Kion Wilson’s football career was at a standstill a year ago.
Actually, that’s being polite. It was over.
Cut during the preseason by the Carolina Panthers, the linebacker returned to Tampa and kept waiting for his agent to call with an offer from another team. It never happened. August turned into September. Wilson turned from dreamer to pragmatist.
Alarm set for 5 a.m. each morning, Wilson would work out for three hours at a high school near his place in Tampa, shower, then drive to an office where he worked as a debt collector for a medical supply company. While the NFL went on without the former South Florida captain, Wilson would sit in a cubicle and try to work with customers on reconciling a bill. Late in the afternoon, he’d hop back in his car and drive 20 miles up the road to begin a second job as an insurance salesman.
The gigs weren’t fun, but they offered him flexibility and a decent paycheck.
“I wasn’t doing it to get ahead,” Wilson said. “I was trying to make ends meet.”
And trying to not give up in the process.
“I just knew I would get one more chance,” Wilson said. “I knew I would get one more opportunity.”
Then the Pittsburgh Steelers called. And everything changed.
Now the player who spent portions of last fall working as an insurance adjuster in Superstorm Sandy-ravaged portions of New York – where he helped people pick through the rubble of their life’s work – finds himself in position to be a starter for the NFL’s best defense.
Wilson will get a shot at filling in for veteran Larry Foote on Sunday when the Steelers (0-1) travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals (0-1). Foote is done for the season after tearing his right biceps late in last week’s 16-9 loss to Tennessee.
In his place is a 26-year-old whose NFL resume includes brief stints on the 53-man rosters in San Diego and Carolina and little more. Wilson did “well” during the handful of plays he had after Foote walked off the field, building off the vote of confidence he received when he beat out more established players like Marshall McFadden and Brian Rolle in training camp to take one of the backup spots behind Foote and Lawrence Timmons.
Wilson survived in part by doing the dirty work required to thrive on special teams. While not exactly intimidating – Wilson stands just 6-feet tall and weighs 232 pounds – his willingness to throw his body around earned him the respect of his peers and coach Mike Tomlin.
Though he insists he doesn’t “count numbers” Wilson was well aware of what was at stake on cut down day. When a Steelers official stopped by his hotel room that morning, Wilson calmly answered the door. When the official asked if Rolle – who had been sharing a room with Wilson – was around, Wilson responded by telling him Rolle wasn’t around then did his best to bite his tongue.
“I wanted to be like ‘You need me by any chance, you plan on coming back later?’ ” Wilson said with a laugh.
If Wilson needed a final answer, he got one later that day when he ran into Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff in the hotel lobby.
“I see them walking past me with all the players playbooks and I see Coach Tomlin and he goes ‘Wilson’ and he kind of nodded,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘I guess I made it’ and that was it.”
The emotional high hadn’t worn off when linebackers coach Keith Butler screamed “55” after Foote went down against Tennessee. Wilson sprinted onto the field and into the huddle, his long journey back from football’s fringe complete.
The Steelers have a history of turning undrafted free agents into impact players. James Harrison. Ryan Clark. Ramon Foster. It’s way too early for Wilson to think about joining that group. There’s little doubt, however, if he doesn’t make it, it’s not because he didn’t get the shot he always knew would come.
“Back in the spring, Coach Tomlin said ‘I don’t care by what way you got here, you’re here,’ ” Wilson said. “If you can put your hand in the pile and win, that’s all that matters. That let me know there’s no favoritism. It’s the best man for the job.
“That’s what I needed to hear.”
Notes: C Fernando Velasco practiced with the first team Friday and could start against the Bengals. The Steelers signed Velasco Monday after losing Maurkice Pouncey to a torn ACL. ... K Shaun Suisham (hamstring) practiced and could play. The Steelers brought in Shayne Graham in case Suisham can’t go ... CB Cortez Allen (ankle) did not practice and is doubtful.
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