TAMPA — Will was in high school. Randy Prince knew his son would need a job soon. He'd been worrying about this for years.
Will, at birth, had a heart defect that limited oxygen to his brain. In some ways, his mind functioned well. He had an impeccable memory. But he also had a naivete that left him vulnerable. He was easily stressed and he talked nonstop, making some uncomfortable.
Randy worked as an account manager. His financial company partnered with owners of franchise restaurants. He thought Will could work a cash register and knew he liked cooking.
So, in 2005, Prince traded in his white collar job. He opened a Wing-Stop franchise in a South Tampa strip mall, 7 miles north of MacDill Air Force Base on Dale Mabry Highway. For more than six years, they worked side by side, father and son.
"I just wanted to do this for him," Randy said.
But Will's heart was failing. In August, he died at age 24.
Randy Prince, 55, had sacrificed his career for his oldest son. Few customers had been able to see that. They had just noticed a man in a stained black Wing-Stop uniform and his mentally challenged son behind a counter.
But some saw more. They were a small group of men and women who understood sacrifice better than most, and they made a small gesture that still makes Randy cry.
• • •
Will Prince, Randy's oldest son, was born with transposition of the great arteries, where the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed. The rare birth defect changes the way blood circulates, leaving a shortage of oxygen in blood flowing from the heart to the rest of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. He had corrective surgery when he was 6 weeks old but required occasional hospitalization. His parents, now divorced, gave him as normal a life as they could.
Will loved video games and shows like the King of Queens, The Simpsons and Roseanne. He had an infectious laugh and loved to tease his father, who teased him back. When Will asked his dad whether he liked the band, Korn, Randy said sure. He liked buttered beans and fried chicken, too.
When Randy decided to open a Wing-Stop, the corporation required two employees to attend a three-week training course. Randy took Will. He wondered if his son could handle the training, which required 90 percents on tests. He worried Will might just annoy everyone.
When his son raised his hand in a lecture, Randy braced for what would come. But the question was pertinent and to the point. Will passed all the tests.
Randy and Will returned a team, and for almost six years they turned Wing-Stop into a popular hangout for MacDill Air Force Base military members. Randy gave them 10 percent off.
His son began doing everything, boiling potatoes for potato salad, making ice tea, mixing blue cheese dressing. But he gravitated to the front counter, where he could take customers orders by name and persuade them to become Facebook friends.
He talked and talked, and asked his dad about everything from inventory and prep to late-night sales. He munched on Teryaki wings at lunch and kept good work routines.
"I always knew when Will opened up," Randy said, "we were ready to go."
Randy took Will to the company's Las Vegas convention a few years ago, where they sat at the blackjack tables. They made no money but lots of father and son memories. Randy can still hear Will chatting up the dealers.
Watching Will taught Randy courage. Will never complained about his heart condition or circumstances. Taking care of him taught Randy compassion and service. Working with him only deepened their relationship.
"He was my best friend," Randy said. "I talked to him every day."
But over the last few years, Will's body began retaining fluid. Doctors inserted a pacemaker in March but it didn't help. At 6 feet 1 and 300 pounds, he was too big for a heart transplant.
In late June, doctors put him in touch with hospice workers and told him not to work.
He sat in his apartment.
"It bothered him from the standpoint he was lonely," Randy said.
It bothered Randy, too. So, two or three days a week, he picked up his son and sat him at a table at Wing-Stop, where he could hang out all day. He could chat with his friends from the base, joke with the employees and, of course, talk to dad.
That lasted about a month. He died on Aug. 27 in his apartment. His father was at his side.
Randy tried going back to work two days after he died. He thought work would keep his mind busy. But soon customers asked, "Where's Will?"
"He had opened this place for Will," longtime employee Garret McClain said.
Randy took a week off. Without will, Wing-Stop had become just a job.
• • •
Last week, eight customers in military uniforms came in and summoned Randy to the front.
They handed him a framed American flag and a certificate. When he read it, he learned the flag had been flown over Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan.
"In Honor and Memory of Will Prince."
The eight had signed their names. Among them were technical sergeants, master sergeants and Staff Sgt. Joshua L. Smith.
"Your son was really good to us," Smith wrote, "and always fun to talk to."
Randy began sobbing.
"I can't believe that these guys and girls fighting for our freedom had the compassion to honor my son in such a loving way," he said.
They had recognized his sacrifice.
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368.