Boxing made Tennessee middle linebacker Al Wilson so hungry to hit, his own teammates are tempted to take their eyes off the ballcarrier to see whether he already has launched himself into the play. Boxing also helped make Wilson the most respected player on the No. 1 team in the country, which goes after a national championship Monday night against Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. He is so intense that he played against Georgia with so much pain in his right shoulder that he kept it pinned against his side. Using just his left arm, Wilson made seven tackles and had a sack in a win over the No. 7 team in the country. "Our team," said linebacker Raynoch Thompson, "revolves around Al's attitude." Claudette Wilson once asked her son where he got his toughness. "She told me, You sure didn't get it from me,' " Wilson said, laughing. He wasn't laughing when he revealed the fire came from boxing. Wilson, a first-team all-American, put on boxing gloves when he was 11. That was before he even put on shoulder pads to play football. "Boxing was my first love," said Wilson, who grew up in Jackson, Tenn., and boxed at the Jackson Boxing Club. "It allowed me to go out and just let out all my intensity and let me be as wild as I'd want to be. I think that's why I'm so intense on the football field . . . they were trying to make us men at an early age. . . . "I was very serious about boxing. If it wasn't for a few fatalities in the ring, a friend died after a fight, I think maybe I'd still be boxing. Football was the last sport I took up; it was a hobby sort of thing." Wilson said he lost his first fight because he was scared. He never lost again in 14 more bouts. Rayford Collins, the director of the Jackson Boxing Club, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, "Al was with us one year, but he had more talent than anybody I ever had and I had 16 national champions and one Olympian. One out of a thousand boxers have the kind of skills Al had." But Wilson wanted to meet girls when he started junior high school and girls don't hang out in sweaty boxing gyms. So he joined the football team. Five years later, Wilson was the top prospect in Tennessee as a high school senior. He was recruited by Notre Dame and Nebraska as a running back, but he wanted to play linebacker. When Tennessee told him he could play defense, he signed with the Vols. "It's better to hit than be hit," Wilson said. In that regard, Wilson won't be hard to find Monday night against FSU. He'll be the guy in the middle of the television screen trying to make every tackle. And if Wilson isn't in on the tackle, he will be in the face of one of his teammates demanding to know why they weren't in on the play. "He will test your manhood out there," said safety Fred White. "He'll get in your face and say, He's whuppin' your butt right now, what are going to do about it?' Al demands we play hard every snap, no time off. Al, he's a leader. If we're not doing right, we expect him to tell us." Wilson is the essence of Tennessee football, an undersized player (barely 6 feet, 226 pounds) who the pros probably won't draft in the first three or four rounds this spring. They think he's a good football player, not a great football player, just like most people think the 12-0 Vols are a good football team, not a great football team. But don't tell Wilson's teammates that he is not a great player. They might fear him on the field, but off the field, Thompson said, "It's like Jekyll and Hyde, just a soft-spoken guy who's fun to be around. On the field, ooooh, different story. You wonder What happened?' " Wilson's teammates wondered whether they would be playing in the national championship game if their leader had left school early for the NFL draft. Wilson made up his mind after the 1997 game with Arkansas that he was going to skip his senior season and enter the draft. He changed his mind and, two games into this season, Vols fans weren't just lamenting the loss of all-American quarterback Peyton Manning, they were rejoicing that Wilson didn't leave with Manning. He was in on 13 tackles in the season opener against Syracuse, 12 against Florida. He is so good that he missed three games (Auburn, Kentucky, Vanderbilt) and most of a fourth game (Houston) with injuries and was still named all-Southeastern Conference middle linebacker and first-team Associated Press all-American. Wilson should have missed the Georgia game, but he refused to sit out when the opponent was ranked in the top 10. "There's a lot of good football players that would have not played against Georgia with the injury he had," said Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. "The guy is a warrior." That's what they were saying about Wilson 10 years ago at the Jackson Boxing Club.