The Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal, with help from former professional football tight end Keith Willis, will honor the region's top high school student-athletes and coaches on June 25, during the third annual Regional All-Stars Gala.
The evening gets underway at 6 p.m. at Bennington College's Greenwall Auditorium in Bennington.
Willis now travels the country as a motivational speaker.
Willis will be visiting Vermont for the first time when he comes to Bennington, and he says he can't wait to see the Green Mountain State in person.
"I'm praying these athletes come with an open mind and open heart," Willis said. "They're going to be moved by the time they get out of there. I'm excited to get on stage in front of them and do what I do."
What Willis does, as the founder of his own company, is help athletes realize their potential and learn lessons for life on and off the field.
"I'm looking forward to speaking about overcoming adversity and showing leadership, not only in sports but in life," he said.
Following the end of his pro football career, he founded M.O.S.S. Movement, a consulting firm with the mission statement of "assisting athletes in character development" and seeking to "equip them with strategies and tools to respond with love, peace, and humility in the face of adverse circumstances."
Willis played tight end for four seasons at Virginia Tech and was on the taxi squads of five NFL teams, including the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. He played for a season with the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe, winning a championship there.
But the NFL career he had dreamed of when he was catching passes from future No. 1 overall draft pick Michael Vick at Virginia Tech didn't materialize the way he'd planned.
"The game made the decision for me," Willis said. "When the phone call never came, I knew it was time to channel my energy into something else."
That something else, as it turns out, was something he used to dislike for personal reasons: Public speaking.
"When I was younger I had a bad stuttering problem," Willis said. "I had a fear of speaking."
Two things helped him. First, his mother, Mara Willis — a great athlete in her own right who played for Basketball Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the nation's first historically black college — got him help. She insisted her son practice reading aloud.
Second, Willis' personal faith led him to pursue a career of inspiring others to realize their own potential and overcome adversity.
"I realized I had a lot of things inside me that I was chosen to share." he said. "I realized that for me to have the impact I wanted on this earth, I had to overcome my fears."
Willis will be at the Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal Regional All-Stars Gala to help recognize student-athletes and coaches in Vermont and New York sanctioned sports from Mount Anthony Union High School, Arlington Memorial High School, Burr and Burton Academy, Long Trail School, Stratton Mountain School, Hoosick Falls High School and Cambridge Central School.
Student-athletes and coaches will also will be finalists for special awards for courage, perseverance and leadership. In addition to athlete and coach of the year honors for boys and girls sports, awards will be given for remarkable comeback stories, unsung heroes who made their teams' success possible, and ambassadors whose effort and dedication promoted a positive reputation for their school and their teammates.
Boys and girls teams of the year will also be recognized for their 2018-19 athletic achievement.
Chosen athletes who participate in field hockey, soccer, football, cross-country running, volleyball, wrestling, snowboarding, ice hockey, basketball, cheerleading, dance, bowling, baseball, softball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, track and field, nordic and alpine skiing and swimming will attend the event for free. The Banner and Journal announcements of these athletes are under way for all three sports seasons in print and online at benningtonbanner.com and manchesterjournal.com.
Southwestern Vermont Health Care and Bennington Subaru are presenting sponsors of the gala. Bennington College is the event's host.
Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and awards begin at 6 p.m. Early-bird tickets for the public, family and friends of the athletes include dinner and are $29 until June 1, after which they will cost $45. Tickets can be purchased here.
Greenwall Auditorium is located in the Visual and Performing Arts building at Bennington College, 1 College Drive in North Bennington.
Program and table sponsorships are still available.