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IUN Grad

Munster resident Joe Willis smiles as he wears a black cap and gown for his graduation ceremony in May 2018 at University of Chicago Medical Center.

It is hard to believe that it will have been a year this week.

However, it was on the evening of Dec. 5, 2018, that Hammond Academy of Science and Technology athletic trainer Joe Willis, was called to the basketball floor during a practice to tend to an injured athlete. Shortly after he arrived, though, he collapsed and despite the best efforts of the HAST basketball staff and emergency medical personnel, Joe could not be saved.

Back then, I wrote in part, “The last time I spoke with athletic trainer Joe Willis was on Dec. 5, when I called the Concussion Clinic at Community Hospital. Joe had just returned from a medical leave and never sounded happier. In addition to his morning duties there, he had started as the athletic trainer at Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, just two days before.

“Those who saw the Munster High School and Indiana University alum that day — and the previous two — remarked later how efficient and business-like he had been in organizing the training room. It was particularly notable because HAST had never had an athletic trainer before”.

In the time after his graduation from IU in 2015, when physically able, Willis had previously worked at the Concussion Clinic while also serving as the head athletic trainer at Morton and assisting at Munster.

Mary Spina, the long-time athletic trainer at Munster and Sports Medicine Manager for Community Healthcare System, was a mentor of Joe’s, dating back to his high school days and including time he served as her assistant.

“Joe was the consummate health care provider,” she said. “His love for athletic training and taking care of athletes was evident even when he was spending time recovering in the hospital. Three years ago, our girls softball team was scheduled to play in the semi-state game the same day as Joe's transplant surgery. When I spoke with Joe a few days later, the first thing he asked about was how the girls played. He always put the athletes' health and well-being first.”

On Saturday night, Munster will put Willis first by naming its athletic training facility in his honor during a ceremony to be held between the boys junior varsity and varsity basketball games between the Mustangs and the Governors.

This event will be in the same gymnasium where, 25 years ago, legendary referee Paul Danko collapsed and died while officiating a Basketball O’Rama. He, too, was just returning from a medical leave.

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Back then, I wrote in part, “The last time I saw Paul Danko, we were at the Munster High School Football O'Rama. Lake Central and Munster were warming up prior to kickoff but with the unwelcome accompaniment of approaching thunder and lightning.

“Concerned for the safety of the athletes — and the gathering crowd, I approached the first white hat I saw. It belonged to Paul, a veteran football and basketball official of 30 years. Before I could finish my hello, he said, ‘I don't think your players should be out here ….’

“…. (His words) typified the officiating career of Paul Danko: business first, and that business was the safety of the athletes.”

In the weeks following that tragedy, the Paul Danko Scholarship was started for aspiring referees and umpires at what is now Purdue Northwest. It continues today, awarded annually to PNW students by the Lake County Athletic Officials Association.

Similarly, in the wake of Willis passing, the Joseph L. Willis Athletic Training Memorial Fellowship Scholarship was established at Indiana University.

With critical shortages of referees/umpires and athletic trainers at the high school level and both professions being dedicated to the safety of student-athletes, donations to both funds will go to excellent use.

To donate to the Danko fund, send your check to Purdue Northwest, Institutional Advancement, Operations Center, 2200 169th Street, Hammond, IN 46323. Be sure to enter, “Danko Scholarship,” on the memo line of your check.

Pledge/donation cards for the Willis fund will be available at Saturday’s ceremony. Donations also may be sent directly to the Indiana University Foundation, Showalter House, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, IN 47402. Be sure to enter “Joseph L. Willis Training Memorial Fellowship” on the memo line of your check.

In the spirit of the season and to honor the memory of either or both of these men, please be generous.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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