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As the sixth of nine children, Kion Wilson will have a large, built-in cheering section during South Florida's senior day game against Miami on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). If the linebacker hugs his siblings a little longer and grows more emotional than most during the pregame ceremony, it's understandable.
|Kion Wilson leaned on his teammates when he learned of his brothers' deaths.|
Wilson feels incredibly fortunate to be alive, and has learned to appreciate his family more than ever before.
"Every morning, every day, I thank the Lord," he said. "I know I could be gone at any moment."
That outlook is forged by unimaginable pain. On March 7, his brother, 24-year-old Kellon Wilson, was shot in the back of the head and killed after an argument in Miami Gardens, Fla. While the family grieved this loss, another of his brothers was taken away May 31, when 29-year-old Darius Wilson died after being shot in the upper leg while working as a security guard for a Miami night club.
Kion says he's still not sure he has processed what happened. Part of him still believes his brothers will come back one day, that he'll hear Kellon talk again about how he played as his younger brother on the "NCAA Football" video game.
Rather than fall apart from the losses, though, Kion has driven himself harder. He leads the Bulls with 91 tackles, but that only tells half the story. In the win at Florida State, he dislocated a finger and took a cut on his hand that required 26 stitches. He missed about six minutes of action before telling the coaches he was ready to go back in.
At other times this season, Wilson has pushed through seriously strained groin and quad muscles without complaining or seeing a dropoff in his performance.
"I've learned not to be surprised by him," South Florida linebackers coach David Blackwell. "He's an extremely tough person. He just keeps coming back and playing harder and playing stronger."
Whenever he feels the pain urging him to take a play off, Wilson thinks of his two brothers.
"I can't go down," he said. "I play for them."
The cruel irony for Kion is he knows neither of his brothers did anything to deserve his fate. In fact, if any of the Wilson clan seemed destined for a tragic ending, it would have been Kion.
Violence struck his family early, as Kion's father was murdered in Jacksonville when Kion was just 3 years old. His mother, Glenda Marshall, worked two jobs to support her nine kids, and Wilson took advantage of her time at work to find trouble.
He hung out with a small gang of hoodlums in Miami's Carol City who called themselves the "191 Boys." They sold a little weed, drank, got into fights. One day, when he was 13, Kion punched another boy and broke his jaw. He picked the wrong victim, the little brother of a police officer.
|Kion Wilson leads the Bulls in tackles.|
Marshall remembers a uniformed officer showing up at her home and making threats to harm her son. She worried about Kion's safety from both sides of the law. So a few days later, after Kion was arrested on a petty offense, she told the judge she didn't want him to come home.
"Kion had become ungovernable," she said.
Marshall and the judge worked out a deal to send Kion to Bay Point, a boarding school for troubled teens. There, students were awakened at 5 a.m. every day and had their days scheduled to the minute. Wilson spent nine months in the program.
"It was most definitely a reality check," he said. "I had a lot of time to think about what I really wanted out of life."
When Marshall visited him on Easter Sunday, he told her, "I don't want to go back to Carol City when I get out of here. I don't think I will make it."
Marshall landed a job in Jacksonville and moved her entire family there. On Thanksgiving week, the man who would become Marshall's husband picked Kion up at Bay Point and brought him to his new home.
At Bay Point, Kion played organized football for the first time. When he arrived at Jacksonville's Raines High School as a sophomore, he began to thrive in the sport as a defensive end.
"Football was the key for him," Marshall says. "He's had his head on pretty straight ever since then."
Kion didn't make the grades to play major-college football out of high school, so he went to Pearl River Community College. After recording 215 tackles in two years at outside linebacker, he turned into a coveted recruit. One of the schools that pursued him the hardest was Miami, the team Kion grew up rooting for. But neither he nor his mother wanted him back around the temptations of the old neighborhood, so he opted for Tampa and a sure starting job with the Bulls.
His new school became one of his most important support systems during the twin tragedies of this offseason. But he said his biggest source of strength was his mother, who refused to let any of her kids see her suffer.
Marshall, an operations manager for TJ Maxx, admits that she broke down many times. But she always made sure to get all her crying out in the car on the way to or from work.
"By the time I arrived back home or at my workplace, I was ready to show strength again," she said. "When tragedy occurs, life still has to happen."
Marshall stayed strong throughout the trial of Kellon's killer. Louis Lee Bradshaw was given a life sentence on Nov. 6. Two people were taken into custody in connection with Darius' murder the day before Bradshaw's sentencing. Marshall will attend their arraignment Monday.
The murders have changed the Wilson family. Marshall said several relatives have moved back to Florida or are planning to in order to stay close to one another. These days, she won't let any of her grandkids go to the school bus stop without her.
Kion said he calls or texts his remaining six brothers and sisters -- who range in age from 18 to 33 -- all of the time now.
"I hadn't talked to my brothers for about two or three days before [they were killed]," he said. "I wish I could have told them that I loved them."
He won't let that go unsaid again. As Kion Wilson is surrounded by family members for Senior Day on Saturday, he'll let them all know just how lucky he feels.Brian Bennett covers Big East football for ESPN.com.