MARYVILLE – Willie Dyson charges onto the football field wearing the dark green jersey of Northwest Missouri State University.
His doctors consider this a miracle. Watching from the stands, his dad cheers with pride and considers it the power of love. Willie knows the Lord has been with him every step of the way. And he’s ready to play some football.
“A lot of kids would like to play for Northwest. I have a great opportunity,” Willie said. “I thank God I’ve been given the opportunity to play here.”
The journey to playing for the NCAA Division II national champions is an unlikely one. It began in St. Louis, where Willie was born to 16-year-old mother who was unable to care for him. When he was five and a half weeks old, he was placed in foster care with Ken and Donna Dyson. He weighed just 5 pounds and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors said he was deaf and blind, would never walk or be able to communicate.
“My wife’s motto was love can cure anything,” Ken Dyson said.
The Dysons, who had raised five children and cared for 36 foster children, poured themselves into caring for Willie. Donna Dyson spent hours in physical therapy rehabilitating his arms and legs. And loving him.
When Willie was 17 months old, he walked into Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. The nurses ran to get the doctors so they could witness the miracle.
The Dysons adopted Willie when he was 2. His love for them is obvious as he talks about their courage in adopting an African-American child.
“I would not for one second change anything in my family,” he said with a big grin.
Donna Dyson died from complications with diabetes when Willie was just 12. He missed her, but the determined spirit she instilled in her son continues.
Willie had wanted to play football for years, but his father told him he had to wait until high school. He made up for lost time, starting on the varsity squad as a freshman at Kirkwood High School. As a hard-hitting defensive end, he earned a string of honors, including Missouri All-State Honors and Army Preseason All-American.
“Senior year was my happiest day because my dad watched me sign a full scholarship and letter of intent to the University of Minnesota,” Willie said. “I work real hard to make my dad happy.”
He played football as a true freshman at Minnesota, then had to sit out a year, a devastating blow to a lifelong dream. Back home in St. Louis, he trained at his brother-in-law’s gym. His brother-in-law connected him with Cory Kraft, a member of West County Community Church.
Moved with compassion, Kraft, who is a 44-year-old father of four children, went in the weight room and shared with Willie his own story of adoption. He also shared his faith in Christ.
“It just literally broke my heart,” said Kraft, who was overcome with emotion as he remembered his first days with Willie. “I wanted to try to just be a friend. I think Willie was looking for a friend that maybe was a little bit different than his other friends.”
“He showed me the way back home to church. He took me under his wing and helped me grow and start over,” Willie said of Kraft. “When I put my life back into Christ, a lot of things started happening fast.”
It all led to Willie being baptized as a new believer at West County with all his family attending. Kraft and Pastor Phil Hunter had to work hard together to lower his muscular body into the water and immerse him. A week later, he reported to Northwest. He had to sit out a year; this year he has played in every game as the Bearcats (9-1) earned another Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association championship.
Defensive line coach Rich Wright described him as a strong, powerful defensive end. “He has some explosion. He’s very physical.” But that’s not all. “He’s very conscientious. He’s always paying attention to what I say.”
Willie said he’s learning more about football every day. He appreciates how the Northwest coaches emphasize academics and character even more than football. Willie is an elementary education major, his love of children growing out of the relationships with his nieces and nephews. Ken Dyson hopes more families will consider inter-racial adoption because their family shows the power of love.
Having experienced his family’s love and God’s changing power, Willie said he encourages students to be sincere about their faith, instead of trying to separate Christ out of their college experience.
“Let the past be the past and the future is what you make it. The only people who have regrets are the ones who choose to do nothing with it,” Willie said. “Whatever happens here, I’m excited. I have a lot of time to develop. I’m trusting God, my family and all my supporters to see what God has in store.”
SUSAN MIRES/contributing writer