By Van Adams, Player Engagement Insider
Pittsburgh Steelers safety, J.J. Wilcox has a heart of gold for helping others. It’s an attribute he inherited from his mother, Marshell Wilcox, who passed away from lung sarcoidosis during his rookie training camp with the Dallas Cowboys after a seven-year battle with lupus.
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. The inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, and lungs.
Ninety percent of people with lupus are women. African-American women are three times more likely than any other race to get lupus. While the cause of lupus is unknown, research suggests that genetics and hormones are key factors in developing the disease.
Lupus has also affected Wilcox’s maternal aunts. One aunt passed away from a lupus-related illness a few years before his mother, and another aunt is currently battling the disease. Lupus can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms often mimic those of other ailments. Understanding this, and being concerned about the future health of his 18-year-old sister, Lesha, who does not have lupus, Wilcox is on a mission to further educate himself and others on the debilitating disease.
“I don't think a lot of people where I grew up are aware how dangerous lupus is, or how to prevent it,” Wilcox said. “I want to help educate people and find a way to beat this.”
While Wilcox’s mother didn't have the opportunity to see her son play in a regular season NFL game, she was able to share in the moment when Wilcox received the phone call from the Cowboys welcoming him to the team in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
“She inspired me so much and pushed me to be the man that I am today; she was my backbone, my everything, “Wilcox said.
To honor his mother, Wilcox wore custom cleats in support of the Lupus Foundation of America as part of the My Cause, My Cleats initiative that allows NFL players across the league to show support for causes and initiatives important to them. The cleats feature a purple design to represent lupus and include Marshell’s birthdate, Psalms 23 (her favorite bible verse), and the words “her legacy lives on.”
Committed to raising awareness about the disease, and giving back to the community, Wilcox teams up with the Jackie Robinson Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia to host an annual Mother’s Day weekend 5K run to honor the memory of his mother, who was a long-time staff member at the Boys and Girls Club. He also provides turkeys to families in his hometown around the Thanksgiving holiday.
“My mom was an active person and very involved in our community. I wanted to do something that could involve everyone,” said Wilcox, who personally awards prizes at the finish line to participants in the 5K run whether they come though running or walking.
Wilcox continues to honor his mother’s legacy by trying to be the man she raised him to be; living by the values she instilled in him to do what’s right and help those in need.
“She was a Christian lady, big on faith and prayed over me always,” Wilcox said of Marshell. “She taught me that it’s okay to be different, to respect my elders and be respectful – ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ She taught me to keep fighting and keep believing no matter what’s going on.”
“Now that I have a son of my own, I appreciate the small things my parents taught and instilled in me even more so I can now instill in mine,” Wilcox said
The outpouring of support Wilcox receives in his hometown is indicative of the lasting impression Marshell left on the many lives she touched, a motivating factor that drives Wilcox to give back.
“I want to be able to give scholarships to young ladies fighting lupus to use towards school or medical expenses,” he said. “I want to continue to help educate people on how to beat lupus and support research to cure it.”
Plans are underway to formally launch his foundation in 2018, and host youth football camps in addition to the annual Wilcox Memorial 5K Run in May and the Thanksgiving turkey drive.
Van Adams is an award-winning entrepreneur and small business owner with expertise in sports business and business development. Over the last decade, she has represented a number of iconic sports celebrities and executed marketing campaigns for their personal celebrity and/or business ventures. An advocate for women in business, Van is the creator and producer of Gathering on the Greens, a women’s golf initiative, and serves as President of the Board of Directors for the NYC Metro Chapter of Women in Sports and Events where she oversees programming and strategy. Van is an adjunct professor and often conducts workshops for the small business & sports business communities. She spends her spare time in a test kitchen baking or on a golf course working on her short game