It appeared as if everyone I had known my entire childhood was there, encircling the giant “Jackson Prep” logo on the fifty-yard line of our high school football field. Familiar faces greeted each other with embraces that lasted a little longer than usual. The humid, late August Mississippi air seemed to wrap around each of us, drawing us into that circle as we sat down close to each other on the artificial turf. The rubber pellets from the field clung to our clothes, socks, shoes, and skin.
Like those pellets, this night would surely stick to us too.
It would stick in our hearts and in our minds and deep within the souls of those gathered there together for years to come.
As the stadium lights illuminated the field, one student after another stood up and cautiously walked into the center of the circle to share what was troubling their hearts. They spoke about what they were currently living with and living through at home as if they couldn’t hold it all inside any longer. Sitting there and watching each one of them get up and say what was burning inside their hearts was something that is hard for me to put into words and is something that I will never forget.
Only 48 hours earlier on this same field, all of our lives seemed simple in the sheltered small southern town of Jackson, Mississippi. Our football team was slated to battle one of the largest public high schools in the state. We met this Goliath-like foe and held our own, giving them all they wanted on that sweltering Friday night. We had made our parents and supporters proud of our efforts and our demeanor in the face of a close defeat, but what we did not realize was that soon we would receive messages of news that would shake us to our core. After that game everyone had returned to their separate homes for much-needed rest and recovery. Not long after, we were summoned to the local hospital’s ICU waiting rooms as those messages traveled through friend group texts and parents’ cell phone groups in the early morning Saturday hours.
What we were being told made no sense. Something was wrong with Walker.
Walker Wilbanks, a friend that every one of us loved like a brother, had played so fearlessly earlier that evening. Unbeknownst to all of us, he had been rushed to the local emergency room during halftime. When we heard the news about his condition, it didn’t seem simple nor routine. What we were hearing was serious. Very serious. All we knew was that Walker was lying in an ICU bed. Finally, Walker’s dad, Mr. David, told us that the doctors were allowing small groups to “let Walker know y’all are here.”
As I stood there with three of my teammates during our turn to go in, something inside of me knew to ask, ”Mr. David, do you mind if we say a prayer with him?” I can’t recall the words that came out, but I know I said everything I could think of to let him know how important he was to us. The only thing I do remember is telling him how everyone loved him and admired him and how now I knew more than ever that he had all the friends in the world waiting for him.
After the doctors and parents finally sent us home. Walker’s parents made the hardest decision a parent could ever make. He wasn’t coming back to us. His body and organs were working, but the Walker we knew, full of spirit and life, was essentially gone. As the doctors mentioned the option to share those still-working organs with so many on waiting lists, Walker’s mom remembered a late-night kitchen conversation when Walker told her that he had signed up to be an organ donor and he had challenged her to do the same. She says he pressed her and made her promise to make that choice for herself and to honor his wishes if something ever happened to him. Mr. David and Mrs. Sheila did honor Walker’s wishes and because of his selflessness, Walker gave life and hope to five strangers with his donated organs.
There was no way we could have known that Friday night’s game would be the last time we would have Walker here with us in this life. All we knew was that after hours and hours of sitting and waiting in hospital atriums and cafeterias in stunned silence, we couldn’t stay there any longer. We all knew where we had to return. Every stunned and frightened friend and neighbor I had ever known made their way back to that same field where we had last been with Walker. We went and found the field lights calling us home to that safe and sacred space in the middle of the field. Our community sat down arm-in-arm tracing the painted edges of the school’s symbol.
We held our breath, waiting for…well, no one really knew.
Then, we spoke.
There in that circle, I watched one friend after another taking their turn to confidently walk into the center of that logo and speak about Walker and about life. I witnessed raw emotion and vulnerability from people that I had never expected could muster such courage. These were kids, just like me. Boys and girls from junior high to graduating seniors were brave enough to stand up and pour out what was hurting their hearts right then and right there. Kids who I had known my whole life were speaking out about their struggles with addiction. Kids I had known my whole life were living through their parents’ divorces, experiencing the depths of depression, fighting anxiety, and other real-world traumas. They now felt enough safety, compassion, and love emanating from the peers surrounding them to get whatever was troubling them out of their mouths and off of their chests.
That night I learned a life-changing lesson. There were people who I passed by in the hallways every single day that were going through an unimaginable hell. I felt closer to each of them as they stood and found the courage to share their story with all of us. There was not a single unfamiliar face present that evening.
What I came to realize is that they spoke that night in that circle, not because of who was there, but because of who wasn’t.
That night, I saw people that I had known for most of my life stand up and share. Guys and girls whose friendships I was guilty of shying away from at that point in my life. I was ashamed. But these were friends that Walker had always taken the time to care about and be present for when they needed somebody. Walker had listened. Walker had known.
Why do we as humans feel the need to limit our friendships to tight circles and small welcomes? Is that what we’re taught? Is that what we’re conditioned to think? That our welcome should be exclusive? There were people within that circle that had been excluded for one silly reason or another by others in the same circle. However, as I looked around at the countless faces that appeared confused and sorrowful, something occurred to me. Somehow, unbeknownst to most of us, Walker did not play by the same rules. He had not excluded a single soul. His welcome was widespread.
Walker’s life was an example of what decency can do. Walker taught us a simple lesson as we gathered together that night on that fifty-yard line and that lesson has stuck in my and all the countless hearts who knew him. People you meet every day of your life may be struggling or hurting, even if we can’t see it.
Walker was the type of person to sit down with and stand up for those who may have moved to the edges.
Those who may have become marginalized, excluded, left out, or alone. Walker had chosen to live his life that way without being asked and he left his mark on many of us because of it. In times of tragedy, people tend to take inventory of who and what they hold most dear. This tragedy caused our school and students to change the stigma of being open and vulnerable. That night, teenage boys and girls learned what it meant to actually love one another. We became more compassionate. We tried harder to lead lives that would honor Walker by sitting down with each other and standing up for each other and for others that we finally could see again, those who felt left out and alone.
I still find myself needing help to make sense of life’s real tragedies and hardships. I am still learning especially in those big moments in life when we just don’t know exactly the “right” way to move forward. But when the doubts, devastations, fears, or failures creep in, I remember an important verse from the Gospel of John in Chapter 16:
“In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world!”
I think of the words of theologian Frederick Buechner who said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” I’ve learned that, in most things, we aren’t meant to get through the terrible things alone. We all need a circle to move us towards the next thing. The right thing.
Sitting in that circle we were all afraid, but watching and hearing those friends stand up to talk about their troubles and their life’s tragedies taught me a lasting lesson on empathy. We aren’t meant to walk this life alone. What is needed most in tough times are friends and people around us to be present. Walker was present. He was not boastful of his countless friendships and his social status. He took the time to impact the life of every person he encountered. There were people within the circle that night who held him dear to their hearts because he was one of the few people to show them that he cared about them. It was important to him that other people felt loved and cared about. One of the main tangible things that changed after losing Walker was that people looked at each other in the eye and told each other “I love you.” Not just in passing. Not simply to be polite. There was a certain level of intention and purpose when we looked at each other in the eye to tell each other that we cared. It allowed us to keep a certain piece of Walker with us and he would be proud of the compassion we learned to display.
In the five years since that hot August night on my high school football field, my life has taken lots of turns and my circle has grown to include places and people that have formed, colored, and shaped me beyond my imagination. From that circle, from those Mississippi locker rooms and waiting rooms to the University of North Carolina, I am coming to a new “ending” and a new “next thing.” What I can say that I have learned from that circle in August on that 50-yard line is that no matter where you go in your life, keep your circle open and keep your circle wide.
As wide as Walker’s arms.
- Graham Eklund