It is not that Anthony Wilson had any thoughts of giving up. Yet, who could blame anybody in his shoes for having at least a little doubt?
After all, through four seasons of college football, the first three as a walk-on and the first of those as a redshirt at another university, the Old Dominion outside linebacker was little more than a name on the depth chart while spending most of his time on special teams.
Through it all Wilson kept his head up, kept plugging away and prepared for this season, his last, like never before.
“In the off-season I worked real hard and I guess it is all paying off,” said the fifth-year senior. “I got more into film and understanding the game and understanding our defense. That helped me become a better player. I also worked out harder than I did probably any other summer. That helped me prepare physically.”
The payoff is that Wilson has been a starter all season and has become one of the top linebackers in Conference USA. Through nine games he leads the Monarchs in tackles for loss (7) and is second in sacks (4) and tackles (60). His number of tackles exceeds his previous career total by eight and for that he credits others.
“It is really just a blessing to do what I am doing and make the plays that I am making,” he said. “I give credit to my defensive line. They are really good and when they get double teamed that opens up lanes for me and the (other linebackers) beside me. That’s why a lot of those plays are made.”
Wilson, who grew up outside the nation’s capital in Alexandria, Va., also gives a nod to his parents, Richard and Sandra, for providing him with the intangibles to hang in there through the many less fruitful times.
“Honestly, it is about having mental toughness,” said the aspiring sports agent. “That was one big thing that I got from my parents. I don’t want to say they were tough on me, but they were tough on themselves. I guess that mentality washed down on me; to also be tough on myself, never give up and stuff like that.”
There is no question the 6–1, 220-pounder has come a very long way since 2012. That was the year Wilson left home, walked on at Marshall and redshirted. As that season rolled along, though, his desire to return home grew. So in 2013 he returned to Virginia and walked on at ODU, which is in Norfolk and a three-plus hour drive from Alexandria.
“I wanted to get closer to home and my family,” said Wilson, who completed his undergrad (sports management) in the spring and was a four-time ODU honor roll member. “Not being around my family kind of made me feel homesick.”
Wilson, who also missed the hustle and bustle of the D.C. region, started a couple of games at linebacker in 2013, but most of that season as well as all of 2014 and 2015 he had to settle for backup duties and special teams duties. He got a break in the spring of 2015 when coach Bobby Wilder announced Wilson was awarded a scholarship.
“I was happier for my parents,” he said of that memorable moment. “It was a big thing for me because I finally achieved that goal, but I was happier that my parents would not have to pay for school anymore.”
Opposing offenses having been paying the price this season. Wilson recorded four tackles in last week’s 38-14 win over visiting Marshall, an outcome that resulted in ODU being bowl eligible for the first time. Following a 69-year absence the program was resurrected in 2009 and this season is the Monarchs’ second as a full-fledged FBS member.
The fact the landmark win came against the Thundering Herd made it all the more memorable for Wilson. It was also a reversal of fortune as Marshall won the two previous meetings (’14 & ’15) by an unsightly 83-21.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was a great feeling especially being back home for the first time since UMass (Oct. 8) and playing in front of our crowd. Then, to go against Marshall, it was like a big deal since we had not beaten them and it was my last chance to play against them. That kind of topped it off.”
ODU (6-3,4-1 C-USA) would like to top off the regular season with at least a couple of more wins among their three remaining games. The first such opportunity comes Saturday on ASN at S.B. Ballard Stadium against Southern Miss (5-4, 3-2).
While the Monarchs need a little help, they have a shot at an East Division title and a trip to the conference championship game. First things first, though.
“The motto we have right now is to be 1-0 every week,” said Wilson. “We are taking it one game at a time. Southern Miss is a really good team and we need to bring our ‘A’ game against them.”
To always bring your “A” game is the underlying theme of his message to others who may be struggling to break through the way Wilson ultimately did.
“I say to people never give up and give 100% effort every day,” he said. “Even when I was not on scholarship and I was not playing much everybody knew that I would work hard at every practice. Even on special teams it was my job to help the team and I made sure I was going (down field) to make the tackle.”
These days Wilson has been making plenty of tackles for ODU.