UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp



UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp
UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp
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UT football recruit found way from African refugee
Top-rated defensive end is focused on education.
By Randy Riggs
Updated: 12:02 a.m. Monday, May 24, 2010
Published: 8:33 p.m. Saturday, May 22, 2010
Soon after his graduation from Haltom High School next Sunday, Reggie Wilson will embark on the next
chapter of an eventful life.
Considering the path Wilson took to arrive at the University of Texas as one of the top prospects in the
Longhorns' 2010 football recruiting class, the approximately 200-mile drive down Interstate 35 to Austin is
a relatively short hop, at least geographically speaking.
Nevertheless, Wilson doesn't see it exactly that way as he prepares to attend summer classes at Texas
and get involved in the Longhorns' off-season workouts.
"I'm excited to get down there and get to work, but I'm also a little bit nervous," said Wilson, a defensive
end who was ranked as the top overall 2010 prospect in Texas by several recruiting services. "It kind of
gives me butterflies."
Wilson, though, understands the concept of starting anew better than many 18-year-olds. Spending the
first 11 years of his life in Africa, his path to college football is hardly the textbook model.
After all, he had no concept of football — the American version — just seven years ago. He knew nothing
about the Longhorns until he watched them defeat the University of Southern California for the 2005
national championship on television at a friend's home.
"I'd never heard of Vince Young or Reggie Bush," he said. "I was like, 'What is this?' They told me it was
like the Super Bowl of college football."
Uh, Super Bowl?
Wilson, however, has a pretty good excuse for his lack of familiarity with the state's unofficial religion. He
was born in Africa's Ivory Coast to parents who were refugees of a bloody civil war in the neighboring
nation of Liberia. He lived for a time in a refugee camp, at a compound built by his father, Henry, a former
building contractor in Liberia hired by the United Nations to help construct refugee camps.
As a first-grader, Reggie Wilson was separated from his parents after his dad suffered a stroke. To get
the treatment he needed, Henry Wilson had to come to the United States with his wife, Catherine.
The parents couldn't afford to bring the entire family. Consequently, Reggie Wilson and his siblings
weren't reunited with them until they arrived in the U.S. when Reggie was a sixth-grader in 2003.
It was, literally, a whole new world.
Growing up as a soccer player in Africa, Wilson didn't know an American football from a Frisbee. He
couldn't understand why his new classmates asked him if he'd lived in trees in Africa until he saw a
television documentary on African jungle tribes.
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UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp
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"They thought that's what all of Africa is like, so it didn't bother me," said Wilson, who, after his parents
left, lived with an aunt in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, which has a population of about 4 million.
His background notwithstanding, Wilson "is as big a knuckleheaded American teenager as the next one,"
Haltom coach Scot Hafley said affectionately.
He just became one in a nontraditional way.
Catherine Wilson was pregnant with him in 1991 when the family fled from Liberia in the midst of the first
of two civil wars. Despite the upheaval, "we were one of the blessed families," said Wilson, referring to
his father being employed. "I was happy where I was. We had a pretty good life."
His family, Wilson added, helped many whose lives weren't so good. He said his parents took in
numerous children who were orphaned by the war.
"When my mom would go to the store to buy something, if she didn't have enough money to buy it for
everybody, she would not buy it for me," Wilson said. "Growing up in that environment made everyone so
Henry Wilson's stroke, however, changed everything. With their parents in the United States, Wilson and
his siblings remained in Ivory Coast with other family members.
Wilson grew up speaking English — the language of his family's Liberian homeland — but he became
fluent in French, the official language of Ivory Coast.
"It was English in the house, French when I stepped out on the street," he said. "I'm equally comfortable
with both."
With several family members living in the United States, Wilson said he had a better understanding of the
country than many African kids. Nevertheless, when his first airplane flight took him to New York to finally
be reunited with his family in 2003 — he stayed there with extended family members for a few weeks
until his father arrived to take him to Texas — he realized he still had much to learn.
Especially about football.
To Wilson, "football" meant "soccer." In fact, he thought he was trying out for the soccer team on his first
day in the seventh grade until he was given strange-looking pads that his teammates had to show him
how to put on.
Then he was handed a football and told to run. Without knowing it, he was participating in his first tackle
drill. He got tackled, and he wasn't happy about it.
"I didn't know what was going on and just started jogging when they gave me the ball," he said. "This kid
lays me out. So I get up and want to fight him because I'm thinking he's trying to fight me.
"Everyone separates us, and they tell me, 'No, this is part of the game.'\u2009"
Intrigued, Wilson stuck with it, learning the rules in part by playing video games and watching television.
By high school, he began to see football as a means to an end: a college education that he knew his
parents could not otherwise afford.
That point was driven home after Wilson heard a speech in ninth grade about the importance of a college
education. Wilson, who hopes to major in business, will graduate from high school with a grade-point
average slightly above 3.0, Hafley said
"I remember going home after that speech and thinking that my parents couldn't afford to send me to
college," Wilson said. "I prayed and asked God to help me go anywhere where football could help me
pay for my school fees.
"I never expected it would be a big school."
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UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp
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That was precisely the inkling Hafley had, however, one of the first times he saw Wilson after arriving as
Haltom's coach in 2007, before Wilson's sophomore season.
Hafley and his defensive coordinator, Josh Rankin, came upon Wilson lifting weights in a room with a low
ceiling. The weights banged off the ceiling as Wilson hoisted them high while doing overhead snatches.
"Josh and I just looked at each other in disbelief," Hafley said. "It was like, 'Whoa \u2026'\u2009"
Extremely athletic and blessed with a hiccup-quick first step, Wilson blossomed. Even as a sophomore, it
was evident he would have his pick of colleges, large and small.
Wilson narrowed his choices to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Christian. On his recruiting visit to Austin in
March 2009, he couldn't help but recall the first time he became aware of the Longhorns, only a few
years earlier, when he watched them defeat USC for the title.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, this is the school that won a national championship,'\u2009" he said. "I was kind of
shocked to be on their campus, and they were acting like they were happy to have me there. I was like,
'Why are these people being so nice to me?' I was nervous, like real nervous, just being there."
Mack Brown, not surprisingly, put him at ease.
With Brown as their coach, the Longhorns have had a history of success with players whose parents
came from Africa. The 2010 roster includes Sam and Emmanuel Acho, Alex Okafor and Patrick
Nkwopara, in addition to Wilson.
In recent years, the list also has included Brian Orakpo, Frank Okam, Chris Ogbonnaya and Ishie
All but Wilson and Nkwopara — the latter was born in Nigeria — are first-generation Americans. Brown
said a common denominator for those players is strong families.
"They're very disciplined kids, and they've all made good grades," he said. "We've not had one issue with
any of those kids. Their parents do not ask about football. They ask about academics and if their kids are
doing right."
Wilson and his family, Brown said, are no exceptions.
"When I lost my mother (Feb. 28), Reggie was one of the first kids to call me," Brown said.
"Talking to his parents, they want him to be a nice kid and get a good education, and they want him to be
treated nice. Other than that, nothing's important (to them). They didn't ask about football; they didn't ask
where he would play or what kind of defense we play — none of that.
"He's got such an infectious smile. He works really hard, and he's so nice with such a great heart, our
fans will fall in love with him."
As pleasant as he can be, however, it's advisable not to get Wilson riled up. It's that intensity, along with
his natural athletic ability, that might get him on the field as a freshman for Texas, especially in passing
Hafley recalled once last season reading posts on a Longhorn-oriented Internet message board from
people who questioned Wilson's tackling ability. Hafley showed him the comments.
Wilson, who packs a muscular 243 pounds on a 6-foot-3-inch frame, stewed all week. In his next game,
he took it out on a Burleson High tailback, whom he picked up on one play and body-slammed to the turf.
"He was mad all week," Hafley said. "He doesn't like being told he can't do something."
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UT football recruit found way from African refugee camp
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Wilson already has done plenty in his short life. While admittedly nervous about the chapter that is about
to unfold, he's eager to continue the journey that began in an African refugee camp.
"When I think I'm maybe getting a little big-headed, I remember those days, and it keeps me humble," he
said. "I'm just thankful, man, just really, really thankful."
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