Wiley Martin refused to allow cerebral palsy to keep him wheelchair-bound. Instead, he walked across the University of Mississippi campus during his tenure on metal crutches.
The 1983 graduate from Sumrall, Mississippi, left an impact on many friends, including Billy Brewer, former head football coach; Jamie Holder, former football player; and Will Norton, Jr., dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. In fact, football and basketball coaches and players alike were so fond of Martin, he was named an honorary member of the Ole Miss M-Club in 2017.
With his health now failing, Ole Miss alumni and friends contributed funds to fulfill his wish of seeing the Pavilion at Ole Miss and now will work to establish a scholarship in his name.
In 2016, Martin was diagnosed with cancer that has spread to his bones, and he was later admitted to the Asbury Hospice House in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as his condition took a turn for the worse. After reading the article “The Indomitable Wiley Martin” by Norton in the Meek School Magazine, adjunct journalism professor Leslie Westbrook phoned Norton.
“I said, ‘I have to meet him,'” Westbrook recalled. “It was the story that just touched me in a way, you just can’t explain it. I told Will, ‘I get this sense of urgency that I’ve got to meet him now.’ So Will and I drove down to Hattiesburg on January 13.”
Westbrook met Martin quickly became friends. But one last thing Martin said to Westbrook and Norton as they were making their way out of the room where Martin lie bedridden, inspired Westbrook even more.
“It’s hard for me to talk about it without crying,” Westbrook said. “He said, ‘I have one last wish. I want to see the Pavilion (at Ole Miss).’ He can’t even sit up.”
In his severe condition, Martin would have to be airlifted with a medical crew to Oxford. Despite the challenges, Westbrook said, “We are making it happen.”
With donations, members of the M-Club and friends of Martin’s hired Angel Med Flight with a medical crew and Martin’s hospice nurse on board. From the airport, he was carried by ambulance to the Pavilion earlier this month to be granted his “last wish.”
“He’s skin and bones, but he won’t give up,” Westbrook said. “We promised him that we’d make it happen, and he hung in there. Even when they told him he could die on the way up, he said, ‘If it’s God’s will, I’ll die happy.'”
A large gathering of the Ole Miss family gathered to celebrate Martin’s return to campus, including UM Chancellor Jeff Vitter. Former football player Jamie Holder of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who helped organize the trip, said Martin will always be loved and respected by many associated with Ole Miss Athletics.
“Wiley has taught us all lessons about gratitude and determination and how blessed we have been to have been a part of something many people would give anything to experience in life … putting on the uniform of an Ole Miss Rebel,” Holder said. “Many of the former basketball and football players and coaches who know and respect Wiley’s unmatched drive to graduate college and be a part of Ole Miss Athletics have contributed to making this wish of Wiley’s a reality.”
In the article Norton penned, he said, “I have taught many students who have achieved greatly in media professions and who I deeply respect and admire, but perhaps I admire no student more than Wiley Martin, a young man from Sumrall who has cerebral palsy.”
Martin was not a journalism major, but he enrolled in a public relations course during a semester Norton was teaching the course.
“It took a while for me to understand Wiley — not just his speech, but also his character. He was a person of uncommon principle and determined spirit,” Norton said.
“Wiley did everything he could to live an active life. He was determined to be physically independent, to take initiatives and be responsible. He lifted weights and exercised diligently to walk better.”
While at Ole Miss, Martin was the manager for the basketball teams coached by Bob Weltlich, and he also worked with Coach Brewer and the football team. Later he became a high school basketball coach until his parents asked him to move home where they could take care of him.
“Wiley understands football and basketball in a way that few people know it. Invariably, he would help me understand a game better than any sports writers,” Norton wrote.
“What an injustice that this young man was not able use that talent to its fullest because of a physical challenge. He spurred me to do more to motivate students, particularly those with no challenges who were not fully using their ability.”
Individuals and organizations can make a gift to the Wiley Martin Scholarship Fund by sending a checking with the fund’s name noted in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; online at www.umfoundation.com/makeagift; or by contacting Jason McCormick, development officer for the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 662-915-1757. An Ignite Ole Miss crowdfunding campaign also will be launched soon to draw attention and contributions to the scholarship fund.
By Randall Haley, Editor-in-Chief of HottyToddy.com.