By Lela Garlington
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.”
Wilson’s mother died in January. She was 37. Not long afterward, Wilson turned down the football scholarships. Going to schools in Alabama or Louisiana would move him too far from his sisters — Fallon, 11, and Reagan, 3.
“The Derrick Wilson story is one that everybody should hear,” said EMCC football coach Buddy Stephens. “There are so many bad stories with collegiate athletics. Coaches doing this. Players doing that. He has such a powerful soul.”
Wilson first learned about his mother’s illness two years ago during his freshman year at East Mississippi. She had Stage 4 cancer that had spread to her kidneys, liver and lungs. Doctors gave her a year to live.
“I just broke down,” Wilson said. “She told me, ‘Stop crying. I ain’t going nowhere.’ She was in real high spirits. Everybody else was crying but her. I tried my best to come home. She would not let me at all.”
Wilson’s mother was always protective of her children. The first time Wilson went out on a date with Aniah Lust, Aniah’s mother was surprised to see DJ and his mother on her doorstep.
“I could see a mother doing that with her daughter — but with her son?” said Gloria Lust. “Still, I respected it. We met. We talked. It was as if she was saying, ‘I’m just not letting them out there. I’m checking it out too.’ She was firm.”
Jelks Wilson was a social worker. She had a master’s degree and was working on her doctorate.
“Not only did she raise her three children, but she reached out to others who were in need as well,” said her pastor, Bartholomew Orr of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven.
As Mrs. Wilson’s health deteriorated over a period of months, she entered hospice last December at Baptist Homecare and Hospice North Mississippi in Southaven. Social workers Paula Manzke and Jennifer Snyder were there to help. Both women were impressed by Wilson’s love for and dedication to his mother and sisters.
“The biggest part of him of all is his heart,” Manzke said. “I can’t tell you how much I admire that child. He stood up to the pressures to be the man in the family and to be the son his mom wanted him to be.”
East Mississippi Community College is in Scooba, about 200 miles southeast of Memphis near Meridian. The school played its football games on Thursday nights, so Wilson would drive home to Horn Lake on Fridays and back to school late Sundays.
Other family, friends and neighbors helped Mrs. Wilson during the week so her oldest child could stay in school, where he was maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average.
They also helped out when Wilson and the East Mississippi Lions traveled to Yuma, Ariz., last December to play Arizona Western College for the championship of the National Junior College Athletic Association. Before the game, Wilson led some of his offensive linemen in a devotional.
“You are talking about a kid who has every reason to be mad,” Stephens said. “He had every reason to be sad. He had every reason to do the wrong things. Instead, he turned that around to do the right thing.”
The Lions won 55-47, giving East Mississippi its first national title. Wilson got scholarship offers from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, the University of West Alabama, and Northwestern State in Louisiana.
Wilson talked to Manzke and Snyder, the two hospice workers, about his dilemma. He didn’t want to leave his family and attend a school too far away from his sisters.
“Do you know anybody at Ole Miss?” he asked Manzke. Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone happened to be her cousin.
Manzke and Snyder wrote a letter to Boone and new Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze. “This kid deserves somebody to speak up for him,” Snyder said. “We are not supposed to lose our mothers when they are only 37.”
Last January, just before Mrs. Wilson died, Manzke drove to Oxford to deliver the letter.
“What are you doing here?” Boone said when he saw her.
“I came to see you,” she explained. She told Boone and Freeze about young Wilson. “I have never watched him play a down in football, but I have watched him deal with life. He just wants a chance. That’s all he’s asking for. You don’t have to make any promises.”
Freeze called Wilson on the day of his mother’s funeral and asked him to try out for the Ole Miss team as a walk-on.
“His story moved me,” Freeze said. “It pulled at my heartstrings.”
The 6-2, 300-pound Wilson made the team as a walk-on. He has played about a dozen snaps in four games this season as a second-string left tackle, the same position played by one of his football heroes, former Ole Miss star Michael Oher, the subject of the book and movie “The Blind Side.”
“When you select the walk-ons, they have to be able to protect themselves,” Freeze said. “You are playing against the biggest, the strongest and the fastest guys in Division 1. He is good enough to do that.”
On Saturday, Wilson will be on the sidelines in Oxford, waiting for word on whether he’ll get to play in Ole Miss’ big game against rival Mississippi State.
Meanwhile, he’s waiting for word from a juvenile court judge in Mississippi to decide whether he can adopt his sister, Fallon. Wilson’s maternal grandmother also is seeking custody. Wilson’s other sister, Reagan McKinney, is living with her father in East Memphis.
Until the court decides, Fallon is staying with family friends in Memphis. She has her mom’s African gray parrot, Maya, and her dachshund, Duke. If Wilson does win custody, Fallon will stay in Memphis until Wilson finishes school.
“He’s my best and only brother,” Fallon said inside her purple-decorated bedroom. “He’s always been there for me. He makes the best chili chicken ever.”
Wilson sees both of his sisters as often as he can.
“Fallon’s dad is not in the picture,” Wilson said. “She is the only piece of my mother that I have left besides materialistic things like pictures or something she owned.”
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.”