SALUDA — Dexter Wideman’s grandmother was seated next to him Wednesday afternoon as he stood at the dais in the Saluda High School gymnasium. The star football player’s step-mom was at the table as well.
Not present was the person who probably had the most influence on his life, his athletics career and his decision to play at the University of South Carolina. Wideman’s father died a little more than four years ago.
So, after thanking his family, his teachers, his teammates, his fellow students and the Saluda community for their support over the years, Wideman turned his attention to the person he loved the most.
“I want to thank my Dad for making me the person I am today,” Wideman said.
Wideman knows his father would have been so proud. Proud that his namesake son was headed to college on a football scholarship. Proud that his son is ranked among the top high school defensive linemen in the country. Proud that his son has a chance to earn a college degree.
Although Wideman is a common last name in the Saluda community, this Wideman family has long lived about 12 miles west of town off Highway 178 toward Greenwood. The Widemans have farmed the Good Hope community area off Fruit Hill Road for decades.
Dexter’s father loved being around farm machinery as a youngster, and learned to drive a tractor when he was 10. So, it was no surprise that the elder Wideman grew up to be a truck driver, mostly for J.P. Watkins.
Wideman played a couple of years of high school football, but speed did not come with his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame and that limited his mobility. He would learn years later that God must have portioned the speed part of his football package to his son.
Young Wideman weighed only 71/2 pounds at birth. But it was not long before he took the same round shape of his father. Then, at age 13, Wideman shot up like a tree and by eighth grade he was 6-3 and 250 or so pounds.
Folks around Saluda did not often see one without the other.
“He would cart little Dexter around to football games, ever since rec ball,” said Dorothy Wideman, young Dexter’s grandmother known to family and friends as “Mama Dot.”
The father would not just watch his son play football, he would observe, closely. Like any Dad who loves athletics, he no doubt envisioned his son one day playing college football. The dream surely extended to one day watching his son play professionally.
“He gave me tips and pointers and things like that,” Dexter said of his father. “He would talk to me about what I needed to do better, and I would listen.”
By eighth grade, Dexter was making a name for himself. The coaches at Saluda High knew what was on the way. Doug Painter was Saluda’s head coach at the time, and he realized then that Wideman was a special kind of player.
“There’s a lot of big kids around,” Painter said, “but you don’t put the two (along with speed) together very often.”
Wideman’s Dad never got to see his son play football in high school. In October of 2009, the elder Wideman was hospitalized with heart problems. A week later, an aunt went to Saluda Middle School and called her nephew out of class. She walked him down a hallway to inform the young man that his father was dead at age 33.
“It took a big toll on me, but I think it helped me a lot, too,” Wideman says. “It made me strive to do better and to work hard because I knew that’s what would make him happy.”
Wideman earned a starting spot as a ninth-grader at Saluda High. By the summer before his junior season, Wideman had developed into a bona fide college prospect after he covered a 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. It was the fastest time on the team, and Wideman was a 6-4, 275-pound lineman.
Opposing teams quickly learned to run away from Wideman’s side of the defensive line. Then they learned, according to Stewart Young, Saluda’s defensive coordinator at the time and now its head coach, that did not work, either. Wideman was quick enough to chase down running backs from the back side.
Painter, now the head coach at Strom Thurmond High, remembers well a game against Ninety Six High during Wideman’s junior season.
“They had a pretty good high school running back,” Painter said. “Dexter gets blocked and knocked down, and the guy gets around him on the edge. Well, Dexter turns and he’s 10 yards behind him and he chases him down about the 10-yard line.”
Not long afterward, every major college football program in the Southeast was interested in wooing Wideman. On Wednesday, he said he fulfilled a dream of his – and his father’s – to play college football.
“He was, for sure,” Wideman said of his Dad, “watching over me.”