TAMPA — For a seemingly insignificant play, just another Tennessee-Martin punt in the fourth quarter of a game USF was already winning by 35 points, Theo Wilson's heart was pounding.
The punt was partially blocked, but Wilson sped toward the ball as it bounced twice, passing opposing players and landing perfectly into his arms. He sped down the middle of the field untouched for a 67-yard touchdown, raising a finger in celebration for the last few strides, his dreadlocks bouncing with each high step in a return amazing in so many ways that a scoreboard could never explain.
Rarely has the ball bounced Theo Wilson's way in his 21 years, and never has the path ahead of him been so wide open.
"This is a kid who deserves a break," said Mark Everett, his coach at Dunedin High School. "To see him score that touchdown, he showed his legacy, that persistence pays off. It meant a lot to all of us."
Wilson's touchdown came in his first game in his home state in nearly four years, his first as a father, with his mother standing and cheering for her son on such a large, long-awaited stage.
"When you saw him in the end zone," Everett said, "you knew he was the most excited person in all of Raymond James Stadium."
An unusual path
To understand Wilson's path to that end zone, you have to go back 67 yards, back before three junior colleges, before the fifth year of high school he needed for a diploma. You have to go back to 1994, when he was 7 and living with his aunt, when his mother, Vickie Smith, went to the corner grocery store for a jug of water.
The store was robbed, and Smith was shot in the head. Doctors placed her in a medically-induced coma for three months, and it would be nearly two years before she returned home; the initial diagnosis was that she would never walk again.
From there, Wilson did things 9-year-olds don't usually do. He cooked, shopped, cleaned, took care of his brother, Tarenzo, three years younger; he bathed his mother each day, took her to the doctor three times a week.
"It took a lot away from me," said Wilson, who has never known his father. "I just played football. That's all I did."
Wilson was 16 when he and his mother and brother were evicted from their apartment, and he moved in with a teammate's family for two years. He was an All-Pinellas County quarterback at Dunedin, drawing interest from Miami and Florida State, but his grades were far from what he needed for a major college.
USF coach Jim Leavitt made him a promise, one he's made to other area athletes with academic obstacles to clear: Get your diploma, get an associate of arts degree from a junior college, and there would be a scholarship waiting for him to come home and play for the Bulls.
"It really wasn't his ability," Leavitt said. "It was just something about him. I felt like there was a light in his heart somewhere. I thought he really cared, and really felt like he wanted to make something out of his life, and that was important."
He needed a fifth year at Dunedin to get the diploma now proudly displayed in his mother's apartment. Then came a year at Southwest Mississippi Community College, then a season at Pearl River Community College, also in Mississippi.
Signing with USF last spring, he needed more summer classes to raise his grade-point average enough to be accepted; he wasn't fully cleared until three days before the first game.
'You're going to be proud'
Just as his punt return was made possible by blocks from teammates, Wilson has a long list of people who helped him get on that field in that green-and-gold uniform.
His mother sat with one couple who met Wilson through Big Brothers/Big Sisters; another couple has been like surrogate parents for him, taking him for back-to-school Target runs, giving him a job at a medical supply company to help pay bills that the disability checks couldn't pay for. He'd clean oxygen tanks, deliver wheelchairs, file paperwork when he wasn't taking classes.
"He's never done anything to let us down," Everett said. "He's had a great support team, but Theo has made things happen for himself."
Moments before his return, Wilson scanned the crowd for his mother, unsure whether she'd made it. She yelled his name, then waved her cane above her head until she saw him smile.
"He looked at me: 'Mama, this is for you,' " she said, thinking of a football outfit she bought him when he was an infant. "That's Theodis. He's loved his football since a young age, and he loves it now. He'd say, 'Mama, you're going to be proud of me.' Yes, I am."
Since coming to USF, Wilson is seeing more things start to bounce his way. Two weeks before the season started, his mother found a lump in her breast, initially feared to be cancer. She learned last week that it was only a calcification.
Wilson became a father last month, as his girlfriend of three years, Arius Scott, gave birth to Theodis Jr. Scott brings him to see his father every other day, a new motivation and peace. "He calms me," Wilson said.
Now there is football and college, where he is working toward a degree in criminal justice. Wilson, a 6-foot, 207-pound cornerback, hopes for a future in the NFL, a way for him to give his mother a better life, but Everett said he's already an inspiration back in Dunedin.
"First day back after Labor Day, our whole school was so excited," Everett said. "All the kids were saying 'Did you see Theo? Did you see Theo?' He's definitely shown perseverance. He's never given up his dream when it'd be so easy to do that."