Reb’s Willis faces loss of brother

Published 5:51 pm Friday, July 28, 2006

Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis is tough. He proved that by racking up tackle after tackle despite a litany of injuries last season, but now he’s dealing with a more difficult burden.

Willis’s 17-year-old brother, Detris, drowned in Tennessee on July 17.

Yet the senior, a second-team AP All-American, says he didn’t consider shying away from Southeastern Conference media days and the endless stream of questions about his family’s loss that inevitably followed.

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“I know that my brother would have wanted me to continue,” he said Thursday. “That’s one of the things we’ve always talked about — no matter what the circumstances are, just pray and continue to work.”

Detris Willis, a rising high school senior in Bruceton, Tenn., drowned while swimming with friends. The younger Willis was a starter at both fullback and linebacker at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High.

Patrick Willis gave the eulogy at his brother’s funeral.

“I just got up there and talked about how I kept him in my heart every time I go out there and play,” he said. “I never got a chance to tell him, ’I know you want to be like me and do a lot of the things I’ve done. But I thank you, because you helped me do what I do.’ Being the oldest, I tried to lead by example.”

He learned about his brother’s death in the training room after going through drills with teammates.

“He handled it about as well as you would expect,” said Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, who attended the funeral along with some of his assistants. “Patrick is unusually tough and mature. Patrick has an unusual inner fire to himself and I do believe he’s a young man who’s mature enough to turn a negative situation into a positive situation.”

He certainly did that last season. Willis led the nation in solo tackles last year despite playing through a broken finger, a sprained knee, a bruised and sprained foot and a partially separated shoulder.

He missed spring practices with a foot injury and Orgeron said he would “protect” him some in two-a-day workouts. Willis isn’t sure he needs that treatment.

“I’m ready to go full-tilt,” he said.

He said he might not have stepped on the field injury-free since his freshman year, but is hoping for a healthy senior season. “I feel like that’s all that’s behind me now.”

Opposing coaches showed their respect for his abilities. Willis was the only unanimous pick on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team.

Mississippi State is on today’s agenda.