There is something special about senior year in high school. It’s a particularly bittersweet time, the pinnacle of the high school experience meets the final year enjoying the friendships and familiarities developed over years.
For high school football players, it’s a similarly sentimental time, as it marks the final season spent under the Friday night lights. We spoke with several NFL players to discuss what makes this time in life so unique, and to share some of the lessons they’d like to impart to the Class of 2012. Our first installment featured Rams rookie defensive end Robert Quinn and the lessons he learned during a trying season. In our second edition we spoke with Cleveland Browns tight end Ben Watson. This past week we profiled Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant and how he overcame a tough neighborhood and found his path to a long and rewarding football career.
In this week's installment we spoke with Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson about his challenging path to the pros and how his high school career helped shape his future.
Check back every Wednesday for the next two weeks for another installment of Senior Season.
George Wilson’s path to becoming a standout NFL safety was long and winding and required substantial sacrifices along the way. He learned to love the game at a young age, watching his older brother play for Paducah Tilghman (Paducah, Ky.) versus Mayfield (Ky.) in the storied Kentucky high school football rivalry.
“There is just so much history and tradition in this deep-rooted rivalry,” Wilson said of the football conflict that dates back to 1911. “I remember watching the pep rallies as a kid and looking forward to the day that I’d be in the games playing for Paducah. No matter our records this was the game of the year. We had Mayfield Week; we’d have events all week and it would culminate with the burning of Mr. Mayfield. Art students at our school would make a fake football player out of chicken wire and stuff him with newspaper and hay and at the pep rally he’d get thrown into the bonfire and everyone went crazy for it. It’s a bitter rivalry, but also one of deep respect and it’s always in good fun.”
When Wilson went to his 10-year reunion at Paducah Tilghman a few years ago, he and his former teammates shared stories about the good times.
“Most of what we really remembered were the little things,” Wilson said. “Making jokes on the bus rides and the times in the locker room. Some crazy plays made at practice or how hard two-a-days were and running the stadium stairs was. We talked about some games, but most of what seems important years later were the friendships and bonds we all made during those years growing up. It was just a really special time in our lives.
“For me, what I remember clearly was the feeling in the huddle and looking around and knowing that I grew up with these guys and how we were all in it together,” said Wilson.
As a two-time all-state wide receiver Wilson was heavily recruited and ended up playing for Houston Nutt at Arkansas. He ended his Razorbacks career second all-time in receptions and third all-time in receiving yards in school history. But when it came to the NFL, he went undrafted and signed with the Detroit Lions shortly after the 2004 draft. He was relegated to special teams and practice squad duties until a rare opportunity presented itself in 2007 while with the Bills.
“I had been in the league for three years and wasn’t really seeing the field as a wide receiver,” said Wilson. “But I did well on special teams and coaches saw how aggressive and fearless I was. In college, my position coach, James Shibest, taught me that I need to focus on becoming a great football player, and not just a receiver, and I took that to heart. I was asked to make a position change to safety, and I hadn’t played defense since high school. I knew this could be my way onto the field and I didn’t take it as an insult, but rather that they appreciated something in me that I was able to make such a tough transition. For any player being asked to make a really tough decision like this, try and focus on the team and how you might be able to help.
“I had the chance to broaden my football knowledge and use the tools I learned as a wide receiver for so long in this new role,” said Wilson, who has thrived as starting NFL safety and team captain ever since making the shift. “To be a part of a team you have to truly put the team first and make sacrifices. If this meant that I needed to learn an entirely new position and say goodbye to the one that I had worked on for so many years, then that is what the team needed.
“My first NFL start was on Monday Night Football against the Cowboys, the team I grew up watching in my living room, and I hadn’t made a catch or clearly ever scored a touchdown in the NFL after years as a wide receiver. On the third play of the game Tony Romo overthrew Jason Witten and I intercepted it and took it in for a touchdown. It was a little piece of heaven; eight to 10 seconds of joy after 16 years of hard work. It was all worth it.”