Lung Transplant Survivor Inspires, Teaches Through Football
By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com
September 1, 2021
ADRIAN – As the final seconds ticked off the clock in the 2019 Division 8 Regional Football Final at Reading, Adrian Lenawee Christian assistant coach Jon Willett started looking for his wife.
Reading would be going on to play the next week, while the LCS’s season was over. Willett desperately needed oxygen. He could barely breath.
Hillary Willett, Jon’s wife, pulled the car as close to the Reading field as she could, and Jon opened the door.
“I got in the car and sat down,” Willett said. “And I looked at her and I said, ‘I just coached my last game.’”
As miracles go, Willett was wrong. Less than two months after that football game that Willett thought was his last, he underwent a double lung transplant at the University of Michigan Hospital. He still doesn’t know how he survived so long, but is certain there was divine intervention.
“I’ve always had a close relationship with Jesus Christ,” Willett said. “And I’ve always been passionate about football. I always thought that if I survived, I would use football as a tool to reach younger people. I’m doing that today.”
Willett helped coach the Cougars to last season’s 8-Player Division 1 championship and is back on the sidelines this season, coaching the Cougars JV team and continuing to serve as an assistant with the varsity.
He even gets in on some drills now and then, such as doing push-ups with the quarterbacks.
“Jon has been with me for seven or eight years,” LCS varsity head coach Bill Wilharms said. “He’s a great man and a great football coach. The kids love having him around, and he loves them. I love coaching with him, and he’s a big part of our coaching family.”
Willett grew up in Sand Creek, about 10 minutes south of Adrian in Lenawee County. He played on some outstanding Aggies football teams for Hall of Fame coach Ernie Ayers. Willett led the 1990 Aggies in rushing, finishing just shy of 1,000 yards his senior season.
He got into coaching when his sons, Noah and Isaiah, began playing flag football.
“I coached them in flag football, then in Pop Warner,” Willett said. “I love coaching football. When Noah was in middle school I coached him one year, then became an assistant for the varsity.”
Wilharms tabbed Willett to be the JV head coach, a position he’s held for the last couple of years. He also coaches varsity wide receivers and defensive backs and will assist the LCS scout team quarterbacks at practice. He jumps in whenever needed.
Sometimes, it’s as a motivational speaker.
“I share my testimony whenever possible,” Willett said. “I tell my players that life is short. You never know how long you are going to have. You truly don’t. You have to live your life to the fullest.”
Willett first was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – chronic, progressive lung disease – in April 2017 when he visited the doctor due to a constant cough and shortness of breath. The prognosis was not good.
“The doctor said at that point I had 65-percent capacity of my lungs,” he said. “They gave me three to five years unless I could get a double lung transplant. They said that would be the only option and that there was no cure.”
Willett believed the doctors, of course, but admits he wasn’t the best patient.
“I figured if I could make it 10 years, my kids would be out of school,” he said.
The disease had other ideas. While he was put on oxygen due to shortness of breath, his LCS football players had no idea.
“I never did it in front of them,” he said. “I should have. I wasn’t a very good patient. I was wanting to be with the team. I wanted to coach.”
In July 2019, he noticed a big change.
“My lung capacity had dropped,” he said.
He continued to coach. He had some doctors’ appointments here and there but remained coaching the entire season.
“It was a mental thing,” he said. “I wanted to get through the season.”
He rode the bus to the LCS-Reading game. When the game was over, he told Wilharms that he had to go home.
“I told Coach Wilharms that I was just getting in the car with my wife,” he said. “She pulled the car up to the gate because it was so hard to walk. I couldn’t get air because of not having oxygen.”
When he told his wife that he thought he would never coach again, she said no.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘(You’ve coached your last game) with those lungs.’”
By Christmas of 2019, Willett had been in and out of the hospital on numerous occasions. He was on oxygen tanks around the clock. He went home at Christmas, believing it was his last.
“I said I want to go home. I think it’s my last Christmas. I wanted to be with my family,” he recalled.
When he returned to the hospital after Christmas, his son Noah sat in the backseat during the car ride changing out oxygen tanks every few minutes just to keep his father alive. Willett’s oxygen levels were dangerously low.
“When I got to U-M, there was a whole team of people waiting for me. They worked on me and sent me up to ICU. It was bleak,” he said.
The LCS community sent out word via social media to pray for Coach Willett, his wife, two sons and two daughters, Emily and Abigail. Willett said those prayers were answered.
Willett was told by doctors he had to have a double lung transplant within 24 hours, or he would die. Seven hours and 13 minutes later, the doctor walked in, with tears in his eyes, and told the family they found a match.
Willett is feeling better now. In February of this year, about a month after Willett watched from the sidelines as LCS won the championship in Brighton, the medications he had been on took hold and he began to improve.
When the season started this summer, Willett was no doubt going to be part of the Cougars staff.
“Everything is very stable right now,” he said. “My lungs keep getting better. I can tell at football practice, walking from end zone to end zone, I’m feeling better. I’m building up. That exercise helps.”
Some day he plans on reaching out to the family of the person who donated lungs to him. For now, he’s grateful to be alive and thankful for every moment he gets to spend coaching football.
“I’m feeling great and loving the opportunity I have to keep coaching and be with the kids,” Willett said. “The story I get to share with my players is truly a miracle. God took me to the point where it was 100 percent out of my control.
“If I can use football as a tool to keep talking to the youth and help them become better men, I’m going to do that. Football is what drives me.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian head varsity coach Bill Wilharms (holding football) gives assistant Jon Willett a hug after last season’s 8-Player Division 1 Final win. (Middle) Willett returned to the sideline a year after a double lung transplant. (Below) Willett serves as junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant. (Photos by Jeff Jameson/Lenawee Christian Schools.)
For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times
By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com
March 17, 2023
Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.
Last year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.
That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.
The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.
But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer.
The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.
Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.
Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.
Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.
“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing.
“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”
Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.
The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.
The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.
“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit.
“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”
This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.
Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.
The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.
“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.
“They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”
Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.
“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”
With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.
“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”
“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)