Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. – A year ago Patrick Willis played football with a broken foot and a cast on his broken hand.
This season he's playing with a broken heart.
Finally physically healthy, the All-American linebacker from Ole Miss now carries the emotional scars from having lost his younger brother, who drowned on July 17.
Detris Willis, 17, a football star like his older brother, developed cramps while swimming in a quarry with a group of friends in Camden, Tenn. His funeral was five days later, and Willis delivered the eulogy.
"I didn't think I'd say anything," Patrick said to a group of reporters Thursday at the Southeastern Conference media meetings. "I got up there and talked about how I kept him in my heart every time I played. He never had a chance to do the things I do and he wanted to be like me. But I said, thank you for helping me do what I do. I had to lead by example."
Patrick lived in foster homes for many of his childhood years, so he didn't develop a close relationship with Detris until he got older. But they always spent time together when Patrick return to visit their home in Bruceton, Tenn., and they talked on the telephone regularly.
Now, Patrick just wishes those phone calls would still come.
"We (Ole Miss coaches) were at the funeral with Patick," Rebels coach Ed Orgeron said. "He handled it about as well as you could expect. Patrick is unusually tough and mature. Patrick has an inner fire to himself.
"I do believe he's a young man that's mature enough to turn a negative situation into a positive situation. I think he just can't wait to get on the football field and let some of that out."
Football has always been fun for Patrick. Earlier this year he told Orgeron he'd decided to enter the NFL Draft, walked out the door, then turned and revealed he was just joking, much to the coach's relief.
"I said, 'Coach don't you have more faith in me than that,' " Patrick said. "It was a big laugh."
Laughter doesn't come as easily now. Football may be more valuable as therapy for him this year.
"I feel real ready to start camp," he said.
Last season Willis was a force in the middle of the defense despite a bulky cast on his right hand and a heavily taped right ankle. He averaged 12.8 tackles per game, including 9½ for losses and three sacks despite being hampered by injuries.
A look at Patrick Willis' career stats at Ole Miss:
The Rebels, who struggled to a 3-8 finish last year, are counting on more from him this season. Orgeron said the defense will be built around Willis, so keeping him healthy is a top priority.
"As I understand it, Patrick is very healthy right now and is ready to go," he said. "I will protect Patrick during two-a-days. I don't know how much I'm going to practice him. I haven't decided that yet. It is very important that we keep Patrick healthy and ready to play on Saturday."
His presence is especially vital because he's the only returning starter among the Rebels' defensive front seven.
"The four guys (in the defensive line) are studs," Patrick said. "I'm looking forward to seeing them play. I have complete confidence they will be doing their job."
Willis will do his job, too.
He wants to make his senior season a memorable year, one in which he can help the Rebels win, set up himself up to be a high draft choice and honor the memory of Detris.
However, Patrick doesn't plan any outward tribute to his brother like wearing Detris' number or carrying personal items on the field to honor him.
"I'm just going to keep him in my heart," Patrick said. "There's no better place."