By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
A year later, Wilson was walking home alone from a basketball court when a former teammate eyed him. Wilson quickly turned to walk away, but was mistaken for someone else.
"He told me to pull my shirt over my head and get in the dumpster -- you know what I mean? -- like execution-style," Wilson said. "I'm thinking that I know I can whup him, but he's got a gun on me and I know he's killed people before. So I just tried to talk to him, and I was praying to myself and he looked at me and said, 'Where do I know you from?' And when I told him who I was he let me go."
Wilson's family still lives in Flint -- though they moved to a better neighborhood a few years ago -- accepting the grim realities of daily life, but finding much to celebrate as well. Wilson plans to marry Sharena Wyatt, a Flint woman he has known since high school and dated for six years, on April 12.
"The thing about Flint is there's a lot of great people there, some great friends, who understand what's going on and don't get caught up in it," Wilson said. "And if you make it through that, it can prepare you for anything and it can make you kind of feel unshakeable."
For Wilson, football was a way out, although a mix-up over his grades nearly ended his career before it began.From Midland to Canada
A high school standout, Wilson's dreams of playing Big Ten football ended after his junior year. Minnesota and Illinois had shown some interest in him, but Wilson's coaches failed to process paperwork and his guidance counselor incorrectly informed him that he was academically ineligible, despite a GPA around 2.6 and passable ACT scores.
Crushed and confused, Wilson did not mail the remainder of his files to the NCAA before the eligibility deadline passed. By the time he found out he was eligible to play Division I football, most scholarships were gone. That and his size -- barely more than 200 pounds -- made him a marginal prospect.
"I've got no grudge against the counselor or coaches or anything," Wilson said. "It should have been handled better by their part, and my part. I should have never hung it up and waited to send everything in."
It just so happened, though, that Northwood's coaches were recruiting a tackle from Flint Central High School. Central's coach told them about Wilson, a scrawny but explosive defensive end from Flint Northern who rattled local quarterbacks.
Northwood, which is based in Midland, about 60 miles from Flint, has produced a few NFL players, though none of note. But it did offer Wilson a scholarship. "Northwood put down a plan for me and I just went with it," Wilson said. "We just grew together."
Wilson was redshirted his freshman year in 2000, but a year later he shined. Gonzaga, formerly at Navy and now an assistant at Bowling Green, built the defense around Wilson. The lineman admittedly knew almost nothing about football strategy when he arrived on campus, but his years of running track and mastering his sprinting techniques resulted in an asset football coaches could not ignore.
"We did specific workouts, quick-twitch stuff with his feet," said Isaiah Gates, a former NFL player and Wilson's high school track coach. "Anything to get him faster."
Wilson was named all-conference as a junior in 2003, but late that season contracted mononucleosis and experienced bowel-duct, gallbladder and liver problems. He became jaundiced and had to withdraw from school.
"It was the worst four months of my life," Wilson said. When he was finally healthy enough to return to class, Wilson was not listed as a starter on the spring-practice depth chart.
"I always figured I'd come back from it, " Wilson said. "You couldn't convince me otherwise. That's just my approach to life. But the coaches were worried. They knew me, and thought I'd try to do too much and tried to protect me. They looked at me, 200 pounds, how sick I was, and I think they thought it was the end."
Wilson took a summer roofing job in Midland and worked hard lifting weights. His effort was rewarded with Division II all-American honors following his senior season. He increased his weight to 240, and focused on the 2005 NFL draft.
A few teams called, but none drafted him. "We ain't from Beverly Hills," Edwin Jr. said. "When the NFL calls the house, it's like, 'Wow, this is really happening.' And then it didn't."
Wilson completed his degree in entertainment and sports promotion management and returned home. Edwin Jr. let his brother mope on the couch for a day, then dragged him to the gym.
"I was upset, so I can only imagine how depressed he felt," Edwin Jr. said. "I just told him: 'Keep working, something's going to happen. You can't just stay here, dog. This ain't where it stops for us.' "
Two weeks later Wilson's agent informed him of a Canadian Football League tryout in Detroit. From there, the British Columbia Lions invited Wilson to camp with no guarantees, but he earned a three-year contract, with a window to leave for the NFL after two years. He spent the offseason mentoring kids at home and working for the local school district.
"I just figured I've got to find a way to tear this league up," Wilson said. "And I was blessed again. After one week, I was named a starter and I played every game as a rookie."
Last November, Wilson's team won the CFL championship, with his family in the stands.
"This didn't really hit me until the B.C. Lions mailed home that championship ring and I opened the package," Edwin Jr. said. "That ring was tough, man. I was like: 'Man, this is really going down. Chris is really doing this.' "Reaching the NFL
NFL rosters expand after the season as teams stockpile inexpensive long shots -- and Dallas and Washington contacted Wilson. The Cowboys never followed up, but soon a plane ticket to Dulles International Airport arrived from the Redskins. Wilson worked out at Redskins Park, and team officials said they would get in touch after New Year's Day.
"January 1st came and we weren't sure what to expect," Wilson's father said. "Then three days later they called back and sent Chris a contract." The three-year deal offered no guaranteed money and veteran-minimum base salaries ($285,000, $370,000, $460,000), but the chance to take part in offseason training was more than Wilson could ask for.
Few expected anything to develop, although the Redskins sought youth and speed for the defensive line. Although Wilson lacked the size to play every down, he moved up the depth chart during training camp.
By the second preseason game against Pittsburgh, he joined the first string on a few passing downs -- when speedy defensive linemen are most effective -- and was thriving on special teams. "I looked around in that Steelers game and London Fletcher is behind me and Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot are to my left," Wilson said. "It's crazy. It's like that dream you had growing up playing basketball with Jordan and Pippen, where it's through your eyes but you can't see yourself in the dream."
Wilson played again with the starters in the third exhibition game. He was chewed out by coaches for an untimely offside penalty, but made the team. With Washington coming back from a dislocated elbow, Williams plans to use Wilson in certain third-down situations.
"The thing that scares [offensive linemen] is speed," Williams said. "He can flat-out run."
Wilson will have to continue to put on weight and improve his overall game if he is to make it in the long run. Merely making it this far is an accomplishment, and no matter how grand or how fleeting his NFL career becomes, Wilson wants to maintain roots in Flint, with a calling to do outreach deeper even than his love for football.
"I wouldn't change my path for nothing," he said. "I've been able to inspire some kids, and the thing about Flint is, I think personally, that people are either not exposed to enough, or they're not getting enough exposure. It's one or the other."