Adam Willett doesn't remember a thing about the day that changed his life. When he awoke from a medically induced coma at Stony Brook University Medical Center, his first thought was, why are all these people in my bedroom?
His first question was, "Can I still fight?''
Willett, a highly decorated amateur boxer and an alternate on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, was shot last April outside a deli in North Bellport. The bullet tore through his midsection, severing the bile duct from his liver. He was placed in a coma before surgeons repaired the damage and was kept unconscious for four days during his recovery. The bullet remains in his abdomen.
Willett was a standout football player at Bellport High School but didn't begin boxing until the age of 19. He immediately excelled. George Willett took his son to the Atlantic-Veteran's Memorial Boxing Club in Shirley in November of 2001 and five months later Adam won his first New York Golden Gloves title.
Fighting at 201 pounds, and blessed with incredible hand speed, Willett, a southpaw, won another Golden Gloves title, four national titles and represented the United States in the Pan Am Games and the World Championships. In 2009, Willett turned pro, won his first bout and lost a split decision in his second. After that loss, Willett grew disenchanted with boxing and wondered if he had a future in the sport. He then took a job as a security guard at Bellport High School.
Sticking his neck out
One night after work, Willett came to the aid of several high school girls who were being harassed at a nearby shopping center. It was during that encounter that Willett was shot. Two men have been charged in the attack. Darryl Austin, 19, who allegedly drove the alleged shooter to the scene, is a cooperating witness against Rasalaam Jackson, 21, who police say pulled the trigger. A trial date has not been set.
Willett said he does not regret helping the girls but may think twice about ever doing something like that again.
"To be honest with you, I don't know, because that situation almost cost me my life," he said. "I'm not saying no, but I would have to [assess] the situation first.''
It wasn't long after surgery that Willett began planning his return to the ring.
In boxing, comebacks occur so often that they are hardly newsworthy. But on Thursday, when Willett, 28, fights a four-round heavyweight bout against Sharieff Hayes, of Phoenix, at the Plattduetsche Park Restaurant in Franklin Square, it will be an extraordinary accomplishment.
"I watch News12 and I've seen that people who are shot like I was end up dead or crippled,'' he said. "I was fortunate.
"My thing is, as long as I am able to box, I'm good,'' Willett said. " . . . People get shot every day. You got to take the good and the bad with this world. This is life.''
He may be lucky to be alive, but his comeback is rooted in hard work. While still in the hospital, Willet began doing dips, gripping the rails on the side of his bed and pushing himself up, elevating his entire body, then lowering himself again.
"I went to visit him and I had to tell him to stop,'' said his boxing trainer Mike Murphy. "I was afraid his stitches would open up.''
Last week, while training with Murphy and his father, George Willett, at the Atlantic-Veteran's Memorial Boxing Club, Willett went through a rigorous, hour-long workout. But mental toughness and breaking a sweat would not be enough to earn him a license to fight again.
Before embarking on the comeback, Murphy required Willett to get medical consent. Dr. Jared M. Huston, who treated Willett at Stony Brook, provided the fighter with a letter that stated he could "return to full gym and boxing activities." Willett also passed a physical examination by the New York State Athletic Commission.
"He's medically cleared to fight,'' said Eric Bentley, medical coordinator for the commission.
Regarding Willett, Bentley said, "He did all the required prefight medicals. He's ready to go.''
"I think it's testament to his character that he came back to boxing,'' said Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, the promoter of Willett's bout. "First of all, this was not a guy getting into trouble. He tried to come to the aid of people and he got shot. Sometimes people give up when things like this happen. He has the fortitude to come out of it and live his dream.''
It's a dream that George Willett, 63, has had for decades. He grew up boxing in the same Glen Cove gym that produced 1976 Olympic gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. He said he took all of his sons to the boxing gym, but Adam had "special talent.''
"He's strong as a bull,'' George Willett said. "I am very happy for my son. He trains hard. I'm very proud. That's not to say that I don't worry. I do. As long as he's fighting and trying, I'm going to be there.''
Willett is thankful for the second chance.
"I just won't let it go, I can't let it go,'' Willett said of boxing. "I live, I eat, I sleep boxing. I love it. And I didn't know how much I loved it until I almost lost it.''