“There were just a lot of emotions running through my mind,” the 24-year-old Wilson said. “I broke down crying. It was a first for me. ”
Wilson immediately called his family. His mother Sandra didn’t know what to say.
“I was speechless,” she recalled. “I was stunned.”
Wilson, drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama in 2019, spent his first three NFL seasons with the Browns. He delivered immediately as a rookie, recording 82 tackles, seven passes defensed, an interception, a forced fumble, and a sack. To close the season, he was on the field for all but two defensive snaps over a nine-game stretch.
But Wilson’s role diminished over the next two years. After suffering a hyperextension in his left knee during training camp ahead of his second season, he felt as though he never was himself again. His playing time dipped, as did his confidence.
Last year, Wilson was on the field for only 17.3 percent of Cleveland’s defensive snaps. Most of his action came on special teams, where he played 42.3 percent of the unit’s snaps.
The trade to the Patriots gives Wilson a chance to start anew.
“What excites me is getting a fresh start,” he said. “Obviously, the Patriots got a lot of history of winning. It’s well-disciplined over there, it’s super tough, it’s super hard, as far as what I’m hearing from other guys. Basically what they’re telling me is it’s just like another Alabama. ”
No matter where Wilson’s football career takes him, though, he’ll always remember his roots. On Saturday, in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., Wilson hosted his inaugural charity softball game to raise money for the MadHouse Foundation, a local nonprofit serving underprivileged youth through athletic training and mentorship.
Joined by other NFL players, including two fellow Montgomerians Shaun Dion Hamilton (Detroit Lions) and Daniel Thomas (Jacksonville Jaguars), Wilson organized a home run derby and a five-inning game. After the festivities, the players signed autographs, posed for photographs, and chatted with those in attendance.
On Friday, Wilson also visited four area high schools, including his alma mater, to talk to students and football teams in a more intimate setting. His goal was to inspire the youth and show them what’s possible, to be an example.
“There’s kids who really need to hear from us,” Wilson said. “I do whatever I can to help people. I’m not a selfish person. I feel like that’s what got me where I’m at today. Stuff like that takes you a long way. You just got to stay grounded and remember where you came from, what you did to get here. What can you do to get somebody else to where you’re at? ”
Wilson wants to serve as the type of role model he didn’t have growing up.
Sandra was a single mother of five, while his dad was largely absent and had spent time in prison. Both Wilson and Sandra credit the trainers at MadHouse for keeping him on the right path. Now that he’s in the NFL, not only does Wilson want to ensure MadHouse has the resources to continue, but he also wants to be more involved.
“A lot of kids make it and don’t look back at their city and try to contribute and help the city,” said Sandra. “He knows where he comes from, with a single mom trying to make it every day. He feels like since he’s been blessed and able to give back to his city, that’s what he wants to do. That comes straight from his heart. ”
The sentiment is shared among Wilson’s friends.
“We’re really from Montgomery,” Thomas said. “The people that grew up here, we know what goes on in Montgomery. To be able to make it out, it’s like, ‘Dang, bro. We really did it. ‘ We’re wasting our time if we aren’t bringing other people along. If we aren’t helping kids and telling them they can do the same thing, our platform is nothing. ”
Wilson does his best to return to his hometown often during the offseason.
Soon enough, however, he’ll be spending the bridge of his time in Foxborough to prepare for the upcoming season. He has already visited Gillette Stadium following the trade, getting a taste of what’s to come.
“I can feel the structure,” he said. “I can feel the hard work in the atmosphere because I feel like everybody is just there to work. There’s really no goofing around, there’s nothing to play about. When you enter that building, there’s only one mind-set and that’s to work. ”
There are multiple familiar faces already on New England’s roster. Quarterback Mac Jones, running back Damien Harris, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and linebacker Anfernee Jennings all overlapped with Wilson at Alabama. Jones was the first of the bunch to text Wilson following news of the trade.
“I just know Mac’s a savage,” Wilson said. “He’s a good quarterback. He’s going to be a great quarterback. I’m just happy for him and excited to see how his future unfolds. ”
As Wilson embarks on the next chapter of his career, his message to himself is similar to one he likes to relay when speaking to the high school students.
“Whatever you want to be in life, just be confident, believe in yourself,” he said. “If you believe in yourself, you can overachieve more than you think. I had that problem playing football growing up. Sometimes, I didn’t believe in myself. Sometimes now, I’m going on Year 4 in the league and I’d still be doubting myself sometimes in the game or practice.
“But when I believe I’m about to go dominate, I go dominate. Just believing is a strong part of being successful. ”
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.