A winner on, off the field
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002
Theo Wilson, a Dunedin High School football player, was walking out of the locker room when he heard an unmistakable voice.
"I know you didn't make me get out of my chair to come and see you lose."
Startled, Theo, 15, looked up into the stands of Dunedin Memorial Stadium and saw his mom, Vickie Smith, who had come to watch him play high school football for the very first time.
For Smith, who was shot during an attempted robbery eight years ago and is partially dependent on a wheelchair, just getting to the game was a challenge.
Now she was issuing one to her son.
Moments later, Theo delivered.
With his team trailing Tarpon Springs 14-10 with two minutes left in the Oct. 25 game, Theo caught a game-winning pass in the left corner of the end zone, near his mom's seat.
He pointed toward her and looked up to the sky.
"I told you I was going to do something special!" Theo hollered.
For Theo, a sophomore, the opposing team is an easy obstacle compared to the numerous personal roadblocks he already has surmounted.
"Theo is tremendously gifted, but he's not big-headed," Dunedin coach Mark Everett said. "I think people look up to him because of some of the things he's had to overcome."
Born in Miami, Theo grew up fatherless. His first home was in a tough neighborhood in Hialeah. At age 2, to escape the environment, the toddler was sent to live with his grandmother, Clara Mae Smith, in Tarpon Springs.
For the next eight years, Theo moved among relatives in Pinellas County as he struggled to gain a measure of stability at home that had always eluded him.
Then in 1994, the roller-coaster ride took a serious nose dive.
Theo heard that his mother had been shot in the back of the head as she was walking out of a grocery store in Miami.
Doctors placed Smith in a medicated coma for three weeks. When she woke up, she was told she would never walk again.
But the initial bleak prognosis changed, and Smith spent the next two years learning to walk with a cane.
In 1996, Smith moved to Dunedin and asked her son to move in. For Theo, it was a chance to draw closer to his mother after spending years apart. Most of the quality time Wilson spends with his mom is as her caretaker. He was a 10-year-old who gave up some of his childhood joys in order to learn how to cook and clean.
"I tried to do whatever I could to help around the house," Theo said. "But it was frustrating at times because I couldn't go out and play with my friends."
Caring for his mom and younger brother, Tarenzo Smith, Theo learned to grow up fast.
"He learned how to do so much at a really young age," Vickie Smith said. "He basically became the leader of the house."
Saddened by his plight, Ray and Sharon Johnson took Theo under their wing as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. For the past six years, the couple has attended his games and encouraged him to do well in school.
"He was just very sad and had a lot of low-self-esteem when we met him," Sharon Johnson said. "We just wanted to be there and try to offer our support."
Wilson also receives support from the football team, which has become his extended family.
"Theo knows he can come and talk to any of us about his problems," Everett said. "We've all got things we have to deal with in life. We've got kids on this team who are dealing with cancer and alcoholism in their families. I talk to the kids about these things so they know there are others who in the same boat."
When Everett discusses the hardships among players, he normally doesn't go into specifics. But he couldn't resist telling Theo's story.
"We were watching videotape of the Tarpon Springs game and we got to the touchdown catch Theo made," Everett said. "So I stopped the tape and told the guys about some of the things he's had to go through and the meaning behind that touchdown."
Once they heard, Theo's teammates were impressed.
"We appreciate Theo even more after coach told us that," Dunedin quarterback Aaron Ford, 17, said. "We try to act as one big family, and we show Theo a lot of respect for overcoming so many things."
Theo's athletic abilities have helped Dunedin reach the postseason for the first time in 15 seasons. Tonight, the Falcons will travel to Lakeland to play Lake Gibson in the region quarterfinals.
Ray and Sharon Johnson will be attending the game. So will Theo's mom.
"Hopefully, I can do something special again," Theo said.
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