For the past two seasons, Jaylen Hudson has been the Wake Forest Demon Deacons’ special teams player of the year. He’s got the belts to prove it. While shining in an under-appreciated role on the football field, the fifth-year linebacker-turned-defensive end has a more significant goal to chase.
An advocate for literacy and a champion of change, Hudson seeks to be bigger than an athlete.
Jaylen Hudson Seeks to be Bigger Than an Athlete at Wake Forest
“I’ve always prided myself on being one of those people that, for all the things that I do on the football field, I don’t just want to be known for them,” Hudson explains during an exclusive sit down with College Football Network. “I want to be known for doing more in my community. Just going out there, trying to put my best foot forward, and being the change that I seek.”
Sandwiched between practice and meetings, Hudson spends 25 minutes talking with me on a range of subjects. During that time, his passion, enthusiasm, conviction, and goals for community outreach and change are as evident as the t-shirt on his back or the chain around his neck. Two phrases flow freely during that time, reinforcing their sincerity.
Bigger than an athlete. Be the change that you seek.
Hudson is an athlete; there’s no escaping that. Not only is there no escaping it, he embraces his platform and is grateful for the opportunities that being a student-athlete, being a football player at Wake Forest, allows him.
But he’s also a man with long-term goals for change that penetrate and permeate the often insular walls of football. Hudson is, in many respects, a teacher, a mentor, an advocate for literacy, a poet, a force for reform as it pertains to the inequality of opportunity for children in education.
The Wake Forest defensive end is bigger than an athlete.
“There’s so much more work to be done,” Hudson reflects on his community work to date. “I don’t want it to stop here. Hopefully, I’m able to make a significant change in education beyond Winston-Salem, beyond what I’m doing now. For right now, I’m glad I’m making an impact in my community, and for it to be recognized by my peers is extremely humbling and a blessing.”
Literacy is the Cornerstone of Education
Vienna Elementary School. Speas Global Elementary. Bookmarks. Freedom School.
Those are just a small handful of institutions and initiatives where Hudson has spent his time since arriving in Winston-Salem in 2019. All have a connection to literacy, all have a connection to education, all have a connection to shaping the next generation.
All of them help him be more than an athlete. All of them help him to be the change that he seeks. The Wake Forest defensive end speaks passionately and at length about the opportunity—Hudson sees it as such, not a chore nor expectation—to be actively involved in helping shape the minds and lives of kids during his time working inside these places.
“I’ve been doing Freedom School and the Skip Prosser READ Challenge. Those have catapulted me into getting inside school, exploring school communities. I had the opportunity to learn about a class; they really took me in. The first time I went in there was for ‘College Friday,’ talking about Wake Forest, talking about scholarships. Their energy was so enthusiastic.”
“I got to hang out, play football with the kids. They ask so many questions, and they’re so invigorated to go to college. You can just see the impact you have on them. They brought me in, treated me like family. It was so natural; I became integrated into their classroom, and it felt like something that I had to do.”
“Those kids in there really looked up to me, and I saw a lot of myself in them. They all have ambitions, and they are all students of color, primarily. That classroom was special to my heart. SPEAS and Miss Johnson’s class really changed my outlook. A lot of times you hope you’re making a change, but when you see it happen, it’s really a blessing.”
While Hudson works to be the change he seeks, his community endeavors and commitment to the younger generation saw him experience the Freedom School. The initiative is a six-week program that aims to shake up the traditional model of education to maximize learning and opportunities for children who might not ordinarily find themselves in a place to thrive academically.
“It’s a twist on traditional school,” Hudson explains. “I encourage, if you’re ever in Winston-Salem in the summertime, to be in there. It’s invigorating. Kids are dancing and so excited. It’s really powerful. It’s how I envision that school should start. It’s all about yourself and the power you possess, and how strong you are, and how you can conquer all the challenges.”
“The funding for education is not as equal in all areas,” Hudson continues. “To be at a prominent university like Wake Forest and to be able to have an impact on education like that is very powerful. Freedom School is such a blessing. You learn so much about the kids. It’s about pursuing your interests and not just grades. It’s about the kids and what invigorates their learning.”
For Hudson, literacy is the bedrock of all education, and he’s passionate about leading change so children have equal learning opportunities. It’s prevalent in his own life. Scroll down his social media timeline, and you’ll find the poem “Nearer” by C.S. Lewis. The Wake Forest defensive end takes his love into the classroom and uses it as an avenue to invigorate the kids around him.
“Having poetry, having that free art form where they can talk about who they are,” Hudson begins to explain the impact of poetry. “We did an ‘I am’ poem where they talk about their strengths and where they’re from. We did a superhero poem. It’s so cool to see where they take it. It’s all about where their imagination takes it. To share that with them is very powerful.”
Hudson Raised on a Diet of Sacrifice and Selflessness
Hudson speaks with such passion and emotion about his work with children in the Winston-Salem area that it’s natural to imagine what he was like at their age. Furthermore, it’s intriguing to understand where his drive and determination to be an enforcer for education and change in the community derives from. It turns out, he had the perfect role model at home.
Born in Texas, the son of Keith and Latosha Hudson, Jaylen was surrounded by sacrifice and selflessness from a young age. Keith Hudson is a military veteran, and his servitude to the country formed the basis of a desire to impact the community in his son.
“My Dad is one of my biggest heroes,” Hudson begins with a sparkling, but emotional glint in his eye. “I can’t describe how much he means to me and how much of an impact he’s had on me. His selfless actions he’s had as a man. Looking up to him, he was my role model, my idol, someone I could always turn to. He’s been such an integral part of me doing all of these things.”
“He always gave his best foot forward. For me, for his country. All the sacrifices he made for me when I was young, to go out there and put his life on the line for his country. You know, there were times when he wasn’t at home, but he was always there for me. That sacrifice is not something that I take for granted. He’s made my life so much better. He’s had such a blessed impact.”
Being the child of a serving member of the armed forces isn’t without its drawbacks. At the drop of a hat, you may have to uproot and leave the community that you’ve called home, needing to form new relationships that can be difficult to do as an adult, let alone as a child. It can make community attachment difficult, but that’s not how Hudson sees it.
The Wake Forest defensive end was born in Texas, but he’s moved around. He’s called Texas home; he’s called Fayetteville home; he’s called Winston-Salem home. There may be multiple new destinations in his future dependent upon how his football career plays out, but Hudson sees opportunity in the challenge.
“For the longest time in my life, I thought it was a challenge,” Hudson reveals. It can be hard to be connected to the community because every three or four years you’re going to have to restart. As time went on, I began to understand that God places me in every situation for a specific reason.”
“It wasn’t so much that my time in a place was over but that he’d moved me to a new place so that I could give them my gifts to a new community, and they can give gifts to me. I think, for me, as a kid you don’t understand it, but as I’ve gotten the experiences I’ve had in these places, they’ve been so integral into making me who I am today. The impact is tremendous.”
The exposure to different communities as he’s traveled his journey toward being bigger than an athlete has armed Hudson with the tools to impact the change he seeks. His understanding of different people, and what makes them tick, has proven invaluable as he spends time in classrooms full of varied personalities and backgrounds, but can impact them all the same.
At Cape Fear High School in Fayetteville, Hudson learned a valuable lesson in the power of people that formed one of his earliest moments of community service. As the area attempted to rebound in the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the football team rallied as part of the relief efforts. His emotion in talking about it is a testament to the impact made on his life.
“To this day, that community doesn’t understand how it impacted me,” Hudson begins. “It’s something that you can’t describe. They took me under their wing and they asked me to do things that, you know, I never would have dreamed of doing. Not being born there, but being a representative of that community.”
“To put my foot forward and to help clean up. We did clean up on roads as a team and as a community, and those were things that were instilled into our culture. We just tried to take care of people. That’s a catalyst to where I am now; they always instilled in us ‘bigger than an athlete’ and ‘what can we do to change our community.’ That’s definitely a catalyst to where I’m at now.”
A Culmination of Influences
There’s no denying that catalyst lit a fire under Hudson and led to where he is now. He’s a force in the community, a respected leader and educator, and with his off-field efforts identified by the AFCA and Wuerffel Trophy, he continues to live up to his “bigger than an athlete” mantra while seeking to impact change in the Winston-Salem community and beyond.
Less than a month out from the 2023 college football season, however, it would be remiss of us not to talk about the sport that has allowed him the platform to pursue his life goals.
Hudson enters the 2023 season off the back of a career-year where he featured prominently on defense—logging 20 tackles with a forced fumble against FSU.
“There were good plays,” Hudson reflects on 2022. “But there were plays to be made, and my impact is just starting. Being out on the field is such a blessing. My first year was really hard, being redshirted. No one likes to sit there and watch and not play; it can be a really challenging experience. Just know that I want to be out there and do the best for my teammates.”
“I’m going to be playing the Deacon position,” looks forward to the 2023 season. “I’m learning, growing, developing my pass rush. I feel like I had a really good spring. I’m hoping to have a really good fall and just get after it, have a better career-year. There’s so much more to do. Helping the team to win is the ultimate goal. I’m all about putting that W in the win column.”
Hudson’s goal of doing his best for his Wake Forest teammates is just another reminder of his feelings on community. While talking about the impact Coach Clawson has had on his community endeavors, the Demon Deacons’ defensive end reels off a list of his fellow football players who have helped give back in the local area.
His recognition belongs, he says, to the entire team.
“When they see my name,” Hudson insists, “everyone who has been with me and everyone who is a part of me, that’s also their name. I represent everybody who has been a part of it. I represent Wake, and I represent my teammates, and I represent my friends and family. When they see my name, it’s a culmination of them and everyone who has impacted me.”
Texas. Fayetteville. Winston-Salem. Cape Fear High School. Keith Hudson. Wake Forest University.
Friends. Family. Teammates. Coaches.
They are all forces that have contributed to and defined defensive end Hudson. They helped mold him, shape him. They have provided the catalyst, encouragement, and inspiration for everything that he wants to be and everything he wants to do.
“It’s a culmination of things,” Hudson summarises, ending with the two phrases that have dominated and defined our time together. “My dad has had a huge impact on it. My community and teammates have made me strive to be the change I seek and make sure I go out there and put my best foot forward, change lives, and be more than an athlete.”