When Wilson signed with his hometown team last month, Valanda blew up the picture as a gift. “Did you ever think,” she asked him, “that you were actually going to be wearing an official Redskins uniform?”
Wilson, 26, is expected to start at cornerback opposite DeAngelo Hall when the Redskins open the preseason Friday night, coming full circle in a career that was born in Prince George’s County and will return there when the Redskins face the Pittsburgh Steelers at FedEx Field.
“Now I’m actually home,” Wilson said.
That he made it to the NFL is not a surprise to anyone in his family. Football is in Wilson’s blood.
But his journey — from DeMatha High to the University of Maryland, to the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens before Washington — began with a life-altering day nearly 15 years ago.
As he ran around the field in celebration on a November day in 1996, Wilson, 11 years old at the time, sensed something was off.
His youth football team had just won a title in his first season of organized football, but his mother stood on the sideline with a “weird” look on her face, Wilson said. His father, Tim Wilson, was nowhere to be found.
“I didn’t see him,” Wilson said. “So I didn’t know what could have came up, that’s what I was thinking.”
Tim Wilson had played eight years in the NFL as a fullback for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. He opened holes for Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell. As a younger child, Josh would run through the couch cushions downstairs at his home in Upper Marlboro, replicating the running style of his father and “Uncle Earl.”
When Josh Wilson returned home that day, his aunt sat him down. His father had died of a heart attack at age 42.
“A moment in my life that will forever be stuck in my memory,” Wilson said. “And from then on, I noticed I was going to have to do this by myself. I wasn’t going to have my dad to push me.”
Wilson hardly found himself alone, however. His outgoing personality had a way of attracting people to him — even if at first it created conflict.
As a freshman at DeMatha, Wilson sought out one of the school’s established players, Dennard Wilson, who went on to star at Maryland and play for the Redskins. “You’re Dennard Wilson, I’m going to be better than you,” Josh Wilson told him.
“A lot of people would have taken that the wrong way, but I was like, ‘This kid really believes in himself,’ ” said Dennard Wilson, now a pro scout for the Chicago Bears. “Anything I could do to help, I was willing to do for him. . . . He just took off.”
McNamara High Coach Bryce Bevill, then Josh Wilson’s position coach at DeMatha, became a trusted counselor. Wilson’s uncles also took a bigger role in his life.
“I was a boy and they made sure I took all the steps to be a man,” Wilson said.
A first-team All-Met as a senior at DeMatha, Wilson would go on to star at Maryland. He appeared in 46 of 48 games, starting 28, and was selected by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft.
Wilson spent three seasons in Seattle, recording six interceptions in 24 starts, before he was traded to the Ravens last season. He played in 14 games, starting nine, and recorded 14 passes defended and three interceptions.
Needing to shore up a starting cornerback spot, Washington signed Wilson to a three-year, $13.5 million deal when free agency began.
Wilson said he has been driven by a lesson his father delivered at the start of that first season of organized football.
“My dad said: ‘You’re going to get one opportunity and you gotta take it. Because in life you get one opportunity to be great and if you’re not ready for the opportunity you’re going to miss it,’” Wilson recalled. “I’ve always taken that advice my dad gave me . . . and I play every play like this is my opportunity.”
On his left pectoral muscle, Wilson has a tattoo of his father, copied from a trading card Wilson still carries with him, the words, “forever in my heart” etched around the image.
After a recent Redskins practice, Wilson walked over to greet his family — his mother and two cousins, clad in Redskins gear, and an uncle and close friend.
“I definitely think he’s upstairs and watching,” Josh Wilson said of his father, “and happy and glad at everything I’m doing.”