An End Beats the Odds
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Chris Wilson sat in a tub of ice water long after practice had ended and most of his teammates had showered, his arms flung back, his legs outstretched, basking in even the most uncomfortable of rituals in the NFL. No one ever expected him to play on these fields or dip in this water, and he just can't stop smiling.
The late-afternoon ice bath, a post-practice staple to cool down in the summer, was a time to savor a journey that has taken him from the peril and blight of Flint, Mich., to a tiny business college, the Canadian Football League and now Redskins Park. An undersize, undrafted defensive end -- just another anonymous training-camp body -- was practicing with Washington's starters, harrying quarterbacks in exhibition games and allowing himself to consider the preposterous notion that he might crack the 53-man roster.
And then, eight days ago, there it was: Chris Wilson DE 6-4 246 Northwood University, his name just below Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington on the list. Wilson had overcome his size (many NFL ends are 30 pounds heavier), inexperience and long odds. Even if he never plays more than a game or two -- and in this transient league careers are often marked in days, weeks and months rather than years -- Wilson, 25, has shattered expectations as the least likely member of the 2007 Washington Redskins.
"I'm just happy to be here, for the opportunity to even experience this," said Wilson, who will make the lowest non-guaranteed salary the NFL allows this year ($285,000) on a team of millionaires. "I just always felt like anything I set my mind to, I can do, and I know there's a lot of other kids just like myself. I want them to have a chance to see themselves like I see myself. It can happen for anybody."
Gregg Williams, the Redskins assistant head coach-defense, intimated that Wilson, who has been given jersey number 95, will take the field today when the Redskins open the season against the Miami Dolphins at FedEx Field, possibly in passing situations.
"He's a hard kid not to love," said Adam Gonzaga, the defensive coordinator who coached Wilson at Northwood University near Flint. "He's a very special young man. I've been to Chris's neighborhood, and anything you picture about Flint, it was right there. There were drugs and guns and kids running around the streets, and Chris never even paid attention to that stuff. It was like he didn't even know it was there."
Getting Out of Flint
The economy in Flint, named the third-most dangerous city in the United States in 2006 in an annual study published by independent research group Morgan Quitno Press, flatlined with the collapse of factory and automobile jobs in the 1980s, when Wilson was a child. The education system crumbled. Drug use soared.
"I've witnessed my share of shootings," Wilson said.
A strong family helped Wilson survive. He is one of three Wilson children to attend college. His older brother Edwin Jr., 28, is today a spoken-word performer and poet. His younger sister, Jacqueline, attends Michigan State. His father, Edwin Sr., worked for General Motors for 30 years and now drives a truck; his mother, Cheryl, is a stay-at-home mom and seamstress.
"All of us were really in the church," his father said. "All three of our children knew about God pretty much from Day One, and that kept them in check, and we always made sure they each were their own person. We told them: 'Don't be a follower. Don't feel like you have to do what everyone else does.' "
Wilson credits his older brother for keeping him safe in a gang-riddled city, welcoming him by his side from the day he was old enough to leave the house. "I hung out with my family more during my high school years than I really did with kids from high school," Edwin Jr. said. "We always had good friends from school, but the big thing for us on the weekend wasn't to party, it was going to my uncle's cookouts. That's pretty much how it still is, too, when I'm home from touring and he's home from ball."
Sometimes sheer good fortune and street-honed instincts were all Wilson could rely on. One night at a local rink, he spotted rival gang members and immediately called his brother, who was on pickup duty, just before a melee erupted. Edwin Jr. raced inside the rink to find Wilson. Shots were fired through the hallway and inside the rink as they dashed out, the image of an arsenal of silver shotguns still vivid in the brothers' recollections. Edwin Jr. dived across the hood of the car "like something out of 'Dukes of Hazzard,' " he said, to get to the driver's side, then sped off with his brother at 80 mph.