What Sean Dykes learned from mom's cancer fight that kept him with Memphis football for six seasons
Six tight end coaches in six seasons. Three quarterbacks. Two head coaches. It was a revolving door of personnel as he remained a fixture in the locker room.
Dykes stayed with the Tigers (6-6) and will play his final game Friday (7 p.m., ESPN) in the Hawaii Bowl against Hawaii (6-7). But his sense of commitment comes from watching his mother battle through breast cancer for five years.
Jessica Dykes died when Sean was 13. She never got to see him develop into a high school standout in Houston or become Memphis’ all-time leader in touchdowns and catches by a tight end.
Yet Dykes carries her memory into every game. Even though he twice thought about transferring, she stayed on his mind to stick through adversity and fight just like she did.
“That’s who I play for. She always told me never quit and that always stuck with me anytime I ever thought about it. That was the hardest time of my life,” Sean Dykes said.
Football runs in Dykes’ family from his father Billy playing at Oklahoma to his uncle Hart Lee being a consensus All-American at Oklahoma State. His dad often worked out with him to improve his pass catching and in junior high, he ran drills with his uncle.
His mother was one of his biggest fans, too. At a young age, Dykes didn’t fully understand the cancer’s impact but he learned in time as he remembered seeing her physical appearance change.
When she died, it gave his dad flashbacks of losing his mother at age 38. Father and son tried to comfort each other, and the father tried to teach his son how to keep going while processing grief.
“When he was down, I would tell him, ‘Hey I miss her too, but I still have to go to work.’ We still have bills to pay. We can’t just give up,” Billy Dykes said.
The journey to Memphis
It carried over in Sean Dykes' football journey. At Manvel High School with multiple Division I recruits, he had to fight for reps before becoming a standout receiver catching passes from future Miami quarterback D’Eriq King.
When he got to Memphis, he was told by then-tight ends coach Chip Long and former coach Mike Norvell they envisioned him more as an H-back who would block as much as receive. But when he struggled as a freshman, he told his father he wanted to transfer.
His dad wouldn’t hear it.
“I said, 'Hey man, don’t call me with it. They told you what you would play when you got there and they kept their word,' ” Billy Dykes said. “I told him sometimes it can be tough but it’s a matter of checking your heart to see what you got. To see if they can rely on you and if you’re accountable.”
Long also told Sean Dykes that if he wanted to catch more passes, he had to block more. So Dykes began improving in that area. In 2017, he caught the game-winning touchdown at Houston to cap a 17-point comeback win and had three catches for 161 yards in the AAC Championship game.
He expected a bigger junior year but his numbers dropped in 2018. Things got worse the next season when he had to medically redshirt after four games.
“It was a let-down and at that point, I was feeling like an underachiever just because I had more yards as a sophomore than I did as a junior,” Sean Dykes said.
After the Cotton Bowl, Dykes again considered transferring but met with new coach Ryan Silverfield who made a strong pitch for him to stay. He said they’d feature him more in the offense and get him the ball.
He also heard his mother’s voice in his head telling him not to quit.
“She would tell me I was running from competition or running from things that are in my way,” Sean Dykes said. “I just know that’s not what she wanted me to do.”
In his final two seasons, he has caught 95 passes for 1,238 yards and 14 touchdowns and was an All-AAC first-team selection this season. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver this year behind Calvin Austin III.
Dykes’ journey came full circle when the Tigers faced Tulane in the regular season finale. Long, who was Tulane’s offensive coordinator, told him postgame how proud he was of his growth and it was exactly what the coaches envisioned for him.
It was also a path his mother would be proud of. When things got tough at Memphis, he pushed on knowing he had been through tougher roads. He also thought about his favorite lesson from Norvell.
“How you respond to adversity is not about what happens when you get knocked down, it’s about what happens when you get back up,” Sean Dykes said. “That’s something he preached and something I took away from him as a tool for football and life.”
His dad is glad his son stuck it out. He knows it wasn’t easy but to watch him grow through it made it worthwhile knowing his mother would be as proud as he is.
“He loves Memphis so to watch his journey, to hear the love on senior day. To maintain and stay focused and believe in Silverfield. To continue to grow and stay put, it speaks volumes about his character and how he is. It’s been a cool journey,” said Billy Dykes.
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