ORLANDO -- It was the middle of the funeral, damn it.
Even for Patrick Willis and his sister, Ernicka, that was too much. Their estranged mother had picked the funeral for reconciliation.
|Ole Miss' Patrick Willis was a Nagurski finalist. (AP)|
The audacity, the gall, of a mother who had abandoned four young children more than 15 years ago to come back after one of them had died.
"She said something like, 'I love you,'" said Willis, Ole Miss' linebacker and perhaps the centerpiece of SportsLine.com's 2006 All-America team. "I looked at her and said, 'If you loved us so much why did you do what you did?'"
There was no reply. How do you make a case for coming back into your kids' lives after leaving them? You don't. You can't. Especially after Patrick, Orey and Ernicka had made it through an abusive father, an absent mother -- and enough love to fill a stadium.
"It makes you laugh," said Chris Finley, essentially Patrick's surrogate father, "and makes you cry on the inside."
That day in July they were all mourning the death of Detris Willis. After all that, he was the one who didn't make it through for a completely different reason. Detris, 17, had been swimming with friends in gravel pits near the family's hometown of Bruceton, Tenn. The 218-pound teenage linebacker cramped up.
"Once he cramped up, it just spread," Patrick said. "He was the biggest one out there. No one could pull him out."
It's just one more thing to sort out in Patrick Willis' life. Mom never really was in the picture. His natural father, Ernest, was accused of neglect to the point that Tennessee child services took the kids away from him four years ago.
At age 6, Patrick was cooking breakfast for younger sister and brothers. At age 10, he was picking cotton around his Bruceton, Tenn., home. The proceeds went to Ernest to pay the utilities.
Even now, Patrick says it wasn't that bad.
"I didn't necessarily pick cotton with my hands," he says. "I chopped."