By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
The newspaper story, sent by the boy's mother, sat untouched on a table in Earl Campbell's Austin home. He couldn't bear to look, to gaze into the photos and see that face. His wife, Reuna, read the article and she wondered why he wouldn't too. After all, this was the son of his best friend in that newspaper, a child so familiar the boy referred to him as "Uncle Earl."
Read the story? Earl wanted to. More than anyone could ever know. He was so proud of Tim Wilson's son, now all grown up and a star cornerback at the University of Maryland. The boy was just like his father, happy, bright, naturally a leader. Back when they roamed the field as Houston Oilers -- Earl as the Hall of Fame running back and Tim as his blocker -- Tim was his mentor, his savior, his best friend.
"We were like brothers," Earl says.
But Tim had been gone for years, now, his big heart giving out one night in 1996. Earl had watched Josh Wilson grow up from afar, seen him blossom into a man.
Every day Reuna asked Earl if he had read the story on Josh yet. He said nothing.
He couldn't bring himself to pick it up.
Halfway across the country, Josh Wilson can barely contain his delight. He sits in the back of the Maryland football meeting room, always laughing. Always smiling. In a few days he will be drafted to play in the NFL just like his father. The chances are it will be sometime in the second round, meaning the wait tomorrow will be interminable.
But this is the day he wanted, the day he dreamed of ever since his mother Valanda told him on the day of the biggest youth football game of his life that his father had died. He would be a football player too, he said.
Now he will.
Josh carries in his wallet a football card of Tim Wilson, frozen forever on the sideline of a 1980 game, the sweat rolling down his face, the eyes steely, determined. Long ago, Josh put the card in a plastic sleeve but now the sleeve has split, its edges have worn. The card's corners are no longer sharp.
His girlfriend worries he might lose the card. What would happen then? Josh has other cards of his father, but for some reason this is the one that's special, the one he cherishes more than anything else. Why not get a tattoo of the picture, she suggested.
Josh Wilson hates needles. The thought of a needle digging into his skin for hours horrified him. But the face on that card is the face that is burned in his memory, the one he is certain has been looking over him for all these years. Yes, he said, he would get the tattoo. And so now Tim Wilson stares from his son's chest, right above the heart, every time he looks in a mirror.
There are times he is certain he feels his father. They come in the middle of games when magical things happen, things he can't explain, like that interception against Miami last season when he dove and somehow reached that pass that he tipped into the air before it fell in the arms of his teammate Trey Covington. Or that kick he ran back 100 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. He ran through what must have seemed like 10 tacklers without being touched.
Too much was going on. Josh is sure he had help those days, that it was Tim up there, along with his mother's parents who helped to raise him, all working together to place that football on his fingertips or move the Georgia Tech players out of the way.
"I know he has followed all this," Josh said. "I know he was looking down all proud. I make these plays and have no idea how I made them. I just know he has helped. This can't be it. This world is too painful and stressful to be it."
Tim Wilson played eight years in the NFL, mostly with the Oilers. Before that he was a star at Maryland, just like his son. In fact, it startled Josh recently as he stared at some of his father's old trophies, to notice that Tim had won the Ray Krouse Award as team MVP in 1976. Josh won the same award just weeks ago. Nobody even knew father and son had won it together.
Tim was finishing his football career when Josh came along. The son does not remember the father on the football field. But he holds dear the image of their last autumn together, the year Josh Wilson learned to play football.
This was when Josh was 11 years old. Tim and Valanda had divorced four years after his playing career was over. She moved back to Maryland with Josh and her daughter Talyce to be near her parents and settled in Upper Marlboro. Tim came soon after, in part to be closer to his children, and lived nearby in Landover.
Josh and Tim talked all the time. When a sports season started they had a contest to pick the eventual league champion. Josh always chose his favorite teams, like the Detroit Lions. Tim picked based on talent, taking the Dallas Cowboys. Invariably Tim was always right.
Among Josh's favorite memories were the Christmases when Tim would come over to the house, bearing toys, and stay all day through dinner. Once he came with a remote control car and Josh rolled all over the floor for hours driving the car down halls as his parents laughed. It was like they were a family again.
But it wasn't until that fall of 1996, that father and son really came close. This is when Tim convinced Valanda that their son, who tore through her home, banging into couches, needed to play football. Josh still remembers everything from that season. The team's name: Marlboro Mustangs. The colors: red, white and blue with white helmets. Their home field: Sasser Field. He even remembers their hated rival: Bradbury Heights.
And Tim was there for everything. When Josh wanted desperately to be a running back, Tim told him the coaches would give him a chance, but only one chance, and he would have to make everything of that opportunity. And when that chance did come, Josh grabbed the ball, despite not even knowing how to take a handoff, and raced 80 yards for a touchdown. After that he was the running back.
When they lost to Bradbury Heights, it was Tim who said "its all right you had a great game," and reminded the boy that sometimes a team could lose the game and it's not the fault of every player on the field.
Then on the day of the championship game, Josh took a phone call from Tim's new wife. She was crying and asked for Valanda. As soon as he handed the phone to his mother she screamed. Josh sensed something was wrong but it never occurred to him that his father was dead. It wasn't until after the Marlboro Mustangs had won the game and Valanda had taken Josh to dinner, then home that she told her children their father had had a heart attack at a nearby hotel.
"That's okay," Josh thought. "When will we get to see him?"
This is when Valanda said he was dead.
"The hardest day was when we actually went to the funeral," Josh said. "We got into the funeral home and I realized that 'this is the last time I am going to see my dad.' "
For a long time he couldn't hear his father's name without tears forming in his eyes. Kids would make comments, innocent comments, and he would explode, burying them in a hail of fists. His best friend later told him, "I never knew what to say about you, I was afraid you'd go off."
Many times he simply sat in his room, not wanting to come out, to talk to anyone. All he wanted to do was be alone.
"It must have been tough on my mom," he said.
Valanda Wilson became everything. Mother, father, best friend and chauffer. She was the one who forced him to do his homework, threatening to pull him off his teams if he got less than a 3.0 grade point average. She was the one who made meals, who drove him to school, who found ways to send her children to Catholic schools, including DeMatha High, which she figured to be safer than the local public schools.
When Josh ran track on local clubs, it was Valanda who drove home from work to take him to his workouts, scanning the trees to see if the field had lights. If it did, she felt dread, because this meant the practice would run long and she would be left to wait for him, sometimes as late as 10 p.m.
There were moments where he wondered where the money came for the tuition to the private schools. But then he would see his mother keep long hours, come home exhausted and make dinner and he began to understand.
"It finally occurred to me 'my mother didn't have a life,' " Josh said. "She didn't have a chance to be social. She had to work hard to make sure her children were happy. I realized that love she had for her children.
"People would say: 'why didn't she get married?' She didn't have time to get married. I was always playing sports and we were always running around to games. There was no break."
She worried at times that Josh had become obsessed with an idyllic vision of his father, the kind that can only be locked forever in the mind of an 11-year-old boy.
"When you don't have the physical person there you have to hang onto things just to keep them close to you and keep them active in your life," Valanda said. "It was hard for him. Especially when he was growing up and he would see the other fathers do things with their kids. It angered him when he didn't have one too. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that he was able to finally talk about it."
Then one day Josh came up to her, and she remembers he said: "Mom I idolized him. But it was a point where I was idolizing someone who was perfect and he wasn't perfect."
Maybe he never knew how hard Tim's death was on Valanda as well. She had dated her husband since their freshman year at Maryland and then when they moved to Houston together they became the best of friends with Earl and Ruane. The four of them went out at night, dancing in the nightclubs.
Earl and Tim had a persona. They were the Blues Brothers, just like in the movie. Earl was Jake , the short one and Tim played Elwood , tall and lean. They wore their black Raybans. Tim even put on the black hat. Everyone in Houston knew Earl and Tim as the Blues Brothers. And when they were out, people would call for them to put on their show until the dance floor finally cleared and the Oilers star and his lead blocker would do the Blues Brothers dance.
Tim taught Earl everything: how to do interviews, how to act in public, how to go to restaurants. Earl always planned to make Tim a part of the meat company he started in Texas. Then Tim died. And when word came of his friend's death, Earl was so distraught he couldn't even come to the funeral.
But the families are still close, so close that Valanda finally had to tell Josh four years ago that Uncle Earl was not really an uncle, just a very, very good friend. And even though Josh does not know it, Earl has watched him carefully these last several years, getting updates over the phone and checking out Maryland games whenever they're on television.
He has two boys of his own, Tyler, a running back at San Diego State and Christian, who works for an advertising agency. They have a famous father and yet he says they both admire Josh, they love to watch him. And in many ways, it is their cousin they look up to.
For as much as he sees Tim in Josh, it is Valanda who has made her son. She gave up a dream too, to get her master's in business administration _ something she started when she first moved back to Maryland. She was always too busy, with two kids there was never enough time. Finally, last year, she finished, 21 years after she started.
"I'll tell you this," Earl said. "President Bush should read this. Because if he could spend time with Valanda and talk to her then the Nobel Prize would be given to her. She has done an amazing job."
And, yes, Earl Campbell did pick up that newspaper story. He packed in his bag and took it to work one day, waiting until his secretary had left and the room was quiet. He unfolded the page and read about the child who grew up without a father yet still seemed so much like his best friend.
And there in the silence, with no one to hear, the great Earl Campbell began to cry.