Zaragoza Hurricanes QB Dustin Hawke Willingham has found family as a football nomad

Since the dawn of the spoken word, human beings have sought ways to describe the winding, often convoluted journey of the human experience. Every amateur philosopher or hare-brained poet has their own take, but Dustin Hawke Willingham can sum up his in ten simple words.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.”

That may be the only simple way to condense the Zaragoza Hurricane quarterback’s life story.

A self-described football nomad, Willingham’s journey has been as unpredictable as it is unlikely, with stops spanning 22 cities in 14 different countries. Looking back, the collected experiences could fill several novels but in the moment, the path was never so clear.

An All-State quarterback his junior year of high school in Boulder, Colorado, there was a time when football didn’t seem like Willingham’s future. A tumultuous childhood left him unable to play his senior year and he originally focused on baseball, traveling first to Charleston, South Carolina, then Princeton, West Virginia, and eventually to Chicago in search of opportunities.

Dustin Hawke Willingham as QB for traveling Team USA squad

Finally, Willingham enrolled at the University of Tulsa and got a chance to return to the gridiron game through a walk-on offer. Willingham quickly realized he was out of his depth in terms of football knowledge, but his desire to get on the field was strong. So began the nomadic life.

“Like many young guys, I thought I was good enough to play and I was ready to play,” Willingham admits. “A lot of times this game will humble you and I needed to be humbled.”

After a year in Tulsa, Willingham jumped to Fort Scott Community College and from there the University of Arkansas, only to be informed four days before training camp that he was deemed ineligible. With limited options available, the quarterback was contacted by Southwest Baptist University. He signed on and coaches drove him to Bolivar, Missouri in the middle of the night with just three days to learn the playbook.

It wasn’t enough time to win the starting job, but when injuries struck, Willingham pitched in elsewhere.

“I ended up playing free safety for Southwest Baptist, recorded 77 tackles and had four picks, seven pass breakups. I played really well. I had like five or six sacks,” he says. “To have 77 tackles in eight games as a free safety, that tells you how bad our defense was.”

Still intent on playing quarterback, Willingham transferred to California Lutheran, but issues with the coaching staff kept him off the field. Fortunately for him, his time at Southwest Baptist had generated some interest after he had a career outing guarding future All-Pro tight end Delanie Walker.

That was enough to get him invited to USC’s Pro Day and secure a spot at Oakland Raiders mini-camp as a defensive back. Later, after moving to Houston for work, he began training with Andre Johnson and other Texans at the Plex training facility. Then offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was impressed enough to invite him to be a camp arm for the team, but after that opportunities dried up.

Dustin Hawke Willingham coaching and quarterbacking Norway’s Nidaros Domers Photo: Max Emanuelson

Willingham filled his time by writing and producing his own documentary series Undrafted on overlooked players striving for the NFL and pitched it himself in Los Angeles. One company, DG West Inc., picked it up but Willingham eventually signed away the rights. Years later when he saw his idea on NFL Network, he didn’t receive a dime.

After covering most of the continental United States, it was then that Willingham turned his attention to Europe, encouraged by friend and former Bergamo Lion Gerald Harris. Wide-eyed and clueless, he signed on board with the Hamburg Huskies and had no concept of what to expect.

“I didn’t know what questions to even ask. You know, this may sound ignorant, but I was unclear if the toilets worked properly in Germany,” Willingham confesses.

“When I got off the plane the president of the team was laughing and joking about welcoming me to a third world country because that is how Americans can kind of view Europe if they’ve never been out of America. I laughed and realized real quickly that it was just a totally different world.”

Since then, Willingham has become one of the most well-traveled and seasoned European veterans around. He survived countless drubbings as a member of Austria’s Salzburg Bulls, broke his leg only to become head coach of the Nidaros Domers of Norway, then turned around and won a national championship with the Oslo Vikings. Since then, he’s starred for Italy’s Bolzano Giants and Hungary’s Gyor Sharks, coached the Krakow Kings and Budapest Cowbells, had his GFL shot with the Berlin Rebels canceled by the pandemic and battled various personal issues in Poland with the Bydgoszcz Archers and had to leave partway through the season although the club did everything they could to help.

Dustin Hawke Willingham with Italy’s Bolzano Giants

The nomadic lifestyle can be trying, but Willingham isn’t looking to give up on his football life any time soon.

“It seems as you get older, that starts to wear you down because you start to wonder where will I rest my head?,” he acknowledges.

“I can’t do this forever but I love it. I love it more than anything I’ve ever loved in my life. I mean, I think the people that actually meet me and get to play with me, they realize that pretty quickly.”

Now playing with Spain’s Zaragoza Hurricanes, Willingham has been overjoyed to find an organization just as passionate as he is.

“It feels like I’m on a team that’s a real family and they understand the concept of a team. Everyone is working towards the same goal,” Willingham says. “I mean, we got our first win and there was upper level people in the organization with tears in their eyes. It felt amazing to be able to help the team get a win.”

That experience is rendered all the more sweet by what came before it. Willingham stepped away from the game in 2018, only to be physically devastated the next year by a serious illness that caused him to drop 47 pounds. The quarterback kept his sickness under wraps, not wanting to draw attention to himself or seem weak.

He got the treatment he needed in Budapest and his triumphant return was supposed to be with the Berlin Rebels, but the pandemic brought those dreams to a halt. Instead, he had one of his worst career performance experiences with the Archers in Poland. Now, he’s being rewarded with one of his best.

“The ups and downs in life are so difficult to gauge when you’re analyzing yourself,” Willingham says, looking back. “When you fail, sometimes you wonder if you are that failure. Then when you succeed, you realize that that failure was important.”

Norway - Oslo Vikings 2016 Champions - QB

Dustin Hawke Willingham scores 2nd of 2 TDs in Oslo Vikings Norwegian title win in 2016. Photo: Henning Ringlund

That perspective is one of many things the European nomad lifestyle has given him. More importantly, it has given him a sense of belonging and family that he sorely lacked growing up.

“Growing up in America, it’s so crazy. Everybody’s so competitive and everybody thinks they can figure everybody out. They’ve got so many different agendas going on because we’re so competitive with everything,” Willingham explains.

“Then you meet these families in Germany that embrace you. They just see your soul and they see your heart. No matter how weird or not weird, open or not open you are, they embrace you because they have these different moral values that they live by that I had never been accustomed to.”

The same has been true everywhere from Austria to Norway to Italy and now Spain. Willingham had few familial bonds as a child and now has many that span continents.

“The bonds that you’ll always have for the rest of your life, this type of brotherhood that they talk about in movies, you experience it in real life and realize it’s an indescribable feeling,” he says. “To feel like someone is your brother by blood, but they’re not really your blood, they’re your teammate but also your family. That was really amazing.”

Though he’s focused on doing his best for Zaragoza right now, Willingham can already see himself finally beginning to settle down. He’s blossoming as a coach in Budapest, working with young athletes who have big dreams like he once did, and intends to stay in Europe for the long haul, giving back to the game he loves.

“It’s amazing to see the love that people have for the game here. It makes me want to work hard for it and be the best import player, the best teacher and coach and teammate I can be,” Willingham says.

It might rain sometimes, but there is nothing but sunny skies going forward.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.