By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Without the wig — you know, the blond one with dreadlocks that he wears to most UVa football games — Jeff Wilcox looks like a normal guy, though the V-Sabre tattoo on his upper right arm hints at his passion.
Don’t let that calm exterior fool you.
Put Wilcox at Scott Stadium, or wherever the Wahoos are playing, and he’s transformed. This is a man who thinks nothing of donning a full uniform once or twice a season and wearing it in the stands, leaving no doubt where his allegiance lies.
“He’s kind of the example of what a true fan is,” Virginia coach Mike London said after practice Wednesday. “Whether good, bad, ugly or whatever, he supports the team.”
Wilcox’s loyalty was rewarded this week, when he was selected as the grand-prize winner of the Fanatic Cavalier Essay Contest. Fans were asked to describe, in 1,000 words of less, how they showed their UVa spirit and what made them so passionate and loyal. Everyone who entered was required to submit a photo of himself or herself in UVa gear, too.
First prize: a trip for two to Los Angeles for Virginia’s Sept. 11 game against Southern California. More than 160 people entered the contest, so Wilcox faced serious competition.
“We just appreciate his support as well as everyone else who got involved with the contest,” London said.
Wilcox, an engineering technician with VDOT, is a 1992 graduate of Appomattox High School. He still lives in the Central Virginia town. It’s not far from Lynchburg, which is where a UVa official asked Wilcox to be Monday afternoon. A black Town Car picked Wilcox up in Lynchburg and then drove him back up Route 29 to Charlottesville, but he was told little about what awaited him there.
“I knew something was up,” Wilcox said, “but I didn’t know what it was. I was just real nervous all day.”
He need not have worried. Wilcox, 36, got the VIP treatment at Virginia’s practice, which was closed to the public. Near the end, London called his players together and introduced Wilcox as the winner of the essay contest, the first official confirmation Wilcox had received.
“He bleeds orange and blue,” London said, “and we appreciate you, Jeff. Thanks for all you do.”
Applause, hugs and handshakes followed from Virginia players and coaches, as London filled them in on Wilcox’s story. Before the players returned to the field, Wilcox led them in a rousing cheer.
He’s been rooting for the ‘Hoos since 1984, the year Appomattox High graduate Kevin Ferguson first lettered for George Welsh. Wilcox has had season tickets for UVa football since 1994 and has attended every home game since then.
“Knock on wood,” Wilcox said, smiling.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with cancer. He had to undergo chemotherapy, but that didn’t keep him from his seat at Scott Stadium or from attending several of the Cavaliers’ away games that season.
UVa received an invitation to the Peach Bowl that year. His doctor advised him to stay home, but Wilcox couldn’t pass up the chance to see his beloved ‘Hoos play on that stage. His friends took him to Atlanta, where Wilcox had a blast. He’s been cancer-free since ’98.
“His story is a story that’s very encouraging,” London said. “It talks about the human spirit, about never giving up.”
Wilcox and his wife, Missy, are looking forward to visiting L.A. for the first time. She, not surprisingly, is heavily invested in the ‘Hoos, too.
They were married in January 2001 and, instead of leaving for a honeymoon, attended the UVa-Missouri men’s basketball game. During football season, Missy spends hours putting dreadlocks in the wig that has become her husband’s trademark at Scott Stadium.
And now they’re headed to the West Coast, where they’ll see many familiar faces in the storied Los Angeles Coliseum.
“All my frends are going,” Wilcox said. “They were trying to get me to go, but I didn’t have the money.”