Former athlete died of heart complications

Published 8:17 am Saturday, March 7, 2009

FRANKLIN—Linda Willis wasn’t surprised when she learned how her 19-year-old son, Josh Willis, died last spring.

“Heart problems do run in my family,” Willis said, looking over Josh’s sports memorabilia that she keeps in the living room of her Yeidee Street home.

Josh Willis, a football and basketball star at Franklin High School, died suddenly at his home on April 16 last year.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Willis, then a 19-year-old four-year letterman in both sports, died from “acute coronary insufficiency due to circumferential myocardial hypertrophy of unknown etiology.”

“Essentially, what they are saying is that he died of a heart attack,” said Dr. Earl Fuller with Cardiologist Consultants, Inc. Fuller, who practices out of Southampton Memorial Hospital, did not treat Willis nor review his autopsy report.

“Myocardial hypertrophy means that the heart is thicker than it should be,” Fuller explained, adding that the condition is sometimes known as “athlete’s heart” when it is caused by vigorous conditioning or excessive exercise such as the regimens that professional athletes take on.

“This sort of diagnosis in a young person could indicate that it is an inherited problem,” he said.

Willis said she handles the grief of missing her youngest son by keeping a shrine to his memory at her home.

“This used to be my living room,” she said Friday, pointing to pictures of Josh and memorabilia from his football and basketball days. Live flower sprays from the funeral have been converted to silk arrangements and are propped up throughout the room. Josh’s cap and gown hangs on one chair and the basketball commemorating his 1,020th basket sits on a display in the corner.

On a back wall, a giant painting of Josh hangs above his old Broncos football helmet. The step team at the high school made the poster, Willis said.

“All of his teammates, all of his buddies, they keep in touch with me,” she said. “Coach (Darren) Parker has been with me since Day 1.”

Willis said she was especially proud of Josh’s teammates who won the 2008 state football championship and dedicated their season in his honor.

“I got to present the trophy to the team, and that felt good,” she said.

Outside the Willis living room, two tables are crammed full of Josh’s football and basketball trophies.

“I always promised him I was going to make him a trophy room,” Willis said. “This was my living room, but it’s all his now.

“I’m keeping everything, all of this, because he was my heart.”