Wilson grew up in Anaheim, five minutes from Disneyland, and went to Katella High. "My grades weren't very good," he says, "but nobody told me they were supposed to be." His average for grades nine through 12 was 2.11 on a 4.0 scale, a C. He gravitated to football "because I could throw nice spirals. But when you're quarterback of a high school team that is 3-6 and 2-7, a lot of recognition doesn't come."
So not a single university was interested in Dave Wilson for football reasons, although academically he met the NCAA standard of at least a 2.0 grade point average in high school.
In 1977 Wilson enrolled at Fullerton. A backup quarterback, he was sent into the Hornets' first game of the season against Citrus College, a J.C. in Azusa, Calif., with 3:16 to go in the second quarter. On his first play Wilson was forced to scramble and fell out of bounds, landing on and breaking his right wrist. He stayed in for two more plays. Wilson thought the wrist was merely sprained, and it was taped at half time, but when he returned to the field to start the second half, "I couldn't grip the football." He wore an arm cast for 12 weeks.
Because Wilson couldn't play football or write in class, his coach, Hal Sherbeck, advised him to drop out of school for the time being. "They said it would be like I had never even gone out," says Wilson. Sherbeck, who says he checked with various people, assured Wilson he could still play two years at Fullerton, and if anybody wanted him, two more at a four-year school.
That was only partly true. While the smaller NCAA schools in Divisions II and III do subscribe to this philosophy, the bigger schools in Division I don't accept medical redshirts from junior colleges. Contrary to what many believe, however, it is not an NCAA rule in football for Division I, although it is for all other Division I sports. In football, the decision rests with the conferences, although the conferences have routinely claimed—as the Big Ten did in the Wilson case—that it is an NCAA rule.
All of which led attorney Auler to grump, "[The Big Ten] is saying there are three kinds of breaks—simple, compound and Big Ten."
Wilson's wrist healed, so he came back in the spring of 1977-78 and took a part-time Fullerton class schedule of eight hours. At times the Big Ten representatives have counted this school term as a full year and noted Wilson's lack of progress. In 1978-79 and 1979-80, Wilson played football and went to school full time at Fullerton. But after seven games plus five plays in the eighth, he was again hurt. This time, as he stepped up into the pocket to pass, he was grabbed and twisted down. His left ankle was dislocated and the fibula was fractured. While a few schools had shown some interest in Wilson—including Minnesota and Michigan State of the Big Ten—that interest waned with Wilson on crutches.
Enter Mike White. Before he took the job at Champaign, he looked over the Illini roster, discovered there was little talent, and figured his best hope was a J.C. quarterback who could come in and play—and throw. White called Sherbeck, who gave Wilson high marks but not raves. "I wasn't a superstar in anybody's eyes," says Wilson, "not even mine."
And to White's credit, he told Wilson that it looked as if he would only be eligible for one year of Big Ten football because his three plays for Fullerton in 1977 would use up a full year of eligibility. The NCAA ruled in January 1980 that Wilson probably had only one year of eligibility remaining, but left the final decision up to the conference. On May 4, 1980 Illinois made its case to the Big Ten eligibility committee—four of the faculty representatives—which ruled that Wilson could play in the fall if he had 51 hours of academic credit, the Big Ten minimum for a student going into his junior year. (Wilson was allowed to transfer 36 hours from Fullerton, with an average of 3.639 on a 5.0 scale, a C+.) The committee also ruled, however, that it wouldn't give a medical-hardship waiver on Wilson's 1977 injury.
At Stoner's request, Ferguson appealed the medical-hardship decision to the full body of faculty representatives. They not only reaffirmed that Wilson had only one year of eligibility left but also that instead of using it up in 1980, Wilson would have to acquire senior status (a minimum of 78 credit hours) and couldn't play until 1981—thus "helping" him get closer to his degree before playing.