The sports management degree he was handed serves as a souvenir of the dedication to the completion of a goal he set four years ago — a reminder of the hardships he has experienced and overcome. Virgil walked across the stage knowing two things — he had just gained one more year of eligibility to play football and he becomes the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
A Chicago native, Virgil's early childhood was spent bouncing between foster homes with his younger brother, struggling to find a place he could call home. One of 12 siblings, Virgil had to deal with being separated from his family.
"It was hard not knowing my parents," said Virgil. "I had to grow up fast. I wasn't doing well at school or at home, and just had no hope."
Virgil moved to Central Illinois at the age of 11 and was soon adopted by Lloyd Winston Jr. Winston welcomed Virgil into his Rantoul home and suggested he try to find a hobby to get involved outside the house. Virgil was interested in sports as a child, but, because of constant movement, never got involved. He tried running and discovered he had been graced with speed, with which he competed in state track competitions in middle school. Running then spring-boarded the speedster into football.
"I just competed in sports for fun at first, until one day I realized, ‘Hey, I could go to college for this,'" said Virgil.
The anticipation of college proved to be an amazing catalyst for Virgil, since the feat would be a first in his family and a thought he had not entertained before. However, he quickly recognized he would have to step it up both in the classroom and on the field if he wanted to pursue this dream.
"I realized that football could be my way out, a way to get going in life," he said. "I didn't just want to be another child from the [fostercare] system who wasn't expected to make something of himself."
To help Virgil gain more collegiate exposure, Winston moved his home to Urbana, where Virgil excelled in football and track. He struggled to make the grades, but continued to push himself.
Upon arrival to Illinois, Virgil spent his first season as a partial qualifier, which gave him eligibility only to practice with the team, keeping him from competing on the field.
"My first year was a big year to miss. It was hard to have to sit on the sidelines at the Sugar Bowl and know that I couldn't be a part of it or step out on the field," said Virgil.
This disappointment only proved to be another motivator to Virgil, as he pushed through the year and focused on academics. He knew he would have to push hard to graduate in four years and have the opportunity to gain another season of eligibility.
"I felt a lot of pressure," explained Virgil. "I would see guys around me taking 12 hours, and here I was, taking 18 and summer classes to make sure I would be done in time. But I knew it was worth it."
It became apparent that the more determined Virgil was to succeed academically, the more heart he carried with him onto the playing field. He realized that he would have to be his own motivator if wanted to reach his goals.
"I knew I was lucky to get this chance and wanted to make the most of the opportunity in front of me, so I just kept pushing myself. I had the support of my family, my academic advisors, and my teammates to keep me going."
Last weekend, Virgil's determination finally paid off. Virgil, a three-year letterwinner and returning starter at safety, graduated from the College of Applied Life Studies in just four years at The University of Illinois. Because of this, Virgil is now eligible to participate for his senior season in the fall of 2005, enabling him one more chance to go after his dream of playing in a bowl game.
"After everything, I just hope to show people that you can come from hard times and make something of yourself. I'll be proving wrong all of those who didn't think I could do this. And the one thing I'm going to take away from this experience is that the perseverance and the support of my family made this happen."
Story provided by the U of I