"To be good at double Dutch, or any sport, you should start by doing it right. Beginning something the right way means that you are slow at first, but later, as you keep practicing, you will pick up speed and skill. If you start out doing things the wrong way, you will never reach the same level as someone who did things right from the beginning."
—From the 1986 book Double Dutch by David A. Walker and James Haskins
Growing up in Sweetwater, Texas, Willie Amos never did care much for football. When the other kids crowded around their televisions to bow at the altar of the Dallas Cowboys, Willie preferred to read, often the Bible, or play veterinarian to stray animals. Mostly, though, he skipped rope. Since he was nine, there has been nothing that Willie has liked to do more, and two years ago he proved he could do it better than anybody else at the world jump rope championship.
Thing was, when a football was placed in his hands, Amos turned out to be the best player in Sweetwater. For no reason other than to follow in the footsteps of his brother Tyrone, Willie became a running back in his freshman year at Sweetwater High. Willie found daylight where there seemingly was none and finished his scholastic career with 3,824 rushing yards, 37 touchdowns and all-state honors as a senior. Near the end of Willie's senior season Nebraska coach Frank Solich got wind of the youngster's 4-3 speed and natural athletic ability and flew in a private plane to west Texas to watch Willie play. Shortly thereafter Solich offered him a scholarship.
Last season, as a freshman free safety, Amos saw action in all 12 of the Cornhuskers' games, including the Alamo Bowl, and had an interception, a fumble recovery and nine tackles. At the conclusion of preseason practice this summer he was the only underclassman to be awarded a traditional Blackshirt practice jersey, given each year to members of Nebraska's first-team defense. In the Cornhuskers' first two games, a 21-7 win over TCU on Aug. 25 and a 42-14 defeat of Troy State last Saturday, Amos made five tackles and had an interception.
Whatever his success on the football field, Amos's heart still belongs to his childhood pastime. "Football's O.K., but in jump rope you really get to express yourself," he says. Amos discovered this as a nine-year-old, in 1991, when he joined the Hop to Its club in Sweetwater. Liz Miller, the club's organizer who became Amos's coach, remembers being amazed by the fancy footwork of the slight little boy "so determined to do it right."
While most of the participants were girls who would move on to cheerleading, Amos and two other boys, Cliff Forbes and Shaun Hamilton, started spending two hours a day working on their skills. Forbes was the fast one, and Hamilton was the powerful tumbler, but Amos could do all the tricks. Amos learned how to do handstands, push-ups and even backflips while jumping rope. "When you get into a rhythm with a rope," he says, "there's no other feeling like it in the world." He calls it the ups.
His obsession with jump rope helped to keep him away from the less wholesome means by which others got their ups in his corner of Sweetwater. The son of a single mother, Michelle, Willie grew up on The Hill, a low-rent neighborhood where drugs and guns were a temptation. "That stuff never interested me," says Willie. "I learned pretty quickly from other people's mistakes."
The prime example was Tyrone. In January 1994, when Willie was 11 and his 17-year-old brother was the starting tailback as a sophomore at Sweetwater High, Tyrone shot the mother of his infant daughter three times, leaving her a quadriplegic. Tyrone was found guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he remains. Willie grew up idolizing his brother and is still close to him, writing to him occasionally. (Tyrone was denied parole in June 1999 and is scheduled to be released in 2004.)
After Tyrone went to prison, Michelle moved 40 miles east to Abilene in July 1998, to take a better job and to be closer to Amos's father, Willie Brown, whom she married in '92. Amos was left behind. "I needed to get out of that town," says Michelle, 39. "[My son] wanted to stay [in Sweetwater] and finish school, and I wanted him to stay mere and finish school too." Amos, who had just finished his sophomore year in high school and wore Tyrone's jersey number, 1, was suddenly no longer living with his family.
Although he was never adopted, Amos lived in the homes of two Sweetwater families with his mother's consent, spending the majority of the time with John and Patricia Hamilton, the parents of his jump rope partner Shaun. To defray the cost of their hobby, Willie, Shaun and their buddy Cliff performed jump rope routines at various events, including in Seattle at halftime of a SuperSonics game, for housing and meals. When they could line up housing and transportation, the boys competed in jump rope tournaments. Some Friday nights, when Amos emerged from the locker room after a Sweetwater High football game, Hamilton and Forbes would be waiting with the car running, ready to drive overnight to a tournament. In 1999 Amos, Forbes and Hamilton—calling themselves the Jump Sensations—earned a fourth consecutive national championship berth, in Orlando, and went on to beat teams from 13 countries to win the world double Dutch team freestyle tide in St. Louis. That fall Amos rushed for 1,400 yards and the following spring won the state title in the 300-meter hurdles.