Dad helps James Wilder Jr. through 'humbling' stay on practice squad

James Wilder Jr. led Cincinnati with 53 rushing yards, including a 2-yard TD in the preseason opener. AP Photo/Frank Victores

CINCINNATI -- Regularly last season, James Wilder Jr. talked about football with his well-known NFL father who shares his first and last name.

Many of those discussions revolved around playing time, and what Jr. needed to do in order to accept his role on the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad.

For a player who started at every level of football before arriving in the NFL, Wilder Jr.'s season-long stay on the practice squad became humbling. His season was filled with the same frustrations and uncertainties that all undrafted, first-year players experience. At times, he doubted himself. At others, he questioned his abilities.

Those were thoughts his dad didn't so readily encounter in the early 1980s while beginning a career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A second-round pick, Wilder Sr. started every game of the first eight years of his 10-season career. His experience was dramatically different from his son's, which caused some tension during a few of their conversations last year.

"I was like, 'Man, pop, you don't understand," Wilder Jr. said. "'You came in and started right away. You didn't have to go through practice squad.'"

True, he didn't. But Wilder Sr. still wants his son to stay motivated for a spot on the Bengals' 53-man roster. To do that, he told Jr. to reexamine his not-so-distant past.

Wilder Sr. reminded his son of the speeches he would always give walk-ons or down-on-the-depth-chart teammates at Florida State and Plant High School in Tampa, Florida.

"I'd say like, 'Give us a good look. This is your role right now. Keep grinding hard, earn yourself a scholarship,'" Wilder Jr. said. "Those are the type of things I preached."

Wilder Sr.'s response: "It's time now you practice what you preach."

Wilder Jr. will have the chance to do that Monday night when he returns home for a preseason game against his father's old team. When the Bengals visited the Buccaneers last November, Wilder Jr. traveled, but didn't play because he was on the practice squad.

As a preseason game this is the perfect opportunity for a young player like Wilder Jr. to prove himself and get a large number of in-game reps. In last week's preseason opener against the Giants, Wilder Jr. was part of 30 offensive snaps and five on special teams. He led the Bengals in rushing with 53 yards. He also pushed through with a 2-yard touchdown run.

He's hoping to build on that this week as he tries to work his way onto this year's 53-man roster.

"I've got to have a big game," Wilder Jr. said. "I've been kind of talking junk to my pops already. I'm like, 'You better sit on our side, man.' If I'm getting you a ticket, you better be on our side with the rest of the family. Don't be trying to go in the glass box and all that with the Bucs."

Whether Wilder Sr. dons orange and black in Raymond James Stadium for a night remains to be seen. But at the very least, he wants his son to make his team better.

"Don't be that selfish guy. Do what you can control. That's the thing he drilled into my head," Wilder Jr. said. "Just because you're on the practice squad, go out there and kill the starting defense. Do the little things to get noticed.

"I got it in my head that I'm making the team better, I'm giving them good looks, but at the same time I'm making myself better and I'm going to be noticed."