Adrian Wilson's loyalty to Cardinals paid off with Ring of Honor

Adrian Wilson is one of six players in NFL history with at least 25 interceptions and 25 sacks. ASSOCIATED PRESS/Paul Connors

TEMPE, Ariz. -- One play set the course for former Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson’s career.

In the first quarter of the Cardinals’ third preseason game in 2002 against the Denver Broncos, quarterback Brian Griese threw to tight end Shannon Sharpe off a bootleg. Wilson broke for the eight-time Pro Bowl tight end.

Wilson loved to hit. But, when he went to lay out Sharpe, he learned a lesson that became the blueprint for the next 13 years of his career: He was dealing with “grown-ass men.”

Wilson hit Sharpe’s thigh and held him to a 2-yard gain. But at 198 pounds, Wilson dislocated his shoulder. It was pain he’d never experienced. For the rest of the game, whenever he looked across the field at Sharpe, all he could think was:

“This dude is f-----g massive.”

Wilson learned on one play what it would take to be an NFL player.

“I’m going to have to really, really get into these weights,” Wilson recalled, sitting in back of his shoe store, High Point, in Scottsdale. “So, I really dedicated myself to the weight room, just changing my whole mentality of how I’m going to play the game and how I’m going to be, based off that one incident.”

The dedication paid off. Over the next decade, Wilson added more than 30 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame, transforming his body into a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first- or second-team All-Pro. At halftime of Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson will become the 15th member of the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

The added muscle helped Wilson go from being just a “tackler” to a hitter, former Cardinals free safety Kwamie Lassiter said. Asked to estimate how many players Wilson knocked out over the course of his career, he couldn’t come up with a number.

“A s--t ton,” he said.

Wilson finished his career as one of six players in NFL history with at least 25 interceptions and 25 sacks. Among defensive backs since 2001, he’s in the top 10 in six categories, including sacks (25.5), games played (181), solo tackles (714), total tackles (886), assisted tackles (172) and forced fumbles (14), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

When Wilson retired from the Cardinals in April after signing a two-day contract, his 181 games and 27 interceptions were sixth-most in team history, and his 25.5 sacks were 12th-most in the franchise’s record books.

If the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor ends up being the only post-retirement ceremony of Wilson’s career, he’s content with that.

“The Ring of Honor is my Hall of Fame,” Wilson said.

Wilson is enrolled in the Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship program with the Cardinals, which is designed for former players who are interested in getting into the personnel side. During training camp, he would walk to the back of the field at University of Phoenix Stadium and look at the 14 names hanging high above the field. Then he’d go home and study Aeneas Williams, Roger Wehrli, Larry Wilson, Dan Dierdorf, Marshall Goldberg, Ollie Matson and Charley Trippi, among the rest. Of the 14, 11 have been enshrined in Canton.

Wilson remained even-keel when talking about the Ring of Honor. But he knows the tears will flow Sunday.

“It’s one of those days where you never thought this would ever happen to you,” he said.

“To me, it’s everything. It means that I have helped this franchise turn a corner and move in a right direction and I did my part. Just like all those other names up there, they did their part in their own way.”

The Cardinals were 77-115 during Wilson’s 12 years, including 27 wins between 2007-2009, a stretch that included Arizona’s only Super Bowl appearance. He won just 32 games in his first six seasons, calling those early years in Arizona “probably the toughest thing I had to do in my life as far as continuing to believe in the franchise and the type of things they were saying that was going to happen.”

Wilson’s loyalty to Arizona might have cost him a gold jacket but not a spot in the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor. For 12 seasons in Arizona, he kept his head down and blocked out the losing, the coaching changes, the roster turnover. He just played.

And he just hit.

“I’d turn on these YouTube videos of the hardest hits ever and I’m never in none of them,” Wilson said. “It’s just like, ‘How am I a hard hitter if I’m never in none of these videos?’ Because they never heard of Adrian Wilson and they never heard of the Cardinals. That’s why.”