The boy was out on the porch when it happened.
One minute, he saw his dad talking out in the yard. The next, he saw him lying in a pool of blood.
His dad had just been stabbed. Nine times.
The assailants quickly fled as the boy stood there, frozen by shock. A moment later, he tried to run to his dad but was pulled him into the house. Inside, he and his siblings cried together and wondered what had happened.
Lying on the ground, bleeding out, the boy's father had seen the terror in his son's face. He was rushed to the hospital and treated. From there, he went into hiding as he figured out what to do next.
For the next several days, his children had no idea if their father was dead or alive. The boy continuously called his dad's phone, in the faint hope of hearing his voice on the other end.
As he recovered, the father's instincts told him to follow the code of the streets, the code he had lived by for his entire life. Payback.
But something else within him pulled him in a different way. He had a family. His kids counted on him. His own life had been derailed by a life on the streets and by the absence of a father. Seeking revenge would satisfy the code, but it could condemn his children to walk their father’s path.
For days, he was torn by both feelings, until he made up his mind.
He would be there for his family, to be the type of father he never had. He would give his kids a chance.
He would break the cycle.
* * *
The smile say it all.
Watching him out on the practice field, you see a different Jay Jay Wilson, a revitalized Jay Jay Wilson.
You see the real Jay Jay shining through. Finally.
The smile is well earned, a symbol of perseverance through repeated hardships.
Wilson has faced situations from the heartbreaking to the horrifying. His hometown has claimed the potential of many talented young men, and he very nearly became the next to fall. He could have easily ended up on the streets, in jail, or worse.
Instead, he got out. He overcame obstacles, both those from his environment and within himself. He was determined to be the one to finally break through and show his family that there is a better path.
He’s now about to become the first college graduate in his family. His coaches believe he has NFL potential. His siblings hold him up as example and are striving to repeat—and far surpass—his success.
The past still haunts him. He still makes mistakes. His scars show.
But instead of excuses, they stand as reminders. Fuel for his quest to lift up his family.
The cycle is being broken.
That’s plenty of reason to smile.
Family & The Fast Life
They missed the deadline. Then came the tears.
So to comfort his seven-year-old son, Joe Wilson signed Jay Jay up for karate instead. They’d try for football again next year.
One year and some kicks later, they were on time, and it wasn’t long after that before local kids were paying the price.
Jay Jay Wilson was a big child. So big, in fact, that the league mandated that he play against kids two age groups older than he was. He was an eight-year-old facing off against a team of 10-year-olds. Some kids in that situation may have been nervous, but not this one.
“He had no fear,” Joe Wilson said. “He fit right in. It was like he was born to do that.”
Jay Jay had been drawn to the game by seeing one of his older brothers and a cousin play, and he also wanted to be a better player than they were. With his size, he started off playing fullback and nose guard.
Joe Wilson watched his son during every practice and game, and success came quickly. He fondly remembers his son’s first touchdown, which came on a strip sack that Jay Jay returned to the house.
Jay Jay would become a standout star for the Palmdale Falcons youth team. During his time there, he would have memorable match-ups against the Lancaster Jets, on which his friend and future-Arizona State teammate Demario Richard played.
Demario’s father remembered watching Jay Jay in action.
“He was mean,” Mike Richard affectionately said. “He was bigger than everyone else, and he was mean.”
He loved the game and he loved making plays. There was also another, more personal reason.
“I’ve always used it since I was younger as an escape from myself,” Jay Jay Wilson said. “It’s given me a purpose to strive and be better as a person. Football has that structure to it. It kept me away from the streets and a lot of stuff my parents fell into.”
Both Joe and Jay Jay’s mother Faitioina came from troubled backgrounds, and each continued to battle their own demons while trying to raise their family.
Their very large family.
Faitioina already had two children when she met Joe, who had two kids of his own. Together, they would have nine children together. Joe would father four more children later on, giving Jay Jay a total of 16 siblings.
Faitioina was born in Samoa and came to the United State when she was 12. She became pregnant with her first child at an early age, and she proved to be a caring mother when she was around. Unfortunately, she was often away.
She would have repeated run ins with the law that resulted in multiple stints behind bars.
“When she was there it was good,” Jay Jay Wilson said. “She was a great mom. But when she gone, she was completely gone.”
His mother’s absences greatly impacted Jay Jay’s moods. When Faitioina was incarcerated, Jay Jay became filled with anger, and he acted out at home and at school.
“When she leaves, I’d shut down,” he said. “I’d be ‘Forget class.’ I’d get mad at practice.’”
She was present throughout his early years, but just as he was entering middle school—a critical period for any child—she went back to prison.
“I felt like I went through the process of becoming a man without my mom, without that loving you can only get from your mom,” said Jay Jay. “I had the best of the best and the worst of the worst.”
The emotional drain of their mother's situation on Jay Jay and his siblings was significant, but they did have one constant in their lives.
“A lot of my friends didn’t have their father, but I did,” Jay Jay said. “I’m thankful and grateful for that. He made sure that I was in football, or in sports, or focused on school so I wouldn’t be focused on the streets.”
For Joe Wilson, ensuring that his children stayed with constructive activities—all of his sons played football, while the girls played other sports or danced—was a chance to give them the childhood he never had.
It was also to help them escape a life in which he was still entangled.
* * *
Joe Wilson grew up in Pasadena, Calif, the self-proclaimed “black sheep” of his family. Almost from the start, the street life was his life.
“My father started going to prison, people were dying, epidemics,” Joe Wilson said. “I grew up in the '80s. That’s where it all fell apart.”
His mother was also dealing with her own issues and was not a consistent presence in his life. With his parents absent, he was forced to find family elsewhere.
“All I had was the streets,” he admitted. “That’s who I didn’t want to disappoint.”
He attended just a week of high school before dropping out, and he fathered his first child by the age of 17. He was unprepared for that responsibility, armed only with a parental instinct to protect.
“I came up without a father,” Joe Wilson said. “The only thing I could do for my kids was love and protect. I wasn’t taught to be an All-American father. I got a lot of hurt from my family, so I didn’t want my family to feel none of that.”
He had made an attempt to escape the “the fast life” by moving from Pasadena to Palmdale. However, a lot of familiar faces followed him north, and he was pulled back in.
“It was like I never even moved at all,” he said.
Just a few years after his first child, Jay Jay was born. Joe Wilson found himself with a rapidly growing family, but he was also carrying a greatly skewed view of what family and fatherhood actually meant. He just knew what he had done to survive, and his family’s struggle was just how life was in his eyes.
“The things they went through, I saw it as normal,” Joe Wilson said. “I had to learn to deal with it. I’ve been through so much crap that everything seemed normal. I couldn’t tell when my kid was hurting. I would always teach him to be tough and push through it. I didn’t intervene like I should have.”
Never having known the constant support from a parent, Joe Wilson simply did not know that was what his children needed from him. He provided the tangible necessities, but beyond that, he was at a loss.
“Maybe I expected him to be a man at 12, because that’s when I was out on my own,” he said of Jay Jay. “It was fine to me because I learned to feed myself when I was hungry, clothe myself. I knew how to find shelter. This was normal to me. There was a bunch of stuff my kids went through that they didn’t have to go through if I knew what I went through wasn’t normal. I dealt with it the best way that I could.”
That struggle imprinted itself onto his son as he grew up.
Mistrust. Anger. Fear.
“He was just like me,” Joe Wilson said of Jay Jay. “Defensive. He kept to himself. He kind of had to watch his surroundings.”
Even his closest friends did not know the full extent of his situation.
“I knew most of it, but there was some stuff that I really don’t want to stick my nose into,” said Demario Richard. “If he wasn’t going to tell me about, I wasn’t going to say anything. I know he had a really rough upbringing. What could you do?”
Joe Wilson tried the best that he could. He loved his children, and although he “didn’t try to shield them” from the dangers of the street life, he set rules and expectations in place for them. He was trying to give them a better life, to any degree he could manage.
“They had it rough, but not rougher than me,” Joe Wilson said. “Maybe that’s how I try to justify it.”
However, in order to keep the family together and afloat, he had to continue living the very life he wanted them to avoid. He still had a foot in “the fast life", and he admits
“You can’t play both sides of the fence, but that’s what I was doing,” Joe Wilson admitted. “I had to play both sides of the fence for their sake. Whichever life you take, you have to take it 100 percent. I had to shove them the other way as much as I could. But at the same time, I’m doing things that I’m telling them not to do.”
It’s an approach that proved costly.
Grow Up Fast
The Wilson family lived in Palmdale, Calif., a city of 150,000 people in the sun-baked High Desert region north of Los Angeles. Theirs was a close-knit community, both for better and for worse. Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other and their business.
It was a rough place to raise a family.
“I grew up in a tough environment,” Jay Jay Wilson remembered. “A lot of stuff went on that kids shouldn’t be around and kids shouldn’t see. I could be walking home from school, and you could see somebody get shot. You see somebody get stabbed. Me and my brother were walking down the street, and I saw a guy get stabbed, but you can’t do anything.”
That violence would strike the family.
Jay Jay’s parents had split up when was in grade school. During a visit to his mother’s house, he was standing out on his the porch when he heard his dad get into an altercation out front.
“Out of nowhere, a guy ran up and stabbed him nine times,” Jay Jay said. “He was laying on the ground bleeding. I was in shock because it happened so fast. When he was laying there, I went to go run for him, but my uncle grabbed me and took me in the house.”
Inside, he and some of his siblings huddled together and cried. Outside, Joe Wilson thought he was about to die.
“I thought I was dead,” he said. “To look up and see my kid standing on the porch looking at me, thinking that was the last he would see of me. That tore me up.”
In the commotion, one of Joe’s friends whisked him away.
Where’s he going? Is he OK? Is Dad alive?
His family had no idea, and they assumed the worst.
“I thought my dad was dead,” Jay Jay Wilson said. “For four days straight, I thought my dad was gone forever.”
The uncertainty, anger, and sadness was crushing.
“There were days that I cried myself to sleep,” said Jay Jay Wilson. “There were days that I didn’t go to sleep at all. There were days where I’d call my dad’s cell phone a hundred times. All I was thinking was that my pops was gone.”
Joe Wilson had survived, and as he recovered, he weighed his options.
“These were everyday things that happened to me,” Joe said of the attack, “but what made me so angry is that it happened in front of my son, and it was a person close to him.”
Joe's first instinct was to follow the life he had always lived, to let his anger lead him.
“The code is payback,” Joe Wilson said. “Any other time, I wouldn’t have thought twice.”
But this wasn’t any other time. He was a family man now.
“It took me a minute to realize that I don’t want him to carry on my hate,” Joe said. “That’s where it needs to stop. It went that far to face losing my life or going to jail for the rest of my life.”
He had to let his hate go in order to see the big picture.
Joe Wilson chose his family.
“If I would have fallen off then, he wouldn’t be where he is today,” he said. “If I was out of his life, there’s no telling what would have happened. They wouldn’t have stayed on the right path. That’s why I didn’t do what I feel should have been done. I’m still struggling with that today.”
Joe returned to his family, but it wasn’t until Jay Jay was in high school that Joe revealed to his son where he was and the decision that he made. He also learned the impact it had on his Jay Jay.
“I hated that I waited so long to talk to him about it,” Joe Wilson said. “He showed me what a wonderful person he turned in to. If something like that happened to one of my relatives, or my father, even though he wasn’t in my life, the code is payback. I don’t need him running around how I feel. I don’t need him to be a hateful person. He showed me he wasn’t.”
During this traumatic period, Jay Jay and his siblings relied on each other for love and support.
“I was going through it, and they were going through it too,” Jay Jay Wilson said “The best person that I could lean on was the person going through it with me. I had 16 brothers and sisters going through it with me. We stuck by each other.”
But their troubles were far from over.
A few years later, with Faitioina out on parole, police were called to a house where they found bullet holes. Following an investigation, the children were taken by authorities.
In the wake of the incident, Joe Wilson thought he was signing over custody to the children’s aunt, but it turned out it was to the state.
“I was ignorant,” he admitted.
A family friend took in the youngest and oldest siblings. Some of the children went to Spanish-speaking families.
“The rest of us went to, basically, a stranger’s home,” Jay Jay Wilson said. “It was was weird and awkward for us, since it was still in our hometown.”
Friends and teammates saw the Wilson children getting dropped off at school by people other than their parents. Jay Jay was placed in a home with his younger brother Jayvaun and two of their sisters.
With Joe out of the picture, Jay Jay felt compelled to be a father figure for his younger siblings.
“I had to be strong for my brothers and sisters because they’re young and don’t understand,” he said. “They’re hurt and embarrassed, so I had to let them know it would be OK. It’s temporary.
“I wasn’t able to be a kid. I had to grow up really fast.”
For six months, the children were separated. For six months, Jay Jay stood as a pillar of strength and support for his siblings.
“We always kept in touch with each other,” said Jayvaun Wilson, one of Jay Jay’s younger brothers. “He raised me as my dad would during that time. He raised me to be better than he was. He taught me things that my dad didn’t get to teach me. He was there for me like a father would be.”
And they were there for him.
“They held me together,” Jay Jay said, “and they still hold me together to this day.”
Eventually, Joe Wilson managed to reclaim custody and reunite the children. But he had cut Faitioina out of the picture.
“I loved his mom,” Joe said. “She didn’t straighten her crap out, and I was fed up. My kids went through too much, especially after they got taken from me. That was it. I had had it. I left her.”
The experience had taken a profound toll on Jay Jay, but he couldn’t bring himself to show it to anyone. During that period, he had become the family’s role model, a beacon of positive possibilities. It was a role that he embraced, despite the strain.
“I knew that I couldn’t give up,” he said. “It was hard, because I felt at times like I couldn’t show that it was tough on me. I couldn’t show that it was hard, because if I did, then the one person that they’re looking up to, the one person that is doing what they need to do would be looking weak.”
He stayed and helped keep his family together. But as high school loomed, he realized there was something he had to do for himself.
Gotta Get Away
As he entered his teens, Jay Jay Wilson was not the only member of the family to mature.
Joe Wilson was working to put his old life behind him. He wanted to be an example for his children, and living the “fast life” in his mid-30s was not sustainable.
“He showed me that a lot of stuff that he saw and went through isn’t the way to be living,” Jay Jay Wilson said of his father. “It’s not the right way, and it’s not the way to take care of a family. He got on the right track, and he wanted to make sure that I started on the right track, instead of going down the wrong path and then trying to get back on the right path.”
Joe’s approach also included a simple choice for the children.
“He let it be known that it was his way or the highway,” Jay Jay said. “If you didn’t want to go to school and play football, you got out of the house.”
Jay Jay took both Joe’s way and the highway. Specifically, CA-14 South.
Living in Palmdale, he was set to attend Palmdale High School, where his friend Demario Richard began attending a year earlier. The two ran together in Palmdale, where they did “dumb stuff we shouldn’t have been doing”, but nothing too bad.
“I didn’t get caught,” admitted Jay Jay.
The environment of Palmdale, especially for someone like Jay Jay, was not conducive for getting him to where he wanted to go and where he wanted his siblings to follow. Many of his peers in the neighborhood would rather drag people back into the muck than support them.
“We did whatever we could to break the cycle,” said Richard. “Where we come from, it’s a crab-in-a-bucket effect."
It meant he had one difficult decision to make, and he made it.
“In order for me to go to college, I had to leave Palmdale,” Jay Jay said.
Joe Wilson was initially resistant to the idea of his son leaving town for high school, but he came around once he saw what Valencia High School, located about an hour west of Palmdale, had to offer.
“That first day when I took him, and I saw how they ran their program, it was like a mini college,” Joe Wilson remembered. “I was like, ‘Wow! My kid can go here?’ It’s wasn’t even a private school. After that, I wanted that for all my kids. This is our way out of here.”
It was decided. Just 14 years old, Jay Jay Wilson would leave his hometown to pursue a better life. And right on cue, those crabs in the Palmdale bucket tried to pull him back in.
“I got hate, a backlash from my own neighborhood,” Jay Jay said. “A lot of guys do hate, because they are stuck and we got out of it. It was a system. My dad put emphasis on that. He made sure that I would be the first one to break the cycle, the first one to get out of the system.”
Jay Jay moved in with his uncle James, but he soon became homesick.
“There were times when I just wanted to come home,” Jay Jay said. “Can I just go to Palmdale and play there? But it was just the best bet for me.”
His friendships with people back in Palmdale were also impacted.
“We drifted apart a little bit,” Richard said. “We still kept in contact here and there. I feel that it made us stronger, because it gave us two different outlooks on life. I was around a certain crowd, he was around a certain crowd, and it brought us together as one.”
With his son away, Joe tried to find a balance on the line of being supportive and giving his son his space. It was a struggle.
“All he had to do was call, and I was there,” he said. “I don’t care what it was. Maybe I should have invaded a bit more, but I didn’t, based off of my experiences.”
By age 16, Jay Jay had his own apartment. Joe helped him as much as he could financially, helping to cover costs on the condition that Jay Jay maintained his grades
For Jay Jay, the transition continued to be difficult, but as he had before, he found support from his siblings.
“I just had to stick it out,” he said. “I talked to my dad every day. I talked to my brothers and sisters every day. They motivated me. No one ever doubted me, as far as my family goes. I got a lot of hate and a lot of doubt from people in the Valley. That’s what bothered me the most. I went through a lot of stuff that people shouldn’t have gone through at the age I was at. I was hurt by fact that I was trying to better myself and go to college and I was getting hate from grown people.”
For a while, it seemed like those haters were going to be right.
One thing was for sure. He was big.
“The first thing that caught my eye was his height,” said Valencia High School football head coach Larry Muir. “We had no idea what we were getting, but you had a sense of his athleticism. For us, that was kind of unusual. Immediately, we gave him a chance to play varsity.”
As a freshman, Jay Jay Wilson already stood over 6-foot-1 and was still growing. His combination of athleticism and size gave Muir several options of what to do with his new player.
“As we were working with him, you could see he had a good skill level,” Muir said. “He wasn’t the fastest player, but he had a good instinct for the game. Inherently, he already had an understanding of space and how the game is played. His football IQ was already very high, even though he was just a freshman.”
Since Muir’s Vikings had lost four wide receivers from the previous season, he plugged Wilson in there.
“We knew that he would stumble a little bit,” Muir said, “but we knew that he would learn and get better as he went. We saw that upside.”
Wilson would go on to catch 21 passes for 252 yards that first season.
His on-field future seemed bright. Off the field, however, things were bleak. Almost as quickly as his athletic ability stood out, so too did Wilson’s issues.
“His freshman year, I didn’t think he was going to last for us,” Muir said. “We couldn’t get him into a classroom. He’d be shooting hoops in the gym or hanging out in the quad. I didn’t think he would be able to make it.”
Wilson struggled with the expectations and responsibilities of his academics. Compounding the issues were his emotions surrounding his mother’s current incarceration.
“I was angry. I was angry at the world,” Wilson admitted. “I was angry at myself. I’d fight or not go to school. If you pulled up my transcripts from freshman and sophomore year, it’d look like I didn't even go to school, I was just playing football. I dug a huge hole.”
Although Wilson didn’t say much about his mother, Muir knew that if his young receiver was particularly angry on a day, that his mother's situation was the likely trigger.
Wilson's grades plummeted, but he was always able to do just enough to stay on the field.
“Somehow, some way, he would find his way to stay eligible,” said Muir. “He’d be below a 2.0, then when it came time for eligibility, he would crank out a bunch of work to get himself just above a 2.0. We got him to settle down and stay in the classroom, but then it became a point of, ‘Can we get him to open up a book?’ It was a process, and it was a grueling process.”
Wilson’s academic and behavioral issues were rooted in his rough upbringing. By having had to grow up before his time, and often without guidance, he grew distrustful of others outside of his immediate family. He had built strong walls to shield himself against the harsh realities of his life.
“Ultimately, Jay Jay was a guy that wasn’t going to trust a lot of people,” Muir said. “We had to win over his trust over time, that what we were doing and what were trying to push on him and what we were trying to get him to do was going to be for his benefit. That was a chore to get him to understand the bigger picture. After, it was about keeping him eligible, it was about getting him into college.”
Initially, Muir took a tough-love approach.
“He knew that the only way to get to me was to take football away from me,” said Wilson. “I was one of the few players who truly loved practice. When he told me I couldn’t go to practice and to do homework, I would be livid. I wouldn’t talk to him for three days, and he wouldn’t care.”
During a particular stretch, Wilson missed turning in two assignments, Muir so made him do 200 up downs. Following another missed assignment, he had him do a burnout set of squats. Then practice was taken away.
The back-and-forth battle continued.
During his sophomore year, Wilson continued to live on the academic edge while he doubled his on-field production, hauling in 40 passes for the Vikings. He also contributed on defense as a hard-hitting safety.
“He took a step and got a lot better his sophomore year,” Muir said, “so you knew that he was going to be a great player, but you didn’t know how it was going to unfold for him.”
As their player-coach relationship was growing, Muir’s tough-love approach was evolving.
Muir saw through the walls Wilson had constructed to see the young man hurting on the inside. He wanted to show Wilson that he cared for him as a person first and foremost.
“You see a beautiful human being aside from a mean, tough football player on the field,” Muir said. “He’s everything you want in a football player in terms of being competitive and having an edge to him. Off the field, you saw all the other parts to him as a human being.”
Muir would check on if Wilson had done his homework or needed help. He made sure that Wilson had lunch money, and that he had a ride home if he needed it.
“It was getting him to understand that I cared about him as a person and not as a football player,” said Muir. “That was the biggest thing. It’s obvious and easy to care about Jay Jay as a football player, but what he needed to understand was that myself and a lot of other people cared about him as a person. It didn’t matter that he was a great football player, it mattered that he was going to be a good person and a good student. That part of it was going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a constant, grueling process to get him to realize that myself and others were doing it because we cared about him and we loved him. He wasn’t a commodity to us, he was Jay Jay the person.”
Over time, the struggle yielded results.
“He never gave up on me,” Wilson said. “He let me know that he loved me as a person. It wasn’t just about football. It wasn’t just because I was good. He just saw that I was a genuine person. He saw that I was a big-hearted kid. He knew that the circumstances that I had, the circumstances where I come from. He wanted to be helpful. He wanted to be the good person that he is.”
Even though the academics were still a major concern, Wilson’s potential would occasionally shine through. He showed a particular interest in history, specifically the civil rights movement, but one area stood out.
“He’s a terrific writer,” said Muir. “He’s written some really great stuff. As a writer, you know his pools run deep. He’s very thoughtful. He’s a very deep-thinking person. He’s seen a lot and processed a lot. He communicates that through writing very well.”
“I like to paint pictures with my words,” Wilson said. “When I’m writing, I want the person who’s reading it to not only see what I’m talking about but feel it. I try to put them in that place, or be able to give out something for someone to relate to or put a smile on their face or send chills down their spine.”
Those glimpses furthered Muir’s resolve to help his star player.
“You see all the different parts to Jay Jay,” Muir said, “then when you see the wholeness of him, you see that he is someone incredibly special.”
Along the way, there were many rough patches and tense moments, but brick-by-brick, Wilson’s walls were coming down. The bond grew.
“There were things that my dad couldn’t teach me that he taught me,” said Wilson of Muir. “He was another father figure in my life.”
Jay Jay’s own father saw the difference that Muir was making in his son’s life.
“Can’t explain it, I don’t have the words. I love that man,” Joe Wilson said of Muir. “I was a screw up, but I knew how important that bond from some type of male figure was to set you on the right path. I knew how much he needed that. I’m happy he met that man.”
By the time his sophomore season had ended, there was no doubt that Wilson had the talent to play Division I football. He had grown into a dynamic 6-foot-2, 230-pound playmaker for Valencia.
“The summer going into his junior year, you saw it in terms of how dominant he could be,” Muir said. “There were so many times that he was a man amongst boys. You saw that the athleticism was really starting to come out. He played with an edge.”
But talent is just part of the formula to play college ball. By the end of his sophomore year, Wilson was in a deep academic hole.
“It was to the point that my counselor on campus, Mrs. Long, let me know that I may have to go to juco,” Wilson said. “I knew myself that if I went to juco, I would probably never play football again.”
The junior college route—while a difficult one—has been a path for thousands of players get things back on track after stumbling with their academics. However, Wilson was honest with himself in realizing that it was not an option if he wanted to break the cycle for his family.
“I knew I had to get away. I knew that there were a lot of things still holding on to me,” Wilson said. “The stuff my dad didn’t want me to do, I knew if I stayed home around guys who didn’t have a chance to leave, that I’m going to fall into the same system.”
Fall victim or survive? Continue the cycle or break it?
The choice was his.
“One of the greatest traits that Jay Jay has is that he is a survivor,” Muir said. “He would figure out a way to get to the next day. There were some really bleak circumstances and some really tough days and some really tough situations. It didn’t crush him to the point where he gave up and threw in the towel. There were times that he struggled, but there was a point where he would pick himself up because he knew he had to.
“There was no other choice.”
By his junior season, Jay Jay Wilson was the enforcer of the Valencia Vikings. He looked the part. He was bigger than most everybody on the field, he was tattooed, and he played mean...even when he wasn’t supposed to.
“He would get us in trouble at seven-on-seven tournaments when we were in shorts and t-shirts,” Muir said. “He wants to hit people, that’s who he is. Even when he didn’t hit people, people would still get mad at him because he looked so intimidating.”
He was also refining his game to include more than just physicality.
“I always enjoyed moments when he played wide receiver or safety and he’d make an incredibly skilled and graceful play,” said Muir. “He could make incredible diving catches or would jump up and over people.”
All of those traits were all on display—and them some—in the 2013 season opener when Valencia faced off against Palmdale. For Wilson, it felt like a homecoming game.
Further raising the intensity was who he’d be facing on the field: Demario Richard, the Falcons’ star senior running back.
Wilson and Richard had remained close friends over the years, “but things change between those hash marks,” said Mike Richard, Demario's father.
Two friends. Two talented football players. Two extreme competitors.
“I don’t think I understood the depth of their competitive edge that those guys had and what it meant to them,” Muir said.
He learned quickly.
On the game’s first play, Richard ran a sweep, and Wilson, playing safety, delivered a hard—and illegal—hit and drew a personal foul.
“Hell yeah he threw a cheap shot!” Demario Richard said. “I wasn’t mad about it, I just had to keep my head on a swivel. He’s going to have to see me sooner or later.”
“On our sideline, it was ugly,” Mike Richard remembered.
“After that first play, I was like, “Oh shoot, we got something crazy going on here,’” Muir said.
Or as Wilson put it, “It was dude on dude.”
That first play set the tone for the rest of the game, as players on both teams raised their own games to match the intensity shown by the two rivals.
It also caught the eye of a college coach in attendance who would play a major role in each of the players’ lives.
“Demario broke away, and this one kid comes out of nowhere and knocks the hell out of Demario,” said Chip Long, then tight ends coach at Arizona State and current Notre Dame offensive coordinator. “Just wow.”
Richard returned the favor on Wilson later in the game when Wilson went out for a pass. Back and forth it went, big shot for big shot.
“It was an amazing game of two insanely competitive kids who were insanely talented leading their teams against each other,” Muir said.
Even among the intensity, there was a moment of levity.
Deep in their own end, Valencia was called for a procedure penalty. Muir yelled at the officials to find out who it was, but they couldn’t hear him. Richard did, though. He turned to Muir and matter-of-factly answered, “It was Jay Jay.”
Muir cracked up laughing.
By the time the dust settled, Valencia had earned a 29-20 victory.
“It was big plays back-to-back,” Wilson said, “and I like to say that I won the big plays.”
After the game, Long approached Richard, who was a top ASU recruiting target.
“Who’s No. 6?” Long asked him.
“You’re talking about Jay Jay! That’s my boy,” Richard replied.
At the time, Wilson did not have any scholarship offers. Long asked for Wilson’s contact information. He was now on the Sun Devils’ radar, but they weren’t ready to extend an offer.
“He was so versatile,” Long said. “I thought he’d be a great tight end. He was so physical. Great ball skills. Great ball carrier. Valencia and Coach Muir played him everywhere. Early on, there were some grade issues that he had to work on before we finally offered.”
A strong junior season—he gained over 900 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 touchdowns—drew more recruiting attention. But the academic hole he had dug over his first two years haunted him. Some schools like UCLA passed outright, and others like Oregon would decide not to wait and see if he could pull thing together.
“I missed out on some scholarships that I wanted,” said Wilson.
The disappointment provided motivation for a turnaround, and late in his junior season, he received some more from those “haters”.
During a semifinal game against Saugus, Wilson was ejected. Later, he read posts on an internet message board that trashed him for the performance.
“These are people that never met me,” Wilson said, “never had a conversation with me, but just went purely off of where I was from and what I looked like. ‘He’s a thug. He doesn’t belong here. Go back to where you’re from.’ I’m 16, 17 years old reading that. Deep down inside, I just wanted to give up and go back home.
"But I knew that me accomplishing this goal and going to college would make them even more mad.”
Cut Out The Dumb Stuff
“I knew going into that senior year, I had to cut out a lot of that dumb stuff.”
Jay Jay Wilson faced a significant uphill academic battle, one of his own creation. In order to become eligible through the NCAA, he had to take six classes on campus plus an additional six classes off campus.
He couldn’t do it alone, but thankfully for him, he had his family and Larry Muir to push him.
“It would have been impossible without the support system that I had,” Wilson said. “That was my motivation. That was my drive. They pushed me when I didn’t want to do it. They made me do it when I didn’t want to do it."
“They got me to see the bigger picture that I didn’t want to see when I was younger. Football is going to come to an end, but knowledge is always going to be there for you.”
It would take a lot of work to go get it.
Jay Jay’s day would start with school at 8 a.m. At Valencia, upperclassmen were allowed to go off campus for lunch, but not Jay Jay. He would spend that time in Muir’s classroom or with a tutor, despite attempts at sneaking off some days that Muir thwarted. After school, he would go to the team lifting session at 3 o'clock before going to practice from 4-6 p.m. From there, it would be time for his off campus classes. He would be at the Valencia Tutors facility by 7 o'clock, and would remain until the necessary work was done. Often times, he would be there until they closed at 10:30.
The next morning, the cycle started again. And again. And again.
His academics slowly caught up to his football accomplishments. He was ranked a four-star recruit by both Rivals and 247. Rivals tapped him as the 28th best player in the entire state of California, and 204th in the nation. During his senior season, he rushed for 534 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 50 passes for 981 yards and 10 more scores.
Fittingly, he saved his best showing for (almost) last, a night that has become legendary in Valencia lore.
* * *
The Vikings were hosting their rival, Hart High School, in their final home game of the season, and the last of Jay Jay Wilson’s Valencia career. Both teams entered the game at 7-2 on the season, and the winner would claim the Foothill League title.
It was Senior Night, a standing room only crowd was in attendance, and the game was being broadcast on Fox Sports West.
It was kind of a big deal.
Hart quarterback and Arizona State commit Brady White came out firing with three touchdown passes to power them to a 21-0 lead at halftime. It was a gut punch for Wilson and the Vikings.
As he walked into the locker room, Wilson saw several Valencia legends, including quarterback Michael Herrick. That made him ponder his own legacy as a Viking.
Wilson was a team captain, and typically gave halftime speeches to his teammates. This night, he remained quiet and “took it all in.”
As the team headed out for the second half, he told his teammates one thing.
“At the end of the day, I’m not losing this game. You can come along with me or not.”
It seemed like he would be proven wrong. White added rushing touchdown with 8:11 left in the third quarter to give the Indians a 27-0 lead.
Then Wilson took over.
Late in the third quarter, Wilson caught a 15-yard touchdown to get Valencia on the board. He added a 65-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter to give his Vikings a glimmer of hope. With just under seven minutes left in the game, Wilson did it again, hauling in a 57-yard score.
With just minutes to go, the Viking defense forced a Hart punt, and a good return gave Valencia possession at the Indians’ 40-yard line. It was then that Muir changed things up.
He moved Wilson to running back and fed him the ball four straight plays to get down to the three-yard line. On the next play, his fifth straight carry, he lept over the line and into the endzone for the touchdown.
“I went to work on offense,” Wilson said. “I wanted it more, and I took it.”
For good measure, Wilson intercepted White’s Hail Mary pass with 10 seconds left to secure the victory and the league title.
“That was the night that everyone at Valencia will always remember,” Muir said.
* * *
With his grades on the rise, schools began extending more scholarship offers. It started with Colorado early in 2014, and Oregon State came two weeks later. By the time Signing Day came around a year later, he had 24 total offers.
“As his senior year was unfolding, there was a core group of schools that were interested in him,” Muir said. “But then late, Ole Miss, Michigan, ‘SC was coming on like nobody’s business. A lot of bigger schools came on late.”
However, while some kids enjoy the attention lavished upon them while being recruited, Wilson was quickly fatigued by the process.
“Sometimes it was too much," Wilson said. “Especially as a kid, you don’t want to be getting 30 calls a day from a 40-year-old man. I got tired of the traveling thing. I only took three official visits out of my five because I was over it.”
It was a crucial time in his life, and it became more complicated and more painful when his mother was released from jail.
Her repeated absences from his life had already caused him tremendous pain, and he was not ready to open himself up to her. It forced him to come to a heartbreaking decision.
“I had to cut my mom off completely,” Wilson said. “I knew that I had to get everything done. I had to cut her off, which was hard. I didn’t talk to her at all. At that critical time, I just couldn’t let her be there. I wouldn’t have been able to handle her leaving again. It would have messed up everything, and I would have disappointed my dad.”
Faitioina tried to reach out to her son. She called and texted him repeatedly. But he resisted.
“I just couldn’t let her in,” Wilson said. “I felt bad, because she probably needed me as much as I needed her. But I knew that I had an example to set for my brothers and sisters, which was graduating high school and getting to college.”
As Wilson tried to keep his focus on the future, he relied on Muir for guidance.
For his part, Muir was transparent with inquiring college coaches. He told them that Wilson was a great player, but also had trust and academic issues, along with a tendency to fight authority. Honesty would help find the best fit.
Wilson took his first official visit to Utah in December of 2014. He followed that up with one to Tempe a few weeks later as his relationship with Arizona State’s staff strengthened, especially with Chip Long.
“The more he talked to Jay Jay, the more he saw what I saw in Jay Jay,” Muir said of Long. "What he saw in Arizona State made a big impact on him.”
“He did a great job of busting his tail in the classroom the last year and a half to get those grades up,” Long said. “There was always that grit that made Jay Jay special. He wanted to be something in life.”
ASU head coach Todd Graham was aware of Wilson’s academic and behavioral problems, issues that ran counter to the program culture he had worked hard to instill. Yet as he got to know Wilson, he saw beyond the stats and GPA. He saw a young man in need of a chance.
“When I sat down and met him, I had a connection with him,” Graham said. “I could see in his eyes how bad he wanted to do the things we were about. He did believe in our value system. I was honest with him. I told him it was going to be difficult. It would be challenging. I was very hard on Jay Jay from that standpoint.
“He was a guy that I wanted to help. I was willing to take a risk. I knew it was going to be difficult. I know it was going to be a challenging road.”
The case to choose Arizona State was growing. The Sun Devil leadership had showed faith in him. They ran an offense that appealed to him, and Tempe was “far enough but not too far from California”.
ASU also had Demario Richard, who was excelling as a true freshman in 2014. Knowing Wilson better than perhaps anyone outside his family, Richard understood his friend’s situation as he tried to coax him to choose the Sun Devils.
“I was in his ear a little bit,” Richard said. “He knew what he wanted to do. At the end of the day, he was a man, so he had to do whatever he felt comfortable with with his family.’
Wilson was hosted by Richard during his official visit in January of 2015. At the center of Richard’s sales pitch was their hometown.
“We could have the whole city going crazy,” Richard said of Palmdale. “I think that’s what struck him.”
“It was very critical, not just for me or for him, but for where we come from,” Wilson said. “Where we come from, a lot of people don’t really make it to where we made it, and we both made it here.”
Two weeks after his ASU trip, Wilson made his final official visit to Colorado. He then called Richard.
“Just commit to the school, bro,” Richard remembers telling him. “We’re going to make something special while we got each other.”
Jay Jay Wilson announced his commitment to ASU on Feb. 2 and signed with the program two days later.
He was going to be the first member of his family to go to college, and more importantly, he was going to be able to show his siblings and other kids back in the High Desert that “it’s possible to get out of the dirt.”
In this case, he was out of the dirt and into the fire.
The transition from high school to college is challenging for anyone, and it’s certainly more complicated for a student-athlete. For one with the off-field concerns that Jay Jay Wilson had, it requires even more effort.
Enter Marcus Castro-Walker.
At the time, he was Arizona State’s Director of Player Development. After graduating from Eastern Washington University, Castro-Walker came to ASU as a graduate assistant and had worked his way up through the Office of Student-Athlete Development, helping guide student-athletes with their academics and life skills.
That process begins long before a student-athlete ever enrolls at Arizona State.
“We are very hands on, even during the recruiting process,” Castro-Walker said. “Even though they’re rolling out the red carpet, you’re being evaluated by folks like me, by the coaches, by anybody you interact with. After the visit, we sit down and discuss if this is a person we want in our program.
“When Jay Jay was here on his trip, I was interacting with him to the point that I knew how he ticks. I know if he’s attentive. I know if he cares, I know if he listens.”
Castro-Walker and others in the department then talk with the recruit’s high school teachers, principal, and counselors to identify academic challenges, character concerns, or potential problem areas. They also examine what resources are available on campus, in the community, or from the NCAA so that they can use to head off a problem before it starts.
“We built this individualized development plan for Jay Jay when he steps on campus,” Castro-Walker said. “Resources were already set in place and a plan was there and available for him to execute.”
The plan was in place, and once Wilson signed his National Letter of Intent, the next steps began.
Castro-Walker and Assistant Director of Athletics Compliance Susanna Tamol went to work to ensure that Wilson cleared all necessary academic and athletic qualifications. This required summer courses and a lot of back-and-forth effort to clear those hurdles “because he had a lot of them.”
“It was a pressing issue to get a lot of this stuff done,” Castro-Walker said.
Even with the lengthy to-do list ahead of him, Wilson showed Castro-Walker how badly he wanted this opportunity, and why.
“He had a lot of work to do, and to his credit, he got it done,” said Castro-Walker. “This was the way for him to make something of himself. He comes from a large family. I’ve met them personally. I’ve seen his home. Those brothers and sisters look to him as another father figure. Jay Jay in the household is another dad to them, and he’s a big time role model. He plays that role for his family. This was his chance to do something with himself.”
But being a true freshman meant having to work his way up again. For someone looked up to both by his family and his high school teammates, starting again at the bottom was a tough pill to swallow.
“Being the dude coming out of high school, it’s kinda hard to come in and humble yourself,” Wilson said.
That resulted in some pushback to Castro-Walker’s efforts.
“At first, he was hesitant,” Castro-Walker said, “not because he’s scared or doesn’t trust the process, but hesitant because a lot of times, being a football player, there’s ego that goes with it. You don’t think you need help.”
Undaunted, Castro-Walker persisted in trying to help guide Wilson.
“Things don’t always happen in the way you think they are going to happen,” Castro-Walker said. “Unfortunately, once you step on campus, the honeymoon is over, and it’s time to go to work, and it’s time to grow up and be a man. For him, it was a bit of culture shock, not only coming from where comes from, but stepping on a college campus, having to go to school on his own, having to be responsible. A lot of these things hit him at the same time.”
One resource he did trust from the outset was longtime friend and new teammate Demario Richard. When he first arrived in Tempe, he asked Richard—then a sophomore—to help him acclimate to life as a Sun Devil player.
“When we got to college, we really had to look out for each other,” Richard said. “I was already a year in, so when he got there, I showed him the ropes. You can do this, but you can’t do that.”
As he coped with his new home, Wilson reverted back to his quieter, more withdrawn persona. The walls were back up. It would take time before he opened up to his new teammates.
“Once he got to ASU, it renewed our relationship,” Richard said. “He could come to me about anything and everything. It was hard for him to open up about certain stuff, but coming to me, it was decent. He kept a lot to himself. He wouldn’t talk to a lot of people until the summer of his freshman year when he was first coming in.”
As he was dealing with things mentally and emotionally, Wilson also suffered an early physical setback when he injured his foot.
The familiar feelings of frustration, anger, confusion became overwhelming. He simply couldn’t keep them bottled up.
“I didn’t know how to control those emotions,” Wilson said. “I wore my heart on my sleeve. When stuff wasn’t going the way that I thought was right, I’d speak up, which wasn’t the best thing to do at the time.”
Especially when it included fighting with your head coach.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham had an idea of what he was getting into.
“We didn’t really take on many at-risk situations,” Graham said of Jay Jay Wilson. “But I’m the one who said I’m willing to take on this challenge.”
Part of the reason Graham was so willing to take the chance was that he saw himself in Wilson.
“I was one of those (troubled) young men,” said Graham. “That’s why it wasn’t hard for me. No one in my family had graduated from college. Having that opportunity to help other people that are from the same background and situation that I came from is something I took a great deal of pride in.”
Perhaps that similarity also contributed to a relationship that Wilson described as “always contentious.” The first major confrontation took place early on in Wilson’s freshman season.
One of the primary reasons Jay Jay Wilson chose ASU was the way that he would be featured in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense.
“The whole reason I came here was because they told me the 3-back was a wide receiver, a slot receiver, a tight end, and a running back,” Wilson said. “That was what I was going off of. When I didn’t get that, that’s when me and Coach Graham started banging heads.”
Even though the Sun Devils had recruited him for their version of tight end, Graham saw Wilson’s size, speed, and physicality as a perfect fit for another position.
“I thought he was a very good 3-back,” Graham said. “His size, his explosiveness, his instinctiveness correlated to playing defense. He had elite skills when it came to that. That’s something I identified in high school, and when he came in to camp, it was very obvious to me.”
What a head coach wants, a head coach often gets, and Wilson was quickly moved to defense. So quickly, in fact, that tight ends coach Chip Long, ASU’s primary recruiter of Wilson recalled that he “really didn’t see (Wilson) much until late in the year.”
Wilson wanted to remain at 3-back, but “took it on the chin and went with” the move over to linebacker, where he found himself as the back up to starter Antonio Longino. Unhappy with being a reserve, Wilson went to Graham and asked to go back to 3-back.
Graham agreed to the move, but Wilson was put off by the manner in which Graham phrased it. So he sniped back.
“He didn’t like that I was talking back,” Wilson said, “and I shouldn’t have been at the time. At the time, I felt like I needed to say something.”
“It’s like your kids that you raise,” Graham said of that situation. “The kids can’t run the household.”
The situation escalated.
Demario Richard remembered teammates flocking to him saying “Jay Jay trippin'! Jay Jay trippin'!’” Richard sought out his friend to try to settle things down.
“I told him he had to stay calm,” Richard said. “Everyone knows how Coach Graham is. Coach Graham is going to try to get under your skin to see how you’re going react. Jay Jay is kind of a hot head, so he didn't know how to react to it.”
He gave Wilson one piece of advice.
“Whatever you got to do to make things right, you got to do it.”
Graham understood Wilson’s perspective, but felt that he had crossed a line in making that point.
“Without conflict, you can’t accomplish anything great,” Graham said. “I embrace those things. On the same hand, he had to meet the expectations of what we were doing. I’ll adjust to players, and I believe in individualizing the instruction, but he knew the standards too.”
Wilson first dropped to the scout team, and then dropped from there as well. He would also be suspended for the upcoming game against USC.
“He accepted a lot of things sometime that I’m sure he thought I was pretty hard on him,” Graham said. “At the end of the day, it’s like being a parent. You have to make hard decisions. You have to give them tough love, so we gave him a bunch of tough love early.”
It was a painful time for Wilson, but some help from back home was on the way. While his teammates were out on the field battling the Trojans, Wilson was having dinner with Larry Muir’s wife, Pam Walker, who had flown out to help the troubled freshman.
“People that are mentors to me say that I’m so selfless, it’s to the point that I’ll give up my own happiness and state of mind to make sure that everything is OK with my family,” Wilson said of the dinner. “They helped me balance that. They let me know it’s OK to be selfish at times. For me to get where I need to go, I need to be selfish so I can take care of my family. They let me know that I’m on the right track, and it’s OK to be selfish at times.”
Walker also stressed that Wilson needed to apologize and humble himself and understand that it’s a process. It resonated. Somewhat.
“At the end of the day, it was on him,” Graham said. “Football is hard. Life is hard. Like it or not, it involves discipline. That was hard for Jay Jay. He took it on. He was a man about it, and he grew.”
But not at first.
Wilson was still upset. So mad, in fact, that he actually packed up his entire room in preparation of leaving ASU and transferring elsewhere.
He first called his dad.
“I was pissed off,” Joe Wilson said of first hearing about his son’s spat with Graham. “Todd Graham came into my home and my kitchen. I realize it’s a business. I’m new at this. This is my first kid in college, but I take a man at his word. He made a bunch of promises that weren’t kept.”
Then his son mentioned he was thinking about transferring.
“I freaked out,” said Joe Wilson. “I didn’t know what to say. I talked to him, and as soon as I hung up, I called Coach Muir.”
Muir had expected something like this.
“I knew Jay Jay would have some issues with that,” Muir said. “He was going to have to understand that he’s starting at the bottom. You have to prove your way through. The game changes so dramatically. His patience was going to be something that he was going to have to fight because he wanted things to happen right now.”
Wilson explored his options and shared his transfer thoughts his teammates.
“I just kept it real with him,” said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins. “I helped him envision every single route that could happen. There’s so many different routes, or do you want to make the most of the route you are on right now? If the road you are on right now is not paved, do you want to pave it yourself?”
“I practically threw that out the window,” Richard said of the transfer idea. “Bro, you’re not transferring nowhere. Every freshman, including me, is going to feel like they want to transfer. But there’s going to be a point in time when you have to be a man and attack the adversity head on.”
When Wilson brought up USC as a destination, Richard gave a stern warning, but feared it went “in one ear and out the other.”
Wilson then discussed his future with his coaches.
“I told him that you have to breathe,” Long said. “Relax. It’s a process. Just keep working, and you’ll get what you want. But if you do this, look at all the guys who transfer that you never hear from again. I told him it’s always greener over the septic tank. You need to plant your roots here and work and grind through it. If you quit, you’re going to quit everything else the rest of your life.”
Even his perceived adversary at the time tried to help Wilson see the big picture, one that Graham had struggled to see years ago.
“Every freshman goes through that,” said Graham. “I shared my story with him. We were having three-a-days. I told my mom that these coaches were so mean to me. It just wasn’t like it was in high school. It’s not. It’s college football. I was transparent with Jay Jay. We talked about it at great length, and he persevered through it.”
Some time later, Wilson’s father called him with a bottom-line message, and a reminder of where they've been.
“Regardless of how tough it is, a real man would stick it out,” said Jay Jay Wilson of Joe’s advice. “Regardless of how hard times are, that’s what we’ve been about since you were young. Our whole life has never been easy, so why would you leave now when it’s not easy.”
Jay Jay Wilson decided to stay a Sun Devil, and true to form, it was not easy. Wilson had to earn back the coaching staff’s trust, and in order to do that, he had to first look inside himself.
“If you go to ASU, there’s a point where you have to trust the people at ASU,” Muir remembered telling Wilson. “Something about ASU led you there. There was something about them that got you to trust them. Now once you are there, you have to trust them a little bit.”
Bringing down his walls was a difficult process.
“There was definitely some bad times for him,” said Long. “He’d come in my office, and we’d have long talks. He was able to move on and move past it. There were a few times where it was the end of him playing issue, but he was able to relax, talk it through with me, and come back to work.”
Over the course of the year, Wilson adjusted his approach and demeanor to fit within the program’s expectations. He admits, “I was just quick to say stuff. Nowadays, I’ll just schedule a meeting.”
Over time, buying in earned him playing time.
“You just don’t get to go play,” Long said, “you have to learn what you’re doing. You have to be detailed in what you’re doing. You can’t be disruptive. I think that was hard for him at first. Once he figured that out, he started playing a lot of special teams and doing a good job there. That started building a lot of trust.”
Even Graham—his perceived toughest critic—saw a change.
“That was all a part off his growth and his education,” said Graham. “He never gave up. He stuck with it. We had challenges where we disagreed, but at the end of the day, he loved his family, and that was our brotherhood.”
Wilson played in 11 games during his freshman season, primarily on special teams, and made three total tackles. More important than any stat he logged was the improvement he made week-by-week.
“He made a lot (of progress),” Long said. “By the time I was leaving here (Long left to become offensive coordinator in Memphis shortly after the 2015 season), he was really coming on during the bowl practices. You saw he had the chance to be something.”
Wilson managed to hold on to his chance.
What would he do with it?
Get Back To Where You Once Belonged
Now firmly back on the offensive side of the ball as a tight end, Jay Jay Wilson’s 2016 season began with, if not a clean slate, a fresh feel to it.
Soon after he left to become head coach at Memphis, Mike Norvell hired Chip Long to be his offensive coordinator. Graham then hired Chip Lindsey from Southern Mississippi to run the ASU offense, while DelVaughn Alexander was moved from wide receivers coach to oversee the Sun Devil tight ends.
Those new eyes saw Wilson up close as he shined during spring practices, as starting tight end Kody Kohl was limited by injury. With his athleticism and skillset, Wilson was primed to be a significant contributor in Lindsey’s offense.
But he stumbled again. Wilson received a two-game suspension before the season opener.
Another self-inflicted wound, and more ground that he had to make up.
“There were times where it was tough because you know you have something precious that you’re truly in love with taken away from you,” Jay Jay told DevilsDigest.com’s Justin Toscano at the time. “But at the end of the day, I had to take responsibility because it was no one else’s fault but mine.”
He made his season debut a week later against UTSA, and the next week at Cal, he finally made the impact so many had waited to see.
With just over six minutes left in the game, ASU trailed the Golden Bears by a touchdown. With the ball at the Cal 30-yard line, Lindsey called in a play action pass. Lined up in a three-point stance, Wilson ran downfield as Manny Wilkins faked a handoff, rolled to his right, and lofted a pass Wilson’s way. The sophomore tight end hauled in and and turned into the endzone.
First career catch: Check.
First career touchdown: Check.
Back in Palmdale, Joe Wilson had just left one of his son’s football games and was racing home to watch the end of the ASU game. He had the game on the radio when his son scored the game-tying touchdown.
“I had to pull over, I was so excited,” Joe Wilson said. “I didn’t want to crash. I pulled over for about 15 minutes just screaming. I thought he had made it then.”
It could have been the breakthrough he needed. It wasn’t.
Instead, Wilson continued to struggle on and off the field. He was suspended again three games later when ASU faced Colorado. The repeated suspensions were a severe strain on the relationship between Wilson and Graham.
“There were times when I did well and he would be on my side,” Wilson said of his head coach. “But then as soon as Jay Jay messes up, then it’s ‘I’m over Jay Jay.” When I was doing good, he was on the Jay Jay train. When I was doing whatever, he was off of it.”
From Graham’s perspective, he tried to do everything he could to help Wilson and other players having problems while not compromising the core tenets of his program.
“If you identify a player who is struggling, if you are reactive, you are going to be in trouble,” Graham said. “If there is no relationship there, if there is no support system. I was very hands on in recruiting because I wanted to make sure that the young men fit our program. Our culture and values were not going to change because it’s what wins.”
Wilson returned from suspension after the Colorado game, but he failed to make his mark on the field. Wilson went four games without another catch.
He was not the only tight end to make a minimal impact on the stat sheet. Under Lindsey, ASU’s tight ends combined to catch just 12 passes on the season.
“I feel like with Jay Jay, it was the scheme Coach Lindsey was running,” said Demario Richard. “It wasn’t the right scheme for Jay Jay. We didn’t use a tight end as much as we did with Coach Long and Coach Norvell.”
Wilson’s most notable effort came in the season’s penultimate game against Washington. Both of his catches that night went for touchdowns, in which Wilson used his size to haul in lobbed passes from Wilkins. However, by that point in the season, Wilson felt lost and miscast.
“I felt like I was able to show what I could do and go up and get the ball,” Wilson said of those two catches, “but I never got the opportunity to catch the ball in space.”
As Wilson struggled to fit in, Richard himself was battling a severe injury, which turned the 2016 season into a lost year for the two Palmdale natives.
“He didn’t look like himself,” said Richard of Wilson. “My junior year, we both didn’t look like ourselves. I understood where he was coming from. He didn’t know what to do.”
Furthering his struggle was the absence of one of his closest mentors, Marcus Castro-Walker, who left to become Director of Player Development at the University of Central Florida. Wilson took Castro-Walker's departure hard.
“Jay Jay didn’t talk to me for six months,” Castro-Walker said. “He was mad. I was like a big brother to him in a sense. He was upset I was leaving and I felt terrible about it.”
The failure to contribute on the field and the continued disciplinary issues took a heavy emotional toll on Wilson.
“I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I wasn’t happy where I was at in life,” Wilson said. “As a player, I’m my biggest critic, so when I was here and feeling like I didn’t do anything my first two years, I’m not happy. I know what I’m capable of, and I know what I could have done. I’m not saying it was Coach Graham’s fault, and I’m not saying it’s my fault. It was the unfortunate situation that happened. Maybe I should have dealt with some situations differently.”
Once again, he questioned his place at ASU and his future. The joy had been sucked from the game he had cherished.
“There were times when I wanted to give up and go home,” he said. “There were times when I felt like I didn’t even love football anymore.”
* * *
The hits kept on coming.
As 2017 began, Jay Jay Wilson’s grandfather had a fall and suffered multiple facial fractures that ended up putting him into a coma. That sorrow had a profound impact on Wilson, and it would weigh on him throughout the year.
But thankfully that spring, some much-needed light began shining through the darkness.
After a year away at UCF, Marcus Castro-Walker came back to ASU. The timing of the return for a man Wilson viewed as “a brother and a role model” was perfect.
“Without Marcus, I wouldn’t be here,” Wilson said. “There’s been plenty of times where I felt like, ‘Forget it, I want to go home. All of this ain’t worth it.’ But he brought me back to reality and told me it’s more than worth it. Everything I’ve been through to get to this point has been a dream and a miracle. Not everybody makes it to this point.”
It was not always smooth sailing, but over time, Castro-Walker began to help Wilson put things back on track.
“I had to deal with him on so many fronts, many positive and a couple negative,” said Castro-Walker. “To go from where he was when he first stepped on campus here, it’s crazy how far he’s come. How he’s developed from almost a boy, into a young man, into a man. He was always a good person. He was a little rough around the edges, but the heart was always good. We never worried about Jay Jay not being able to make it, because his heart was in the right place.”
That spring, Wilson made another important decision. He let his mom back in his life.
Faitioina was now out of jail and trying to put her life back together, a life in which she desperately wanted Jay Jay. She had moved to Los Angeles, and Wilson started visiting her whenever he went back to California. He let his emotional walls down, and the relationship blossomed from there, helping to heal old wounds and provide support for current struggles.
On the football side, Chip Lindsey left after the season and was replaced as ASU’s offensive coordinator by Billy Napier. Following a season that saw the tight end position marginalized, he held hope that Napier’s arrival would herald a resurgence. Wilson even moved in with quarterback Manny Wilkins, hoping to build up the rapport between the key pieces of the team’s passing game.
At least one person close to Wilson thought Napier's arrival would help.
“That’s a blessing in disguise for you,” Demario Richard remembered telling him.
It quickly proved to be anything but a blessing.
“There was never really a time when Coach Napier wanted me to be a part of the offense,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t say me, he didn’t want a tight end to be a part of his offense. He never was truly able to see my potential because he didn’t give me the opportunity.”
In the season opener, Wilson caught a single pass for 16 yards. The next week, a game against San Diego State, held promise for more. Wilson was getting his first collegiate start.
As he ran onto the field for the first play, his mind was racing.
“I had a lot of stuff flowing through my head,” Wilson said, “and I’m trying to figure out the game fast. We’re running up tempo, no huddle, and I’m trying to figure it out. Then I end up missing the assignment in the first quarter.”
Wilson missed a block on an early play, and Napier benched him for the night. It was just the first quarter.
The next week against Texas Tech, Wilson did not see a single snap on offense. He was back in the doghouse.
However, a glimmer of hope emerged, albeit under unfortunate circumstances.
During the game, linebacker Koron Crump, ASU’s top pass rusher, torn his ACL. Suddenly, the Sun Devils had a glaring need, and Wilson thought he could help.
“Jay Jay came to me and said, ‘Coach, I know can do it. You told me that’s where I should play. I want to help the football team in any way I can,’” Graham remembered. “It was a great sacrifice on his part. He sacrificed for the team.”
“I was all for it,” Wilson said. “When the injury happened to Crump, I knew it was a possibility that I would be asked. When Coach Slocum reached out first, it was a no-brainer.”
Shawn Slocum had served as ASU’s special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach, so he knew what kind of player he was getting to replace Crump.
“He has a defensive mentality,” Slocum said. “The way he plays the game, he plays with an aggression. That suits a defensive player well. He’s got excellent instincts as a football player. He understands the game. When he sees something, he reacts. That’s a really good trait for a defensive player, because it’s a stimulus response. It made the transition quick for him.”
It needed to come quick, because he was thrown into the mix immediately.
Wilson saw action in the next game, making two tackles against Oregon. He made three the next week against Stanford, and another against Washington.
He tried to learn the defensive scheme as quickly as he could, and the demands of the position—and the coaches—were intense. Thankfully for him, he had a pair of veteran mentors to help him along in D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam.
“You have to be special to be an effective pass rusher, especially in the Pac-12,” Wilson said. “I got a whole lot more respect for Crump after going out there and doing what he does. He helped me a lot. Christian and D.J. let me know that film was going to slow the game down for me. They helped me with the playbook a lot. It was a hard transition, but it was easy in a sense because I had everybody supporting me.”
Wilson also had the challenge of earning the trust of new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, and long-time friend and colleague of Graham.
“There were times that Coach Bennett and I bumped heads because he and Coach Graham have a very strong history,” Wilson said. “Coming in, he already had an opinion about me. I was on thin ice with him too. As soon as I messed up, he was right on me. But Christian and D.J. had my back like ‘We got him. We’ll handle it.’”
For a while, he felt like all the work was going towards something that wouldn’t last, that a return to tight end was waiting somewhere down the road.
“The universe was telling me it was time to let the offensive side go, but I still didn’t let it go,” Wilson said. “Throughout the season, I was just playing defense just because I wanted to be on the field.”
His dad felt the same way.
“He could have been the best tight end to ever play the game,” said Joe Wilson. “But I know how much he loves offense, and what he was promised. I think it was God’s plan.”
Then came the Utah game.
Wilson got the start, and played well. He made four tackles on the day and broke up two passes. Midway through the fourth quarter, Wilson put the capper on ASU’s 30-13 victory.
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley was trying to bring the Utes back, but Wilson had picked up on one of his tendencies throughout the day.
“(Huntley) wasn’t having a good game, so he was just checking it down to the running back,” said Wilson. “I guess that’s his favorite play. So Coach Bennett called a play, and it was the only play where I drop in coverage. I end up dropping, and the first person I look for is the running back. As soon as he planted, I ran, snatched the ball, and took off.”
Wilson picked off the pass and was racing for the endzone, but Huntley still tried to bring down the 250-pounder.
It was a valiant, if futile effort.
“I saw Huntley attempt to make the tackle,” Wilson remembered, “and I felt disrespected in a sense for the thought that he could tackle me. People said I should have made it look cooler, jumper over him or something. Nah, I’m going to run him over for even thinking he can tackle me! That felt good.”
It was a pivotal performance for the junior linebacker.
“In that game, not only did he have the pick six,” Slocum said, “but he had three quarterback pressures, and could have come out of there with three sacks. From that point on, he really took off and really started to understand the defense and his role within the defense.”
It took two-and-a-half years, but Wilson had finally found his place on the field.
“Sometimes it takes you awhile to figure it out,” said Graham. “He hasn’t even scratched the surface of how good I think he can be.”
Wilson continued to grow into a key contributor for the Sun Devil defense. Tackles for loss against USC and Colorado. Seven tackles, two for loss, and a sack against Oregon State. A career-best 12 tackles in the Sun Bowl.
For the year, he ended with 46 tackles, four for loss, two pass breakups, two sacks, and that highlight-reel interception.
“He moved to defense and started going crazy,” Richard said. “You’re starting to look like yourself again. You look comfortable in the scheme. You look comfortable where you are playing at. You gotta do what you gotta do to feed the family. Once he heard me say that, his eyes lit up.”
It was finally coming together for Jay Jay Wilson. Success on the field. Happiness off of it. It radiated.
“I hadn’t seen him that happy in a minute,” said Joe Wilson.
But 2017 still had one last curveball to throw.
The morning after ASU’s win over Arizona, Todd Graham was fired.
Wilson’s frequent foil was gone. The news brought about conflicting emotions within Wilson.
“That was the moment I realized that I do care for Coach Graham,” Wilson said. “I felt the pain. At the end of the day, he helped build this program to what it is today. He did help build that new facility. It felt like he had built this empire and had it taken away from him. I felt for him, but I knew we needed change.
“We didn’t get along a lot of the time, we’d bump heads, but I still appreciate having him in my life.”
The Final Chapter Begins
Entering his senior season, Jay Jay Wilson was happy, both on and off the field.
His relationship with his parents was stronger than ever. The once toxic relationship with his mother had grown into one of love and support, with the pair talking daily and trading “I’m proud of you” text messages. His grandfather, who had suffered the serious fall and went into a coma, was awake and doing better.
As he always had, Wilson used the bond with his brothers and sisters as motivation.
“The one thing I leaned on was being able to tell my brothers and sisters that I did it, and them knowing ‘My big brother did it, so I know it’s possible for me to do it,’” Wilson said. “It’s working.”
In particular, his younger brother Jayvaun had become a star high school player in his own right at Valencia and was a sought-after recruit. Jay Jay was a valuable resource during the process, which resulted in Jayvaun committing to play at Oregon.
“He always taught me to be better than him,” said Jayvaun Wilson of his older brother. “He always taught me to not go down the same path as him and to make my own trail.”
On the field, he made peace with the fact that—yes Coach Graham, you were right—he was a linebacker.
“I made the decision to give up catching touchdown passes,” Wilson said, “but I’ll make that up with pick sixes.”
That optimism was buoyed by the arrival of his new head coach, Herm Edwards. After three years under Graham’s discipline-focused program, Wilson embraced Edwards’ more hands-off, accountability-driven touch.
“I’m glad Herm is here, and that his energy is what it is,” Wilson said. “The first thing he said in the team meeting when he got here is, ‘I just want everybody to be themselves. The only time that I will ask you to be anything different is when you being yourself affects the outcome of the team.’”
Wilson saw an immediate impact of that approach on his teammates.
“My teammates love coming to practice now,” Wilson said. “You see guys at the stadium and the facility for hours on end."
It didn’t take Edwards long to see Wilson’s potential. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds with terrific athleticism, Edwards felt that the NFL was within reach for Wilson.
“He has a (pro) future, he really does,” Edwards said. “I think he can play beyond college, if he works at it.”
Edwards brought in Danny Gonzales to oversee the defense, and the new defensive coordinator was quickly impressed by Wilson.
“Physically, he looks like you want your linebackers to look,” Gonzales said. “He’s a big, lean kid who looks really physical. He’s got a dominating personality, meaning he is one that other kids look to.”
Wilson also impressed his new coordinator with his maturity.
“When I took the job, Jay Jay was one of the first guys up in my office and was very interested to lead the charge,” Gonzales said. “As we got toward spring ball, he was definitely one of the guys that I wanted to look towards to lead our guys, to be an example, to point him out when he’s not doing well on film and him not overreacting to constructive criticism. He was one of the perfect ones to use during that transition.”
Under Gonzales, ASU was moving to a 3-3-5 scheme, and Wilson was pegged for a starting role at outside linebacker. Now, he’d have many more responsibilities than as a pass-rush-focused "Devilbacker" position under Graham.
“I feel like I’m back to do what I’m able to do,” Wilson said. “Coach Herm is giving me the opportunity to show that. Just the fact that I have opportunity to show what I have to offer, I like that. Even last year playing Devilbacker, I felt like I had more to offer than just rushing and dropping.”
In Gonzales’ scheme, he’d have the chance to prove it. The outside linebacker spot in this defense has to be able to do it all.
“He can run, he’s really twitchy, he can change direction,” said Gonzales of Wilson. “He’s able to react and see how plays develop. He’s got the size you are looking for. He’s got long arms. He’s really physical. He’s quick. He can come off the edge, and they have a hard time blocking him. You can send him up the middle on a blitz. He’s got all the attributes and the athletic ability that you need to be an all-conference guy.”
To oversee the Sun Devil linebackers, Edwards hired Antonio Pierce, a former Pro Bowl linebacker and Super Bowl champion during his NFL career.
Pierce’s no-nonsense approach was accepted quickly by the group, and the relationship became more of a collective “partnership” in Wilson’s eyes. While Pierce’s pro accomplishments impressed Wilson, it was their shared background that resonated most.
“He knows where I’ve come from and what I’ve been through to get here,” Wilson said.
Pierce grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Compton, Calif., about 90 miles south of Wilson’s Palmdale. Pierce’s journey from Compton to the NFL was filled with obstacles and hardships, some of his own doing, and he shared the lessons learned from his own mistakes to help Wilson.
“People see the awards and accolades from what I’ve done, but there’s been some bumpy roads too when I was younger,” Pierce said. “Bad decisions that I just try to let him know what I did and what I learned from it. Hopefully he can learn from those and not make those same mistakes. He has a greater advantage than me because the guy that coached me didn’t come from that background. So it was live and learn through myself. I want him to live a little through me, vicariously, but at the same time be his own person. With Jay Jay, that’s what you get, a very strong personality. If he doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far with him. We really nipped that in the bud early on, as far as the trust factor.”
Pierce challenged Wilson to maximize his potential, and Wilson responded. He put in extra work studying film on NFL stars like Luke Kuechley, Von Miller, Vic Beasley, and Bobby Wagner. He put in extra reps in the weight room. With just one season left, Wilson was determined to hold nothing back, and unleash three season’s worth of frustration.
During spring practices, Wilson was a standout on defense. Holding down a starting role, he made play after play, and between whistles, a broad smile was often seen on his face.
During the spring and summer, Pierce and the coaches also challenged Wilson to accept a larger leadership role.
“We’re counting on him to be a guy on and off the field, a leader,” Pierce said. “What I’ve seen is a guy who has accepted that role, and accepted the roles for a lot of different things that we’ve asked from him from positions to leadership to being vocal. There’s always a learning curve with that.”
It was a challenge for the soft-spoken Wilson, but he warmed up to it.
“I embrace it,” he said. “I got a tough story, so I relate to a lot of people. As far as me being a rah-rah guy like Ray Lewis, nah, that’s not for me. I like to lead by example more than anything.”
Rooming with Manny Wilkins began as a way to strengthen a quarterback-tight end bond, but it now became a valuable resource for Wilson in learning leadership techniques...as well as some good-natured taunting now that Wilson was on the other side of the ball.
“There are times that Manny and I won’t talk because of practice,” Wilson said with a smile. “We’ll be in each other’s heads because I’m kinda the quarterback of the defense and he’s the quarterback of the offense. We’ll get home, and there’s a little tension there.”
As fall camp opened, Wilson took on a mentorship role with the younger linebackers, notably prized recruit Merlin Robertson. During the first few fall practices, Wilson was shadowing Robertson, advising him on every rep.
"It's a blessing to have someone there," Robertson said of Wilson. "He's been through my shoes. It's good to have a helping hand instead of coming in by myself having to learn things on my own. I get the upper hand on others because he tells me everything I need to know and guides me on the things I need to do to get to the next level and get to the field faster."
“You need that,” said Pierce of Wilson’s mentoring. “It’s always about passing the torch. A guy who has been here four years, played a lot of football games and had his ups and downs. You have an incoming freshman with a lot of hype. Jay Jay was that guy as well. He understands that. I think it’s good for a guy like Merlin. I can talk to him as much as I want about football and Xs and Os and what ASU is about, but then here’s a guy who has lived and breathed it for four years.”
Robertson excelled from the first fall camp practice, but Wilson got off to a slow start. He drew Edwards’ ire for scuffles during early practices, and Wilson was often relegated to running with the second-team defense.
This turned out to be by design.
Pierce felt that Wilson had lost focus from riding high off of his spring performance and praise, something Pierce acknowledged he contributed towards.
"Sometimes, everybody pats you on your butt,” Pierce said. “Your linebacker coach says you can be all-conference. You start feeling yourself. That’s human nature. You always have to go back to ground zero and start with a foundation. Hopefully he understands that, and it starts every time you put the pads on."
Pierce made clear his desire to see Wilson return to playing with the same fire he showed in spring, and “if we keep that purpose in front of Jay Jay, and that carrot dangling in front of him, the sky is the limit. When he forgets about that carrot, it becomes a problem.”
Wilson was about to have a much bigger problem than that carrot.
One night, he wasn’t there. Nor the next. Nor the one after that.
In the middle of fall camp, the most important one of his career, Jay Jay Wilson had gone absent.
During a practice early in camp—a session closed to both media and fans—an incident occurred involving Wilson, one that earned him another lengthy suspension.
“A team-related situation”, Edwards called it at the time. “He’s been removed from activities until I decide to bring him back.”
As he had many times before, Wilson lost control of his emotions and faced consequences. This time, though, he feared it could cost him everything that he had worked so hard to achieve.
“I was so upset with myself for how far I’ve come,” Wilson said. “I went from a special teams player and not doing that well in school to a leader, to a starter, to a potential captain, to a Scholar-Baller. I turned my situation around. I feel like I messed it up in 20 seconds.”
Wilson was barred from practices, film sessions, strength and conditioning work, and even meals with his teammates.
“For the first week, I was stuck in a slump,” Wilson said. “I was kinda in, I guess you could say depression, but I wouldn’t go that far. I was upset with myself, and I wasn’t really doing much.”
He also battled with a looming sense of guilt.
“I was mad at myself, because I feel like I let a lot of people down that have been in my corner,” Wilson said. “Not only people back home and people that are near and dear to my heart, but Coach Herm, Coach G, and my teammates.”
While he was unable to work with him as a teammate, Manny Wilkins did the best he could to help support his friend and roommate.
"He was knocked down pretty hard with these consequences,” said Wilkins. "I just told him to keep the main thing the main thing. You get dealt some consequences, you gotta deal with them. I told him, 'When you come back, know what it felt like to have the game taken away from you, the pit you have in your stomach when you see us walk in the building and you're walking out.’”
As a new coaching staff with no previous loyalty to a player with a suspension-riddled past, it would have been no surprise had Edwards and Gonzales opted to use this situation to cut ties with Wilson. As with any coaching change, there is a degree of attrition, with some players not fitting into the new staff’s view.
But that was not the case here. Edwards and Gonzales wanted to use this setback as a learning opportunity.
“We have to understand that these are 17 to 22-year-old young men that are learning how to be adults,” Gonzales said. “We have a system around here where we hold people accountable. We don’t care who it is. It’s a good life lesson for the young man. He’ll be better for it. I’m not disappointed in the least bit of how it turned out. But if you let it linger and hold it over their heads, then why have a consequence? We moved forward. They know the expectation. We’re going to hold them accountable. That’s a thing of the past. We’re going to continue forward to grow, mature, and build.”
Edwards was fully aware of Wilson’s troubled history, and wouldn’t let Wilson use it as an excuse. He demanded all attention was focused on the road ahead.
“There’s nothing you can do about the past,” Edwards said. “You can use the past, at times, to fuel you. But I’ve always said that you never use the past as a way to not achieve something, or let it be a negative. You have to let that stuff go. Whatever has happened, it’s all going forward.”
As someone who often took events personally, Wilson appreciated the coaches making clear that the discipline was aimed for his benefit.
“No grudges held. They never stopped believing in me,” Wilson said. “The only reason I didn’t feel the way most people would have is because Coach Herm and Coach G made sure I didn’t feel that way. It was nothing personal against me. When you make bad decisions, you have to deal with the consequences.”
Wilson was tasked with a lengthy to-do list that included meetings with coaches, counseling and mentoring sessions, academic work, as well as a one-on-one meeting with ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson. After his early moping, Wilson as called in to meet with ASU Head Coach for Sports Performance Joe Connelly. Connelly reminded Wilson that he had goals that could not be accomplished while on a couch feeling sorry for himself.
It was the kick in the butt that Wilson needed.
Wilson began working out individually with Connelly and took on the reinstatement tasks assigned to him. Pierce made sure Wilson was provided with the necessary film and team materials so he could study on his own.
With his coaches in his corner, Wilson’s support system helped maintain his motivation to get back onto the field.
Larry Muir and Pam Walker offered their support. Wilson talked daily with his parents. And, as always, his greatest strength came from his siblings. After a lifetime of being a stable rock of emotional support for his siblings, they now played that role for him. Wilson even likened Jayvaun’s support as that of a big brother.
Over three weeks after the incident, and after missing ASU’s season opener against UTSA, Wilson was reinstated and back at practice.
“It felt great. It felt amazing,” Wilson said. “We as players get used to it. We get stuck in a routine of ‘I gotta wake up and to practice and go to school. Wake up and to practice and go to school. In a sense you forget that you are lucky to be here, forget that you are blessed to be in this position. The strongest feeling I felt was being grateful. Being grateful that I was here and being back with my teammates. I’m back doing what I love to do.”
His suspension carried over into the first half of Week 2’s game against Michigan State. Wilson finally made his debut in the second half, assisting on a tackle-for-loss in ASU’s 16-13 win.
“Getting to your senior year, finally getting a starting role with coaches that believe in you,” Wilson said, “then you miss a game and a half, it’s like you shot yourself in the foot and you’re still trying to race.”
He caught up a bit the next week. Wilson started against San Diego State and made six tackles, broke up a pass, and forced a late fumble that gave ASU’s one last chance to win the game.
“One of the main reasons you get into coaching is giving kids opportunities, Gonzales said. “The maturing process is probably the most rewarding part of this job. It makes me really proud of him.”
The next week, Wilson made two tackles before suffering an ankle injury that sidelined him during the games against Oregon State and Colorado. With the team coming off of a bye, he hopes to return to the field soon and put together a strong end to his senior season that could put him in position for the NFL Draft.
“All my goals I had before this are still the same,” said Wilson.
But there’s one other goal, one that became more urgent given the suspension.
“I want people to know the true me.”
Poetry In Motion
Don Corleone’s daughter is getting married today, and as tradition dictates, he cannot refuse any request for favors. He holds court in his dimly lit office as shady figures ask for his help.
However, after one plea, Corleone does say no.
Stunned, the refused mobster leaves. Corleone turns away and pours himself a drink. As he sips, the jilted mobster returns and slits Corleone’s throat.
The Don is dead.
The audience applauds.
Back at Valencia High School when he had to play catch up with his grades, Jay Jay Wilson found himself taking a Shakespeare class. When he wanted to bump up a B to an A, the teacher, who also taught theater, said he could help put on a stage play with other students seeking extra credit.
But he needed the boost, so he agreed. Wilson went in with the stereotypical jock-versus-nerds outlook, but that quickly changed.
“I’m not in my element, which is football, so I’m sitting back and hearing their ideas,” he said. “I’m in their world. But it’s the craziest thing, they’re the coolest people to hang out with. They don’t care what anyone thinks, so that’s awesome.”
They were tasked with reenacting a movie scene, and after everyone else had tossed out ideas, they turned to Wilson. He suggested The Godfather.
In their version, Don Corleone was far bigger, more muscular, and more tattooed than most remembered, but Wilson’s portrayal was well received. So much so, his teacher asked him to do more plays.
Wilson agreed, because to his surprise, he had loved performing on stage. He was bitten by the acting bug.
He played a monster in a Minecraft-inspired play. He did two improv shows. In perhaps his most memorable turn, he played an extra in a dance scene, and ended up taking off his shirt and throwing it into the rowdy crowd.
That love of performing has stayed with him all these years, and he cites Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as “one of my inspirations.”
While he admits there’s no time while at ASU to pursue acting, it’s one of his post-football goals.
One of several, many of which may come as a surprise to those who see the intimidating exterior.
Growing up, Wilson—obviously—wanted to be a football player. He also wanted to be a chef to emulate his grandfather. As a kid, Wilson “was always in the kitchen eating or helping his grandfather cook."
If you peel back yet another layer of Jay Jay Wilson: Tough Guy, you will find Jay Jay Wilson: Poet.
Often in his free time, Wilson will pen letters and essays, but his poetry is closest to his heart.
Growing up, he was inspired by the lyrical aspects of the rap music that was a big part of his culture, and he sought to learn more about the art form. He also takes inspiration from the works of Shakespeare.
For Wilson, his poetry is “therapeutic”, allowing him to express the complex swirl of emotions within him. While he doesn’t go out of his way to show off his work, he doesn’t keep it a secret, either. In fact, he has some fans inside the ASU locker room.
“A lot of my teammates know I write poetry,” Wilson said. “If my teammates ask me to spit some poetry, I’ll spit some poetry.”
It continues to be a passion and an emotional outlet, although Wilson says, “I’m not as great as Shakespeare.”
History will be the judge of that, Jay Jay.
At the core of Jay Jay Wilson, underneath the tattoos, below the scars of his troubled past, is a young man who considers himself a “teddy bear.” In talking to so many people close to him for this piece, almost everyone mentioned Wilson’s “big heart” and selfless nature.
It’s a remarkable transition for someone who’s experienced what he has over his young life, someone who put up emotional walls as a means of self-defense.
When asked what stood out most about his former player, Larry Muir recalled the time he took his Valencia team to a community outreach project in Watts, a rough neighborhood of Los Angeles. Muir remembered all of the little the kids all flocking to Wilson, but it went both ways.
“He gravitated to the kids,” Muir said. “You could tell he wanted to give the shirt off his back to the kids. He connected with the kids so well.”
“It’s a reflection of my character and who I am,” Wilson said of his connection with children. “It’s not something I go out of my way to do, I’ve just always been a big-hearted person. I always have had that part of me. My father is the same way. He’s a big hearted person. Kids are our future. In a way, I like to let them know that everything I do is in a way to show them to do the right thing.”
It’s only natural, having 16 siblings. Sixteen best friends.
“I’m blessed to say that my best friends are my siblings,” he said.
They all talk daily in every way people can these days, whether in a group text, Twitter DMs, Instagram and more.
Wilson has seen so much, hurt so much, and made so many of his own mistakes. But through every single success and setback, Wilson has kept those 16 others first and foremost. Every move he makes, he tries to keep them in mind.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Jayvaun Wilson. “Going through the stuff we went through when we were younger, most kids can’t overcome that. He used that as his motivation. He never quit.”
He never quit because of them.
“I give all the credit to my brothers and sisters and my family,” Wilson said. “Every time I’ve contemplated the idea of giving up, the first thing I think about is my brothers and sisters. There have been times when I’ve been over it and about to quit, and I’ll get a text message from my little brother, ‘I just got a letter from Utah. I remember when you got your first letter from Utah.’ It’s the kick in the butt I need to get me back on track.”
Jay Jay Wilson wants to not only be an example for his siblings, but the foundation from which they can all build upon. He stresses to them the importance of being better than him.
“Jayvaun will call me everyday, telling me how much better he is at football than me,” Wilson said. “And it goes down the line. The younger they get, the more competitive and more confidence they have. I’m happy that they can believe that they’re better than me, because that’s how I want it.”
Wilson is becoming the first person to break the family’s cycle. With his example being emulated, he won’t be the last.
“I treat them how he treated me when he was my age, teaching me things,” Jayvaun Wilson said. “My little brothers who play football, I teach them the stuff I know, and the stuff they need to know. For my sisters, I show them love and do the best I can to be the best big brother they could possibly have.”
It’s all a father could ask for.
“I sit back and thank God and realize what a gift God gave me, what a joy he is in my life,” said Joe Wilson. “I thank God every day. Even when I don’t have the words, I just stare at him, and watch how he interacts with his family. It’s not just siblings, it’s everybody he comes in contact with. He’s a beautiful person.”
It’s On Me
Joe Wilson survived being stabbed. He survived the streets and the “fast life”.
He made it through and is now seeing the destructive cycle that has haunted his family come to an end. It has brought him a profound sense of peace.
“I just wanted him to break the cycle, and it’s happening,” Joe Wilson said of Jay Jay. “I can’t be mad at anything. I can actually say that I can die happy because I’m not worried about my kids. I got real men to take care of them, to take care of their siblings. They’re on one side of the fence, and going 100 percent that way.”
Jay Jay Wilson has led that charge for his family. On the football field, with just a handful of games left in his collegiate career, he aims to end with a similar show of strength.
“I love the game,” Jay Jay Wilson. “I’ve grown to appreciate it more, for all it’s done for me. It’s saved my life, in a sense.”
It’s given him a purpose, and it’s given him an emotional outlet. He has goals he wants to achieve in this game. He wants to lead the Sun Devils in tackles and sacks. He wants to make it so “when they think about the Pac-12, they think about Jay Jay. ‘That No. 9, he’s a different player.’” He wants to get to the NFL and play on Sundays.
But as for his legacy? Football is only a part of it.
“Great as a person, great as a player,” he said. “I just want people to remember me as a great human being. In all aspects of life, I want people when they think of me to think of a champion.”
Those who have been with him on his journey already do.
“When you see someone grow like that and mature like that,” said Todd Graham, “you see what a difference that Jay Jay Wilson is going to make in this world is something that I’m very proud of.”
“Jay Jay’s going to be a great father because he’s a great person,” said Marcus Castro-Walker. “He’s going to be a great husband one day. He is one that gives back to others. I’m sure he’ll have an NFL career. He’s a leader on and off the field. That’ll take care of itself. More importantly, is the next 10, 15, 20 years, that’s going to be the real accomplishments that Jay Jay is going to have. His life is going to be great.”
Jay Jay Wilson believes “the best teacher is failure.” He knows that he’s made his fair share of mistakes. He knows he’ll make some more.
He’s already defied odds to make it from the rough streets of Palmdale to the lights of the Pac-12. He’s overcome adversity that was beyond his control, he's been dealt some bad hands, but you won’t catch him making excuses.
“My dad has instilled in me that everything in life is a choice,” he said. “If I don’t make it, it’s no one’s fault but mine. Everything is a choice. The thing with Coach Graham and I was a choice. Leave or stay, and I stayed. Every day I wake up, I have a choice. I can choose to put myself in a position or I can choose to take myself out of position. If I end up failing or if I end up succeeding, it’s on me.”
A football player. A poet. A good son and an aspiring role model.
Most of all, Jay Jay Wilson is a survivor.
“Life is going to come with more obstacles and more challenges,” he said. “Anything else comes along, I’m ready for it.”
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