Willie Hubbard led his team to a state championship as a quarterback at Euless Trinity High School, but he is best remembered for the way he lived his life off the field.
“He was passionate about life and about others. He was a one-of-a-kind guy,” said Keta Hood, Hubbard’s cousin.
Hubbard, 25, was play-fighting with one of his brothers in January when he noticed shortness of breath. He went to three doctors who all confirmed the same thing: stage four cancer. A mass had been growing around his heart for seven years without any indication, Hood said.
“Obviously he had his questions about why,” Hood said. “But he found purpose in it.”
The mass spread quickly. Doctors told him he didn’t have much time, and on April 14 at 4:27 a.m., Hubbard died in his sleep at his Fort Worth apartment.
The news was a shock to many who knew Hubbard. He kept his diagnosis a secret, only sharing with close friends and family because he didn’t want others to suffer with him.
“He was charismatic the whole time he was sick,” Hood said. “He talked to us about loving yourself and loving others. He would say, ‘If you aren’t full, how can you pour into the life of others?’ ”
Hood and Hubbard grew up in the same house with five other kids. They all spent a lot of time outside in their purple tree house.
“Everyone would agree that Willie was a guy that you just enjoyed seeing smile, and he smiled a lot,” said Nick Quartaro, Willie’s wide receiver coach at the University of North Texas. “He always carried himself in a very positive light.”
He was crowned homecoming king his senior year and is remembered by teammates and friends for his “larger-than-life smile.”
Hubbard met his high school sweetheart, Ebony Spells, their sophomore year at Trinity. She was by his side until he took his final breath.
“Today, we remember this amazing young man and the smile he always wore. We know you have moved on to a higher purpose, Willie, but we will miss you terribly,” Trinity High School, where Willie graduated in 2010, posted on Facebook.
Jovontae Pettigrew met Willie at a high school football camp and remembers him as a leader, a role model and a gentleman who gave great advice.
“He lived Willie Hubbard to the fullest,” said Pettigrew. “He always wanted the best for you.”
Steve Lineweaver, a Texas High School Football Hall of Fame coach, was Trinity’s head coach during the 2009 state championship. He said Hubbard, a small guy in high school, stood as big and tall as the Trojans’ 300-pound linemen in the way he carried himself.
The Trinity Trojans were down by 14 points in the third quarter of the state game in San Antonio when they rallied against Austin Westlake in overtime. Hubbard threw an 18-yard pass to Brandon Carter to ultimately win the game 41-38.
“It was more than just football — he was like a brother to me. He helped mold me into the man I am today,” Pettigrew said.
After high school, Willie went on to become a wide receiver at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma before transferring to the University of North Texas, where he played from 2011 to 2014, the year he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.
“You spend a lot of time together in the world of athletics and you like to think about what they’re doing now, and to know that Willie’s gone is really a tough blow,” Quartaro said.
Hubbard wanted to continue his education to become a chiropractor with hopes of opening his own wellness center to help children with cancer and autism, Hood said. He was known as “Coach” to youth league basketball players in Fort Worth, where he volunteered in his free time.
The 2009 championship team’s motto was “hold the rope” after Lineweaver encouraged his players to be the kind of person you would want holding the other end of the rope if you were hanging off of a cliff.
“Willie was the guy you wanted holding that rope for you,” Lineweaver said. “He was a strong, selfless, courageous young man.”
Hubbard’s death is not the first loss the championship team has endured since winning in 2009.
Polo Manukainiu, 19, a sophomore on the team in 2009, died in 2013 in a single-vehicle crash in rural New Mexico. His younger brother, Lolo Uhatafe, 14, and another Trinity teammate, Gaius Vaenuku, 18, also died in the crash. They were driving back to Texas from a trip to Salt Lake City.
Terrence Tusan, 22, a running back for the Trojans in 2009, was shot in December 2014 after he was involved in a home-invasion robbery in Denton, police said. He was home on college break from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he had played football.
Former Trojan Eryon Barnett, 24, died in the hospital in July 2015 after suffering complications from pancreatitis. He had just graduated from Montana State University, where he played football, and wanted to move closer to his 2-year-old son, his brother Chris Barnett told the Star-Telegram.
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Services for Willie Hubbard
A candlelight vigil for Willie Hubbard will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the indoor football facility at Euless Trinity High School. The funeral is 11 a.m. Friday at New Breed Christian Center in Fort Worth.