J.J. Wilcox would have made mom proud

ARLINGTON, Texas – As J.J. Wilcox emerged from the tunnel after hearing his name announced as a Dallas Cowboys starter for the first time, the rookie safety paused briefly and pointed upward.

He had to let his mother, Marshell, who passed away on Aug. 13 after a lengthy bout with lupus, know she was on his mind.

“She would have wanted that,” Wilcox said after playing well in Sunday’s 31-7 rout of the St. Louis Rams. “She’s truly missed. I dearly love her.”

Wilcox’s performance in the win was certainly a worthy tribute. His mother would have plenty of reason to be proud of her only son.

It’s an impressive accomplishment for a rookie with one season of college experience at his position to earn a starting job at this point of the season. It’s especially remarkable for Wilcox, who was a running back and receiver until his senior year at Georgia Southern, considering the tragic circumstances of his summer.

Wilcox created a lot of buzz with his athleticism, instincts and penchant for delivering punishment the first few weeks of training camp. He seemed on the verge of challenging 10-year veteran Will Allen for a starting job after a strong outing in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders before getting a phone call he’d long feared. He hurried home to Cairo, Ga., after being informed that his mother likely didn’t have much time left to live.

Marshell Wilcox, 49, died the next night. J.J. Wilcox missed the final week of training camp and the first few days after the team returned to Valley Ranch to grieve and help his father, James, and sister, Lesha, deal with the aftermath.

The Cowboys treated Wilcox with the appropriate amount of respect and kindness, telling him to take as much time as he needed. However, the harsh truth is that it's hard for a rookie with so much to learn to make up for missing a week and a half of practice reps.

Yet, since returning to the Cowboys, a heavy-hearted Wilcox has refused to let his personal tragedy ruin his rookie season.

“It’s motivation,” said Wilcox, whose dad was in the stands Sunday. “Sad, still hurts me to this day, but I’m going to stay strong. I know what she would want. I’m going to stay strong for my dad and my sister back home. It helps push me and motivates me.”

There Wilcox was, starting in Week 3 and playing a significant role in the Dallas defense’s dominant performance against the Rams, making three tackles and no obvious mistakes in coverage against an explosive St. Louis offense that sputtered Sunday.

Wilcox, whose preparation and communication was praised by fellow safety Barry Church and cornerback Brandon Carr, isn’t a temporary plug. The Cowboys’ front office sees him as a long-term solution for a position that has been problematic for years.

“I think you all saw it in training camp, that he had a chance to be a high-caliber player,” owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. “We think that is the case. I look out there and I see him, I see Church, and I see a safety position that I kind of like.”

Maybe the only thing that could have made Wilcox’s starting debut better was if his interception counted. The pick and long return was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty against defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.

“I’m going to have to tell him I’m sorry about that,” Hatcher said.

No need for that. There will be plenty of chances at picks -- and plenty of opportunities to make his mother proud -- in Wilcox’s bright future with the Cowboys.