Faith, family and football for Ole Miss walk-on

When his 37-year-old mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a college football star steps up to care for her and his younger sisters.

But what motivates the young man to put his family’s interests over his own athletic pursuits?

Could it be his faith?

Kudos to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., for an emotional profile of Ole Miss walk-on Derrick “DJ” Wilson that lets the religion angle unfold naturally.

Let’s start at the top:

After his East Mississippi Community College football team went undefeated and won the 2011 junior college championship, star lineman Derrick “DJ” Wilson was offered full athletic scholarships to four-year colleges in Alabama and Louisiana.

But as the football season came to an end, the 2010 Horn Lake High graduate had more important concerns. His mother, Jelks Wilson, was dying of cancer. Wilson was driving home from school every weekend — an eight-hour round-trip — to care for her and his two younger sisters.

Wilson would wake to the sounds of his mother’s soft mumbling. Straining to hear, he realized she was praying.

“It would be 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Wilson, now 21. “When you are asleep, half the time you don’t know what is going on. I would be saying to myself: I wish she would be quiet. After I realized what was going on, there was nothing I could say.

“I would just go in there and listen to her pray. She would want to hold hands. We would sit in the room. We would talk about what God had done for us. The way she raised me was go to church, make sure you believe in God, and make sure you honor God.”

At GetReligion, one of our mantras is that mainstream news stories should reflect the crucial role that religious faith often plays in the lives of ordinary people. Another of our mantras is that news organizations should allow believers to explain their faith in their own words.

Read the whole story, and see if you don’t agree that the Memphis newspaper mostly succeeds on both counts.

If not for the final three paragraphs, I might have rendered a different verdict. But the ending encapsulates the young man’s faith:

Now that his mother is gone, Wilson compartmentalizes her death. Too much is on his plate even now to grieve. He relies on his faith to get him through the days. The nights are often the hardest.

Wilson sleeps with a colorful quilt his mother gave him as a child. “It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I refuse to not sleep with it,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be here without God. It’s just so amazing what He can bring you through,” he added. “He said He would never forsake us or fail us. I knew what was going on wasn’t a mistake. When He called her home, I just knew He wanted his daughter to be with Him and not on Earth. That’s what brought me through it and comforted me and why I didn’t go crazy.”

I’m not suggesting this is a perfect story. I found myself wishing for elaboration at certain points, such as when Wilson’s junior college coach described him as a “powerful soul.” What exactly did the coach mean?

Similarly, when the story notes that Wilson led fellow players in a devotional before the championship game, I wanted to know more about the devotional. What was said? Did they read Scriptures? Did they pray? Was this a new ritual or a routine one for Wilson and his teammates?

Nonetheless, I was pleased overall that The Commercial Appeal avoided the holy ghosts that haunt so many stories of this nature.

P.S. Two types of GR posts typically draw no comments at all: Positive posts and sports-related posts. May tmatt find it in his heart to forgive me for this doubly cursed post.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia

    I’m prejudiced because my brother is a reporter for the Commercial Appeal. but I think it was a great article. Having a conversation recently with a friend about how people get ahead in life, I offered this article as an example of how a person dealt with an unfortunate set of circumstances. We are not islands and this article was terrific in covering how this man reacted to an awful situation.

    You aren’t getting much response, probably, because everyone is overcome by how well this writer conveyed the circumstances, including the role that religious faith played in the athlete’s decisions.

    I still don’t understand the GR’s focus on sports vis a vis sports and religious faith, but it’s still a great story whether the guy is an athlete or not. It would have been interesting if he was a guy who gave up a Wall Street job to go home to a position at a local bank.

  • tmatt

    You could have done much worse. This could have been a positive post about a sports story OVERSEAS, linked to a persecuted religious minority. That would have done the trick.

    This gets you to TWO comments. Hurrah.


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