I’m a Foster Kid in the NFL

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Albert Wilson, Wide Receiver / Kansas City Chiefs - The Players' Tribune

Growing up in the foster system can make you feel like you’re living life at a disadvantage. I know because I’ve done it.

I was in Florida’s foster system twice — for a year starting when I was six, and then for six years starting when I was 12.

My girlfriend asks me all the time how I dealt with spending so much time in foster care. And I always tell her that I just didn’t know there was any other way. To me, all of it — foster care, my parents being in jail, moving from house to house to house to house — was normal.

And you know what? I was lucky.

Some foster kids don’t know their parents. Some have parents who want nothing to do with them. And some have already lost their parents. Mine were in jail, but they were both still part of my life. They helped raise me — I talked with them regularly on the phone or through the mail.

I’d had family right by me all along, I just didn’t know it.

This allowed us to have a unique relationship. It was like I could tell them anything. I also learned from them their example very early on. People make mistakes — and there are consequences for those mistakes.

I was also lucky because of two amazing foster families: the Baileys and the Browns.

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I went to live with the Baileys when I was in the 10th grade. They had eight children, all adopted. Two of them, Josh and Chelsea, were right around my age, and over time I grew so close to them that I began calling them my brother and sister. We did all the small, silly things siblings do.

Back then I was rocking some really long hair, and Chelsea would braid it. I’d sit on the carpet while she sat above me on the couch and braid my hair. That was one of my favorite things — simple, but meaningful. It made me feel like I was at home.

The Baileys were my family. Their house was a place I felt safe — even happy. They showed me a side of family I hadn’t seen before, one where everyone was living at the same pace — and in the same place.

With the Baileys, an adult was always waiting for us at home whenever we got back from school. And there was structure to life. We had to get our homework done before we could do anything else. We all watched TV together and ate meals together. It wasn’t picture-perfect, but at least we all seemed to be living in the same time zone.

Then there were the Browns.

One of my best friends in high school was a kid named Moe Brown. I had spent the night at his house a bunch of times and grown pretty close to his family. One winter break his mom, Sherri, who knew my situation, invited me to go to Orlando with the whole family for Moe’s younger brother’s soccer tournament. I immediately agreed.

Two days before we left, Moe and I were coming back from the grocery store when he started talking about South Carolina.

I said, “Dude, you’ve never been to South Carolina, you don’t know nothing about it.”

“Boy, my whole family is from Maysville,” he said.

My eyes widened. Maysville is a really, really small town where everybody knows everybody. My dad’s entire family is from Maysville.

I told Moe, and he started rattling off the names of people he knew, including members of his family. Some of those names were really familiar, because they were also the names of members of my family.

Wait a second. If your cousins are my cousins, too, that means….

Yup. The Browns were my cousins. I’d had family right by me all along, I just didn’t know it.

It wasn’t long after that that the Browns got certified as foster parents and I moved in with them. It was tough saying goodbye to the Baileys, but since they already had eight kids in the house, and since the Browns were my family, I thought this would be easier on everyone. Besides, I still saw Chelsea and Josh all the time, and I still consider them family today.

I don’t know what I would have done without them. To this day, I still look to the Browns as much as to my own parents and to the Baileys for guidance. I just bought a new car, and the first person I called afterward was Sherri, who helped me with my insurance paperwork.

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And when things got tough — no matter where I happened to be living — I could always turn to football.

As soon as I was old enough to run — like two years old — my dad had put a football in my hands. My dad loved football, and he wanted to make sure his son, Albert Jr. (most people just called me “Junior” growing up), loved it too.

He did it because of more than just his love of the game, though. My dad also saw sports as a way for his kids to have a better life. He was right.

I mean, it’s an older brother’s job to take care of his younger sisters. But I couldn’t — I didn’t have the money.

Football became my refuge. When I was on the field, everything else melted away. I poured everything I had into the sport. That dedication paid off on the field and in the newspapers, where my name started popping up in game recaps. My dad collected every one of those newspaper clippings and kept them with him throughout his prison sentence. And by the time I graduated high school, I had received a scholarship to play football at Georgia State.

Hard work and luck. It’s amazing what those two things can get you in life. Together, they helped get me to the NFL.

But not everyone in the foster system is so lucky. My younger sisters weren’t.

One day when I was a sophomore at Georgia State, I was on the phone with my sister, and I asked her about college. She was about to graduate from high school, and I wanted to know what colleges she had applied to.

“Albert, I’m not even sure I can go to college,” she said.

That stunned me.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What about the scholarships?”

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In Florida, kids in the foster system can get scholarships to in-state schools. What I didn’t know — and what my sister had to explain to me — was that if a kid leaves the foster system before graduation, he or she is no longer eligible for those scholarships.

My younger sisters, Albertina and Porchea, spent years in the foster system when they were both in high school — before they went back to live with my parents. The moment they left foster care, they were no longer eligible for scholarships from the state. That’s messed up, right? All those years they had spent in the system — it was almost like they were being punished for being reunited with their parents.

I wanted more than anything to help them. I mean, it’s an older brother’s job to take care of his younger sisters. But I couldn’t — I didn’t have the money. That really hurt.

Porchea eventually went to an art institute. Albertina didn’t go to college. They both deserved better.

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When I signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent two years later — and then had early success on the field — I suddenly had the resources to give back. I saw the impact my teammates were making with their charitable organizations, and I wanted to do the same. I thought of my sisters. I hadn’t been able to help them, but now I suddenly had the ability to help the countless others like them.

That’s why, this year, my foundation is launching a scholarship program for kids who spent at least two years in foster care but didn’t age out of it.

I have the chance, even the obligation, to show kids that where you come from doesn’t have to determine where you end up. I’m a little nervous, because I’ve never done anything like this before. But I know how much just a little bit of help — and a little bit of luck — can turn someone’s life around.

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