Larry Wilson has been running for most of his life.
Wilson has lost count of the times he’s moved cities,and guesses he’s been in eight or nine group homes. He doesn’t know his biological mother or father. He was adopted once, but that dissipated when the adoptive mother abandoned him.
The lone constant through the chaos? Football. If Wilson has been blessed with anything, it’s tremendous speed and vision on a football field, a combination that has made him a natural at running back since he first cradled a ball when he was 6 years old.
Now 16 and a junior at Valley Center, Wilson is still sprinting past defenders and scoring touchdowns, but now his life away from football isn’t moving at the same speed. Wilson doesn’t wonder about the name of the next city he’ll move to or the awkward introductions or the new friends he’ll have to make.
“I used to think, ‘OK, it’s just going to happen again,’ ” Wilson said. “I’m going to have to go through the process all over again.”
Wilson has been living with Ben and Chelsea Wilson and their family of six in Valley Center for nearly two years. For the first time in his life, he has a father figure, a loving family, and a steady situation. Those around him say his personality has flourished and his grades are improving, all while Wilson has rushed for 402 yards in his first season of varsity action for the 4-0 Hornets.
And last Friday, Sept. 22, the same day Larry was adopted and officially joined the Wilson family, he scored the game-winning, 82-yard touchdown with 17 seconds remaining to keep Valley Center undefeated.
“I mean, I scored the game-winning touchdown and I got adopted,” Wilson said when asked where the day ranked on his best-ever list. “That’s got to be No. 1, for sure.”
Being in foster care
When Wilson arrived at the Kinloch Price Boys Ranch, a group home in Valley Center run by Youth Horizons for at-risk youth, he thought it was just the latest stop. He was considered a ward of the state and his case plan was to age out of the foster care system.
Since the ranch was in Valley Center, Wilson was able to complete the necessary school work from the ranch and then participate in athletics for high school. That’s when Valley Center football coach Caleb Smith was introduced to Wilson, whose last name then was Russell.
“When I first met Larry, it was impossible to have a conversation with him,” Smith said. “He wouldn’t really talk or look at you in the eye. Sometimes he would just smile. You could tell he was really guarded and didn’t have much confidence.”
Smith knew Ben Wilson, who helps chart plays for Valley Center on game nights, was searching for a foster child to host and alerted him to Larry’s situation. Ben and Chelsea Wilson have four children of their own – Teagan, 18; Kade, 14; London, 10; Rowen, 7 – but felt compelled to become foster parents.
“We’re a Christian family and we felt like we have to do what the Lord called on us to do and that’s to help the hurting and the ones in need,” Chelsea Wilson said.
Larry first visited the Wilson household in December 2015 and asked if he could move in less than a month later.
“He is just a sweet boy with a goofy demeanor and a smile that is absolutely contagious,” Chelsea Wilson said. “He wants to be a friend to everybody. He’s genuine and I love that about him. With as much as he’s been through, I don’t even know how he can still be that kind-hearted and gentle.”
“He’s got a very infectious personality,” Ben Wilson added. “He’s always got that big smile on his face and he’s always joking around. I wish he would take some things more seriously, but I’m not going to take that part away from him because that’s the part that endears him to everybody he meets.”
Life in Valley Center
There are parts of Larry’s story that the Wilsons still don’t know.
They know his upbringing wasn’t ideal. They know he’s had to endure more pain than any 16-year-old should. But they also know Larry has never once used it as an excuse.
“He has been dealt a bad hand and I think a lot of kids would hate the world for it,” Chelsea Wilson said. “But all I see in Larry is this kid with all this joy and such a joyful spirit. I think most people dealt that kind of hand wouldn’t have his outlook on life.”
Larry’s light-hearted personality is on display more and more with each passing day, as he enjoys a stability that’s never been afforded to him in his life. He was too shy to say much when he first arrived to Valley Center, but now his jokes have made him one of the more popular kids in the junior class.
Ben Wilson beams with pride when discussing the transformation.
“You look at the kid who moved in with us almost two years ago and the kid that’s our son today, and it’s a night-and-day difference,” Wilson said.
It may seem like a new Larry, but Ben Wilson suspects this version has always been there – just bottled up.
“I don’t think there was a lot of structure or consistency in his life or expectations being placed on him,” Wilson said. “When he started living with us, I told him he’s got to be the total package. You’ve got to be a good student and a good citizen. You’ve got to have convictions and integrity.
“He’s experienced so much disruption in his life, I think putting those expectations out there for him has really made a difference for him. He’s rising to the expectations now.”
A night to remember
In all honesty, Caleb Smith was just trying to run the clock out and get to overtime when he called for a hand-off with less than 30 seconds left and the score tied late in the fourth quarter against Newton last Friday.
But Larry Wilson offers a game-breaking upside, which showed when he made one cut in the backfield and won the foot race against the Newton defense to the end zone for an improbable, game-winning touchdown.
“He can get to full speed so fast,” Smith said. “He can get to full throttle as soon as he gets the football and that’s tough for opponents to defend.”
It had already been an emotional day for Ben and Chelsea Wilson, as that morning the family of six — soon-to-be seven — all wore Valley Center football shirts to the courthouse for Larry’s adoption. Ben was still wearing his shirt that night when the two embraced on the field after the performance.
“I had to wait for a line of girls waiting in line to take a picture with him,” Ben said. “He was loving every second of it. I finally got to him and he’s not usually real affectionate in that way, but he gave me a big hug on the field. It was a real special moment.”
Success on the football field is important, but the parents have also told Larry it’s not the end-all, be-all.
“We’ve told him over and over that we want him to succeed in life,” Chelsea said. “This is just a little piece of it. It’s great that he’s up and he gets to enjoy this ride and make great memories, but I want to see him have success in life, not just football.
“This isn’t the full thing. I think he understands that and I hope he knows our love for him is never dependent on how he performs on the field. But it sure is fun to watch him score touchdowns.”
It’s a life that Larry Wilson can get used to.
“It’s very important to have people who care about me and to have a place to live,” Larry said. “It’s a really nice family. They have a lot of characters around the house. A lot of weirdos. But they care for me and they’ve always got my back through my ups and downs. That means a lot.”