It was June 10th and the second day of minicamp had concluded. New York Jets guard Dakota Dozier was back at his apartment about 10 minutes from the team's practice facility, ready to rest after a long day of practice. His phone rang, he didn't think anything of it.
He picked up and answered a call that brought him to his knees.
One the other end of the line was his grandfather, telling him that his mother had died in a car accident. The accident took place on Highway 378 in Lexington, SC. She was on her way back from attending the funeral of a cousin, a truck pulled in front of her vehicle, over-corrected and the trailer hit her car. She died at the crash scene.
Evelyn Willis was an amazing woman according to her son. She was a single mother who raised the Jets offensive lineman and his younger sister on her own and managed a grocery store near their home. He remembers a woman who worked long hours to make ends meet and provide for her family. It wasn't easy, in fact it rarely was, but Dozier saw in his mother an inspiration and a role model.
Someone he modeled himself after and in Evelyn Willis he found a mentor, a role model, an inspiration.
“I was her passion. She could have dropped out of school but she refused to. She wanted us to be better,” Dozier told Metro.
“She worked a lot, full-time, always. The one thing she always did, no matter what day it was, no matter how late she had to work, she would take off to see one of my games. No fail, no matter how old I was. Even if she had to work late the day before to make it for my game.
“I got my work ethic from her, seeing what she did every day for me and for my sister to provide for us. To keep the lights on, to put food on the table. God blessed me with an incredible woman.”
He pauses then adds “Whatever she had to do, she did. She didn't cut any corners.”
After he got the news from his grandfather, the plan for the day went from eat and rest to doing what he could to be with his family. He wasn't able to catch a flight back home until the next day, causing him to miss the final day of minicamp. The coaching staff was supportive of his decision to head back home.
Things are still in flux with his life now, two months since he lost his mother. He now has custody of his 12-year old sister, something that clearly weighs on him.
His mother was a strong, immovable presence in the lives of both her children. Dozier readily admits that he wants to pick-up where she left off, to raise and nurture his sister much like his mother did for him.
“I have to talk with different doctors and teachers and things, see what is best for her, if it's best to stay home. I'd have custody and be able to sign things but then others would have power of attorney to sign school documents, things like that,” Dozier said.
“It's a hard, difficult time but we're all coming together through prayer. Knowing that she isn't in pain, that's good. Now she sees me every day, every single practice she sees me, every single game.
“I'm not going to tell you that I'm happy and joyful every single day but I'm doing my best.”
His mother was a graduate from the University of South Carolina, even though she was a single-mother at the time who had to balance work and school with raising a son on her own. She worked long hours then made lunches and shuttled her children back and forth to school.
It was thankless but she saw in her two children a reflection of herself, her desire to improve on her life and make the best of whatever came her way.
She encouraged both of her children to be strong students, to work hard and be active in the community and sports. Dozier graduated from Furman with a degree in health sciences. He also plays the cello.
Mom can be thanked for pushing him in both those areas.
He was married last month in South Carolina on July 11th and at the wedding ceremony there was a vase with his mother's favorite flowers at the altar to mark her presence in son's life.
“She wasn't sitting in the church but she was watching from above. I know that,” Dozier said.
“I love her to death.”
This season, he says that every practice, every game, is played for her. Then again, it always was.