Two years ago, this Rockford East athlete was shot in the face. Now he's a football hero

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Printess Wynn poses for a photo during football practice at East High School in Rockford. Wynn two years ago was shot in the face during the mass shooting at Don Carter Lanes. He has recovered to return to East as a three-sport athlete.

ROCKFORD — Printess Wynn’s 14th Christmas didn’t last long.

One day later, on Dec. 26, 2020, the Rockford teenager was left in critical condition after being shot in the face at a local bowling alley in a mass shooting that left three dead and three wounded.

Then, last spring, his family’s apartment burned down after a stove fire. Yet Wynn doesn’t feel cursed. He feels blessed.

“I thank God for the opportunity he gave me,” said Wynn, now a junior cornerback for the East football team, which improved to 2-2 last week with a 22-14 win clinched by Wynn’s final-minute interception in the end zone.

“This moment made me think about my future and how I carry myself and who to be around and where to be at the right place," he said. “God gave me another chance. I am just grateful for all of the things he has given me and the path I am taking."

From the outside, Wynn looks unscarred. Doctors stitched his face up from the inside. No scars are noticeable on his face. Yet he still carries that bullet with him. It penetrated his left cheek and remains lodged in his right jaw.

“It’s still here. I can feel it sometimes when I move my jaw,” Wynn said. “They said the bullet might move, but they said they couldn’t take it out because it was too dangerous. It was too close to my eyes and my temple. They will just see how it is and where it goes. If it moves, they may take it out.”

Wynn never thought much about the bullet. Or even his face afterward. He thought about football and returning to the field.

“I was just glad that I was alive and that God gave me a second chance,” he said. “I didn’t really care how it looked. I just cared about getting back on the field, and I was trying to rush the process.”

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Making the game-saving play

There was no rushing the process Friday when he played hero to help East hold off Auburn.

“We talked to him all game,” East defensive back/running back Deterrace Dotson said. “We told him it was coming to him. I’m just glad he executed and caught the pick. He won the game for us, man, Printess won the game.”

Wynn did it by keeping the ball away from the NIC-10’s leading receiver, Athavion Coleman, who specializes in outjumping defenders and wrestling away 50-50 balls.

“I tried to rip it out of his hands,” Coleman said, “but he had a good grip on it so I couldn’t take it away. He caught it first.”

East's Printess Wynn drives the ball against Sycamore on Monday, June 27, 2022, at East High School in Rockford.

Returning to sports after tragedy

Being able to show up on the football field again is one of the things that helped Wynn develop such a positive attitude despite the horrible things that have happened to him.

“Sports has always been a getaway for me,” he said. “Football, I was thirsty to get back out here, because that is where my passion is at. My mom told me that I couldn’t play (at first after the shooting). It just broke my heart. I was ready to get back out here.”

Now that Wynn is back playing again, he is an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. Wynn also was a varsity high jumper on the track team as a sophomore and was on East’s varsity basketball team this summer.

“It would be really easy for someone to get down and feel sorry for themselves about everything that has happened,” East basketball coach Roy Sackmaster said, “but he still has a smile on his face and still comes and values the opportunities he has to be an athlete. That right there tells you what kind of kid he is. In life, people get dealt a bad hand. You can either pick yourself up and keep on moving or let it define you. You appreciate that he has taken that and considers it a blessing in a way.

“I am very grateful to be able to coach and know a kid who has an outlook on life that. It has made me step back and look at things with a different perspective on my own life. It shows how good I’ve had it compared to what he has already gone through at a young age.”

Diane Wynn, left, with Printess Wynn, a 15-year-old who was shot in the December mass shooting at Don Carter Lanes, advocates for gun violence prevention on Friday, April 30, 2021, at Spirit of Truth Church in Rockford.

Focused on the future

Wynn doesn’t know how many stitches he needed. He hasn’t followed the legal process during which Duke Webb, a 37-year-old serviceman in the Army Special Forces, was charged with the murders at Don Carter Lanes and faces his next court date on Oct. 28.

Wynn just thinks about being alive and of all the things he can still do in his life after running to safety despite being shot in the face.

“I was running, saying I got shot, but I didn’t realize I got shot until I stopped and looked at it,” Wynn said. “I had such an adrenaline rush I couldn’t feel it.

“The moment is mind-blowing. You wouldn’t expect nothing like that to happen. It’s very traumatizing. It opened my eyes about life. My mom thinks my attitude changed, but I just became more to myself and not that happy anymore. I am more focused. I don’t think my attitude changed much. I got more mature. That’s the right word to say.

“And I’m kind of happy again since I’m playing football. I thank God for the opportunity he gave me. Without it, I don’t know what would have happened. I thank God a lot. I am just thankful that I am still alive. After everything that happened, I know something big for me is going to happen.”

Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and three years covering the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.