Jonathan Wilfong tutors a student.
May 2, 2017
By Kenny Ryan
DALLAS (SMU) – He was seldom a starter on the SMU mens basketball team, but you’d never know it from his fans: Graduating senior guard Jonathan Wilfong made an impact every time he played at Moody Coliseum home games.
The crowd loved him, yelling out his name in overly long syllables (Wil-foooooong!) when he stepped onto the court. But as much as he’s been loved by the raucous crowds at Moody, and by the coaching staff that admires his dedication, there’s another set of fans who mean even more to Wilfong – the kids he is helping through his “Coaching for Literacy” program.
Now that he’s graduating, he hopes to both continue his work with the program, as well as expand it to other colleges and universities.
“Two thirds of kids who can’t read at grade level by fourth grade either end up in prison or on welfare,” Wilfong says as he counts a number of alarming literacy statistics off the tips of his fingers. “We build prisons in this country based on illiteracy rates,” Wilfong adds. “We should be focused on literacy and giving kids opportunities.”
That passion is obvious when Wilfong sits down with students from Preston Hollow Elementary School for a reading of their favorite books. He’s wearing an SMU Basketball uniform and he’s arrived with a troupe of volunteers ready to spend one-on-one time.
“The most rewarding thing is when you’re sitting next to a child and they see that personal connection that you care, then they really do want to learn,” Wilfong says. “Kids like to see a belief in them.”
Reading sessions like that are just the tip of the spear for “Coaching for Literacy,” a program Wilfong launched with his childhood friend Andrew Renshaw, now a pre-med student at Vanderbilt, when the pair were seniors in high school.
“We were in an English class called Facing History and Ourselves, where our teacher Spencer Reece really challenged us,” Wilfong said. “At the end of the year, Reece told us we could either take the final or perform an act of community service.”
Wilfong and Renshaw went with option No. 2.
Taking full advantage of his family’s college basketball connections – his father, John Wilfong, was an AAU coach who once played at Memphis – the younger Wilfong and Renshaw partnered with Memphis, Vanderbilt, Florida State, Harvard and Virginia to host a series of basketball-related fundraisers.
Coaching for Literacy was born.
“It started with us selling ‘assistant coach’ packages to donors who would pay X dollars to get backstage access to see what goes on behind the scenes at game day,” Wilfong says. “You’re usually targeting the big fans of schools who maybe sit courtside, but want to hear the pregame speech, or something like that The money we raised from that access, we gave to community literacy programs.”
The inspiration to contribute to literacy programs came from another high school friend of Wilfong’s, Frank Herron - the first literacy success story Wilfong ever met.
“When I was in middle school playing summer basketball, I had a teammate named Frank Herron who was staying with us a lot and my dad realized he couldn’t read,” Wilfong says. “We were about to go into eighth grade and he was reading at about a third-grade level, so my family helped him find him the resources to succeed, and then he put in the hard work.”
The literacy work Herron did propelled him to graduate high school and score well enough on the ACT to earn a football scholarship to LSU, where he now plays defensive end.
“Because of that, he was the first one in his family to attend college,” Wilfong says. “It changed his life.”
Herron’s story is the first that comes to mind when Wilfong thinks of the good his growing literacy foundation is doing for others, but it hardly ends there. In the five years since Coaching for Literacy was launched, it has raised $600,000, and Wilfong aims to raise another $300,000 this year.
The method of raising money has evolved . Now, Coaching for Literacy collects money in more traditional ways – donations can be made through the group’s website – and coaches in partnering college basketball programs raise awareness by wearing neon-green ties courtside during select games.
Twenty-four collegiate basketball programs hosted Coaching for Literacy games during the 2016-17 season. A good amount of that sustained growth has come from the connections and exposure provided by Wilfong playing for the Mustangs.
“It’s provided a big boost.” Wilfong said. “It’s one thing to say a student launched a charity, it’s another thing to say an SMU basketball player is doing this. The last time we were in the NCAA tournament, the NCAA tweeted about it, so being on the team definitely has been a huge benefit.”
Wilfong’s degree from the Cox School of Business helped give him the know-how to expand the charity. In fact, the degree is part of what brought Wilfong to SMU in the first place.
“I wanted to attend a school where I could play basketball and also get a business degree,” Wilfong said. “I could have gone to a smaller school and played more, but I knew what I wanted to study and I knew where my future was. SMU offered the best of both worlds.”
Though his playing time has been limited, Wilfong has had his Moody moments.
None bigger, perhaps, than the last-minute dunk that punctuated a victory over East Carolina on the home court in 2015.
“I like to say that dunk did more for my career after basketball than any class I could have taken,” Wilfong said with a wry smile.
It wasn’t a game-winning dunk – the score wasn’t even close – but when Wilfong intercepted a pass near the top of the key and took it to the other end of the court for a one-handed dunk with 5.8 seconds to spare, the crowd and his teammates went bonkers.
“It was just a one-of-a-kind moment,” Wilfong says. “Whenever I meet someone related to SMU, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re that guy who dunked!’ I’m always happy to talk basketball. It makes a great ice breaker.”
It also makes a fond memory for a player who gained popularity despite rarely being the first Mustang off the bench.
“It feels good to have people excited to see you play,” Wilfong says. “When I’d throw my warmup ball and enter the game, I’d hear the mob starting to yell. It depended on what part of the game I entered, but if it was the end, usually everyone was yelling, ‘Shoot!’”
The Mustangs’ coaching staff has nothing but praise for Wilfong’s role on the team. With only seven scholarship players on the team for the 2016-17 season, they say he practiced and prepared with the heart of a starter - their “eighth rotation player.”
After Wilfong graduates May 20 he has his next shot lined up with a job in Houston’s energy sector. He plans to continue his engagement in Coaching for Literacy, the program he built with a high school friend, but he also dreams of passing the ball to the next generation of literacy advocates rising through the college ranks behind him.
“We have started to launch college chapters where we give other college students the chance to get involved,” Wilfong said. “The college chapters idea was born from the question of, ‘How can we involve our friends who want to be in on this?’”
“We went a little above and beyond what was asked of us in high school,” Wilfong added. “but it ended up being really fun and worthwhile.”
A nationally ranked private university with seven degree-granting schools, SMU is a distinguished center for teaching and research located near the heart of Dallas. SMU's 11,000 students benefit from small classes, research opportunities, leadership development, international study and innovative programs. The University is strengthened by its partnership with the Dallas region, a global center of commerce and culture. SMU students, faculty and alumni are changing the world through their chosen fields, civic engagement and service to society.
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