Thousand-plus mourn popular athlete, student

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 26, 2008

FRANKLIN—Josh Willis, the 19-year-old Franklin High School senior who collapsed and died at his family house on Yeidee Street last Wednesday morning, was remembered Tuesday as a friend, classmate, athlete and loving family member by some 1,300 people who filled the Apostolic Faith Church of God.

Tuesday’s service was a time of song and tears, of tales and laughs.

Bishop Stephen Willis, Josh’s uncle, led the proceedings that included coaches, fellow clergy and teachers and many Franklin High School students. Classes were canceled for the day. But perhaps the most touching recollections came from two of Willis’ coaches, basketball coach Danny Dillon and football coach Darren Parker.

Dillon, who sometimes preaches at Rock Church, recounted conversations he had with Willis, particularly how they related to God. Willis was a member of the Diamond Grove Baptist Church. Dillon said Willis would often ask questions about God.

While acknowledging the passing of a young man, Dillon called it “a great day for the kingdom.”

Dillon said Willis “was the kind of young man I wanted to be around.”

Dillon also said that Willis’ death should serve as a “wake-up call” to live life at its fullest.

He signaled to those seated in the church and said, “I’m not going to let Josh Willis die in vain,” which drew another of his many rousing ovations.

Willis was named the basketball team’s Most Valuable Player earlier this month.

He concluded, “I want to thank the Willises for letting him be a part of my life.”

Coach Parker said he’s received calls from far and wide since Josh’s death, from coaches and friends.

Parker retold a story he used during a Friday night candlelight vigil at the football field at Armory Stadium. During the football team’s first game, the Broncos trailed as time was running out. Parker used a timeout to gather his players, when Willis said, “Put the ball in my hands,”

On the next play, Willis scored.

Parker used the phrase “touchdown” when recalling Willis, because, the coach said, “a touchdown is always celebrated.”

Parker also spoke of the 155-pound Willis for his big heart and engaging smile.

On Wednesday morning, Parker went to Southampton Memorial Hospital to console Josh’s mother, Linda. After returning to the high school, Parker said the effect of Josh’s passing had already been seen.

“I saw some students who had never talked before, hugging each other,” Parker said. “Touchdown.”

Parker, too, signaled to the many gathered at the church and said they were on hand “because of him. Touchdown.”

Parker also said the school is retiring Willis’ football and basketball jerseys.

“He was the first to wear No. 1,” Parker said, “And he’ll be the last to wear No. 1.”

Sam Jones, Franklin High School principal, also spoke about Willis’ heart and warmth.

Mona Sumblin, girls’ basketball coach, made a presentation of photographs. Aimee Powell, Charlotte Barnes and Titus Jackson all sang solos.

Willis was found on the bathroom floor by his mother, who tried to revive him. Results of an autopsy have not been returned, and a cause of death is not known.

Willis was a four-year letterman in two sports at the school, and Parker said Willis had no previous known medical conditions that were detected before his death.