This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Though it is spelled like the Egyptian capital, Cairo, Ga., is not pronounced the same way. And while its name sounds just like the syrup, Karo, and the community is, in fact, known affectionately as "Syrup City," Cairo has no affiliation to the brand.
Around Cairo, some folks wouldn't even think of Karo as syrup, actually – it's made out of corn, not sugar cane. Just about everybody from Cairo knows that.
"We're the home of the sugar cane, the home of the real syrup," says one of Cairo's favorite sons and the top 2013 draft pick on the defensive side of the ball for the Dallas Cowboys, safety J.J. Wilcox. For decades, the little town of about 9,600 people in far South Georgia, along the Florida panhandle, had been home to a huge syrup, peanut and pecan producer, which shuttered its doors almost two decades ago but left behind a legacy. The football team at Cairo High School, which Wilcox helped lead to a 3A state title as a senior in 2008, is adorned with a unique nickname: They are the Cairo Syrupmakers.
As one might imagine, Syrupmakers Football matters a lot in Cairo, and the 2008 run, when Wilcox starred as a wide receiver and linebacker, was the biggest thing to happen for the town in a long time.
"Cairo High School hadn't won a state championship since 1990," Wilcox says. "With the team chemistry and the team bonding we had, we didn't want anything less than a championship, and we got it. We bonded together and we built a brotherhood. It was a great time down in Cairo. Down in South Georgia, we breathe football. Growing up, it's all you do, go in your backyard and play until mom calls you in. We take pride in football. It's our bread and butter."
The football culture in Cairo has everything to do with the path that brought Wilcox to the Cowboys in the third round this April. Stiff competition from other great athletes kept him in a backup role until his senior year of high school, limiting his college scholarship offers, although all the backyard games he played as a boy created an understanding of every position. Most of all, the competition from teammates motivated him to work to get better.
"When he came in as a freshman, he really wasn't a very good player. He didn't start on our freshman team," remembers Cairo High School head coach Tom Fallaw, who says he has held Wilcox up as a model for all the players who have come after him. "He got in the weight room and came back stronger and better as a sophomore, and played a little bit for us. We saw a lot of progress the next summer, and we got him in on defense quite a bit, but then he came into his own as a senior at receiver and on defense.
"The kids on our team now probably get tired of me constantly bringing up J.J., but he's a perfect example for them to follow."
As Fallaw recalls, Wilcox was so under-recruited that he initially planned to walk on at Georgia Southern University until picking up a full ride scholarship offer from Samford a week before signing day, prompting the FCS powerhouse Georgia Southern to increase its offer.
"Just getting him to a college program was a real challenge," Fallaw says. "He's just a kid that's willing to work and do the things he needs to do, and that's how he's been able to grow so much and get himself in position to have an opportunity in the NFL."
That versatility and stick-to-it-iveness would come in handy for Wilcox during his time in Statesboro. In his first three years on the Georgia Southern campus he played a dynamic role on offense, originally as a receiver and later as a running back. All told, he logged 137 carries and 45 catches with 17 total touchdowns in three seasons. But entering his senior year in 2012, the team had a greater need for his athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, and head coach Jeff Monken asked him to change positions again.
"I said no problem," Wilcox remembers. "I'm a team player, and whatever it takes to win, I'll do it. It doesn't matter. I take a sense of pride in being a great teammate."
Perhaps not surprisingly given his background, Wilcox transitioned smoothly, and by the end of 2012 he had become a leader in the secondary, making calls and helping align his teammates while bringing a physical demeanor that allowed him to create big plays across the field, compiling 88 tackles, a pair of interceptions and three pass defenses en route to first-team all-conference honors.
NFL teams aren't usually in the business of drafting project players with early picks, but in a way, Wilcox's limited experience at safety worked to his favor in terms of the Cowboys' evaluation.
"What you have to do is get your arms around that inexperience that they might have relative to other guys, (whether it) is something that is fatal," head coach Jason Garrett says. "We felt like, with Wilcox, he really had grown so much over the course of his one year playing safety, and his physical potential will allow him to grow more and more. We like so much about how he plays, the demeanor and the physical-ness that he plays with."
Crediting his coaches for the amazing progress he made, Wilcox earned an invite to the Senior Bowl, where he shined and vaulted up draft boards. Considering the level of competition he faced in college – playing only one game against BCS conference competition in 2012 – the chance for teams to measure Wilcox against other prospects was invaluable. The Cowboys, for one, are not afraid to look to the FCS level for talent.
"Certainly the smaller-school guys, almost by definition, have further to go and thus become a little more risky," Garrett says. "But if you can get your arms around how they played against bigger competition and how they stack up physically, I think you pull the trigger on them if you like the player."
The Senior Bowl experience wasn't only key for Wilcox cementing his status with NFL scouts. It also validated his ability in his own mind.
"Some of the household names you see on TV every week, I got to be out there competing with them and winning and doing better than some of them," Wilcox says. "It's a mindset, 'Hey, I'm one of the best, too. I belong here.'"
A month later, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Wilcox posted measurables on par with any of the "elite" safeties in this draft class – he ran the 40-yard-dash in 4.57 seconds, pumped out 17 reps on the 225-pound bench press and posted a vertical leap of 35 inches. What's more, he looked fluid in position drills, and flashed ball skills commensurate with his offensive background.
Through the pre-draft process, Wilcox's self-assurance swelled. On the night before the first round, he told a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I think I'm the best safety in the draft," and called himself, "a special breed."
Even after he seeing six safeties picked before him, Wilcox isn't really backing off his claims.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but I'm confident in my craft," Wilcox says. "You have to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and all that comes with hard work, determination and being prepared. That makes a great player. I think those assets make me one of the best safeties in this class. … All of us that got drafted and have the chance to play in the NFL are a special breed. I'm just very blessed to be versatile – I can play any position: strong, free, nickel corner, wide receiver, running back, kick returner, punt returner, special teams – it takes a special player to do all of that and not slack off in any of it."
Wilcox's confidence showed through on the night he was drafted. A camera at his home captured him laid back on the couch, sandwiched between family and friends, with his cell phone resting on his chest. It began to vibrate, he noted the Texas area code, and answered the call of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He covered his face with a hand as he got the first official word of his NFL future, while half of Cairo, seemingly, celebrated wildly in the living room.
In a town where only about 20 percent of the high school graduates go on to attend college, Wilcox was already a role model. In places like Cairo, with a median household income just north of $23,000 a year, where the school system is the largest employer, the local-boy-makes-good story is a point of pride for everyone.
There's nowhere else Wilcox would've rather been. [embedded_ad]
"You can't forget where you come from," Wilcox says. "That's one thing I look to the most that night, the people who helped get me there. A lot of the people who were around me were the same people, when I was sacrificing and suffering and didn't have much, they always helped me out. It was a day for me, but also the people that helped me get there. It was a day for them, too. Me and my family just enjoyed the moment. A lot of people stopped by. We took it all in and it was a blessing to know that you have a chance to play in the NFL. It's a dream come true."
Relocating to Texas to see how far his dream will take him, Wilcox admits it'll be an adjustment to move away from the people who have meant so much to him, but the opportunity and their support make it as sweet as cane syrup.
"I'm not going to be on my own," Wilcox says. "It's just like going to college again – a new city, a new team, a new coaching staff. I get to start over. I think the best things in life happen when you start over and meet new people, so I'm anxious to get started."