Madison County schools rally and pray
Walker Wilbanks outpouring
Wednesday, August 27, 2014 1:00 PM
One of the first floral arrangements to arrive at Jackson Prep was from St. Andrew's, as the entire state and beyond mourns - in an extraordinary outpouring of love - the loss of Walker Wilbanks, the Patriot's junior defensive tackle who died Monday after walking off the football field Friday night disoriented and vomiting.
"It's a big, beautiful display of flowers," said Jackson Preparatory School Head of School Jason Walton.
More arrangements have poured in since then, from both private and public schools.
"To see that other schools are identifying with us, thinking of us and reaching out in that way has been very comforting," he said.
The Rev. David Strain of Madison is the senior minister of The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson where many of the youth knew Wilbanks personally.
"It's very clear we live in an extended community, Jackson and Madison," Strain said. "We have our challenges, but there's a lot of love and people in need. Our communities do tend to rally and show that love and concern."
Strain prayed for Wilbanks last Sunday morning at both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. worship services as did other churches across the metro such as at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson.
"We do tend to feel quite powerless when a tragedy like this happens," Strain told the Journal on Wednesday.
"It's not a surprise to me when people turn to prayers. That seems quite natural. I also think it confronts us again with out mortality, when we're young and think we're invincible. The Bible says that all flesh is grass and the grass withers and the flowers fade. We're fragile."
Cossar Morgan and Wirt Dunbar, two 2013 Jackson Prep graduates who blog at The Daily Preparatorian, wrote Monday after Wilbanks' death was announced:
"The impact Walker has had on the entire Jackson community (local high schools, youth groups, sports teams, families, etc) just over the past couple days is unlike anything we have ever seen, and we are just on the outside looking in.
"We know this trying time for many will lead to Mississippi families becoming closer, friendships becoming stronger, and relationships with our Lord Jesus Christ becoming everlasting."
As news spread around the Jackson Prep community Friday night that Wilbanks, a starting defensive tackle on the football team, was in critical condition, scores of students converged at the hospital, praying for strength and healing.
Soon, players and cheerleaders from Jackson Academy and Madison-Ridgeland Academy showed up offering support.
Hundreds of students from different schools around the metro area gathered Sunday at the Jackson Prep football field to pray for strength.
On Tuesday, St. Andrew's Episcopal School Chaplain Kirk LaFon led a 7:30 a.m. prayer service to specifically address dealing with loss.
Many of the high school students wore red in to honor Wilbanks' memory.
"There were about a 100 kids from the upper school, around a third of the students," said St. Andrew's Head of School George Penick. "It's just a time to be together. A number of our students knew Walker from the neighborhood or from church."
The St. Andrew's Middle School football team has already arranged for helmet stickers to add to their uniforms bearing Wilbanks' No. 65, which they'll wear for the rest of the season.
Penick said everyone seems to be trying to find a way to show support.
"It's hit everyone pretty deeply," he said. "It's not like he was killed in a car accident or a similar situation. It's just a tragic loss to lose someone of that age."
St. Andrew's junior Bobby Neal said he'd known Wilbanks since the third grade.
"We used to hang out at Colonial Country Club," Neal said. "He introduced me to a bunch of his Jackson Prep friends. Now it seems like everyone has gotten a little bit closer because of him."
Another St. Andrew's student, sophomore Julian Wilson, said he's been friend's with Wilbanks' younger brother, Landon, for years.
"He was a jolly guy," Wilson said. "I remember their family showed me Napoleon Dynamite for the first time, I'll never forget that. He was also really good at ping-pong - he used to beat everyone."
At MRA, Director of Athletics Richard Duease said several prayer meetings and chapel services were organized, and coaches stayed in contact with players who were close to Wilbanks.
"He was a good player and a really nice kid," Duease said. "It's the kind of thing that reminds you that you just have to hug your children, because there are no guarantees in life. This is just a bad time for all of us."
MRA head football coach Herbert Davis said his team plans to attend Wilbanks' funeral - set for 11 a.m. Friday at The First Baptist Church of Jackson - as a team to show respect for the young man and support for the Jackson Prep community.
"It's really affected a lot of our kids," Davis said. "A lot of kids knew him, and it's affected them that way. I think it's hit home that this is real, and it could have been anyone."
MRA Headmaster Termie Land's son Jason serves as an assistant on the Jackson Prep football coaching staff, and on Wednesday, Prep's Head of School said he'd been a "great source of strength."
"They are such a tight-knit team and such a tight-knit coaching staff," said Prep's Walton said. "We've had the full-range of emotions. For some, it's a complete free-fall, for others who weren't close to Walker, it's hard for them to see people so upset."
Walton added that counsellors have been on hand to help students and faculty deal with the grief associated with the loss.
He said the outpouring of support from Madison and other surrounding areas has been a great source of encouragement for the school and its students.
Junior John Wooley, who lined up next to Walker on the line at Jackson Prep every day of pre-season camp, described the mood among the team and the student body.
"I mean, it's been hard, obviously," he said. "But at the same time, it's been so incredible to see the community come together. People have been saying that there's a whole new meaning to the term 'Prep Family,' and I believe that. People I was never close to before, we're close to now, they just come up to and give you a hug - let you know how much your friendship means to them."
Wooley added that the response to Wilbanks' passing is a testament to the kind of person he was.
"He was just the definition of a great guy," he said. "To be honest, I don't think we realized how great of a guy he was until this happened. He was a friend to everybody, and that's the reason why all this is going on now."
The 17-year-old succumbed to brain trauma late Friday night following the Patriots' football game against Oxford High in Flowood.
Visitation is set for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church of Jackson.
Classes at Jackson Prep have been cancelled for Friday, but will resume Monday with grief councilors on hand to assist students and faculty.
Wilbanks fell ill during the second half of last Friday's game. He returned to the sidelines, where Prep officials said he didn't seem himself.
Walton said Wilbanks was examined by a doctor on the sidelines, and taken the hospital "immediately."
There, Wilbanks suffered a seizure - the result of a sodium imbalance, according to doctors - which resulted in a shortage of oxygen to the brain.
He was listed as being in "critical condition" from Friday night to Monday morning, when he succumbed to his injuries.
It's a situation every parent and coach knows can happen in an instant, but hopes and prays never comes.
"I've stood at his locker and touched his equipment," Jackson Prep football coach Ricky Black said in a video tribute to Wilbanks. "All of that is very sensitive to you, and that's always very hard."
Jackson Prep will try to pick up the pieces - and try to find some sense of normalcy - when it returns to the football field Saturday night at Gallman against Copiah Academy.
"He's going to be with us," Black said. "We can't honor him the way we need to, there's no way to honor him enough, but our players will play to honor him."
Wooley said the team has already resolved to dedicate the season to Wilbanks' memory.
"Our motto for the rest of the season is 'With the Power of God, for the Glory of God and in honor of Walker,'" he said. "Walker's dad David asked us to dedicate this season to Walker, and I know that's what he would want, so that's what we're going to do."