WASHINGTON -- It’s 5 p.m. and Tavon Wilson is late for his own party. The Detroit Lions safety is sitting in traffic, which can be brutal in Washington, D.C. at any time day or night, with his wife and two children who have also flown in from Detroit for his return home.
For the first time in seven-plus NFL seasons, Wilson returned to the area to play professional football. When he saw the game would be the weekend before Thanksgiving -- the weekend before the Turkey Bowl -- it gave him another idea.
In Washington, D.C., the Turkey Bowl has been tradition for 50 years. It’s the high school championship game for the District of Columbia, a game Wilson starred in for four seasons at Woodson High School before leaving for college at Illinois.
The scheduling meant he could be there for it and he wanted to hold a pep rally.
“Just kind of thinking, being from Washington, D.C., and coming back to D.C. and playing a football game in the NFL,” Wilson said. “... All my life I wanted to be an NFL player, but coming from where I came from, that just wasn’t very bright for me.
“So being able to accomplish those things and being able to play around Thanksgiving time in your hometown, that’s awesome.”
He also decided to tie in with something else he’s done in D.C. for the past few years that wasn’t well known outside of his own community. Wilson had been donating money to purchase turkeys for families for the past four to five years. Detroit playing Washington on Sunday meant, for the first time, he could be there to help give turkeys out himself.
So the event he planned was two-fold: Part pep-rally and part turkey drive for the place that helped him go from a kid trying to figure out life to a professional football player.
When Wilson was a kid, his grandmother, Darlene Williams, always told him the same thing: Give back. Give back to the people who helped you reach where you are now. Remember where you came from, even if you leave.
Wilson’s life was hard growing up. His father was murdered when Wilson was a year old. His mother died when he was 12.
Williams took him with her to the community center. Wilson was there when Williams opened her home every Thanksgiving to feed as many people as she could. Williams went door-to-door handing out hams and turkeys. On the morning of every Turkey Bowl, she woke her family at 4 a.m. to start cooking food.
“When I moved into my house, everybody was coming and wanted to know what was going on with the people on the block going back and forth,” Williams said. “People come in with plates, I say, ‘You get your plate and you get out because other people have to come in.’"
As he stood in the front of the school’s auditorium early Saturday evening to talk with those waiting for the turkeys, he saw familiar faces and heard people recall his past and yell out to him.
He wanted to thank them, too. These are some of the people who gave him support when he didn’t have much.
“Obviously it took a lot, the community when I was coming up, to help my grandmother raise me,” Wilson told the crowd. “And I wouldn’t be where I am today without this community.”
As he walked out of the auditorium and over to the turkey line, a woman pulled him aside and whispered something into his ear.
The woman told Wilson to “beat the Redskins.”
In this community, even with Washington and Detroit both playing poor football, many of them were rooting for him as much, if not more than, the hometown team. Wearing a black Lions jacket with a small logo, he handed out frozen turkey after frozen turkey and shook hand after hand. Took picture after picture. Razzed on one woman wearing a Redskins wool cap, saying he’d need to get her a different one.
He ran the show, asking every person “do you need help” after giving them the turkey. If they did, he instructed a Woodson football player to help carry the turkey to their car.
Whatever was left over, Williams took it back to her neighborhood to hand out the remainder of the 500 turkeys herself. The drive was long Wilson’s idea, but it goes back to the roots established by Williams.
“To be able to take [a concern] off their plates this time of year when Christmas is coming, that’s something I wanted to do,” Wilson said. “Give them something as small as a turkey, spend a couple hours with them. I’m very grateful for this time.”
When Wilson arrived at Woodson, He was ushered to the gymnasium and gave a minute-long talk and thanked the 200 or so people who showed up for the pep rally.
As person-after-person followed him at the rally -- from former Washington mayor Vincent Gray to Woodson football coach Greg Fuller and Dean of Students Thomas Byrd -- they all kept driving home the same message: Thank you for coming back.
“It’s three-fold. He grew up in this community, so now he’s giving back to the community he left,” said Woodson athletic director Reesie Morgan. “Bringing it back to the school that he went to shows some student-athletes here that no matter what the circumstances are, you can go someplace and be whoever you want to be.
“... It just brings new energy.”
It led to a surprise for Wilson, who saw it only as “special recognition from H.D. Woodson High School” on the official program. As he sat with the former Mayor and his former coach, Byrd went behind the makeshift stage and pulled out a gold football the school had received for Wilson’s appearance in Super Bowl XLIX that usually sits prominently in the school’s trophy case.
Byrd placed the football on the lecturn and started to speak about the same themes. How Wilson comes back, gives back, remembers his roots. Then he unveiled the auxiliary meaning to this entire homecoming.
The school was going to hang his jersey in the school’s hallway -- the third player to have that happen after Orlando Brown and Byron Leftwich. They all did the same thing, from coming back to talk to the students to donating jerseys or jackets or rings to the school as a way to give back. Wilson remained involved at Woodson, attending basketball games and scrimmages when he comes to visit family, even after he physically moved away.
And now he’d be remembered for a long time. Another reminder that Wilson has been able to impact his home.