HAWAII KAI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The body of a member of the University of Hawaii football team was recovered Saturday morning in waters off Sandy Beach.
The UH Athletic Department confirmed the death of running back Willis Wilson. Honolulu Fire Department crews located his body shortly after 7:30 a.m.
"We are very saddened by the news of Willis' passing," head football coach Norm Chow said.
"He was a very fun-loving young man, who was well-liked by his teammates. He was an exciting football player who came to us from the University of Washington and whom we felt would help us at running back. He overcame some obstacles in his life and he was the perfect lesson to our team to never quit," the coach said.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Willis' family during this difficult time."
A Honolulu Fire Department spokesman said the incident was reported around 4:30 a.m. Saturday.
HFD says three individuals in a party of five stepped into the water knee-deep when a large wave came over them. Two of the individuals looked back and noticed the man was gone.
"This morning I got there about 5:15, and it was a pretty big scene," said Hideo Hanashiro, who goes to Sandy's several times a week to surf and take pictures of the sunrise.
"There was a helicopter flying over the beach, back and forth. There were several fire trucks and police units on the scene," he said.
Hanashiro also said the waves were choppy three-footers, but were unmanageable, with even bigger waves at the nearby Halona Blow Hole. "The white wash from that was pushing up there, so I couldn't imagine trying to swim out there at any time without being able to see," he said.
HFD searched for the man along the shoreline, in the water, and from the air. HFD says rescue personnel located the man unresponsive.
Willis was pronounced dead at the scene.
Sandy Beach is notorious for its pounding shorebreak and dangerous current, which may have taken Wilson away in the pre-dawn darkness.
"Even at midday, you could be standing in shin-deep water and if the rip is taking you, it's taking you," said Hanashiro. "It doesn't matter how big or how knowledgeable you are."
Wilson was 21 years old and was born in Pearl City. His father, Jack, also played football for UH in the late 1980s.
UH said Wilson did not appear in any games this season.
Wilson graduated from Lakes High School in Lakewood, WA. He was an all-state running back and the South Puget Sound League's offensive player of the year as a senior after rushing for 1,425 yards and 22 touchdowns in leading Lakes to the 3A state semifinals.
According to the Athletic Department, Wilson spent three years at UW, where he redshirted in 2010 and received the team's Brian Stapp Special Teams Scout Player of the Year award. He did not appear in any games in 2011 and saw limited action in four games as a sophomore.