How Byron Cowart's mother shaped him into college football's top recruit

SEFFNER, Florida – Most days at 9 a.m., Lacoria Wilson is asleep.

Her brief window of rest comes in the morning hours, after working both the second and third shifts as a certified nursing assistant. She works 2-10 p.m. at one job, takes 30 minutes to get something to eat, then commutes to her second job for an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

But Wednesday was a different day. A special day. A day of celebration. Wednesday at 9 a.m. ET, instead of being asleep, Wilson was wearing a blue pants suit with an orange sweater in Armwood High School's auditorium as she watched her son, Byron Cowart, announce his decision to play football at Auburn.

Of course, the day wasn't as simple as it appeared when that happy moment was broadcast nationally on ESPNU. Turned out, Cowart's letter was not faxed to Auburn when it was expected to be, which led to a Twitter meltdown involving fans of both the Tigers and the home-state Florida Gators, Cowart's other finalist.

Cowart's coach at Armwood, Sean Callahan, said his star player brought two signed National Letters of Intent to school Wednesday – one for Auburn and one for Florida. Cowart, the coach said, was confused and did not want either letter sent – he only wanted to make a verbal commitment.

Cowart, a dominant defensive end at Armwood, told a different story to Rivals.com's Mike Farrell, saying he only signed an Auburn letter and did not know why Callahan failed to fax the letter. That left fans to infer that Callahan was interfering on behalf of Florida, where his son is a recent addition to the coaching staff. Callahan denied having any such motivation.

The controversy continued to percolate until Auburn announced it had received Cowart's Letter of Intent at 4 p.m. ET. So Byron Cowart is finally bound for college. And that's a remarkable accomplishment when you know his backstory.

Byron Cowart celebrates after making a tackle during the Under Armour All-American game. (AP)
Byron Cowart celebrates after making a tackle during the Under Armour All-American game. (AP)

"I felt so proud," Lacoria Wilson said. "My baby has done it. It's been a long climb up a mountain."

It's been a climb marked by the unstinting work ethic of Cowart's mother, who put everything else in her life aside to provide for her only son as he grew into a football star.

Cowart is the nation's No. 1 high school player, according to Rivals.com. That means his announcement was met with all the excessive modern accoutrements of National Signing Day: he had three mircrophones clipped to the right lapel of his navy blue suit; a battery of TV cameras faced him; and when he chose the Tigers over Florida and put an Auburn hat on his head, the moment was analyzed nationwide like a Supreme Court decision.

On one level, these are communal moments of jubilation for huge fan bases. But on another level, they are deeply personal moments for the families living them. What football fans exulted over Wednesday is insignificant compared to what the day meant for mother and son.

Cowart's signed letter will not contain the signature of his father, Byron Cowart Sr. He's imprisoned in Lexington, Ky. Online records show that Byron Tarshae Cowart was booked into jail at least a dozen times in Florida between 1995 and 2001, charged with a variety of offenses ranging from intent to distribute cocaine to attempted murder. In June 2001, he was sentenced to serve 262 months, records show. He is eligible for parole in 2019.

Byron says he's seen his father twice in his 18 years. They've talked occasionally on the phone since his dad has been incarcerated.

"I still love that guy," Byron Jr. said. "I love him to death."

But Wilson said Byron Jr. hasn't talked to his father in a while, and doesn't have much interest in doing so at the moment.

"Byron said, 'I used to talk to him and deal with him because of you, mother. But now that I'm 18, I don't have to, ' " Wilson said.

There are several men who have provided direction in Byron's life – 7-on-7 coach Woodrow Grady, Armwood High coach Sean Callahan and others who were present to hug the man-child Wednesday – but the primary role model in his life always has been his mom.

"She didn't know anything about football; she just wanted me to graduate from high school," Cowart said. "She didn't know it would turn into something this big."

They persevered through a period when they lived in a shelter, shortly after returning to Florida from Georgia, when Byron was in eighth grade. Since then, Wilson literally has worked tirelessly to keep the family from ever going back there.

Byron Cowart talks to media on National Signing Day about his decision to go to Auburn. (USAT)
Byron Cowart talks to media on National Signing Day about his decision to go to Auburn. (USAT)

"It was kind of hard growing up," Cowart said. "I wouldn't see her for days because of her work schedule. I knew it was a constant grind for her, but that made me think, 'If she's grinding, I can grind, too.' "

Wilson felt guilty about missing so much in Byron's young life – athletic events and school functions that don't fit in the schedule of someone working the second and third shifts. She asked for his understanding and he gave it. She also asked if he resented her marrying a man who has spent most of Byron's life in jail and he assured her he did not.

"Things happen," he said. "They did it the right way, got married and had me. Without him I wouldn't be here."

But more importantly, without her he wouldn't be here – with a national TV audience watching him decide where he will attend college.

Wilson is the one who dropped the hammer on her son anytime he stepped out of line – "she had a firm hand," said Grady. Wilson is the one who harped on schoolwork. Wilson is the one who sometimes would use her break time from work to drive home and look in on her son as he slept, just to make sure he was OK. Wilson is the one who bought all the groceries to keep her son growing.

"I had to make those big pot roast dinners," she said with a laugh.

The 6-foot-3, 252-pound Cowart towers over his slim, petite mother. His size comes more from the man in a minimum-security facility in Kentucky.

"God blessed him with a great set of genes," Callahan said. "He does fit the eye test really well. He hasn't maxed out. He's going to get a lot better."

With Wilson at work most of the day, Callahan and his coaching staff had to take an active role overseeing Cowart at school and after school. But they praised her for providing the structure that made it easier for them.

"Thank you for raising him the right way," an Armwood assistant coach said as he embraced Wilson on Wednesday. "Thank you for everything you've done in his life."

Lacoria Wilson did everything she could so her son could have this opportunity – a free college education, and potential careers in pro football and ultimately sports broadcasting (Byron's goal for later in life). She did it so her son could be the man his father was not.

"I want him," she said, "to have father time with his kids."