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Damon's Determination, a journey of perseverance

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Craig Wollman
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South Dakota Public Broadcasting

You might know who Damon Wilkinson is, because of his play on the court, but behind the scenes, the De Smet senior basketball standout has had quite the journey.

From a hunting accident to the loss of a grandparent on the eve of the state tournament – he’s battled through adversity to get where he is today.

Today, Wilkinson stands at nearly 6’10, but as a kid, he started his journey like most do, playing ball with his friends in the gym. And in De Smet, because of their history with the sport, it's easy to fall in love with the game.

“We grew up going to all those games. I remember when It was 2013, our boys made it to the state tournament, they got fifth or sixth place,” explained Damon. Me, [Kalen Garry] and [Rett Osthus] all said to each other, "How cool would that be to go win that?"”

In 2020, Damon’s freshman year, COVID canceled the state tournament. During his sophomore season, the Bulldogs won the state championship. And while that moment of achieving the ultimate prize was memorable to say the least, for Damon, the 2020-2021 run was a struggle off the court.

In December of 2020, Damon was out pheasant hunting with a group of people. As they walked a field, a bird got up, a shotgun went off, and Damon fell to the ground.

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Brittani Wilkinson
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Damon's hunting vest and the shells that were in his vest pocket

“I was in shock, so I didn't feel anything,” stated Damon. “Then my brother Grant, he said he was like five yards away from that, just in a different direction. He said that I fell straight to the ground and he thought I was dead there then, but I thought I didn't do anything. I thought I just stood there.”

“I was at home with my two youngest children, it was before Christmas, we were making cookies, watching "Home Alone." The phone was on speaker, I get a phone call, it says,"Damon's been shot, you need to meet him at the ER." Immediately, my two little kids, my two youngest thought he was dead,” said Brittani Wilkinson, Damon’s mom. “I didn't know what to expect either, at the time, I just went straight to the ER. Here was a kid that played basketball the night before, a big strong guy, and they were lifting him out of the pickup, blood all over, and placing him in a wheelchair, to wheel him into the emergency room in De Smet.”

Damon had been hit in the lower abdomen, and there was immediate worry about the extent of the injury.

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Brittani Wilkinson
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Damon Wilkinson's gunshot wound

“They were very concerned about all of the holes, possibly penetrating a lung. I didn't think of that at the time, but they did airlift him to Sioux Falls and then he had two surgeries, he had one (bee bee) in his bladder, and a few in his stomach, they removed one of those. In hindsight, we were just lucky that he survived, that he didn't get one in the lung, or the face," Brittani stated. "We're just very fortunate that he survived.”

While in the hospital, Damon began asking doctors about playing basketball again.

“I never really saw him cry until... he basically asked every doctor, every surgeon, every nurse, "When can I play basketball? I've got a game on Tuesday, am I going to have to miss that?" Every form of asking every doctor, "When can I play basketball again," came out and finally, one doctor said, "You're probably going to have to miss some basketball," and that was the only time I really saw him cry during the whole process,” said Brittani. “That was devastating to him.”

The real question was, how long would Damon be out? You’d certainly think that after being shot, it would be a long time, if at all, that you could return to the court. But miraculously Damon was back on the court in just nine days. Yes – he returned to playing action in less than two weeks.

“Right after his accident there, he came back to play against Dell Rapids St. Mary's, and I think he put up 20 and 20 in that game,” said De Smet head coach Jeff Gruenhagen. “That was nine days later, after he had been shot. And just that he could tough it out. And the rest of his teammates really bought into that fact, that he just gutted that game out because he wanted to. That was the kind of guy he was going to become.”

“I just remember all the fans getting up and cheering and it was really loud and it was heartwarming,” Damon exclaimed. “I remember a guy said, “how in the world are you running up and down the court right now?””

After surviving a hunting accident, and returning to play in just a short window, things were looking up for Damon. The team was winning, Damon was seeing his minutes increase, and the Bulldogs were proving to be a top contender in Class B.

Misfortune would strike again for Damon the day before the state tournament began. The team was loading the bus bound for Aberdeen when he received word that his grandpa Bill suddenly passed away.

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Brittani Wilkinson
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Damon talking to his grandpa Bill

“That was probably the worst experience of my life. Me and my cousin (Colt) got told that. We both sit in the back of the bus and neither of us wanted to get off the bus to walk,” Damon told. “We had just tried to keep a straight face. And once we got on the bus and then finally halfway through the trip, some of the seniors came and talked to us because Jeff (Gruenhagen) got informed that my grandpa died. So yeah, they were talking to us on the way up and it was, yeah, I just thought of him before each game.”

“It was a hard thing, but it was great that he was able to be around friends and teammates to help him through it and he played, he said he played those games for his grandpa, but that was very unfortunate,” Damon’s mom said. “He still managed to earn all-tournament team that year, so he did well at the state tournament, but he was able to play through that too.”

“To be honest with you, the adrenaline kind of wore it off. But I mean, you still, that's always still in the back of your head somewhere,” Damon told. “That stuff just doesn’t go away. And then after we won it, I went and talked to my grandma.”

De Smet won the state title in 2021 and again in 2022. Now, as a senior, Damon has stepped into a primary leadership role with De Smet, and, once again, the Bulldogs returned to the state tournament.

“I'm very proud of that guy, A, for what he's gone through. But this year, just the way he's handled himself, and people are double teaming him, and beating him up pretty good. And he's kept his head,” explained coach Gruenhagen. “Just the way he's played and handled himself, and turned in to be more of a leader, where he didn't have to do that the last couple years just because we were full of great guys that were doing that. And he learned from them and just kept on going. So that makes me proud that he did that. And I don't know if he's reached his potential yet. I think he's just going to keep getting a little bit better.”

“It's exciting, we're excited to be back,” exclaimed Brittani. “He's a senior and with missing Kalen Garry, it was questioned whether we would make it back to the state tournament and of course we did, this team's pulled together.”

Damon’s legacy is also special to the Wilkinson family. He’s the oldest of four kids. Both his parents also played basketball in high school for De Smet. His mom Brittani was a part of the very first girls team in school history to make it to the state tournament (1994). His dad Mark was on the 1995 Bulldogs team that won the state ‘B’ title.

On the eve of this year’s state tournament, Damon attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) dinner with teammates where he reflected on his journey.

“That kind of hit home for me because [the speaker] was talking about a guy that had a tumor in his jaw. He had a couple days to live and he is talking about, give all your effort cause you never know when your last day was going to be,” said Damon, who thought back to his sophomore season hunting accident. “It just kind of hit home because I could have been dead there and then never played another basketball game ever again.”

Damon Wilkinson is currently undecided on his college plans, but he did make one thing clear – he still loves the game of basketball.

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Craig Wollman
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Nate Wek is currently the sports content producer and sports and rec beat reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of South Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism Broadcasting and a minor in Leadership. From 2010-2013 Nate was the Director of Gameday Media for the Sioux Falls Storm (Indoor Football League) football team. He also spent 2012 and 2013 as the News and Sports Director of KSDJ Radio in Brookings, SD. Nate, his wife Sarah, and two kids Braxan and Jordy, live in Canton, SD.