Early in the Cardinals’ Red-White public practice in Flagstaff, strong safety Adrian Wilson broke through the offensive line and greeted running back Ryan Williams in the backfield.
The pop of plastic pads filled the air, and Williams dropped to the ground. But the hit wasn’t what it might have been had this been a regular-season game. At the last possible moment, Wilson restrained his very nature and spread his arms to the sides like a hawk slowing its descent as it grabs its prey.
“I knew that Ryan was coming off an (knee) injury, and to be honest with you, I was actually wrong on the play and I had to make myself right,” Wilson said later. “In making myself right we kind of collided with each other. It was a good moment for me and him. It was really my first big hit of training camp, and that was the first time he was actually taking a hit. I’m glad we were able to share it.”
With that, Wilson broke into his unmistakable baritone laugh, and you realized what it was you had witnessed that day at Northern Arizona University. You read the message behind that post-hit pose. After two seasons worth of playing through major injuries (torn biceps tendon last year, torn abductor muscle in 2010), after two seasons of playoff-less football, after a season spent learning a new defensive scheme, the joy is back in Wilson’s game.
“That’s because I know what I know now,” he said, nodding. “When you don’t know the defense, you don’t feel as though you belong. Even though you put the work in and do everything in the offseason, if you don’t know it like all the other guys know it, then it’s a different feeling.”
In a rare glimpse into a very private man, Wilson admitted that last season’s transition to Ray Horton’s defense drained some of his well of confidence.
“It does because it brings a sense of doubt into your mind,” he said. “Whenever that happens, you’re slow to react to things you’d normally react to right away.”
It would be accurate to write that Wilson redoubled his efforts to learn that defense this offseason. In what Horton calls “behind-the-scenes stuff,” Wilson digested reams of film. He turned up his maniacal offseason workout regimen, and he chided any teammate who didn’t exhibit the same level of commitment.
But it would paint an incomplete and clichéd picture to stop there. It would undersell Wilson to say he recommitted himself. Wilson goes beyond commitment.
In an era where loyalty is just a marketing term for athletes, owners and coaches, Wilson defines it — fiercely. He’s the athlete you dream of as a fan – the guy who will never betray his team.
The Cardinals extended his contract by two years into 2015 this offseason, but the deal includes a significant pay cut. Wilson was supposed to make $6.5 million this season. Instead, he’ll earn $1.5 million plus a $1.5 million signing bonus. The difference will be about $10 million over two years.
Wilson is happy with the two extra years because he wants to keep playing. More important, he gets to play with his first and only NFL love, the Cardinals.
“I gave my heart to this team,” he said. “There’s no way I could leave here. There’s no way I could put my heart in another team.”
That’s because it’s difficult to win Wilson’s trust.
“The reason why I’m so loyal is because it takes people so long to get to know me and who I actually am,” he said. “Once they understand me and what’s inside of me and what drives me, that means I’ve let them in and then I feel like my heart is the most I can give.”
Of course, Wilson doesn’t view his new contract as a pay cut because there are incentives that allow him to make up that lost money.
“They pay me if I play at a high level,” he said. “I plan on playing at a high level. Problem solved.”
The injury-ravaged NFL offers no such guarantees, so Wilson’s loyalty warrants mention. And that loyalty extends into all facets of his life, even if he occasionally stumbles trying to achieve it.
Wilson and his wife, Alicia, renewed their vows in Hawaii this offseason. The decision came after strife in their 10-year marriage went public and Wilson appeared on two episodes of E’s “Khloe and Lamar” with actress Malika Haqq during his six-month-long separation.
Wilson didn’t want to discuss the situation, but he told Essence.com, “being able to get through that, and be where we are now, makes me think the experience helped us out tremendously. I think it made us stronger.”
That isn’t the only sign of strength, Horton said.
“In one of our packages, we have to bring one of the safeties out, and he said ‘I’ll do that,’” Horton said. “He’s helping us by subtraction. He’s saying: ‘I’ll be man enough, I’ll be secure enough to come out — to put somebody else in if it’s going to help the team.’”
Wilson admits it wasn’t easy.
“You’ve got to swallow your pride a lot,” he said. “Whenever you come out of the game and somebody else goes into the game, you feel like you can do what that person can do. But you don’t want to let egos get in the way of the defense succeeding. You’ve got to know that it’s not about you, it’s about the team — especially in this defense. It’s about a unit and guys sacrificing for that unit.”
To Horton, that sacrifice defines leadership.
“It’s one thing to say: ‘I’m the captain,’” Horton said. “But being the captain doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Captain means you were voted something.
“He’s more focused on making other guys around him better, and some of that means taking a lesser role. He’s accepted a leadership role and what that truly means.”
With his life in balance, his health restored and his confidence soaring, Wilson is itching to start the 2012 season.
“I’m not going to say I’m content,” he said. “Even though I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and have been here for so long, I still feel like there’s more for me, more I can accomplish as a player and as a teammate. That’s what motivates me and that’s what got me where I am now.
“I think this is what I was put on this earth to do is play ball. As hard as it gets and as much adversity as comes with it, it helps you grow as a person. It helps you understand who you are as a person off the field as well. That’s why I’m so happy. I’m in a good place now.”