There are occasions, certainly the most dire or tragic of circumstances, when a child can't help but become father to the man.
One might assume that, for Stanford cornerback Stanley Wilson, a first-day prospect in the 2005 NFL draft, such an emotional and profound role reversal moment might have come long ago. But in speaking of his father, arguably one of the most notorious characters in recent league history, Stanley Wilson the younger demonstrates no chink in the armor of respect.
His father, he quickly asserted recently, is still the man. And he remains, the younger Wilson insisted, a loving and unwaveringly proud son.
"He's still my father, still the man that I've always listened to and loved, and I've never tried to run away from the name," said Wilson, during a break at the recent Indianapolis scouting combine workouts. "Some people, they don't have their father anymore, you know, because he's passed on. I'm lucky. My father is still alive. Even in his current [circumstances], well, he's still here. And I'm still the son who looks up to him."
The elder Stanley Wilson, of course, became a football pariah when, as a starting fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals, he suffered a relapse in his long battle against a cocaine addiction on the eve of Super Bowl XXIII. Missing from the team hotel, absent from meetings, Wilson was finally found by running backs coach Jim Anderson in his hotel room, where he had collapsed on the bathroom floor, drug paraphernalia at his side.
Wilson did not play in the game, one of the most exciting finishes in Super Bowl history, a contest won by the San Francisco 49ers on Joe Montana's last-minute touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor. In the Cincinnati offensive game plan, Bengals coach Sam Wyche had created a significant role for Wilson. With his versatile fullback headed to drug rehab, and to subsequent banishment from the league, Wyche was forced less than 24 hours before kickoff to dramatically alter his blueprint.
Stanley Wilson the father, suspended for both the 1985 and 1987 seasons by the NFL for his drug-related violations, was then booted out of the league for good after his Super Bowl recidivist cocaine binge. Currently he is in the state prison at Lancaster, Calif., near Los Angeles, six years into a 22-year sentence imposed after a March 1999 conviction for stealing $130,000 worth of property from a Beverly Hills residence to fund his drug habit.
There has been speculation, but never any verification, that the older Wilson suffers from manic-depression. There is no bipolar element, though, separating father and son.
Six years old at the time of his father's most publicly egregious indiscretion, and raised by his paternal grandparents, the younger Stanley Wilson remains in close contact with his father. The two speak frequently about life, about football, about almost everything.
If there is a certain sensitivity that overcomes Wilson when prodded about his father's situation, it is understandable. He still recalls attending Super Bowl XXIII, wearing a replica of his father's uniform jersey, as a "surreal" event. But the incarceration of his dad is very real, indeed, and something with which he deals on a daily basis.
He isn't about to turn his back on his father, his heritage, his lineage. But the younger Wilson certainly has moved forward in terms of creating a productive and meaningful life for himself. Described by former Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, who recruited him, as "a terrific young man," Wilson has been a success on and off the field.
Anderson, still the running backs coach for the Bengals and a man who has maintained close contact with Wilson's grandparents, Henry and Beverly Wilson, gushes about him. Henry Wilson calls his grandson "a joy."
Just two courses shy of his degree in Urban Studies, he carries a 3.5 grade-point average, was a student senator and mentors youngsters at an East Palo Alto after-school center. Wilson's eventual goal is to work, in some capacity, in an inner-city environment.
But given his recent advances on the field, where he has become a viable first-day prospect because of a solid senior season and excellent work at the Senior Bowl and the combine, that life's work may have to be delayed for several years. His father was a ninth-round draft choice. The consensus on the younger Wilson, who started 29 games at Stanford, is that he probably will be selected in the first three rounds on April 23.
A onetime track standout, and one of Stanford's best sprinters in individual and relay events over a four-year stretch, Wilson began in 2004 to combine notable toughness with his natural speed. He caught the attention of scouts by starting all 11 games, after a junior year in which he was part of a three-player cornerback rotation, and had 54 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed.
For his career, Wilson registered 115 tackles, five interceptions and 22 pass deflections. He breaks well on the ball, is aggressive in coming up to support the run, and has more than enough catchup speed.
At the combine, he did nothing to reverse his rising stock, measuring 5-foot-11¾ and 185 pounds and performing well in workouts. His 4.36-second time in the 40 was sixth-fastest among a speedy group of cornerback prospects and he had a 38-inch vertical jump. He also scored a 31 on the Wonderlic test, an IQ-type quiz administered to players, second highest among cornerbacks.
There seems little doubt that, 16 years after his father left the league in shame, Wilson, 22, will come into the NFL with his head high. And little doubt in his mind, it seems, that his father helped inspire him to aspire to greatness.
And now, Stanley Wilson the younger insisted, he hopes to give back to a father who has provided him more guidance than most outsiders might suspect.
"He's never made excuses," said Wilson. "Where he's at, what he's going through, it has to be tougher than he ever lets on, and I know that. So maybe knowing that I might be in the NFL, that I might bring the family name back to the league and have a good career well, maybe that will be some motivation for him, too."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.