Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tracy Willis remembered

Tracy C. Willis was a playmaker on O'Connor High School's football squad a few years ago, once intercepting a pass that set up a touchdown as the team marched toward its first playoff berth.

It was that way to the bitter end on another field of battle far, far from home, when Willis and three other Army snipers fought 12 insurgents in a close-quarter, rooftop battle in Iraq. When it was over, Willis and his spotter were dead, as were the insurgents. Two other GIs survived.

"They came up blazing," his father, Darryl Willis, 50, of San Antonio said of the dozen insurgents his son confronted early Sunday. "And from what I understood, Tracy was covering one of his fellow soldiers that had gotten hit and just kept firing until they hit him."

It's a good bet that Willis, 21, was confident of getting out of the battle alive, that he exhorted his comrades to fight on as the insurgents closed on them. That, family, coaches and friends said Tuesday, was the way he'd lived.

The battle claimed Willis, a corporal, and Sgt. Joshua Morley, 22, of Boise, Idaho. The Army said the men, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, died in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Two other soldiers were seriously injured and hospitalized.

A 2004 graduate of O'Connor, Willis is the 31st American service member from San Antonio killed in Iraq since the invasion. So far this month, 78 GIs have perished in Iraq, bringing the total to 3,732, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

The Rev. Randall Brown said an Army casualty assistance office told the family of Willis' role in the battle.

"He did what he could do to protect the rest of the group and put his life on the line and led the charge, and as result — mission accomplished," said Brown, 46, a retired Air Force technical sergeant and pastor of River City Christian Outreach, a church on the Northwest Side.

"I'm very proud of him because he died for what he believed in and he died trying to protect and help his other soldier," said his mother, Wilma Willis, 47, of San Antonio. "And for doing so he lost his life but two others were saved."

Willis seemed bound for gridiron glory. He made second team All-District in 2002, his junior year and ran a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash — speedy for a schoolboy athlete. He was first team All-District free safety as a senior and was on special teams because of his nose for being near the ball.

That team went 11-3 and made it to the state quarterfinals. He went on to East Texas Baptist University in Marshall but was injured in his first preseason game and later joined the Army.

"He was a true team player," O'Connor head football coach Danny Padron said. "He always cared about his teammates, always found the good in them. He always had a smile on his face."

That optimism was tested. A younger sister fell into a coma the week that Willis, a senior, prepared for the big district championship game. Coaches and fellow players closed ranks, his mom said, as Willis prayed and dedicated the game to her.

"It broke him up. It really hurt him, but he didn't miss practice, and he'd leave practice and go to the hospital," O'Connor coach David Malesky said.

"He fought and made sure that everybody continued and kept their heads in the game," said Wilma Willis, who recalled the words of a son who lived by the Army credo — never quit — long before trading college football for life as an American soldier. "'OK, we're concentrating on this game because we're going all the way, buddies. We're going all the way.'"

From the Express News

O'Connor football coach Danny Padron was already in his office early Monday when he heard that Tracy Willis, an all-district free safety for the Panthers in 2003, had been killed in Iraq early Sunday.

Suddenly, football didn't seem very important.

Tragedy, in all its starkness, has a way of shaking us back to reality.

Padron's tears that day reflected the love and respect Willis' coaches, former teammates and friends had for him.

“It was devastating,” Padron said. “I pray for all our kids and I prayed by name for Tracy because I knew he was over there. It was really traumatic for me to hear that he had been killed.”

Willis, 21, was an Army corporal assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

He was a senior on the 2003 squad that advanced to the state quarterfinals and earned the distinction of being the first Panthers squad to make the playoffs.

Padron broke the news of Willis' death to his team when it gathered Monday morning to go over the scouting report on Reagan, O'Connor's opponent in its season opener this week.

“It was very tough for me to talk to our kids about it,” Padron said. “We started off with a prayer. There were very few dry eyes in the room. These young men you coach become your sons.”

Willis, who played on the O'Connor varsity as a junior and senior, visited his alma mater last spring and spoke to the team.

“He was in his uniform and looked great,” Padron said. “You couldn't ask for a better young man. Tracy was the kind of guy the Army would put on its recruiting poster.”

Willis, a sniper, and his spotter, Sgt. Joshua Morley, 22, of Boise, Idaho, were killed in a rooftop battle with 12 insurgents. Two other Army snipers survived the firefight, thanks in large measure to the cover Willis provided.

When it was over, the 12 insurgents lay dead.

Padron said it's not surprising Willis died while helping his buddies.

“That describes Tracy,” he said. “He was the ultimate team player. He was saving his buddy and paid for it with his life.”

Willis' parents, Darryl and Wilma Willis, visited Padron at school Monday after the coach called their home to express his condolences.

“I was trying to comfort them and they wound up comforting me,” Padron said. “They are special people.”

Padron said O'Connor will dedicate its season to Willis and players will wear his jersey number (22) on their helmets.

“Something like this puts football in perspective,” said Padron, 55. “As you get older, you learn that it's a privilege just to play this game. It's not a war. We get up and can go again, even after we lose. But a war is entirely different. That's why we want to remember and honor Tracy.”

Indeed, heroes like Tracy Willis, never should be forgotten.

No doubt, the national anthem will take on new meaning for O'Connor coaches and players when they hear it before their game Friday night.

From KENS 5

Related Link:
Tracy C. Willis dies 'of wounds suffered when the enemy attacked his unit during combat operations'