First Place Writing – Personality/Profile


Gladiator School

By Roman Stubbs

He sat at his grandmother’s dining room table late on that sweltering June night, dreaming.  Eating his ribs and collard greens in silence, pondering his future with each bite.

For Jimmy Wilson, there were only seven hours left before deliverance. Duffel bags packed, alarm clock ready. At five o’clock in the morning, he was going to rise out of bed and drive 17 hours from his Southern California home to Missoula, Montana, and love every minute of it. When he arrived on the University of Montana campus for summer workouts they would see a polished cornerback, a reinvented man.

This was his year. To show what an All-American candidate was all about. To send the message that his legendary hits for this program were about to get a lot more vicious. And to make all those people who mocked his NFL dream think twice before they judged that dream again. Nothing was going to get in his way.

A half hour later, Jimmy Wilson had an AK-47 pointed to his chest.
THE DREAMER awoke at the table. Wilson got up from his chair, walked into his grandmother Gloria’s room, stunned by what she had to tell him. She was shaking her head, fresh off the phone with Wilson’s aunt, Opal Davis, who had called to say that her boyfriend, Kevin Smoot, was drunk, beating and urinating on her.

Wilson didn’t hesitate. He rushed back into the dining room and grabbed his dinner partner and teammate, Qwenton Freeman, and told him they had one more stop to make before Montana.
THE GARAGE door began to open in Kevin Smoot’s Lancaster driveway, where Jimmy Wilson’s shadow stood tall.  Piece by piece, Smoot’s body began to appear from behind the garage door, a curtain being lifted for a prizefighter. First his legs, then his torso, then his face.

Wilson hadn’t come to fist fight. He told Freeman to stay put in his Lincoln Navigator, that he was going to get his aunt and leave. But soon, the driveway lost all innocence.

“How could you do this to my family?” Wilson repeatedly screamed and screamed, coming within two feet of Smoot.

Smoot had been hiding something behind his right leg. Quickly, he was through with listening. He pulled an AK-47 from the leg, slung it through the air, and pointed it at Wilson’s chest. The argument was over.

Wilson stood motionless for three seconds. His aunt emerged from the side of the house, wearing nothing but shorts and a cut-off tank top, crying out three words to Smoot: “Don’t hurt him!”

Smoot looked away at her. Wilson saw his opening. He grabbed the barrel of the gun with his sweaty palms. Smoot grabbed the stock, and soon four hands were on the assault rifle.

It was a three-second war. Two men grunting, battling for control of a deadly machine. Their silhouettes danced across the driveway. Wilson’s sweaty palms lost grip. He got one last tug at the rifle, which swung upward and fired a round into the humid California sky. Wilson heard the thunder of that one shot, and ran. He thought Smoot controlled the weapon, and that he would lay down rounds through the neighborhood. He thought his life was over. So he ran harder than he ever had, back to his black Lincoln Navigator.

He made it. There was no crimson piercing through his T-shirt. But there was a river of it running down the driveway, and Wilson followed the stream back to Smoot’s head, where the bullet had taken an abrupt path through his cheek and cranium.

Opal screamed and cried over Smoot, the assault rifle resting next to his body. Wilson watched from the street. He didn’t come back.

An hour later, he was on the freeway headed north, to Montana.
ON THE last down of the last football game he played, Jimmy Wilson rested his hands on his knees, watched his breath become a ghost in the brisk December night, and stared across the line. The University of Massachusetts’ quarterback kneeled, then ran to midfield to celebrate a 19–17 national semifinal win in Missoula.

Wilson made sure to stay on that frozen Montana field and watch the celebration along with a national audience on ESPN2. He never wanted that feeling again.

It was the end of a memorable run by Montana in the 2006 FCS playoffs, and the end to a string of remarkable late-season performances by Wilson. His junior season was over, but his stock across the country was just beginning to rise.

The numbers on paper were nothing spectacular: a 5-foot-11, 185-pound corner with 51 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles. But on film, he was anything but a phantom. His aggression stood out, especially that November, when he had evolved into the red-eyed wolf of a Montana defense that would later send three players to the NFL, two from the secondary. Wilson was arguably the best, and in line. On one of the tapes from that fall, you can still feel the announcer’s sense of anticipation when Wilson came on one of his signature corner blitzes to cold clock an unassuming Southern Illinois quarterback, the ball crumbling from his hurt body.

There was a hit that same November, against rival Montana State, that still hasn’t left Missoula lore. A Bobcat receiver ran a crossing route, and when he leaped to make a mid-air catch, Wilson met him there with a savage shoulder. In that moment, the two players were suspended, six feet in the air, together. Wilson landed on his feet. The receiver cartwheeled through gravity, and landed on his head.

Three years later, the highlight would become a popular opening scene to a local auto commercial in Missoula, advertising repairs to cars that have been totaled from heavy collisions.

“Jimmy was a pretty special player,” says Colt Anderson, who started in the secondary with Wilson in 2006 and now plays safety for the Minnesota Vikings. “I thought he was one of the few on our team that could play at the next level.”

Wilson was an All-Big Sky pick in 2006, and following the loss to Massachusetts, he held preseason All-American candidacy in the FCS. It was a significant ascent for a kid who, although good enough to skip a redshirt and play right away as a green 18-year-old, was raw and prime for the secondary meat grinder. His first collegiate start changed his life. That September day in 2004, he lined up against Northern Colorado’s Vincent Jackson, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound specimen who torched Wilson for 15 catches, 227 yards and a touchdown.

Jackson went on to the NFL after that season, and since has become the San Diego Chargers’ number one receiver. Wilson stayed in Missoula, wearing his beloved number 18 and becoming serious about playing in the league. He was humbled by that day. He needed to learn how to use his feet and hands in one-on-one battles, how to bump and run with a man six inches taller, how to survive on an island, all by himself.  He became more seasoned at corner, with eight picks in three years to show for it, although he was never a speed merchant. If Wilson was going to get a look from the NFL, he was going to do it with tactics coaches couldn’t teach. He was skillful in the art of hurting people on the field. He was willing to be a puppet in a spectacle of fear, a headhunter who sacrificed his own head for the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the crowd rising to its feet. Those dangerous capabilities were in Wilson’s blood.

“Attitude is probably the best word to describe Jimmy Wilson,” former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said in 2007. “He’s confident. He’s tough, and he’s an engaging young man to be around.”

But by the time Wilson arrived on campus for preseason workouts on June 3, 2007, he had disengaged. He ran sprints for three days, his mind supposedly intent on avenging that chilling December loss to Massachusetts. Instead, the chills came from the recollection of the driveway, the gunfire, the screams, the silence.

Wilson told Hauck he needed to handle a personal emergency. He hit the road back to Lancaster. He turned himself in.
ON JUNE 12, 2007, Jimmy Wilson was charged with the murder of Kevin Smoot.

He waited in the Los Angeles County jail bullpen for two days before he could be processed into circulation, and switch his number from 18 in maroon to 9828496 in blue.

It is hard to breathe in the bullpen. It is a pot of June sweat, body odor, hot breath—all stewing in a cage, where dozens upon dozens of California detainees await processing. The scent invaded Wilson’s nostrils. He was having a hard time getting blood to the head those first 48 hours. He was having a hard time sitting on the concrete floor, staring at a concrete wall, trying to navigate through the wilderness of his thoughts. It was dark there. How could this happen? He had no answer.

He was lost. Instead of getting checked by team doctors for an athlete’s physical, he was showering with 50 other men, getting an L.A. County baptism. Spreading his fingers, jaw, buttocks—anywhere guards could find shanks and razors. He was fingerprinted, marked with a $2 million bond and photographed. The mug shot was published and aired on networks across the country. Wilson sat stout, with black, glazed eyes staring into the world. A clenched jaw. Lips tight. Unshaven. Frizzled nap.

Most of the world took one last look at the mug shot, and made up their mind: Jimmy Wilson, the once-promising University of Montana cornerback, now the murderer. That was the last time they would see his face, as he disappeared into the belly of the beast.
THE FIRST night inside wasn’t easy. None of this was going to be easy. The state’s beef stroganoff didn’t exactly settle in his stomach after his first dinner in the joint, on the night he had lost everything. His only possessions were a Bible and memories of paradise, where he tried to go often for comfort. Like the time he broke up two passes in front of 60,000 Oregon fans at Autzen. Or all the times he and his kid friends climbed the hometown bluffs in Point Loma outside of San Diego, carefree and happy, plunging into the Pacific blue time and time again.

Although the term is commonly attached to California federal pens, for first-time inmates like Wilson, Los Angeles County jail is a true gladiator school. The jail system is one of the largest on the planet, carrying over 20,000 prisoners, with a turnover rate that replenishes gang operations and fuels violence within the walls.

Wilson went to his cell that first night, and read Psalm 60:12. With God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies. He read it over and over again.

He has always taken pride in being spiritual, not religious. He grew up in churches in San Diego and Lancaster, the great grandson of a Georgia deacon from the mid-20th century. Wilson had always studied the Bible, always drew strength from it. But he knew that night that his true spirituality would be tested in ways it had never been before.

As a 20-year-old college student who had always lived a structured life revolving around school, football and girls, Wilson was in for a chaotic awakening in a world centered on violence. Within the first two months of his stay, he was introduced by witnessing a brutal face slashing, the inmate lying in his own pool of dark blood. He had even fought his cellmate out of boiled frustration. He was never soft off the football field, nor was he ever a saint. In environments that reward violence—in football, in jail—Wilson has never been afraid to survive.

He was questioned in an assault case by Missoula police once, and was accused of being in a group that allegedly assaulted a man outside a bar in 2006. In 2005, he was accused by another man of brandishing a pistol. None of those allegations were ever confirmed, and none brought criminal charges. He admits he was childish at times in Missoula, but that he was and never will be into carrying guns.

ON OCTOBER 9, 2008, Wilson went to trial. He awoke at three o’clock every morning to be shackled and boarded onto an armored bus for the ride up Freeway 14 to Lancaster. He liked those early morning rides. He sat in the back cage, behind the first two sections, which were usually divided by race. Up to 70 men could be on those early morning bus rides, all being transported to different courts, to different fates. Wilson tried not to think about his. He just sat still, watching freeway traffic before sunrise, listening to music from the radio speakers, a hidden delight. There wasn’t any music in gladiator school.

Wilson was ritualistic in his preparation before every appearance in court. He would walk off the armored bus in his blues and be escorted to a holding cell. His new locker room. A black and brown suit, white shirt and assortment of striped ties awaited him there. He would rotate his suit color every day, dress crisply, trying not to leave any openings for the jury to judge his character. The pants ran a little long, because of the jail loafers he was required to wear. Before he entered the courtroom, he would stop and pray.

The prosecution framed much of its case on Wilson’s flight from the scene of the shooting, with emphasis on his subsequent run to Montana and the fact that he wasn’t formally surrendered and charged until ten days after Smoot had died.

“I was scared. I panicked,” Wilson says. “There would’ve never been a trial had I stayed in Lancaster that night.”

The trial would last for six weeks. The dog days produced over 20 testimonies, including Opal Davis and Gloria Wilson, the matriarch who was covering her grandson’s attorney expenses. Qwenton Freeman refused to testify. Investigators had traveled to Missoula in the weeks after the incident, finding no cooperation from Freeman, or anyone else on Montana’s football team.

Wilson also refused to testify. He sat in silence for six weeks, listening to the district attorney reconstruct the events of that night, the ballistics, the images. He was haunted when he saw the color prints. The AK-47. The garage. The driveway. Kevin Smoot lying there, with Opal above him. Together, the prints and testimony were a manifesto for 25 to life.

Wilson’s attorney, Los Angeles veteran Jerome Bradford, would later call it the hardest-fought trial he had ever tried in his two decades as a defense lawyer. Before the jury deliberated for seven days, they reviewed 402 motions, many of which were filed by Bradford, who understood the long odds against Wilson in a county that convicted 98 percent of its murder cases.

Those seven days left Wilson emotionally distraught, the closest he had come to cracking mentally. The heating system in the jail was broken that November, so he returned from Lancaster to cold sheets every night, emotionally frostbitten from the jury voices reading guilty in his psyche. But he stomached it, and he kept his rituals. He awoke every morning at three o’clock, boarded the armored bus and traveled to his fate.

On the morning of November 18, five days into the deliberations, the jury entered the courtroom and announced they were deadlocked at 8–4. The judge ordered them to return to the conference room and continue deliberating. Four hours later, they stated that they were “hopelessly deadlocked.” An hour after that, the decision had been whittled to 10–2.

Two days later, the jury had come to a final deliberation count. Wilson entered the courtroom in his black suit, with all eyes on his stroll down the aisle to his wooden chair, which rested in front of an encampment of family and friends. Minutes later, tears began to fall.

There would be no hugs from Wilson. The verdict: 11–1, not guilty. The district attorney’s office immediately announced the charges would be re-filed. Wilson was grateful for the temporary reprieve. But when he went back to the holding cell to jump into his blues and shackles, he knew he had to prepare for another trial. With a new jury. He walked out of the Antelope Valley Courthouse, six days before Thanksgiving, and boarded the armored bus. There was no talk from other prisoners. No music. He had tuned everything out. He put his head in his hands. Wilson was headed down the freeway once again, back to L.A. County.
WITHIN THE first week Jimmy Wilson was incarcerated, his father, James, gave him five pieces of advice for survival.

Stand on your own two feet. Don’t steal anything from anyone. Keep your mouth shut. Watch everything, watch everybody. Have the will to endure.

They became the principles of Wilson’s new life. James Wilson has been in and out of California prisons for the past 20 years, his most recent stay being a four-year stint at Ironwood on a felony conviction for receiving stolen property. He was released in August.

He is somber about being away from Jimmy when his boy was young. And for missing most of his college football career at Montana. And that he couldn’t protect him in L.A. County.  But the relationship has endured, with strength derived in the letters they sent to each other. Those letters from his father helped Jimmy learn the culture of prison life, how to identify his demons and channel them into surviving. He had no other choice but to be coached.
That didn’t mean there weren’t devastating moments. Jimmy’s great grandmother, who he grew up with in Lancaster, died before the year was over, and he didn’t get to say goodbye.

There were nights when he would lie on his flimsy mattress and have nightmares about Kevin Smoot. He would wake up sweating profusely, damping the mattress and leaving him lost in the wilderness. Although he would never feel guilty about his actions that night, he felt regret that a man he knew was dead. He knew he would live with it for the rest of his life.

His heart jumped into his throat when he heard that Montana was playing for the FCS national championship last December, the same week he was beginning his second pretrial conferences in Lancaster. He was there once. He played in the 2004 national title game as a true freshman, when Montana had lost to James Madison. He came so close to getting back two winters later against Massachusetts, the night his dad watched from Ironwood, later telling his son he didn’t play up to his potential on ESPN2.

Endure. He held the principle close. He let go of his football future. There would be no split this time. It was either freedom, or life upstate.

Wilson was retried for first-degree murder, with an additional charge of voluntary manslaughter—which Bradford says came from the “personality of the district attorney,” Kelly Cromer. Bradford’s strategy hadn’t waned from the first trial: Smoot had pulled a weapon on his client, who in turn acted in self-defense.

The second trial began on June 25, 2009, and was swifter than the first. Wilson hoped that he would be acquitted on the murder charge and was ready to accept a 10-to-15-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. He prepared for court every day with peace. He would slip into his suit, button his shirt, and clip on his striped tie. (The state was taking no chances with Wilson knotting his own ties the way he did in the first trial.) This trial had higher stakes. Once he was suited up, a guard would strap him up with a stealth belt and allow Wilson to pray before walking into the courtroom in his loafers.

Midway through the two-week trial, Wilson had a premonition that he would be released by July 10. Two days before that, both counsels exchanged their closing arguments. Wilson returned by armored bus to his cell late that night, where a bad omen had settled in. The jail’s plumbing system had backed up during the day, and Wilson’s cell had been swamped with feces and water. He tried to clean the floor all night with a sheet and anti-septic provided by the jail, scrubbing from his hands and knees, left to wonder if this was a prelude to his fate, that piss and water and clanking iron were going to define the rest of his life.

The next morning, the verdict was in. The courtroom was sold out, overflowing. Police radios were buzzing, the voices of dispatchers requesting for two more officers to enter the courtroom.

Wilson arrived in his black suit, sweating. He couldn’t control his heart rate. He was escorted to his seat, a chain running from underneath his suit coat to a latch on his wooden chair. The state’s way of telling him not to get any bright ideas.
His ideas turned dark when the jury finally filed in, many of them grinning at Wilson. That’s sick, he thought. They were taking pleasure in seeing his life end in prison.

Wilson continued to sweat. He was having a hard time breathing—entirely stopping the moment the judge asked for the decision.

“We the jury,” the lead juror said, “find the defendant, James Leon Wilson, not guilty of the crime of murder.”

The crowd erupted, and Wilson began to cry. Hard. There was a moment when he believed he had been saved, that even if he was convicted of manslaughter, that he would be released at least within the next decade, as a young man. Moments later the second decision came in.

“We the jury,” the lead juror said, “find the defendant, James Leon Wilson, not guilty of the crime of voluntary manslaughter.”

The courtroom cheered for what seemed to be an eternity. Bradford began to cry. He held his client. Wilson sobbed. He simply couldn’t hold back 25 months of tears.
AT THE first dinner of the rest of his life, Wilson was back at the dining room table at his grandmother’s in Lancaster, two years after the last time he had carried visions of his football future. Flanked by his entire family, fried chicken and collard greens had never tasted so good. His family stared at him, bewildered by his return. There were long stretches of silence. There were tears. Wilson became overwhelmed, engulfed by the surreal nature of his freedom. Later that night, he shared a glass of Hennessy with his brother on the front porch, trying to catch up on life, trying to relate. He couldn’t. He stared into the California darkness, liquor on his tongue, not even 24 hours removed from trying to clean feces in a concrete cell. He spoke to himself. He needed time alone. He slept that night in his great grandmother’s bed as a tribute to her passing, and was gone early in the morning.
THREE MONTHS have passed. Jimmy Wilson steps inside his mother’s one-bedroom apartment, trying to escape San Diego’s late October heat. He turns on a box fan in the small white-walled living room, and begins to rest on a stool, shirtless, sipping on an ice-cold bottle of water after finishing his afternoon run at the top of a lush hill.

Today’s running is vital, and not only for endurance. With every step, Wilson is closer to playing football again. With every step, he is farther away from the past two years. His daily training is elementary and crude. He runs the San Diego hills around his mother’s house, pumps iron alone at a nearby gym, and tries to improve his footwork every day with pickup basketball games. Everything he does is to prepare his body for a return to football. At 23, he is getting older, while cornerbacks across the country get younger.

Jail has kept him in terrific shape. He is tapered at the waist, carrying almost no body fat. His chiseled arms bulge, sculpted from two worlds, with Biblical tattoos on the right shoulder and an animalistic one on the other. One look at his face, high cheekbones and heavy ruby lips and a jaw that often clenches, one look at his brown eyes, and you can see that he runs with warm blood. It is the oil that makes him operate, that makes him capable of surviving in fierce worlds.

His eyes wander to the white wall. Sometimes he loses himself in the memories on the wall. There are 14 of them—a shrine of black frames that tell the story of Wilson’s upbringing. The wide smile as a toddler, the high school graduation pose, the stern look of a freshman Montana football player. His eyes speak for him. They say this is what he has lost.

These are the toughest times for a free man. Time to reflect. He is off today from his job as a construction worker, where he helps build decks and lay sheetrock for his uncle’s company. He needs the structure. Wilson had become accustomed to the rigid routine of jail, with body counts and meals and lights out coming at the same minute every day. Sometimes he simply doesn’t know what to do with himself. He wasn’t ready for school or football in August, just days after his release. But he wasn’t ready for this freedom, either. Letters from his father have kept him going. There is a letter Wilson received from his father in July, right after his release:

What’s up son #18,

How’s life treating a free man? I know you coo now and we’re all happy for you. (stay safe)
Look man you know how I be on you about school and ball? Well I want you to know it doesn’t matter to me what you do, I’m still going to be proud of you regardless! However I don’t want you to give up on your dream and I know that you want to play ball for a living and school is part of the deal in fact it’s the best part of the deal. Anyway I say that to say don’t give up on your dream… 

The black ink on the yellow legal paper begins to fade out on the last word. Then the ink returns, and the father writes another page and a half to his son.
WILSON EVENTUALLY cools down in the living room. He freshens up in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and dousing himself in cologne. He’s in a hurry to meet friends at a going away party in the city. He puts on dark jeans, an extra large white T-shirt, tips a red Cleveland Indians hat over his eyes, and grabs a hairbrush before exiting the house.

He makes no apologies for being a playboy. Wilson is a showman, driving a 2005 teal Cadillac CTS, with 22-inch rims and Jay-Z shaking the black-tinted windows. At the first red light he hits, just 60 seconds from his mother’s apartment, he notices a California bunny behind him, to the right, driving a bronze sports car. Wilson rolls down his back window, and catches her attention. He waves his pinky and thumb like a phone to his ear, and she signals to him to pull into a gas station ahead.

The strangers exchange numbers, and when Wilson gets back into the car, he is smiling. He rubs his chin stubble. “I’ve never changed,” he says. “I’m not taking anything for granted anymore.”
WHILE HE sat in jail as inmate 9828496, Wilson’s NCAA eligibility expired under the Five Year Rule, which states that once he began his career in 2004 at Montana, he was eligible to play only until 2008.
There are exceptions to the rule, where athletes can get another year with injuries and church missions.

The Five Year Rule Waiver, as outlined in section 30.6 of the NCAA Manual, states:  “The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement reserves the right to review requests that do not meet the more-than-one-year criteria detailed in this bylaw for circumstances of extraordinary or extreme hardship,” and not considering “disciplinary reasons or incarceration culminating in or resulting from a conviction.”

But there is simply no language in the NCAA eligibility handbook about student athletes receiving a waiver after they are cleared of criminal wrongdoing. There is no innocence clause. Wilson’s case is rare, so rare that a landmark decision could come once he pursues college football again in the weeks to come.

“I’ve never heard of it before,” says Megan McHugo, the Ivy League compliance coordinator who represents the FCS on the NCAA Reinstatement board.  “It’s usually a case-by-case basis. And sometimes based on institutional policy, not just NCAA policy.”

The NCAA will not review Wilson’s case until he finds a program that will apply for a waiver on his behalf.

Central Washington has been the heaviest suitor for Wilson, a player once recruited by Michigan State, Wyoming and Montana.

When Wilson arrived in Missoula in the spring of 2004 for his recruiting visit, his host was cornerback and San Diego native Vernon Smith, who is now an assistant coach at Central Washington.

After his acquittal, Wilson worked out with Smith in San Diego. Smith wanted Wilson at Central right away, but Wilson made it clear that he wasn’t ready to jump into football and school in the weeks following his release.

Although Wilson’s All-American gifts hadn’t rotted away in a cell, he practiced patient discipline. He understood the need for seasoning and conditioning. But two years of jail in Los Angeles has done something else to him, and even though Smith cannot exactly explain it, he wants it.

Three years removed from his last game, Wilson is now much more than a hard-nosed football player. He isn’t militant, but his mettle has considerable depth. L.A. County was a training camp that had stripped him of all boyhood pleasures, putting him through a crucible physically, mentally, emotionally. He learned how to carry himself with swagger, how to walk in his blues as a capable threat to any man, in order to protect himself, not an end zone. He taught himself not to doubt his spirituality, not to look at the urine and quiet armored bus rides as prophecies. He prided himself on not crying, to not allow his brain to split after two murder trials, hundreds of motions and hung juries and a suicide watch, in a county that convicts at an almost-automatic 25-to-life rate.

Smith wants that history of survival under a helmet and shoulder pads, in the cleats of a man with boundless athletic potential. Wilson can be the most possessed corner in the country. If the urban proverb is true, that if a man can survive L.A. County, he can survive anywhere, then Wilson’s instincts on the field will only become sharper. He will work harder in the weight room. Treat every coverage assignment like it’s his last. And hit people with reckless abandon, as if it were life and death.

“He will be scary,” Smith says.
HE STEPS to the edge of the bluff, and wonders if he could survive the hundred-foot jump into the Pacific. Wilson hasn’t been to his hometown bluff in years. His brown eyes give it away. Today, this is beautiful. Even with the thick October fog that blankets the blue water.

He tries to explain it, the brilliance of the fog, but he doesn’t understand why this inversion of grey is here. On his drive in, the sky was purely placid, holding an Africa hot sun.

The sky is almost always perfect when he returns to Point Loma, where he has been coming more often since his release. Just to drive down Freeway 8, to wave to the apartment his mother raised him in. To take the left onto Chatsworth Boulevard, to visit his high school and hear the echoes of those who scoffed at his Division I chances, when he was just a skinny 16-year-old who had never played organized football.

But the bluffs, he hasn’t been here in years. There were nights when he thought he might never see this again.

“Nothing but great memories here, man,” Wilson says, hands in his pockets. A gold St. Christopher medallion hangs from his neck, while he points out the spot that he used to cliff jump from.

Then he kneels down. He wipes red sand from his hands, the same hands that tell the story of his life. Two years ago, they fought for a gun. A year ago, they flipped the silk pages of the Bible in a concrete cell. A year from now, they could be holding dirt and grass in the fingernails, torn from the football field.

But today they are cleaning themselves of red sand, from where this all started. Wilson spreads his arms as wide as he can, tilts his head back, and looks up into the grey sky. He’s trying to reach to the ends of the ocean, but really, he’s just trying to capture how this once felt. Maybe it’s the sign of a free man.

Surely, it’s a sign he’s dreaming again.