AMHERST, Massachusetts -- Rich Willard (Johnstown, NY), a senior co-captain of the 1997 Amherst College football team, was named the winner of the Joe Zabilski Award by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston. This is the second annual honor bestowed upon the most outstanding Division II/III offensive and defensive player in New England.
Willard will be remembered as one of Amherst's finest quarterbacks as he will graduate with four college records and after challenging four more. The signal-caller racked up 4,387 yards as Amherst's career passing leader, making 563 attempts over four seasons for another school best. In his 53.1% accuracy were 29 touchdowns, including 16 in 1997 to tie two others for most in a single season. Bolstering those numbers were five passes in the endzone, yet another Amherst best, in his career finale, a heartbreaking 48-46 loss to archrival Williams.
The quarterback wrapped up his stellar career with his finest collegiate game. Willard sparked two breathtaking Amherst comebacks from 17- and 14-point deficits as the Jeffs came within two seconds of their first undefeated season since 1984. Trailing the Ephs 24-7 late in the second quarter, Amherst mounted a formidible offensive that would score on its next four possessions to take a 31-24 lead with 2:24 left in the third. Willard threw 14-for-20 in that 15:38 span with three of his five touchdowns. After a slow start in the fourth, the quarterback catalyzed another comeback, including a 10-play, pure-pass series toward his fourth TD of the day.
Though a gutsy two-point conversion put the Jeffs up 46-45 with 1:49 on the clock, a field goal with two ticks left robbed Amherst of a perfect season. Nevertheless, Willard's performance shone above the result as he solidified his place among the finest in Amherst football. His 45 attempts fell just one short of an Amherst single-game record, while his 26 completions were two shy and his 378 yards 15 off a single-game high. His performance earned both ECAC Offensive Player of the Week honors, as well as the Coca Cola Gold Helmet Award for the most outstanding performance in Divisions II and III that week.
Willard had also thrown a 73-yard touchdown pass against fellow Little III foe Wesleyan, a shot that was just four yards off the longest pass in Amherst history.
In addition to the Joe Zabilski Award, Willard is a two-time NESCAC All-Star and was named All-ECAC in his junior season.
1997 Honorees by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston
Barry Gallup (Northeastern) - Division I Coach of the Year
Chuck Mills (Coast Guard) - Division II/III Coach of the Year
Jim Murphy (Northeastern) - Lowe Offensive Recipient
Eric Storz (Boston College) - Lowe Defensive Recipient
Rich Willard (Amherst) - Zabilski Offensive Recipient
Ben Nassar (Bentley) - Zabilski Defensive Recipient
Matt Hasselbeck (Boston College) - Division I Nelson Award Recipient
Dan Lord (Tufts) - Division II/III Nelson Award Recipient
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