A year or so after the unexpected death of Euell Wilson, his mother, Shirley Woods, got a folder from his creative writing teacher at Bishop Dwenger.
In the folder was a paper written by Wilson about his desire to work with children one day if his No. 1 choice of playing in the NFL didn’t work out. It came as a surprise to his parents, Shirley and husband Chris Woods, and was a happenstance because they had already begun to mentor children in their backyard in Wilson’s memory.
When I got that book, saw he wanted to work with kids, it was confirmation for us that we are living out a legacy for him, Shirley said last week at the Euell A. Wilson Center on Oxford Street in Fort Wayne. It was heartwarming, and it gave us reassurance that we were on the right track. People remember Euell for his athletic abilities, but he was a person who had a heart for children.
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of Wilson’s death, and through his parents, the center and the Euell Wilson Award given to the SAC’s top football player, the legacy of the former Saints receiver lives on.
After an All-American career with the Saints, Wilson planned to play at Indiana University, but enrolled at Triton Junior College in River Grove, Ill.
In November 1992, Wilson died in his sleep.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it has been that long, Shirley said. We kept ourselves engaged in trying to do things for others that it took away our ability to concentrate on that. It was hard, so being busy really helped us through our grief process.
High school football fans noticed his exploits on the field, but those close to Wilson saw the caring and giving nature, especially when it came to his family.
It was what he lived, he cared about people, Shirley said. It was a good fit at Dwenger because people sensed he was a caring individual. It was hard not to like him.
Creation of a center
After creating a place for children at the family’s house about a year after Euell’s death, the Woods moved the Euell A. Wilson Center to a facility called Major League Sports and then eventually to a building on Oxford Street.
This is a ministry in his honor, but at the same time, he always wanted to be a role model for young people, Chris said. That’s what we are trying to carry forth at the same time.
When I talk to people about Euell over the years, I get teary-eyed, especially about the way that he left us. We believe our Heavenly Father had a big part in that, and thus the Euell Wilson Center. That’s why the center is still here because we are doing it as an act of love for the community, for God and for Euell at the same time.
A haven for kids, the center encourages education and family foremost.
The Woods said they consider all the kids at the center as family.
We try to hit on that because it was big for us and big for him, and we try to keep that alive, Shirley said.
Former South Side standout Rodney Dedeaux, the co-winner of the 2005 Euell Wilson Award with twin brother Russell Dedeaux, said he knows exactly the significance of a place like the center. After graduating from Indiana State, Rodney Dedeaux holds various positions at an Indianapolis YMCA.
I was brought up in community center where I received homework assistance, lunch and dinner and a friend to talk too, Rodney Dedeaux said. Back then, I didn’t know I was networking with people that I will soon be partnering with in the future to be a youth community worker.
The kids in the center have ambitions to do better, and they are willing to learn from a mentor that looks like them who march in the center’s doors. I was one of the mentors that day. I am glad to be that person because I know the benefit and helping people help themselves. I didn’t get to speak to all the kids at once, but the few I spoke too loved to the center and believed in the center’s mission.
Anatomy of award
The first Euell Wilson Award to not only an outstanding player in the SAC, but one also with outstanding character, was first given out to Snider’s Courtney Davis. And it was presented to Davis only two weeks after Euell’s death.
The first award was a little tough, Chris said. We felt honored as well that they would honor our son that way. We took it with humbleness. It wasn’t about us. It was about Euell’s character more so than his athletic ability.
Former sports editor at The Journal Gazette, Justice B. Hill, had been looking for a signature moment for the annual SAC football/volleyball banquet but also saw it as a way to remember Euell and all that he stood for, on and off the field.
At the time, I don’t think any of us knew it would become the high-school version of the Heisman, Hill said via email. (Davis) knew Euell well, which made the initial award a special moment in Fort Wayne sports history.
Shirley said she remembers being very emotional and humbled during the presentation of the first Euell Wilson Award.
When the first award was given out, the pain was so strong, said Shirley, who sat beside former Snider basketball standout and friend of Euell, Tiffany Gooden. I was so numb at that point. It was heartwarming. We will never forget it.
Bishop Luers senior Jaylon Smith was the 21st player to receive the award. He got the trophy that has Wilson’s likeness on it earlier this month.
Every time the award is given out to a deserving senior football player, Chris and Shirley Woods step up to the podium and recount what Euell was all about.
These days they have to remind the parents and student-athletes of their son’s legacy.
We have entered into that age that (the winners) were not even born when he passed, Shirley said. Initially, it was very hard having to talk about it and tell the story.
Hill remembers meeting Wilson for an interview for a story about his recruitment.
He was as charismatic a teenage athlete as anybody in the area had ever met, said Hill, who kept in contact with Wilson after the interview. He had a charm and wit about him that drew people to him, which explains why upward of 1,000 people attended his funeral. You could not meet Euell without coming away impressed.
Former Euell Wilson Award winners such as the Dedeaux brothers, Concordia’s Joey Eloms and Bishop Luers’ Michael Ledo have all returned to the Euell Wilson Center to talk to the kids over the years.
In Euell’s memory, past winners of the award in his name have given back to the community they grew up in.
Over the years I’ve been able to train and develop several athletes (at the Ledo-run Athletes With Purpose) who have been honored as well, but since then I was truly honored to participate in a program at the center, said Ledo, the 2000 Euell Wilson Award winner. What an amazing program and safe haven for kids and their families in the south community.
The Dedeaux twins and Rod and Jaylon Smith are the only sets of brothers to receive the award.
When I visited the Euell Wilson Center, I was a little nervous when I entered because after receiving the award, I moved to Terre Haute (to Indiana State), so I was a stranger walking in expecting everybody to know (us), Rodney said. After getting acclimated, I was worry-free. The kids were great and funny.
And that kind of giving back was exactly what Wilson had in mind for himself, Chris said.
His legacy is caring heart for people, a loving heart and very kind and founded in family, Chris said. It will live on. It is our job to carry out what he wanted to do in life.