Ole Miss star shows courage after tragedy
Published: Friday, July 28, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 28, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
There was only a slight welling of the eyes as he talked behind a table. Maybe he's all cried out.
"I really don't want to talk about that," he said softly into the microphone.
He didn't have to. Just the fact that he was here, willing to expose his feelings like a raw nerve in front of the glare of SEC Media Days said a lot about Patrick Willis.
The Mississippi linebacker, the only unanimous choice on the coaches' pre-season All-SEC team, a guy who led the league in tackles a year ago despite a bum wrist and an aching ankle, showed his toughness just by showing up.
Just 12 days ago, his brother Detris, a 17-year old getting ready for the first day of practice at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High in Tennessee, drowned in a gravel pit while swimming with friends.
Willis got the call from another of his seven brothers while heading to the training room in Oxford.
"Maybe it's just a rumor," his brother said.
"Calm down," Patrick said.
An hour later, it was no longer a rumor.
"Patrick, it's true."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. The oldest child of the family, whose mother left when he was a young boy, suddenly had a hole in his heart.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "His first day of practice was later that day."
And so when the second day of the annual media event started with an announcement of a change in which players would be brought to Hoover, we all assumed it would be Patrick Willis bowing out. And who could blame him?
Instead, he sat there answering the tough questions about losing someone so close to him, losing a piece of himself.
"I know that my brother would want me to continue," he said. "That's one of the things we always talked about, no matter what the circumstances are just pray and continue to work."
But there was so much left unsaid.
He wanted to tell Detris so much, but now he was gone. He delivered the eulogy in Bruceton, saying an emotional goodbye.
"I didn't think I would say anything," Willis said. "I just got up there and talked about how I always kept him in my heart.
"I never got a chance to tell him that I know you want to do the things that you do, want to be like me. But I should thank you because you help me do the things I do."
The tragedy stunned the Ole Miss family. You think those kind of things happen to other people and then it hits home with a ferocious slap.
Your leader, your star, your best player.
You don't know what to say.
"We were at the funeral with Patrick," said Rebels coach Ed Orgeron. "He handled it about as well as could be expected. Patrick is unusually tough and mature. He's put it behind him.
"Patrick has an unusual inner fire to himself. I do believe he's a young man that's mature enough to turn a negative into a positive situation. I think he just can't wait to get on the football field and let some of that out."
On this day, he kept it in. He talked about his brother in glowing terms, the kid with a great sense of humor, the kind of humor Willis himself showed when he walked into Orgeron's office after last season and told his coach he was turning pro.
When he got to the door, he turned around, smiled and said, "I don't believe you don't have more faith in me."
Orgeron just laughed and said, "Why'd you do that to me?"
He knew he wasn't ready for the NFL. He certainly wasn't ready to lose a brother.
Willis will carry the memory with him forever, but he has no plans to wear a memorial on his uniform.
"I'll keep him in my heart," he said. "There's no better place to keep him than that."
A few days after the funeral, he found out that when his mother left she was pregnant. The two boys he thought were half-brothers were actually his brothers.
His family suddenly grew. But it will never again be whole.
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Dooley's columns appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
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