DESTREHAN, La. — One day maybe 10 years ago, Roxanne Wilbon dropped off her only son at football practice and within minutes was told to take him home.
Gerald Wilbon had been banned by the St. Charles Parish parks and recreation department.
The reason? He was too big.
Wilbon, a defensive tackle who will be joining Texas this fall, was nearly nine pounds at birth. By the time he was 3, he was slipping into shoes that were size 4.5. A few years later, he no longer could wear shirts depicting his favorite cartoon characters because, well, boys his size were typically older and had already moved on from cartoons. Play-time posed challenges, too, because Wilbon’s hands were too big to handle matchbox cars. His peers called him “Big Gerald.” Wilbon didn’t like it.
And then, that day at the recreation center’s practice field, cautious adults piled on, telling him to get off the field and go stand in the proverbial corner.
“It breaks my heart every time I tell the story,” Roxanne said. “I told him, some day they’re going to want someone big like you to play on their football team.”
Those close to him say Wilbon, who now goes 6 feet, 2 inches and 327 pounds, is a giant teddy bear, gentle and harmless. A stroll through the hallways at Destrehan High backed those claims, as several members of the student body greeted “Big Geezy” with handshakes last month. For his senior project, Wilbon conducted a clothing drive for the homeless that yielded about 50 bags of items. The school district chose Wilbon to grace its 2015-16 academic calendar. He’s Mr. April.
He blossomed as a senior, with 49 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He helped Destrehan to a 25-2 record his final two years and to an appearance into the 2015 state championship game.
“He’s a great kid,” Destrehan assistant coach Tim Taffi said.
Wilbon’s profile is the 15th in our series highlighting the Longhorns Class of 2016. To catch up on the rest of the series, here’s an interactive map of Texas’ recruiting class of 2016.
It could’ve been a much different outcome for Wilbon. When he was 3, his father, Willie, was arrested and later sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in an armed robbery that left a police officer shot and killed; Willie was not the triggerman. To this day, Wilbon doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father and has not visited him in prison in several years. The only credit Willie deserves for Gerald’s athletic accomplishments is genetically related; Willie comes from a family of large men.
The rest of the credit goes to Roxanne and her parents, Cynthia and Bobby Austin, who stepped up and helped Roxanne, a registered nurse, raise Wilbon and his older sister Chelsie, who now studies kinesiology at LSU. The grandparents had the kids every weekend, holiday and summer until Wilbon reached the eighth grade and started living full-time with Roxanne.
Roxanne once had the family’s decrepit above-ground swimming pool removed and filled the space with cement to make a basketball court. She painted lines and put up a hoop. She then taught her son the art of boxing out.
“My mom is my mother and my father in this situation,” Wilbon said. “She taught me how to be strong and to have a certain work ethic. I get my character from my grandparents. They helped shape me to be a nice person, a genuine person.”
In February 2015, Bobby died of a stroke at the age of 69, the second time Wilbon had lost a father figure. It brought him to tears a year later when he signed his national letter of intent with Texas.
Last week, Longhorns defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told reporters that because the defensive line is so thin, that all 300-pound freshmen should be prepared to play this fall. Wilbon reached that mark three or four years ago, and by his sophomore year, he had gotten to as high as 340. He began cutting out carbohydrates and eating more fruit, and got down to 310. He upped his training and began working with strength/life coach Shaan Duke, who mentors several top athletes in Louisiana including fellow Longhorns signee Malcolm Roach of Baton Rouge.
A couple of years ago, Wilbon squatted 605 pounds and said he could have done more but wanted to avoid injury. Teammates surrounded him and cheered on the impressive act of strength.
Sometimes, it’s cool to be big.
“I call him my big teddy bear,” Cynthia said. “He never wanted to hurt anybody’s feelings. I just pray to God he stays like that.”