“I’d rather die chasing my dreams.”
– FVSU Graduating Senior Billy Sparks ’17
Warner Robins native Billy Sparks doesn’t take much for granted these days. His academic and athletic journey is one of determination and a refusal to let circumstances overwhelm him. Beyond a recognition of his mastery of subject matter, Fall 2017 Commencement for him is a milestone that represents his triumph over homelessness, hopelessness, and self-doubt.
Billy Sparks had several dreams in high school, but from the outside, none of them looked likely to come true. He wanted to go to college, but hadn’t been in college prep courses. He wanted to play college football, but was rather small for the sport. A counselor suggested that he attend a career technical school and forget about attending a four-year college. But Billy Sparks was chasing a dream.
“I wouldn’t let my dreams shatter, so I created an opportunity for myself,” he said.
He researched college football programs online and found an opportunity at Yuba Community College in Marysville, California. A beloved teacher, Cassie Brown, helped him complete his application and other paperwork. After being accepted into the community college, he moved to California, convinced that he was approaching a great time in his life. Instead, his first year presented challenges which would have forced most people to head home.
Sparks didn’t have a dorm room or meal plan, so he rented a cheap apartment, though the insects that invaded at night sometimes left him sleeping standing against the wall. He didn’t have the money to pay his bills, so his electricity was cut off. Other students in similar straights moved in, with as many as 13 sharing the three-bedroom apartment.
Food was a constant challenge. The roommates often relied on food stamps given to them from relatives back home, or made whole meals out of potatoes. At other times, even that wasn’t available.
“Sometimes we would drink a lot of water to hold us over until the next day,” he explained.
He refused to quit, however. Though he was redshirted, he showed up to practice every day. He studied before nightfall or by candles. He smiled and put up a brave front in front of other students as if nothing was wrong. And he turned to faith for inspiration.
“I watched the Passion of Christ my first year,” he said. “I saw how much he sacrificed for his people. I thought, if I quit now, people will judge me for what they don’t know.”
He took things on a day to day basis and managed to complete his first year. But when he returned to school after the summer, living conditions went from bad to worse. All of his belongings had been removed from his apartment and it had been rented to other tenants. Most of his roommates hadn’t returned. He found himself homeless, so he and a friend slept inside laundromats, huddled in stairwells, and spent the night in parks. When hunger threatened to overcome him, he turned to prayer.
“I’d rather die chasing my dreams,” he said.
Sparks eventually gained some much needed weight and made into onto the official team. He went on to become the only one of his first-year housemates to graduate from the community college. When he returned to Middle Georgia, he was recruited to play at FVSU. But he almost didn’t make it.
Just as he was getting ready to begin school here, his father committed suicide. His FVSU coaches talked him through the pain, and attended his father’s funeral. He joined the team and used his experiences to keep his fellow players motivated. Eventually, they voted him team captain.
“I saw a lot of people wanting to give up,” he said. “But I’ve been down that road. I told them, ‘if you give up now, you’ll wish you didn’t later.’”
For him, living in FVSU’s apartment-styled dormitories was some kind of bliss. He admits being the last one to leave the cafeteria often, falling prey to memories of his time hungry in California. He was afraid that he may not have the opportunity to eat there the next day and so was reluctant to leave.
Friends and faculty at the university, however, helped him succeed. He is most appreciative of the willingness of faculty to help and the hands on nature of the educational environment. To Sparks, FVSU is a place where he can create his best self.
“Fort Valley State University kind of saved my life,” he said.
He was selected to play football in the European Football League with Croatia’s Zagreb Patriots this past spring, and was proud to represent Fort Valley to his new European friends. He particularly enjoyed discussions where he could brag about living conditions at the university.
As the criminal justice major prepares to cross the graduation stage, Sparks wants to pursue a graduate degree in rehabilitation counseling. He also loves to talk to young kids, inspiring them with the story of how he overcame adversity.
“When those kids give me those reactions and ask questions, I feel like I can relate,” he said.
He has gotten help from a friend to launch a clothing line that represents his journey. How God Changed Me apparel features a cross and the moon in three phases: quarter, half, and full. It represents the time he spent sleeping in parks and looking up at the night sky, imagining himself growing into fulfillment of his full potential.
“I gotta keep fighting,” he said. “I gotta reach that full moon of success in life.”