C.J. WILSON HAS had just enough negativity to keep him going. But this Belhaven, N.C., native is proof that almost anything is possible with the support of family, friends and community.
Wilson comes from a large family — he’s got eight brothers and sisters — that has something of a reputation for late-in-high-school growth spurts. His freshman year, it was never a matter of “if” he’d go out for his Northside High School football team, but “if” he’d get a chance to get on the field — that growth spurt hadn’t quite hit yet.
Jumping ahead to current day in Wilson’s timeline, the seventh-round Green Bay Packers draft pick did indeed get on that high school football field. But from way back then, there have always been questions about Wilson’s ability to “make it.”
He tipped the scales at 215 his senior year in high school, and had a stellar season at middle linebacker. He did not, however, get the nod for defensive player of the year from his hometown newspaper. But Wilson was never anything but happy for his teammate.
Still at 215, Wilson was recruited by East Carolina University to join then-coach Skip Holtz’s first signing class. He was penciled in at defensive back, but that was until that growth spurt finally hit. Before heading to ECU in the fall of 2005 as a greyshirt, Wilson had bulked up to 245 pounds. Before he hit the field about a year later, he hit a playing size of 6-foot-4 and about 260 pounds.
A defensive back? No more.
Over the next four years, Wilson became one of the most dominating defensive ends in ECU history. With 27 sacks, 45 1/2 tackles for loss, 36 QB hurries to go with 192 career tackles, Wilson now has his eyes set on the NFL.
Oh, and now he tips the scales at about 290 pounds.
We caught up with Wilson, and had a chance to look back at his life and career up to this point and how he’s looking forward to what his future holds:
The Man F.A.Q.: It seems like you’ve never done things the easy way, but you’ve always managed to prove your naysayers wrong and make your supporters proud. Has everything always seemed so uphill?
C.J. Wilson: It goes back to when I got to high school. I had to work my way into the starting lineup. And in college it was the same thing, with the greyshirt and academics and having to prove myself in the classroom first. I had a couple of people who said they didn’t think I was going to make it. All that did was just fuel the fire for me. I’m glad I had some of that negative talk towards me. All it did was keep me going.
TMF: I’m sure it only takes but so much negativity to keep your fire going, as you say. I’m betting you’re glad you had a few people in your corner along the way, too. What was it like to have all their support?
CJW: It means a lot, and I know they’re very proud of me and happy for me. It’s my family, but not just my family, I’ve got my cousins and friends all over. I’ve got friends and fans from all over. It means a lot that I’m reaching a lot of people. I always make sure to thank them for all the support that they’ve given me. I also couldn’t have done it without God, and I always make sure to thank Him for helping me get to where I am now.
TMF: After high school, you picked a top division football program instead of a smaller school. You didn’t really have a role to play early on, how did you manage to get on the field so soon and have such an impact right away?
CJW: Yes, it all happened so fast. I got on the field through a few injuries (to those above me in the depth chart), and I made the most of my chance. Before I knew it, I was playing in front of 50,000 fans.
TMF: After playing four years with the Pirates, you were drafted in the seventh round by the Packers. Waiting all the way until the last round, how stressful was that?
CJW: It was long and drawn out. I was anxious and nervious. I was with my whole family, and I had a couple teams call me and tell me they were going to draft me, but they didn’t. Then when the Packers actually called my name, it was great. I’m very happy; they’re a winning team with a lot of pride. They’re in a small town. It’s a lot like Greenville, (N.C.), where there’s not a big city but right in there is a great big football stadium. I went in there, and I just remember thinking I was walking where legends have been.
TMF: The Packers have something of a blue-collar reputation. That’s got to remind you of your high school days, and your college for that matter. Do you think that will help you fit in?
CJW: Playing for (then-Northside coach Bing) Mitchell, he layed the foundation of hard work. We worked hard on the field and in the weight room. When I got to ECU, it carried over. With the Packers, they don’t do it with a lot of show. They’re very humble and do it with hard work. I feel like I’ll fit right in with the system they have.
TMF: I see you’re still refering to the Packers as a “they.” Feel like you’re part of the team yet?
CJW: Well, I feel like I’m about half way there. I just got back from a mini-camp. I think it’ll really sink in when I meet all the veterans. I’ve got to earn my spot on the team, and there’s some good players ahead of me. I’m glad it’s like that. I’m used to it.
TMF: And finally, you’ve had to give up the No. 95 that your fans have become so used to you wearing. It looks like, for now at least, you’ll be in No. 98. Is that OK with you?
CJW: I like the new number. I think I’ll like wearing it. I will wear whatever they want me to wear. It’s not the number that makes the player, it’s the player that makes the number. I think I can make 98 (with the Packers) just what 95 was at ECU.