Marvin Wilson needed to find his position coach. Urgently. Odell Haggins sat in a defensive line meeting room, preparing for Florida State’s bowl game last December, when Wilson walked in.
“I need to see you after this meeting, coach,” Wilson said.
Haggins finished up and left the meeting early to find Wilson, holding a cup of coffee in his hand. Wilson looked him straight in the eye and said, “I prayed about everything. I talked it over with my mom, and I decided to come back.”
Haggins dropped his coffee, staring at Wilson.
“What?” Haggins said.
“Yeah, coach. I’m coming back,” Wilson said.
The two embraced. Wilson, now a senior, could have left school for the millions of dollars that awaited him as a projected first-round pick in the NFL draft. Nobody expected him to come back.
Yet here they stood, coach and player bonded beyond words. Wilson thanked Haggins for his guidance and mentorship, and then added, “I had to come back and leave Florida State better than I found it.”
Though Wilson has yet to play a down of football in his senior season, those sentiments are more profound now than when Wilson said them so earnestly.
Over the ensuing nine months, many in quarantine, Wilson spent hours in his room looking at the many words he has plastered all over his walls: goals, inspirational quotes, reminders of how far he’s come.
One in particular has great meaning to him: “You’re never too young to change the world.”
It was in the early-morning hours of June 4. New coach Mike Norvell had been around the team only a few months before everything shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Norvell told a reporter he had individual conversations with all his players about what happened. Wilson knew that was not true, so he decided to do something he had never done before during his Florida State career.
He called out his coach on social media, because he felt it was the best way to get his message across. Was it a risk? Absolutely. But watching all the protests that emerged after Floyd’s death, Wilson felt it was time to speak up, and speak out. Before he hit send, he made sure he had the backing of his teammates. Once the tweet went out, it went viral so fast, Wilson’s phone would not stop buzzing.
In that moment, Marvin Wilson had to make that decision for himself. He did not sleep that night, but he knew what he had to do. He could not back down. He had to take action, and soon enough, he found himself at the forefront of a player empowerment movement that has swept across college football — a willing participant, an agent for change.
Listen to mom: Good things will come
Wilson’s mother and brother, Jonathan Ned, started planting those seeds for change long before Wilson arrived in Tallahassee. He saw the way his mother, Syble Ned, changed lives as she helped struggling students across his Houston community thrive, most especially when he saw kids at the grocery store calling out to his mom, “Thank you, Ms. Syble!” while recounting how they made something of themselves. Even before Wilson was old enough to comprehend what that meant, he saw it for himself. He felt it for himself.
Wilson and his mother spent every day in the car together, driving 45 minutes one way to get to her job with Communities in Schools.
Wilson went to school one block over. She talked about work and creating positive change in the world around them. “She opened my eyes to life in general,” he says. “It helped me view things a lot differently, just seeing that you never know people’s story.”
That was especially true in his case.
Wilson got into sports through Jonathan, who eventually coached him at the Boys & Girls Club. Jonathan, who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair, brought the best out of Wilson, motivated to take advantage of the opportunities his brother would never get.
Though Wilson has two older siblings, he grew closest to Jonathan as they lived together throughout his childhood. It did not come without its challenges for them all, challenges that tested the entire family.
By his sophomore year at Episcopal High, Wilson emerged as one of the top recruits in the country, with offers pouring in from everywhere. As a junior, he was a consensus top-5 overall recruit, and rated No. 1 at his position and No. 1 in the state of Texas. Wilson made it clear he would not announce a decision until the following year, but that did not keep the spotlight or the pressure away.
“I didn’t want anyone getting to Marvin and getting in his ear,” Episcopal coach Steve Leisz said. “We kept him sheltered in that way. People want to jump on these guys to try and get on their coattails. Marvin’s mother didn’t want any part of that, either.”
What the recruiters, college coaches, recruiting services and most of his teammates did not know is that Wilson had far more on his mind. Before the season opener his junior year, his family was homeless and living in a hotel. Here he was a top recruit in the nation, on the No. 2-ranked private team in Texas, and they had no place to call their own. His neighborhood, in an underserved community, could not have been more different from his private high school. That weighed on him, too.
His mother always told him to leave his problems at the door before he walked into school. He wrote about them through poetry and creative writing, an outlet to express himself without fear or judgment.
Wilson and his family stayed in a hotel for two months. His mother wanted to hear no excuses, and before long, she had the family settled again.
“That was one of the most ironic things at the time, people just said everything was handed to me,” Wilson said. “People don’t understand how much I worked for that moment. They only know the things I did on the field. Once you’re put on that pedestal, it’s just … I’m glad I thrown on the pedestal when I was younger, especially in high school knowing how everybody is going to have an opinion on what you’re going through.”
Wilson learned perseverance and humility, but he never forgot the words his mother instills in him to this day. They had their struggles, yes, but so many others struggle, too. She made sure he never lost sight of that. It’s why she took him to home visits when she needed to make a delivery, or had him stuff backpacks full of supplies for kids who needed them.
He took all that with him to Florida State, where in the quiet of his dorm room as a true freshman, he would sit and think and write.
On paper, Wilson started outlining plans to start a foundation to help children. In the years that followed, he kept coming back to his plans, only to push them aside for a little bit longer.
Marvin’s Movement: Making a difference
The morning after the tweet went out, Wilson met with Norvell, and then Norvell met with the entire team and apologized. They had a long discussion about what they could do to make a difference, including a player-led march, registering to vote, and asking each player to volunteer at least 10 hours in the community this season. Florida State has already held multiple events at local schools this summer.
“Each player needs to have an appreciation for the platform and the opportunity they have to make a difference,” Norvell said. “To stand up for what you believe in and to help support a cause, to help bring light to a situation you want to positively impact, that’s what life is all about. There are a lot of people willing to make a statement but the difference-makers are the ones able to have actions that speak louder than any words.”
Wilson already had his own ideas written down on paper. Within a few days, they became the basis for his foundation, “Marvin’s Movement,” with an emphasis on financial literacy, health care and community service projects for young people in the Tallahassee area. His original plan was to wait to start the foundation until he got into the NFL. But his tweet spurred the impetus to get it moving now.
“Sometimes I question about coming back and I never thought I’d start a foundation in college, and now I can have an impact on kids’ lives,” Wilson said. “I definitely feel student-athletes are starting to recognize the power that they have and the voice that they have, so I feel like they’re going to start using that in the right direction, using it for the betterment not just for themselves but for the communities and teams they play on.”
Wilson tried to use his voice to better his own team throughout the offseason. When the players were away from the facility, he took charge of workouts in Tallahassee with those teammates who remained in town. He organized runs up and down the steepest hills in town; he had them do drills in volleyball sand pits at their apartment complex. If any of his teammates needed a ride somewhere, he would be there, even late at night.
He worked out multiple times a day, and made it his mission to rally his team together even though this was the longest they had ever been apart.
“Marvin’s like a big brother to me,” teammate Jalen Goss said. “He taught me how to balance everything, how to go about doing things. When adversity hits, to keep going, and don’t get down about it. You have to continue to uplift yourself.”
Uplifting others comes naturally.
There might not be a better example than last season. Wilson finally emerged as the standout many expected him to become, but he broke his thumb in a loss to Miami in early November. Coach Willie Taggart was fired after the loss, putting Haggins in charge once again as interim coach.
Wilson begged Haggins to let him play with his thumb wrapped up. Haggins refused to put Wilson’s NFL future in jeopardy.
“He stared at me, and I saw it hurt him so bad for me to tell him that he’s not going to play,” Haggins said.
Wilson had no idea what to do with himself the following Saturday when Florida State played at Boston College. He sat at home on pain medication, his arm in a sling. A few teammates who did not travel came over, and they all watched the game on television, hollering the entire three-plus hours. Boston College was favored, but Florida State won, keeping its bowl hopes alive.
Afterward, Wilson asked teammate Cory Durden to text him when their plane touched down in Tallahassee. As the caravan of buses pulled into the parking lot at the football stadium, Wilson stood there alone, in his sling, pumping his fist and screaming.
Haggins’ eyes welled with tears.
“Sometimes, you think some kids want all this publicity and all this stuff, but Marvin said, ‘Coach, I just want somebody who’s going to be there for me,'” said Haggins, recalling what initially drew him to Wilson. “It wasn’t about football. I felt I needed to be in his life, to help mentor him and love him, and it goes back to what Coach [Bobby] Bowden told us. You plant seeds in young men. You never know about that seed, that seed is going to grow many apples, and once you plant a seed, they’re going to plant seeds. I thank God I had a chance to plant a seed in Marvin.”