Joe and Melinda Wilhite were checking into a Weatherford hotel during a football weekend at Southwestern Oklahoma State when the young woman at the front desk asked them an unexpected question.
“Do you know Jackson Wilhite?” she said.
“He’s our son,” Joe said.
“He was the nicest person I’ve ever met,” she said.
Jackson Wilhite, a kicker at Southwestern Oklahoma State who had just finished his freshman season, died on January 29, 2019, after having a seizure.
He was only 19.
That conversation with the young woman at the front desk a little less than a year after Jackson died resonated with his parents.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’” Melinda said. “She would have only known him for a very short time.”
Joe and Melinda Wilhite have realized since Jackson’s death that those who knew him will never forget him. Whether growing up in Norman or going to school at Southwestern, he had a spirit that endeared those who encountered him; his smile was big and his hugs were legendary. And yet, the Wilhites are committed to making sure even more people know about Jackson. That’s why they started a scholarship in his honor.
The Jackson Wilhite #LoveTheKicker Memorial Scholarship.
Applications for this year’s scholarship are being accepted through March 1 on the Oklahoma City Community Foundation’s website. The scholarship is given to a football player attending college in Oklahoma with a priority to kickers.
(A quick note: the Oklahoma City Community Foundation has this cool tool on its website that asks potential applicants a bunch of questions, searches through the hundreds of scholarships offered through the foundation and finds ones for which applicants are eligible. If you are or know a soon-to-be college student, I highly recommend you check it out.)
“If you’ve lost a child, the thing you want more than anything else is for your child to be remembered,” Joe Wilhite said. “And that’s what we wanted also. And still do.
“So the scholarship was really the most practical way to be able to do that.”
The scholarship has given the Wilhites a chance to share stories and memories of Jackson. Like how he started kicking as a middle schooler in Norman, which was a series of unexpected events.
When Jackson and his mom went to Whittier Middle School for enrollment, the football coaches convinced him to sign up for the team. He’d never played before and had no intention of signing up when he went to enroll, but the coaches persuaded him to give it a try.
Then the day before the team’s first game, the coaches realized they didn’t have a kicker.
“OK,” they said, “who wants to try to kick?”
Jackson had played some soccer, so he stepped forward with half a dozen other players. The coaches quickly realized he was the best option and named him the starting kicker.
His dad had known former OU and NFL kicker Uwe von Schamann for years, so Joe asked for some help training Jackson. One day they were working out before practice at Whittier, and when school let out, Jackson got distracted by a group of girls walking by.
“Jackson is kind of looking at the girls and not paying any attention to von Schamann,” Joe remembered, “and von Schamann looks at me and he goes, ‘Kickers.’”
Jackson’s energy was noticeable during games. He wasn’t one of those kickers who stood off to the side by himself. No, he was always walking up and down the sidelines, talking to teammates, encouraging others.
“The only way I could always find him is because he wore these bright green shoes,” Joe remembered.
After Jackson signed with Southwestern, the team held an informal dinner for any signees who could make it to Weatherford. The Wilhites decided to go, and because Southwestern’s kickers had struggled the previous seasons, they discovered there was no bigger star than Jackson.
Pretty much everyone there, including the mayor of Weatherford, came by to shake Jackson’s hand and tell him how much Southwestern needed a good kicker like him.
“And when it was all over, I didn’t know if Jack would be able to fit himself into the car because his head had grown so big,” his mom said with a laugh.
An all-conference kicker at Norman North, Jackson became the starter at Southwestern as a freshman. He hit 20 of 21 extra-point attempts and 3 of 6 field goals.
Who knows what might have come next? What the rest of his life might have looked like?
His parents are left to ask those questions. Any parent who loses a child would. But Joe and Melinda Wilhite are also adamant about remembering the life that he did live, the 19 years that he was here.
So, soon after Jackson’s death, his parents decided to start the scholarship. The Oklahoma City Community Foundation requires $40,000 in seed money to start a scholarship, and because we were in the throes of COVID when the Wilhites started the process, that number was daunting.
“That just seemed insurmountable,” Melinda said. “It sure seemed wrong to ask people to participate in that during that time.”
“There for a while, we were like, ‘I don’t know how we’re ever gonna get this $40,000,’” Joe said.
“But it got there.”
Joe called on the network he built during his career in marketing and sales in Norman as well as his time fundraising for the Norman North Football Booster Club. So many people stepped forward to help that the Wilhites were able to fund the first scholarship only a year after Jackson died.
Now, the Wilhites have a goal of getting $100,000 into the fund for Jackson’s scholarship. That would fully endow the scholarship and allow it to continue forever.
The Wilhites are continually humbled by people who are willing to donate.
“It’s just been incredible,” Joe said. “They’ve been so generous.”
And now, every spring, the Wilhites have a chance to award the scholarship that bears the name of their son. They get to tell stories about Jackson. They get to share his life with more people.
It isn’t always an easy process.
“It was really difficult the first year when we were reading through (the applications),” Melinda remembered. “I don’t know that I had thought about what it would feel like to be like, ‘Now we have to read these applications, and the reason we’re doing this is because our child died.’ And it was really awful. … The reality of why it was we were doing that was hard to get past.
“It’s still kind of hard, but … we are happy to do it.”
Even though Jackson Wilhite’s death will never not be painful for his parents, the scholarship helps them share his life.