FOXBOROUGH — Darlene Williams had just buried her daughter. Tavon Wilson was coming to grips with losing his mother.
That Saturday, just home from the funeral for Robin Williams, who had drowned at a pool party, Darlene went to her grandson’s room to check on him.
His Pop Warner football team had a big game that afternoon. The boy, only 12, looked at his grandma and said he wanted to play. Going to the field was his way to cope.
“I said, ‘Well, let’s gear up and get going,’ ” Williams recalled Friday from her Washington, D.C., home. “ ‘Get your butt going, let’s move. I’m ready to go with you, let’s go.’ ”
So Wilson, his grandmother — who now would be raising him and his sister full-time — and his aunt and cousins went to the game, just as they had done on other Saturdays, supporting the boy and his decision.
His coach, understandably, was shocked to see Wilson, but Williams said he wanted to play. He was going to play.
Really, more than anything, he needed to play.
That’s how Wilson dealt with his mother’s death. Williams tried to get him to see a psychologist, someone who could help, but he wouldn’t go. Instead he went to the fields.
Now, his mother’s name is on his arm, her face etched over his heart. She was never far from his thoughts as he journeyed from Pop Warner to H.D. Woodson High School to Illinois to second-round pick of the Patriots in April. She still is never far from his thoughts.
And he still uses the game as an escape.
. . .
“Football has always been something that got me away from my problems and my worries in my life, so that’s what I used it for,” Wilson said.
His means of getting away has become a job. A three-year starter at cornerback and safety for the Illini, he quickly has become a versatile contributor for the Patriots, part of the rebuilding of the defense into a younger, quicker unit.
When he was taken in the second round, 48th overall, some draft experts were shocked that the 6-foot, 210-pound defensive back had been selected so high; to them, Wilson was a fifth- or sixth-round pick at best.
But one man knew better.
Freddie Simmons introduced Wilson to football and was his first coach. He also was his grandfather, Williams’s husband, and a father figure in his life, as his own father had been killed when he was a baby. Simmons wanted Wilson to know the game, the mental aspects as well as the physical.
If grandma tried to point out one or two mistakes in a game, Wilson didn’t pay her much mind. But if grandpa called with advice . . .
“ ‘OK, OK, granddad, OK,’ ” Williams quotes her grandson’s response, chuckling.
As a means of explaining why he listened to Simmons but not her, Wilson would tell his grandmother that his grandfather knew what he was talking about.
He listened to Williams for nearly everything else. If he wanted to play football, she required that his grades be kept up. She admits that perhaps she was overprotective — she had three biological children but raised Tavon and his sister and has cared for several others — but also let them discover things on their own.
She tells the story of when Wilson was 14 or 15 and he and his friends were headed to a popular go-go spot in D.C. She couldn’t sleep, and heard him come running in the house. There had been an incident with shots fired, and while no one he was with was hurt, it was enough to scare Wilson.
He had never been a problem child, but after that night, Wilson vowed he would not make his grandmother worry about him being out late or with the wrong crowd.
The only issues, Williams jokes, involved girls who had their eyes on the star football player.
Joy on draft night
At Illinois, which he chose over a few other schools, including Boston College, Wilson became a steady contributor, moving to safety for his junior season when the Illini needed someone at the position. In his final season, he started 12 games at cornerback and the other back at safety.
He harbored the dream of playing in the NFL, but he had been taught to put the best interests of the team ahead of his own. In doing so, he made himself into a player the Patriots wanted.
“I never really focused on it,” he said. “You just go out there, try to help your teammates the best way you could in high school and college. That’s something I always focused on was helping my team reach their goal.”
When draft weekend came, Wilson told his grandfather to be home on Saturday, when the fourth through seventh rounds are held, since that is when he thought he’d be picked.
But on Friday night, Simmons retired to the basement, as was his custom, and began calling all of his friends. He was sure that his grandson would be drafted in the second round — he just knew it. His play, his diversity in the defensive backfield . . . Simmons believed that made Wilson an attractive prospect.
Upstairs, the grandson busied himself sending text messages as he sat with his grandmother, and then looked at her.
“Grandma, I just missed a phone call.”
Before Williams could finish reminding him that he’d be able to answer the phone if he stopped sending so many texts, her phone began to ring. It was the Patriots.
His grandfather was right.
The family hollered to Simmons, and as he trudged up the stairs, all of the friends that he had called started showing up at the door, along with Wilson’s former coaches and other friends and family members.
“He was happy,” Williams said of her husband. “He was so, so happy.”
Staying in school
When Wilson returned from his initial trip to New England in the days right after the draft, he had a Patriots hat and T-shirt for Simmons.
On May 14, a little more than two weeks after his grandson became an NFL player, Simmons died. There was no football game that weekend for Wilson to find solace in.
Wilson is soft-spoken, the dreadlocks he wore in college gone in favor of a close-cut taper, a thin mustache and goatee neatly trimmed. Proving that on-field lessons aren’t the only thing he has picked up quickly, he says he’s taking things week-by-week, enjoying the challenges, and is excited for the rest of the season.
Williams reveals that her grandson considered leaving Illinois a year early for the draft, but she has insisted on two things for her children and grandchildren: that they put God first in their life and education second.
She wanted to try to persuade him to stay, but instead decided to take a harder stance after talking with her own grandmother, Eddye, Wilson’s great-great-grandmother.
“She loved her ‘Tay-Tay,’ ” Williams said. “She told me, ‘There ain’t no trying [to get Wilson to stay in school] — you’re going to tell him. Because if it’s for him, he’ll get there.’ ”
Wilson stayed and was drafted, and Williams got the diploma she so desired for her first grandchild to earn.
Eddye Williams didn’t hold her tongue for anyone, even her beloved Tay-Tay. Wilson said that helped him in recent years, as he went through high school and college.
When you live for as long as she did, there’s a lot of wisdom to pass on. Eddye died less than a month ago, well past her 112th birthday. For some time, she was believed to be the oldest resident of Washington D.C.
She lived a good long life, Wilson said, so he tries not to be too upset.
He was going to the field for practice not long after the interview with a reporter, another day of football to soothe anything that troubles him.