Hospitalized teammate inspires Team Indiana in World Series

Paul Willis and teammates

When members of the South Bend, Indiana, all-star team gather for a team cheer during their Junior League World Series games in Taylor, they don’t shout their team name or “runs” or anything typically used to fire up players during a game.

They shout “Paul Willis.”

Until this year, Willis, 14, was a teammate of the players from the East Side Little League in South Bend. But a couple months ago, he was suffering headaches and doctors found a growth in the back of his head. He suffered an aneurism, had it wrapped during a first surgical procedure and was well on the way to total recovery when the aneurism burst, requiring a second surgery.

Willis has been in Indiana University Hospital and Methodist Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital since. He and his mother, Anita, have not been home since July 1.

“The aneurism ruptured during the surgery,” said team mom Laurie Szucs. “He’s lost some mobility in his left side and he’s had some vision problems. It will take about a year for rehabilitation. He’s doing a lot of therapy. It’s the only thing that would keep him from coming here.

“Doctors expect him to have a complete recovery. He’s a miracle.”

Scott Szucs, who is friends with Willis’ older brother, said it was “weird” that an aneurism could keep Willis down because he was so active.

“He beat the odds,” said Szucs, the 17-year-old brother of South Bend player Jimmy Szucz. “No one expected him to recover as well as he did. There was a chance of him being blind and paralyzed.”

When the South Bend boys played in the state tournament in Lebanon, Indiana, a few weeks ago, they visited Willis in the hospital.

“He got real excited and kept a really big smile,” said teammate Mike Cass. “We talked about how good we played our 12-year-old season (they made it to the state finals) and the memories of the hotel. We took pictures with him and had a good time.”

Jim Aldridge, manager of Team Indiana, said the players got excited when Willis opened his eyes and when he was able to lift his arm for the first time since his surgery.

“They kids went crazy,” Aldridge said. “They started chanting his name.”

Cass said the players also “promised to make it to the World Series so he could come watch us play.”

After the visit, South Bend rolled through the state tournament, became USA Central regional champions in a tournament played in Fort Wayne and advanced to the World Series in Taylor.

Aldridge said Willis has been their rallying point the entire way.

“Paul has been a member of this team since he was 9,” Aldridge said. “Last year, he was our starting left fielder and pitched for us. When we were getting ready to pick the all-star team this year, Paul was not well. It bothered my kids. When you’re 14, you don’t think about people dying or being sick. When he was in a coma, it affected the kids. They had a hard time thinking about anything else.

“Instead of letting it eat at them, we’re rallying around Paul. We say a team prayer on the field dedicated to him. Our cheer is ‘one, two, three, Paul Willis.’”

Back at Methodist Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital, Anita Willis said Paul enjoyed listening to Monday’s game over the streaming audio Internet broadcast on www.cityoftaylor.com/listen.

“Paul had rehab, but he got to listen to about an hour of the game,” Mrs. Willis said Tuesday morning. “It’s really fun for him to hear about the boys and what position they’re playing. He has a big smile on his face.”

She said Paul’s “brain is working fine. He has recovered fully from that. He’s a walking miracle.”

“He’s still a little weak on his left side, but he’s working hard,” she added. “It’s just going to take time. His spirit has been amazing.

“He’s so close to all the boys on the team. They’re like brothers. He was text-messaging them luck. We plan to listen to the whole game (Tuesday night).”

Players, coaches and parents agree that Willis has made a difference on the trail to Taylor. They hope he is well enough to join them by the end of the week.

“This is where we’re at and a big part of it is because of Paul,” Aldridge said. “It motivated the kids. They wanted to get to the next level so they could get T-shirts and pins and give them to Paul. It’s never been about, ‘let’s do this.’ It’s ‘let’s get there for Paul.’”

South Bend is home of the University of Notre Dame, home of the movie “Rudy.”

“We’re so motivated because of Paul,” Aldridge said. “It’s a ‘Rudy’ story. This has turned into five years of something special. And we’re not done yet. I can’t imagine what happens if we win a few games here.”