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In Wilson's neighborhood, the game was basketball. Among Wilson's childhood friends and playground buddies were such college and pro stars as Lloyd Free, Bernard King, Phil Sellers, Albert King and Fly Williams. "I can play basketball, definitely," Wilson says. "I dunked on a lot of them. When they got mad, they'd start schooling me and embarrassing me, but that was all right. I'd just get rough with them."
However, football was always Wilson's first love. On weekends he would watch all the games on TV in the Blake Avenue apartment he shared with his mother, Maxine, and his three sisters and two brothers. Then he would go outside and drum up some action with whomever he could find hanging around the neighborhood.
"They'd close the street up so sometimes we could play two-hand touch there," Wilson says. "Man, those games would get rough, too. We'd almost be playing tackle on the concrete. Most of the time, though, we'd play in the yard in back of my house. We had a little patch of grass that we turned into dirt, and the only equipment I had was a helmet and elbow pads. That's all I needed. It was sort of like rollerball."
Although his family was better off than many in Brownsville—his mother has a job with the neighborhood youth corps—Wilson inevitably was exposed to the kind of violence and desperation that are as much a part of life there as unemployment. One incident in particular made Wilson decide to quit fooling around and get serious about football.
"One day we were supposed to go to the movies, but we ended up riding a subway to another housing project," Wilson says. "A couple of my partners were gang members who always carried weapons. We stopped in this store, in the middle of a block, and looked around. When we went back outside, this one dude got in an argument with another guy and shot him. I heard this loud bang, and I said, 'Oooh, man, what was that?' We just took off running. They didn't get the guy that time, but they finally caught him."
Wilson first enrolled in Alexander Hamilton High School, but switched to Thomas Jefferson because Hamilton didn't have a football team. The Jefferson coach, Moe Finkelstein, was good for Wilson. He insisted that his players go to class, arid he made life rough on truants. Finkelstein also began to refine Wilson's raw talent. He tried him at quarterback, offensive guard, tight end and running back before finally installing him at linebacker. Right away, Wilson knew he was home. By the end of his senior year, he had scholarship offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland and Syracuse, among others.
Wilson finally picked Syracuse because it was a big-time program within a few hours' drive of his home. As a freshman in 1975, he was the Orangemen's most valuable player on defense, and he fondly remembers a hit he made on Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett. " Pittsburgh had a first down on our goal line," says Wilson. " Dorsett came at me and I hit him as hard as I could. You could hear it clear across the stadium. The ball popped straight up in the air and we recovered. He told me later that he had never been hit that hard."
But Wilson had a falling-out with the Syracuse coaching staff. He says it was over a summer job; others imply it was because of poor grades and the fact that Wilson's head was getting too big for his helmet. Whatever, Wilson quit, went back to Brooklyn and began thinking about finding someplace else to play. He ultimately decided on Louisville, because Finkelstein and a Louisville assistant coach, Steve Goldman, were friends.
During Wilson's three years at Louisville, Gibson has proclaimed that the New Yorker is the best linebacker he has ever coached. That's significant when it's considered that as an assistant at Tennessee in the 1960s, Gibson worked with All-Americas Frank Emanuel, Paul Naumoff and Steve Kiner.
Getting a grip on his recklessness, which has been Wilson's greatest asset as well as his biggest liability, is the chief change in his playing style under Gibson. "Oh, yeah, I'm smarter now," Wilson says. "When I came here, all I wanted to do was hit people so I could make a name for myself. Now I know how to read offenses and diagnose plays. After you play a team two or three times, your mind is thinking about the next play at the same time your body is reacting to the current one."