Former Liberty Union High School District students Devon Willis and Nick Sullivan may appear to have few similarities.
But their recent unexpected deaths in separate incidents show that they both possessed unique qualities that blazed trails into the hearts of many.
Sullivan, a 2012 Heritage graduate, drowned in mid-June in New Hogan Lake in Calaveras County, while Willis, a 2019 Liberty graduate, was killed on June 21 in a head-on car crash caused by a suspected drunk driver on State Route 4 east of Whiskey Slough Road heading toward Stockton.
California Highway Patrol officials were unable to provide details on the suspect in Willis’s case this week, other than to say he was transported from the scene to the hospital with major injuries. The investigation is continuing.
Willis, 20, is remembered as a passionate football player, avid outdoorsman and loyal friend, with an infectious smile, sparkle for life and love of family.
The Texas native moved to Discovery Bay with his mom in 2016 and made an immediate impact on the Liberty community, his friends and girlfriend said this week.
He played two seasons for the Lions, helping the team win its first North Coast Section title in 2017.
His indelible effect on and off the field resounds in the program today, evidenced by a host of current and former teammates and coaches who turned to social media to remember the player nicknamed “Texas.”
“He was always loyal, always there whenever you needed him,” Trey Hawkins, Willis’s former teammate, said. “That smile, just him alone, would always keep you going.”
The game aside, Willis lived life to the fullest, said his girlfriend Analiese Almgren.
The man she described as being “different than anyone she ever met” inspired in her a love of the outdoors and never failed to cook the pair a good meal.
“He was so different; very gentleman-like,” she recalled. “That is what made me fall in love with him. It was so different from how we were raised out here.”
Melissa Almgren, Analiese’s mother, remembered Willis as an initially quiet man who quickly opened up to the family, exhibiting polite Southern charm mixed with a fun-loving free spirit.
Brandie Coleman, Willis’s mom, knew those traits well.
“Devin presented himself with a tough exterior but really had a tender heart,” she said.
Willis’s funeral was scheduled for July 2 in his native Texas. Coleman said it’s expected that an East County vigil will be held on July 10, possibly at the Liberty football stadium or City Park.
Sullivan, 26, was a courageous person with a welcoming soul, laid-back attitude and funny chuckle, his family remembered.
Meningitis stole his hearing and forced him to relearn to walk as an infant, but he charged forward, leading a normal, rich and fulfilling life, his family said.
He knew sign language but mostly opted to read lips; attended conventional school; played sports growing up, including basketball and varsity football; and graduated from Sonoma State.
“A lot of people might see (his challenges) as this huge devastation, where they kind of give up or play the victim,” said Megan Sullivan, Nick’s sister. “Nick never played the victim, never gave up. He lived a normal life.”
Sullivan, who moved with his family from Camarillo to Brentwood in fourth grade, was an avid outdoorsman but also flourished indoors, especially in social crowds, where his innate ability to make everyone feel welcomed shined, his family said.
While he was always the life of the party, nothing could compare to the bond he had with his fiance. The pair met on a blind date in Nick’s junior year at Heritage and were inseparable ever since, his family said.
Luckily, his heart was big enough to include everyone he met.
“He made everyone feel special,” Megan said. “I don’t know a single person who said Nick didn’t like them.”