Homework packets and school textbooks were scattered across a large conference table inside the Einstein High football offices earlier this month, where six players were huddled around studying after a short practice. Among the group was running back Khalil Wilson, wearing a white cut-off shirt that exposed thick tattooed arms, his head deep in psychology class notes about sensory adaptation in the eyes.
This was hardly a formal study hall, with the teammates hurling jokes across the room and trying to pry answers from one another. But for Wilson, it represents progress. Two years ago, at 3:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, this was exactly the type of place he would avoid.
Sometimes, he would go days without doing his homework. He would skip school to sleep. Without the 2.0 grade-point average required to be academically eligible for athletics, Wilson would go to football games at Einstein and sit in the stands to watch his brother Devante play. People would approach him and ask him why he wasn’t out on the field. He couldn’t answer.
“I had nothing to look forward to,” Wilson said.
Now he doesn’t need to answer. Wilson, 18, is a fifth-year senior at the Kensington school, working to catch up from a rough start to his high school academic career and graduate next spring.
On the field, he is ahead of the learning curve in just his second year of organized football and is on pace to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
After each day of school this fall he has positioned himself on a pendulum, swinging between study hall and film study in the Einstein football offices after practice, hoping his diligence in the two rooms will lead to a football scholarship.
“On the field, athletically I know I’ll perform top-notch,” Wilson said. “I think I’ve come very, very, very far. Just because [I] understand where not football, but just school in general, can take me.”
Wilson, at 5 feet 9 and 240 pounds, has proven to be one of the most prolific running backs in the Washington area in just 14 months. He rushed for more than 1,500 yards as a junior. He has eclipsed 1,200 yards in six games this season. On Sept. 20, he rushed for 409 yards and five touchdowns against Rockville; the following week he posted 299 yards and two more scores in a win over Northwood.
Wilson has always believed those kind of numbers were inside of him, just like he has always believed that high test scores were inside of him. But those didn’t start to emerge until well into the second semester of his third year, when Wilson was at an academic low and realized he needed to make a change. He decided he wanted to play football. So he made a bet with his friend, Fernando Rodriguez, who said he was also academically ineligible to play and was scoping a return to the field. They threw some money into the middle, the highest GPA winning the prize.
“Of course Khalil won, knowing how competitive he is,” said Rodriguez, who is the starting center and often blocks for Wilson. “At the end of the day, we wanted to play football, and we had to [get our grades up].”
Wilson won the bet with a 3.0 GPA for the fourth quarter, he said, the highest grade-point average he had ever earned.
But in reality, he had a long way to go. It helped make him eligible to play last fall, his fourth year of high school. But he didn’t graduate last spring, and had to apply for a fifth-year waiver with the Einstein administration.
Wilson was granted the waiver based on an “extraordinary circumstance,” said Nathaniel Collins, the school’s assistant principal.
He was allowed to play another season after entering what Wilson calls a “contract” with school administrators, which required he meet certain academic standards throughout the year. The extraordinary circumstance, Wilson said, revolves around an Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis when he was in middle school.
“I do take upon myself to not use it as an excuse,” Wilson said. “I’m a normal kid.”
If there are no excuses in the classroom, then there are no excuses on the field, either. On an afternoon earlier this month, Wilson was forced to practice inside the gym with his teammates. While Coach Jermaine Howell shouted instructions during the non-contact session, he also told the group to expect nine defenders near the line of scrimmage in an upcoming game against Kennedy. Wilson listened quietly. Nine defenders trying to stop him? No problem. He was the only one not practicing with a helmet, which was in the equipment room getting operated on after it was damaged due to his bruising running style.
“Football really drives him right now,” Collins said. “It keeps him eligible to play sports and stay on track to graduate.”
For a player with his ability, Wilson has had very little college interest. He’s eying a few junior colleges, he said, places where he can continue to develop on and off the field and possibly earn a scholarship at a bigger school after two years.
One of the schools Wilson is interested in is Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., where he visited earlier this year. It’s a small school in a quiet town, which could be perfect for him. On Lackawanna’s online brochure, the school’s motto is “Find Your Future.”
“Now, I definitely see college in my future,” Wilson said. “Not only because of football, but just education itself is very important.”