EMPORIA, Kan. - The Emporia State football team was one player short as they opened fall practice Wednesday night.
Just four days before he was set to leave his home in Luther, Okla., and report to his first college training camp, freshman defensive end Justin Wilson lost his house and all of his belongings in one of the many wildfires that ravaged portions of the state.
"They lost everything," Emporia State head coach Garin Higgins said. "It's not like they can salvage some things. It was burnt to the ground. The only thing they had was the clothes on their back."
It's a situation that hundreds of homeowners are going through this week in Oklahoma, after as many as three dozen wildfires left just charred building frames and piles of rubble across a number of Oklahoma communities.
Through it all, it's not the story of loss that will likely be what his teammates, friends and family remember, but Justin's story of survival that unfolded as the fire engulfed his family's property that he'll be telling for years to come.
Justin and his father tried to wait out the Luther fire, which like at least half a dozen others in the state is believed to have been started intentionally, as it burned on the other side of the interstate from their five-acre farm in Luther.
"We waited just a little too long," Justin's father, John Wilson, said.
Eventually, the fire grew larger and crossed the highway.
"When it came, it came quick," the 6-foot, 300-pound Justin Wilson said. "There wasn't any time to do anything."
So what he and his father did do was run. They made it to a small pond on their property about a quarter-mile from their house and jumped in.
"When we looked back, there was a wall of flames higher than the house," Justin's father said.
Justin and his father jumped into the eight-foot-deep pond. John Wilson called the next few minutes "hell on earth." Flames surrounded the pond, adding intense heat on a day that reached 113 degrees in Oklahoma City.
"They didn't have time for anything," Higgins said. "They just jumped in a pond and waited for their house to burn down, had to sit there and watch it."
They weren't the only ones seeking shelter in the water. A box turtle jumped in right between the two.
"He was hot and needed water," Justin's father said. "So he didn't give us a second thought. He ran in between us and bailed into the water. He was like, ‘get over fellas, I need water too.'"
Then Justin's father got a call on his cell phone. It was a neighbor calling to check on him. He told him he and Justin were trapped in the pond, surrounded by flames.
"I'll be there in a minute," Justin's father remembers the neighbor saying. The neighbor arrived a few minutes later in his vehicle, picked up the 18-year-old and his father and sped off through the flames.
Everyone made it out okay, even Justin's father's horses and dogs, but their house, cars and everything else they owned was destroyed.
"We left with what we had on our back," Justin's father said, "But that's better than nothing."
Justin's teammate, Dakota Hagler, called Justin the moment he heard about what had happened.
"He seems to be in good spirits," Hagler said. "About as good as you could be in that situation."
The two roomed together over the summer at voluntary workouts, but it turns out they now share more than a room.
Hagler, a junior defensive lineman from Gilmer, Texas, lost his home and all of his belongings in a fire when he was in high school.
"When it happens, you feel like," Hagler said, pausing, "you don't feel… you actually have lost everything."
Higgins says what happened to Justin has affected the entire team, everybody in different ways.
"We know Justin," Higgins said. "Justin's a part of our program. Even though Justin's gonna be a true freshman, a lot of our players know Justin."
Higgins says a lot of players were able to spend time with Justin during the summer workouts and others during his visits to the university during the recruiting process.
"When it happens to a teammate, it brings you closer together," Higgins said. "When you actually see the destruction, it really touches you. "
Higgins and other Emporia coaches didn't wait long to share their condolences, both in person and via Twitter.
"esufootball is with you in your time of need," Matt Walter, Emporia's offensive coordinator tweeted after he heard the news.
ESU wide receivers and special teams coach Matt Martin also offered his support on the social networking site. "ESU Football has your back Justin Wilson," he wrote. "#Family #StayTogether #WinTogether"
Higgins says the team prides itself on being a family. Hagler agreed with his coach's thoughts.
"Once you're part of our family, we're going to take care of you," Hagler said. "Just know we're there for you and we're praying for you."
The university, working with their compliance officers to ensure they stayed within NCAA regulations, has set up a fund to help Justin and his family get back on their feet. Donations to the Justin
Wilson Fund can be made in person or mailed to ESB Financial, 801 Merchant, Emporia, KS, 66801.
Eventually, Higgins said, thoughts will turn to getting Justin up to Emporia to start practice and get into classes, which begin Wednesday, but "that's not your first concern," he said. "Your first concern is making sure the family's okay and everybody's safe."
Hagler offered some words of encouragement and support to his teammate.
"Just remember that there's people that is willing to help you," he said, speaking from his own experiences. "In the long run, you still have your life, you have your family. You have the stuff that's important to you. I know it's a tough situation, I've been through it. But he'll be okay in the long run."