Now free, Wilson plans return to school and sports

FORSYTH, Ga. -- Genarlow Wilson is in the car in front of me, right now, as I type these words. It all seems so strange, and yet so normal, just another car, going along with traffic. He's with his mother and his sister, rolling down Interstate 75 North. Thirty-two months after he first went to prison, he's going home. They're doing the speed limit.

Down the road is his future. Suddenly, improbably, it's a bright one. He's been studying for the SAT in prison. He's been thinking about colleges.

"It's a whole new beginning," he said. "It's like a fresh breath. A whole new life."

Behind him is the state prison where he spent most of those 32 months. The journey that took him inside those walls has gained him national attention. When he was a senior in high school -- a star football player and homecoming king -- he went to a New Year's Eve party. Nothing was the same afterward.

At the party he and some friends drank, smoked pot and engaged in sexual activity. Among the problems, they videotaped it. One of the girls claimed she'd been raped. A jury, after seeing the home movie, acquitted Wilson on that charge. But the videotape also showed him receiving oral sex from a sophomore. That, according to Georgia law, was aggravated child molestation.

His nightmare began.

Through the entire legal battle, he refused to accept any plea that labeled him a child molester. His legal team fought to have laws changed. His lawyers lobbied legislators. They fought to have more laws changed. Former President Jimmy Carter spoke out on his behalf. Nothing seemed to work.

Finally, in June, a judge decreed that his sentence was cruel and unusual. Wilson thought he was getting out then. Then the state attorney general appealed.

Another false alarm.

"We've been up and down," he said.

After that, he learned not to get his hopes up. He learned to wait. On July 20, the Georgia Supreme Court heard the appeal. Then nothing. A month went by. Then two. Then three. Silence.

"I've read a lot of books about patience," he said.

Last night, he went to sleep in prison. He expected to spend tonight in prison, too.

But this morning, the fax machine at attorney B.J. Bernstein's office whirred to life: a 48-page decision from the Georgia Supreme Court. By the second page, she knew the news was good.

She called Wilson's mom, Juannessa Bennett, who ran around the house about 20 times before stopping to shower and brush her teeth.

"It was completely out of the blue," she said. "We had no idea."

And so began the crazy day. Midmorning, someone stopped Wilson at the prison. Reports on the radio said that he was getting out. He'd heard that before, so he tried not to get excited. Only when the warden signed the paper did he understand that this time it was real. He was getting out. His mother was coming to get him.

Like many people who've followed this case -- I interviewed Wilson at the prison about a year ago for an E-ticket -- I thought I'd have to wait the full 10 years of his sentence to see him walk out.

But there he was, at about 5:30 p.m., flanked by officials from the Burruss Correctional Training Center, making his way down the winding path, on the outside of the fence this time.

"My first priority is to try to get into school as soon as possible," he said. "I'm definitely looking to get back into sports."

He even cracked a joke. Moments after leaving prison, he was asked when the welcome home celebration was going to take place. He smiled.

"There are not gonna be any more parties for a while," he said.

When his impromptu news conference was finished, he got into the car. Guards carried a box with his things to him. Mostly, he had books, the ones that helped him get through.

His mother kept looking at him. Finally, her baby was coming home.

"I know we've got to put some meat on those bones," she said.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.