Arkansas QB has entire town behind him
Everyone has a story to tell about Tyler Wilson in this sleepy, lush town of 8,952 in the Arkansas River Valley.
They talk about how they used to watch the Arkansas redshirt junior quarterback throw the football and baseball as a child with his father on Sunday afternoons on Honeysuckle Lane. The time he led Greenwood High School on “The Drive” to win the second of three straight state championships in football or about his signature curveball that devastated batters.
They talk like the paparazzi about how they have seen Wilson at Wal-Mart, Northside Church of Christ or at the GMAC, Greenwood High’s indoor football facility. This bedroom community of Fort Smith, Ark., which is 17 miles to the northwest, is so proud of their native son that the marquees of businesses have messages such as, “TYLER WILSON COUNTRY.”
Wilson’s fame has surged so much in this northwest Arkansas community since he became the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback this season that the mayor declared Nov. 7 as “Tyler Wilson Day.” The standout has become so popular that he’s now more known locally than fellow Greenwood products like Nebraska men’s basketball coach Doc Sadler, the bluegrass band, The Whites, and even his well-known family’s patriarch, his grandfather, Dr. James Burgess, the town’s influential dentist.
And when the quiet, reserved Wilson leads third-ranked Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 SEC) Friday at No. 1 LSU (11-0, 7-0) in a game with significant BCS implications, this town will once again huddle around their televisions in support of their hometown hero.
“You can almost hear collective gasps every time he drops back to pass,” says Greenwood High football coach Rick Jones, who coached Wilson. “Just like you can hear the hoorays when he completes one. He’s our guy.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Wilson once thought he would be that for LSU, which he originally committed to the summer before his senior year at Greenwood High, but Tigers coach Les Miles later called and told Wilson he could not accept his pledge (see sidebar).
But in succeeding much-ballyhooed and brash former starter Ryan Mallett after he left early for the NFL, Wilson has become the guy for Arkansas this season. He has surprised many nationally by throwing for 3,215 yards and 21 touchdowns with just five interceptions for a Razorbacks offense ranked first in the SEC.
It’s all even more impressive considering Wilson has done it without star tailback Knile Davis, who hasn’t played since an ankle injury in the preseason, and despite taking repeated vicious hits this season from opposing defenders, especially in Arkansas’ lone loss at Alabama in September. Wilson’s steady play even has some Razorbacks’ faithful wondering if he is indeed better than Mallett.
“I have no problem saying it,” says Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and a former longtime executive for the Dallas Cowboys. “Tyler has more foot speed than Ryan, which is a very, very important thing. He doesn’t have a stronger arm than Ryan, but I’m not sure anyone does. Tyler can just do more things than Ryan.”
Which path to take?
But while Wilson has become a star in football, there was once a question whether he would even play the sport. His father, Don, pushed him at a young age to play baseball because he didn’t think his son would ever be big enough physically to play major college football and worried he would get hurt badly if he did.
Wilson only played football for fun and because he idolized his maternal cousin, Brooks Coatney, who was a star quarterback at Greenwood High in the late 1990s.
“Football really wasn’t on the big radar screen for us,” Don Wilson says. “It was baseball.”
When Jones arrived at Greenwood High in 2004, he heard plenty about Wilson, then in eighth grade. But the same question still lingered about Wilson: Is he going to play baseball or football?
“No one really knew,” Wilson says. “They just knew he was good and special.”
Wilson didn’t make his first start at quarterback for Greenwood High until his junior season in 2006. During Greenwood’s state championship run the season before, he was the backup for star quarterback Daniel Stegall, who signed with the University of Miami before deciding to play baseball after the New York Mets drafted him in the seventh round.
In Wilson’s first start, he led Greenwood to a victory against Fort Smith (Ark.) Southside High School, which is two state classifications larger. During the win, Wilson scrambled out on one play near his team’s bench and tried to make a move on a defender.
Before the game, Jones had warned Wilson to run out of bounds or slide when Southside’s much bigger defenders tried to hit him. But Wilson didn’t heed to Jones’ instructions and was smashed into the Greenwood sideline by a Southside defender.
The violent collision knocked Wilson’s helmet halfway around his head. Looking through his helmet’s earhole, Wilson turned to Jones and asked, “What’s the next play? What’s the next play?”
“This kid’s going to be OK,” Jones recalls thinking.
Wilson was especially so in Greenwood’s final game that season when he led his team in the state championship game on what locals simply call “The Drive.” He and Greenwood took over the ball at their own 43-yard line with 1:06 left in the game and trailed Pulaski Academy by a touchdown.
Before Wilson trotted on to the field, he calmly turned to Jones as if they were sitting in an office and said, “Alright, what are we going to do?”
Wilson proceeded to lead his team down the field and threw a 4-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left. Jones decided to go for the 2-point conversion to win and Wilson rolled out right as defenders blitzed and found a receiver in the end zone for a 56-55 victory that was Greenwood’s second straight state championship.
In Greenwood’s indoor football facility, there’s a photograph of Wilson that was taken after he completed his game-winning pass. He’s standing with his hands raised above his head.
When Wilson played at Greenwood, Jones gave him books to read about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The coach tried to convince Wilson and his father that his future was as a quarterback, not a pitcher.
As the elder Wilson watched his son celebrate that second state championship with his hands raised, he started to think about what Jones had been saying.
“Maybe we do have something really special here,” Doug Wilson recalls thinking. “OK, Coach Jones, I believe you now. He’s a football player.”
Yet even after Wilson won a state championship in his first season as Greenwood’s starting quarterback, his priority remained baseball. After his sophomore year, he had participated in the prestigious Area Code Baseball Games, which are held for the nation’s top high school baseball players.
But despite Wilson’s dedication to baseball, he worked just as hard at football. Even when he pitched during the summer, Jones recalls Wilson still lifted weights with his football teammates.
During one of those workouts, Jones recalls watching Wilson doing 185-pound power cleans as sweat poured off him.
“You’ve got a big one tomorrow,” Jones told Wilson.
Jones was talking about Wilson’s scheduled pitching start.
“No, we play them today,” Wilson told Jones.
Jones was flabbergasted. He and Wilson had agreed Wilson would not do leg lifts on the days he was scheduled to pitch.
“I just don’t want to let the guys down,” Jones recalls Wilson explaining.
After Wilson’s junior season, Jones started sending video of his quarterback to schools. Alabama coach Nick Saban visited Greenwood and offered Wilson a scholarship just like LSU.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly, then the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, called and offered a scholarship. Nebraska, Hawaii and Missouri were among others that did the same.
Then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt also made the nearly 75-mile drive to watch Wilson throw. But afterward, Nutt told Jones, “We’re not going to offer at this time.”
Although Wilson was also snubbed later when LSU wouldn’t accept his commitment, he felt most comfortable with then-Tulsa co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, now Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Malzahn had first recruited the quarterback while offensive coordinator at Arkansas and grew up in the same area as Wilson, just 15 minutes up the road in Fort Smith.
Tulsa was the first school to offer a scholarship to Wilson and when he committed to the Golden Hurricane before his senior season, his decision shocked many. One of the nation’s top quarterback recruits, he had chosen the smallest school that offered him a scholarship.
“I just had a connection with coach Malzahn,” Wilson says.
For the first eight games of Wilson’s senior season, Greenwood rolled through its opponents until being routed 44-7 by a Little Rock Christian team with a running back named Michael Dyer. The loss meant Greenwood would face the hardest path to try to win a third straight state championship.
After the blowout defeat, Jones decided to have his team walk arm-in-arm to and from each of its practices the rest of the season. Wilson was at the front of those walks.
In a rematch against Little Rock Christian in the state championship game, Greenwood won 27-6. After that third straight state title, Wilson finally came to the same conclusion as his father and coach: his future was football.
Wilson says the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and New York Mets had expressed the most interest in him. But all of them told him he was likely to be drafted between the seventh and 10th round coming out of high school, a range that wasn’t as high as Wilson had hoped.
By then, Wilson had actually started to like playing football more than baseball. It made his decision to play quarterback in college easy, even though he ended up going 11-0 with a 1.42 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 64 innings his senior season.
Yet after Tulsa topped the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense in 2007, Wilson started to worry Malzahn might leave for another job. He also became interested in Arkansas after Bobby Petrino replaced Nutt as coach in Dec. 2007.
Wilson liked the idea of Petrino’s pro-style offense and that he had coached NFL quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Jake Plummer and Jason Campbell. The second day Petrino had been at Arkansas, his brother, Paul, then the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator, and Tim Horton, running backs coach/recruiting coordinator, called Jones to tell him they were coming to visit Wilson.
When Bobby Petrino took over the Razorbacks, he asked Horton, who he retained from Nutt’s staff, about recruits they should target.
“Tyler Wilson from Greenwood,” Horton replied.
When Petrino hired Garrick McGee as his quarterbacks coach, McGee also told him about Wilson. McGee had tried to land Wilson during his previous job at Northwestern.
“He’s already on his way up here with his dad so we can meet with them,” Petrino told McGee.
When Wilson and his father met with Petrino that Sunday afternoon, there were more handshakes than sentences spoken.
“Do you want to play?” Petrino asked Wilson.
“Yes sir.” Wilson replied.
“Alright," Petrino told him, "you’re in.”
The hardest part of it all was Wilson calling Malzahn on the way home and telling him he was headed to Arkansas. A month later, Mallett, who had left Michigan, joined a logjam of Razorbacks quarterbacks, but Wilson wasn’t dissuaded by the news.
“I’m just going to work hard and continue to battle,” Wilson recalls thinking. “No matter what the circumstances are, I’m going to get my shot at some point.”
With Mallett sitting out because of his transfer during the 2008 season, Wilson played against Alabama and Texas before missing the rest of the season because of mononucleosis and received a medical redshirt.
It was after Wilson’s freshman season at Arkansas that Sadler last saw him. After Sadler spoke at a banquet attended by Wilson, the basketball coach talked to the quarterback.
“Tyler, so many times guys get impatient and they get frustrated,” Sadler told Wilson. “You’re just a freshman. Hang in there and your time will come.”
It didn’t come that next season in 2009 when Wilson was Mallett’s backup, but finally did last season at Auburn. When Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion, Wilson came off the bench to throw for a then career-high 323 yards and four touchdowns in less than three quarters of a wild 65-43 loss to the eventual national champions.
When Wilson started playing well in the shootout, Jones later heard Malzahn told Auburn’s defensive coaches, “I told you not to hurt Mallett.”
Wilson’s performance against Auburn gave him even more confidence entering this season as a starter for the first time. But his tenure as Mallett’s backup wasn’t a negative experience.
The two years let Wilson develop physically and become acclimated with Petrino’s complicated offense.
“It was actually a blessing for Tyler,” the elder Wilson says. “There’s a lot to be said for that.”
All along, Wilson competed with Mallett, who declined requests to be interviewed for this story, just like he had planned and felt they had both pushed each other to improve. Wilson’s coaches and teammates also noticed it.
“Tyler’s a kid we’ve always had a lot of confidence in,” says McGee, now Arkansas’ offensive coordinator. “He understands what we expect from the quarterback position because he’s been in our system so long. It was definitely not like we were losing Ryan and going to a young kid. We had an experienced kid that everybody in the program knew and trusted.”
That explains why Wilson’s coaches and teammates haven’t been surprised by his success replacing Mallett this season. Wilson has also started to benefit from his concentration on improving his footwork, which McGee says has showed in his last several games.
“That’s why he’s putting up some of the numbers he has,” McGee says.
But as well as Wilson has played this season, he says that after every game, he has felt he could have played better. He has even been disappointed by some of his best performances.
“I still feel like our ceiling hasn’t been reached as an offense,” Wilson says. “I feel we can play better, which is scary. I think we’re just hitting stride actually.”
When Arkansas had an off-week last month, Wilson returned home and attended a Greenwood High football game. Wilson’s appearance was such a big deal that a person at the game texted the Arkansas coaches and told them, “The king has entered the building.”
It didn’t use to be that way during Wilson’s trips back to Greenwood. When he was Mallett’s backup, people used to simply stop and talk with him, but it’s different being the starter.
“When you’re the quarterback for the Razorbacks in this state, you’re a big shot,” McGee says. “You’re the Peyton Manning of Indianapolis for sure.”
At the Greenwood game, a man handed Wilson a cell phone and asked him to talk to the man’s sister’s granddaughter, which Wilson did. He signed countless autographs, including one on a cell phone, and posed for so many photographs that Kim Kardashian would have been jealous.
“It’s a big deal now,” Jones says of Wilson’s visits to Greenwood.
So much so that after Wilson’s visit last month, Jones texted Illinois wide receiver Spencer Harris, one of Wilson’s former teammates, with a message of, “When Paul McCartney goes back to Liverpool, he won’t get a bigger reception than when Tyler comes to Greenwood, Arkansas.”
At Basham Insurance Agency, which has “TYLER WILSON COUNTRY” on its marquee, a football Wilson autographed is prominently displayed in one of the offices. Tommy Basham, who has watched Wilson grow up while living across the street from him and his parents, owns the agency, where his son, Todd, also works.
When Wilson still lived in Greenwood, he used to throw the football with the younger Basham’s son, Noah, and give him pitching lessons.
“He’s the real deal,” Todd Basham says of Wilson. “For us, not a lot goes on here, so it’s a big deal for us.”
Wilson even is during basketball season for Sadler, who tries to watch all of Wilson’s games.
“I’ll be honest, I’m just like everybody else in that town,” Sadler says. “No disrespect, but I wouldn’t watch Arkansas play probably if it wasn’t for Tyler. I’m a big fan of his.”
With all his fanfare in recent months, Wilson is well aware of what he means to Greenwood. But Greenwood means just as much to him.
“You want to represent where you’re from and give them great pride and some hope for the young kids and people in the community to look up to,” Wilson says. “That’s really what kind of gets me going and motivates me on a daily basis is that maybe some kids from back home will look on and say, ‘That could be me someday,’ and we’ll have some future players.”
And if that happens, it will be just be another story locals can proudly tell about Wilson.