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Brandon Wilks (right) of Southfield Lathrup cruises to the finish line ahead of Luke Vasilion of Grand Ledge in a semifinal heat of the 200-meter dash at the state championships. (The Oakland Press/MARVIN GOODWIN).

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TRACK AND FIELD: Wilks overcame obstacles to 200 dash state title

Southfield Lathrup senior honor student has prosthetic eye

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Standing on the awards stand last Saturday at the East Kentwood High, Brandon Wilks of Southfield Lathrup smiled broadly as the newly-crowned Division 1 state champion in the 200-meter dash.

Wilks wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential state finalist, let alone a state champion.

He wasn’t at the state meet last year and he was never among the area’s top sprinters until this season.

But coach Calvin Johnson, who took over the Lathrup boys and girls programs this season, had an inkling of what was going to transpire. “I think that came from coaching experience and the fact I started doing conditioning work in September and Brandon was there every day,” Johnson said. “Every method I used to gauge kids’ conditioning, he was off the charts. I knew then that kid was going to be special. Brandon is a very, very special individual.”

Indeed, that’s only the tip of the iceberg for a young man whose had his share of challenges along the way. Wilks is an honor student with a 4.3 grade point average in advanced courses, was one of the leading academic achievers at Lathrup and was the first Lathrup male athlete to win an individual state title since 1995.

But the journey to get to the podium had lots of obstacles along the way.

Wilks is vision impaired.

He has had a prosthetic eye as long as he can remember. When he was just under two years old, he suffered from a form of cancer to the eye called Retinoblastoma, a rare disease that typically affects children under six.

“My right eye had to be removed to keep the cancer from spreading,” said Wilks, who managed normal living and normal activities as a youngster.

Even so, everything wasn’t OK.

A domestic experience at home still haunted him.

His mom and dad were involved in argument which got out of hand and eventually led to a standoff with police. “The police were called ... and my dad grabbed a knife out of the kitchen, grabbed me and he held a knife to my neck,” recalled Wilks, then about seven years old, as his dad threatened his child’s life if the police didn’t back off. “I was crying (and) I was scared.”

Finally, the police got the situation under control. “After that, he just let me go,” Wilks said. “I was carried to my next door neighbor’s house and he went to jail.”

That episode did not help, as Wilks struggled with himself. “I was going through a lot of things in my life, kind of a depressed state,” said Wilks. “Kids would tease me ... talk about my eye (and) I started to be more conscious of my eye. My mom would say, ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you,’ but the pain those words bring eventually becomes the equivalent of a stone.”

With one eye and constant teasing, Wilks became uninterested, and it showed in the classroom. “I received quite a few Fs my seventh grade year,” Wilks recalled. “I’d almost ... walk in the class, go to the back and fall asleep. I was stubborn.”

But several teachers were persistent, including one Ms. Canty, whose first name escapes him, and Michael Hands, a seventh grade pre-algebra teacher. “Even though I gave up on myself, he never gave up on me,” said Wilks, who also recalls one enlightening experience with Ms. Canty. “One day specifically, there was a test in the class and she knew I wasn’t going to take the test. She came over to me, asked me a few questions on the test (and) I got eight or nine of those questions right and she realized I was capable of doing the work.”

Soon, Wilks straightened up and his academic performance improved. “My eighth grade year, that’s when I started to do better and really value my education,” said Wilks, who during his senior year at Lathrup had four international baccalaureate courses, heavy on the math and sciences. “It requires you to do a little bit more as far as test taking (and) community service hours,” Wilks said of the IB program. “It was quite rigorous for me so I had to hang in there and keep doing it.”

He approached his senior year in track, despite painful shins the past season, in much the same fashion. “My sophomore year I didn’t really do too much ... my junior year I began to improve ... (but) the biggest change that occurred was conditioning,” he said of his transition to elite sprinter. “With me, my whole mindset changed as to how well I wanted to do in track.”

And Johnson, who has coached state champions in each of the past five seasons, is glad. “Here I am the first year as coach of a combined program,” Johnson said, “(and) it couldn’t have happened at a better time for Brandon to emerge the way he did. He’s been an inspiration to the entire team.”

Indeed, two weeks ago after Wilks won the 200 dash at the Oakland County meet, he praised Johnson’s contribution. “Up until this year, I’d just been running,” he said. “I didn’t have any ... guidance and coach Johnson provided that for me.”

Wilks graduated from Lathrup with honors just a few days ago. But his dad, whom he hasn’t seen in nearly three years, wasn’t present. “The plan was for him to come,” Wilks said. “(Our) relationship is not a very strong one ... (but) at the same time, that’s my father.”

To be sure, the journey continues for Wilks, a journey which could include a reconnection with his dad, as well as options on college choices. So far, Michigan State, Saginaw Valley State and Tiffin are among schools which have shown interest. But there are more meets remaining, including the Midwest Meet of Champions, where the top senior athletes from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana face off. It’s a chance to raise his stock even higher.

“He’s going to rest his shins up (and) we’ll start training for the Midwest Meet of Champions (June 15) in Fort Wayne, Ind.,” Johnson said. “He’ll run the 200 and one of the relays.”

Until then, Wilks can savor a season of accomplishment.

“I just feel great,” he said. “It feels good to know what I’ve gone through and still manage to get to a point in my life where I am able to do (things). It’s a testament to what you can do when obstacles are placed in front of you. I had to stand up tall and begin to work for what I wanted to achieve.”

Last Updated: 6/6/2013 9:15:58 PM EST

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