When Mack Wilson reminiscences about growing up in Montgomery, Ala., he thinks about the intense high school sports rivalries.
The competitiveness among football and basketball teams helped push him to play linebacker for the University of Alabama and make it to the NFL -- as did a strong mother and members of the community who helped him avoid an alternative path in life.
Last Saturday, the recent New England Patriots trade acquisition got to give back to his hometown and the non-profit that changed his life, hosting his inaugural celebrity softball game at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery.
"It's just something that has never been done in the city of Montgomery -- something that I wish would have happened when I was young as a kid -- to see NFL players come and just to be in that atmosphere amongst these guys," Wilson said.
"I know it was a highlight for a lot of those kids. They were super happy, super excited. Even after the game, the guys stayed around to sign every autograph that they could and take pictures. As I just began to look around after the event I see all these guys still hanging around, getting stuff done, it just made my heart smile. I just looked up to the sky at God. This is big. I've accomplished something I've wanted to do all my life, especially giving back to the community."
After getting the idea and advice from former Cleveland Browns teammate Jarvis Landry, Wilson fielded two teams of NFL players, respectively captained by himself and Detroit Lions linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, also from Montgomery.
Wilson managed to organize the event in two months, securing sponsors, getting uniforms printed, and promoting it through visits to local schools. All proceeds went to the Make A Difference Foundation, founded by Todd Dowell, whom the 24-year-old credits for changing his life.
Dowell was working as the night manager at the King Hill Community Center, where Wilson would walk from his grandmother's house to play in junior high. Wilson's mother, Sandra, was doing the best she could to raise five children on her own, and though her son was an honor roll student and showed a lot of promise athletically, the crowd he hung out with was holding him back.
Through getting to know Dowell and his partners at MadHouse Athletic Training, something clicked for Wilson. A self-proclaimed follower who routinely got in trouble before that point, Wilson knew he wanted a different life and went to go live with his mentor.
"Ever since then my life changed," Wilson said of meeting Dowell. "He was with me every step of the way. He taught me how to be a man. He was just that male figure I really needed at that point in my life when I was hanging with the wrong crowd, running the streets, dealing with a single mom who can't really keep up with us. He helped my mom out, took me in, and my life just instantly changed. That's when I started calling him my godfather."
Wilson didn't completely leave his old friends behind, though. Instead, he took it upon himself to try and be an example for others.
"I was trying to get those guys to come along with me, change their lives," Wilson said. "Be positive and be leaders, and I was just trying my best to show them the right way to do things. You don't you don't have to do bad stuff to be cool. You don't have to be a follower to be cool. What you couldn't do is follow a guy that's doing the right thing and trying to be the best version of himself, and that was me. I was that guy who was trying to get guys to follow me because I knew what I wanted to become in the future."
Wilson stayed the course, and his dreams of playing in the NFL came true.
There is still much work to be done, though. He hopes to buy his mom a big house and set his family up for success after everything they've been through -- a promise he made to himself as a kid while worrying about where his next meal would come from or if the electricity or water could be shut off.
But his commitment also extends to MadHouse and the Make A Difference Foundation, showing his appreciation by upgrading the facilities for everyone who comes after him.
"It's just the first step, so it's only going to get better," Wilson said.
"I just tell (Dowell), that's just my appreciation to you, Tracy (Varner) and Chris (Varner), because you guys pushed me every day, five in the morning, working out before school -- all that stuff paid off. To get this place looking nicer and get kids coming in and keep this thing going, it's all a marathon. I want this to continue to grow and be something we continue to build on the foundation of. Hopefully, it could be a place where I train my son when I'm older."
Learn more about the Make A Difference Foundation and its MadHouse program here.