SAN DIEGO – A pair of Chargers gawked as they left the practice field, eyes fixed on the No. 42 blur.
“Hey, check it out,” one of the players said.
“What is he doing?” the other chuckled, curious and cynical.
The habit that the undrafted linebacker started at South Florida carries more than a cursory significance.
“I had tragedy strike in my family,” Wilson said. “I lost two of my brothers and I just dedicate my run to them every day. I just make it an initiative to run on and off the field every day. That’s just (a) little thing I can do in remembrance of them.”
As he attempts to recruit every muscle fiber in his body toward swarming NFL running backs and tight ends, it’s no wonder second effort and hustle punctuate his football arsenal. Wilson’s childhood left him with a choice: Press forward or fold.
The two brothers he lost last year were more than a man should have to take, but they weren’t the only tragedies Wilson has faced.
His father was murdered when he was three. His oldest brother went to jail a few years later. He joined a gang, the 191 Boys, as a teenager and engaged in behavior that frightened his mother, Glenda Marshall, and attracted attention from police in Miami’s Carol City. After an arrest for a petty crime, she requested the court send her son to Bay Point, an alternative boarding school for at-risk teens. It was there that Wilson played organized football for the first time.
Now he wants to provide for Marshall, who worked multiple jobs to support her nine children.
“My mom is my world. Everything I do is trying to provide for her and do things that she wasn’t able to do for me,” Wilson said. “She’s literally the strongest person I know. Just to see her throughout the process, she’s what held me strong. I only saw my mom cry once throughout the whole tragedy. I commend her for it and she’s a really, really strong woman.
“She raised all of us by herself. There was no time for playing. It was all business. Things got a little rough, but she always was there and she did what it took to provide for us.”
Marshall got a job in Jacksonville and moved her family there and Wilson enrolled at Raines High School. He channeled his energy and passion into sports, becoming one of the rarest athlete combinations you’ll find. There are not many successful distance runners with bulging biceps and barrel chests. As a 210-pound Division I linebacker prospect, Wilson ran cross country, completing his fastest 5,000-meters in less than 18 minutes.
“A lot of people always asked, ‘Why’d you do it, why’d you do it?’ but running cross country is one of the best things I did,” he said. “My conditioning, just the mental toughness that you have when your body’s literally breaking down. You still have to push through. Not only did it give me the physical toughness but the mental toughness to play this game.”
Wilson made 93 tackles, intercepted a pass and recorded a sack during his senior season for the Bulls, which earned him first-team All-Big East. During a win at Florida State, he dislocated a finger as a cut on his hand required 26 stitches. He missed about six minutes of game action. Later, he played through strained groin and quad muscles.
Wilson needs to improve his speed and efficiency to compete with the pace of NFL players but benched 225 pounds 27 times and recorded a 36.5-inch vertical leap at the combine.
The 6-foot, 240-pound inside linebacker remains an unsafe bet to make the Chargers roster, but he will not guard himself from the emotional shock that could await, instead exploiting his feelings to bolster his audition.
The prospect of unfavorable odds doesn’t daunt him at this point.
“As of now, there is no holding back. You have one opportunity, and when that opportunity comes, how will you handle it?” Wilson said. “Right now I’m giving my all. This is my life right now. This is my passion. This is what I do. I’m trying to establish myself and just be able to provide for myself, make a living, and I won’t let anything stop me.”