis the 22nd-best linebacker in NFL history — a plaudit that's double impressive when you consider his career lasted half as long as those of some other players.
"Apple's Steve Jobs Would See Himself in Tech Pioneer Eren Niazi," squawked a headline on TheStreet two years ago.
As the two neighbors got to know one another more, Willis found himself impressed by Niazi's rags-to-riches story and tech-industry success.
And now Willis: "It just felt like, a lot of times in my other occupation, it was all about you as an individual.