David Wilson thought he was dead.
“You know the cartoons, how they die and ghosts carry them out of the body?” Wilson said, remembering back to the hit that essentially ended his NFL career after less than two seasons. “When I hit the ground, I’m like, ‘It’s over with.’ ”
This was the fifth game of the 2013 season, and Wilson, a running back chosen in the first round in the previous year’s draft, was tackled for no gain deep in Giants territory in the second quarter against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium.
The numbness was terrifying. Wilson slowly got to his feet, but he knew something was terribly wrong.
“I could move my fingers, but I couldn’t feel them,” he said. “I was still numb.”
He would never play another game, his time in the NFL cut short after 21 games, his dreams of a Hall of Fame career ruined in an instant.
He was 22 years old.
Wilson was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck and had season-ending surgery. He was cleared to return the following season. But less than a week into training camp, he suffered another injury. And more numbness.
“Took a toss from the quarterback [Curtis Painter], ran into the back of one of my teammates [guard Eric Herman] and I felt the same shot I had before in the game,” he said. “Completely numb. I just couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t even feel my feet, even though I was standing up.”
Wilson eventually regained feeling in his extremities, and when he met a few days later with Giants team physicians Frank Cammisa and Russell Warren, he wasn’t surprised when he got the news. They told him he shouldn’t play football again, that the next hit could result in paralysis.
“I held myself together, said to the doctors I understand you’re looking out for my overall health and my life,” Wilson said. “I walked to the car, drove home quietly, and it didn’t hit me until I had to tell somebody. I called my mom, talked to her on the phone, didn’t even bring it up. So she asked, and I had to tell her.”
Giants teammate Rueben Randle, who lived in the same apartment complex as Wilson, found it odd that Wilson didn’t visit him that day.
“That was irregular, so he hit me up and I told him,” Wilson said. “He thought I was playing. That hurt me. Football was a part of my identity.”
Less than three years later, and almost five years to the day after becoming the Giants’ first-round pick (32nd overall) out of Virginia Tech, Wilson’s journey has brought him peace and created a new set of priorities.
He attempted to revive his career in track and field — he was a nationally ranked triple jumper in high school and college — and tried to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2016 Games in Rio. But despite training with renowned coach and 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist Al Joyner, Wilson didn’t qualify.
He also considered a career in minor-league baseball. That didn’t work out, either.
“I was still young and ambitious, and I wanted to get into something immediately, so I jumped into track,” said Wilson, who lives in Atlanta with his wife and 4-month-old son. “I did some work for ESPN trying to be a commentator, and people said I would have a future in that. I did some radio, did a TV show, trying to get into everything. It helped me and distracted me from not being able to play football anymore.”
But if you know Wilson, or even if you simply watched him with the Giants when he would flash that genuine smile or do a backflip whenever he scored a touchdown, you understand the optimism that guides his life, and that something would work out.
Wilson was as gregarious and as happy-go-lucky a player as you’ll ever find. Midway through his rookie season, when his playing time had been limited because of coaches’ concerns about ball security and his blitz pickup, he admitted some frustration but also revealed just how confident he was about his abilities.
“I think at the end of my career, I’ll be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “I know myself, and I know I have guys around me that feel the same way, which I feel I do. When I get my opportunity, the sky is not the limit. I think it’s past it. You have to believe in yourself to do good things. This is how I feel.”
And then this all-time quote:
“I’m like birth control,” Wilson said. “You have to believe in me. Like birth control, 99.9 percent of the time I’m going to come through for you.”
Looking back now, he laughs.
“I really was like birth control,” he said. “But now I got a kid. They took away the birth control.”
There is some regret about his brief time with the Giants, though. Especially the fallout from a fumble in his very first game against the Cowboys.
“People fumble all the time, but when I fumbled, I was treated differently,” he said. “I could see if it’s the Super Bowl, but mine was in the first quarter. No running back thinks that’s OK, but it happened. I never saw it get treated like a crime the way it was. Other rookie running backs fumbled, but they didn’t sit on the bench.”
Wilson never carried more than 15 times in a game, although he had a terrific rookie year as a kick returner with 1,533 return yards and a touchdown. He played in the Pro Bowl at the end of that season.
Once his career ended, no one was quite sure what to expect, although those who knew him best remained hopeful that he would find something else.
“Football was a lifelong dream of his, but David can take anything in stride,” said his wife, Stormy, Wilson’s high school sweetheart from their days growing up in Danville, Virginia. “If he sees that something’s over, it’s like a new beginning to throw himself into a new passion, to find a new dream. Football was what he lived and breathed, and I didn’t know how he was going to take [having to retire], or if he was going to find something he was as passionate about.”
Faith, art and music eventually provided the answer.
“When I was playing with the Giants, I would play some music, just as a hobby,” Wilson said. “But one day when I was training for baseball, I made a song, a regular rap song talking about whatever I wanted, and it was good. And then I made a Christian song, ‘Sunday Service,’ and when I put it out, I got 40,000 listens and a lot of positive feedback. So I started doing more songs, put them out and got more positive feedback.
“I know I’m not known for music, I’m known for athletic endeavors, but this is something I’m very passionate about now,” he said.
Wilson’s latest song, “Rejoice,” is set for a May 2 release on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Spotify. Wilson also has his own website: www.Wilsonstillrunning.com.
Along with the music, Wilson produces videos that show his art, often taping him drawing his work.
“My dad worked for the Smithsonian, doing signs and graphics, so I saw him drawing, and I wanted to do that, too,” he said. “I’d pick up a pencil after [football] practice and started to draw. So my thing is, use all the tools you have, have faith in God and just spread the message.”
He doesn’t know where the music and art will take him, but he feels it’s right.
“Always go with your passion and do what you love,” he said. “That way, you will always be happy.”
Wilson still misses football, though, and that ache might always be there. After all, even players who enjoy a full career and have the luxury of leaving the NFL on their own terms will tell you they still long to play.
With this year’s draft set for Thursday through Saturday in Philadelphia, it’s a particularly wistful time. He sees so much of himself in the young prospects ready to begin their NFL journey.
“I’m so competitive, so when I watch these guys getting ready, I remember how I was getting ready,” he said. “I still feel like I can do it better when I see these guys training.”
After seeing his career cut short, Wilson has a message for today’s prospects.
“I want to see them go out there every day, whether it’s in a meeting or a practice or a game, and be great, because it can be taken away in a moment,” Wilson said. “My chance is over with, but these are the guys who should be living in the moment. Something bad happens to you, just go back in the huddle and don’t feel down. Just remember, you’re in the NFL and you’re there for a reason. Make sure you’re worthy to be there.”
21 AND DONE
David Wilson’s career numbers: