Last year’s H.D. Woodson football roster listed a bulldozing 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive lineman named De’Jon Wilson as a senior. His dominant season — a school-record 21 sacks, 33 tackles for a loss and the Warriors’ third straight win in the Turkey Bowl, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association’s title game — earned him All-Met honors.
Because of grade and transcript issues earlier in high school, however, Wilson, 18, was academically a junior and was three credits shy of graduating last spring. So when he stepped onto the field for practice last month, questions swirled about his eligibility, especially in the wake of a recent D.C. Public Schools rule change that prohibited fifth-year seniors from playing sports.
For two weeks, Wilson’s eligibility — not to mention the fifth-ranked Warriors’ bid for a fourth straight DCIAA title and his scholarship offer from Kansas — hung in the balance. But at 3:54 p.m. last Friday, three hours before kickoff of the first DCIAA game, an e-mail arrived in the inboxes of District public high school principals and athletic directors from a DCPS administrator that detailed an 11th-hour rules change.
Wilson, and other fifth-year seniors, would be eligible for one final time.
“That’s a blessing,” said Wilson, who will be on the field Friday night when H.D. Woodson opens its season at Martinsburg (W.Va.). “I just thank God for letting me play.”
The rule prohibiting fifth-year seniors from playing sports entered the D.C. Municipal Record on July 22. Football practice was set to begin Aug. 8, giving players and coaches little time to adjust. Parents and coaches pushed back.
“I found it necessary to give parents and the students the opportunity to plan for their future instead of enacting it right away,” said DCPS interim athletic director Willie Jackson, adding it wasn’t done in response to any specific player.
For years, DCPS officials have said they wanted to eliminate the so-called “10-semester” rule that allows students five years to play four sports seasons. Then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said in November 2007 that she would change the rule to limit students’ athletic eligibility to eight consecutive semesters, or four years. But the change never went on the books until this summer.
H.D. Woodson Coach Greg Fuller, who said he wasn’t going to play Wilson if there was any doubt about his eligibility, suggested that Wilson and his mother, LaShawn, contact Jackson. They did so last week — and were prepared to seek legal help if Wilson was unable to play for the Warriors. “I was scared but I was also prepared,” De’Jon Wilson said.
According to Jackson and the e-mail sent to DCPS principals and athletic directors, emergency rules were put in place to allow fifth-year seniors to play immediately. Fifth-year players like Wilson would be grandfathered in this season. “It’s just an emergency rule that we are going to use for this year and this year only,” Jackson said.
The eight-semester rule will go into full effect next season, beginning July 1, 2012, bringing the DCIAA in line with many other area jurisdictions.
Dunbar Athletic Director Johnnie Walker, who supported eliminating the 10-semester rule, welcomed the emergency change. Dunbar is one of the Warriors’ fiercest rivals, having fallen to them in two of the past three Turkey Bowls.
“I’m glad that they grandfathered the rule for this year and this year only for kids that were still here so that none of them were truly affected,” he said.
Because Wilson finished three credits shy of graduating last season, he said he had no choice but to return for a fifth year of high school — only his third season of high school football.
Wilson started high school in 2007 at Cesar Chavez, a public charter school in Southeast Washington, where he said he played ninth-grade basketball but not football. When Wilson transferred to Coolidge for 10th grade, the credits didn’t translate to the new school, according to Wilson and his mother, and the school essentially considered him a ninth grader.
At Coolidge, Wilson played junior varsity basketball and varsity football, starting on the defensive line. But after only a year at the school, Wilson transferred to H.D. Woodson for his third year of high school. He wasn’t academically eligible to play football that first season, his mother said. By the winter, he was eligible to play varsity basketball.
On the field last season, Wilson was a wrecking ball, earning attention from major Division I programs. He orally committed to Kansas two weeks ago, without ever visiting, because he felt comfortable with the coaches. But even then, the Jayhawks’ coaches wanted to see him play more this season. And if Wilson didn’t, he said he likely would have lost his scholarship offer, as well as those from schools such as Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Illinois.
But then, last Friday, came word that he could play. Without it, he said his dreams would have been dashed.
“I would have just been hurt to see my team going out there on Friday nights and me just on the sideline not being able to lead my team,” he said. “I’d have been crushed.”