But it took some of the same strength the Cardinals’ Pro Bowl safety shows off Sundays in the NFL to hold them back.
Wilson sat on the auditorium stage of T.W. Andrews High School Thursday night as the school, long after his 1998 graduation and a decade into his pro career, finally retired his football jersey number.
But the evening – and the two days Wilson spent in his hometown – was about so much more for the normally stoic veteran. That was clear when Wilson was forced to wipe his eyes watching a power point presentation outlining his growth from boy to NFL star, and again afterward when Wilson sat in his car for a few minutes alone just to compose himself for the reception.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” Wilson said. “I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time, just re-living things that went on my senior year. Seeing the (current) football players, it was really bringing everything together. It was emotional.”
His entire family was in attendance. Wife Alicia and Wilson’s three children – daughter Aubrei and sons Adrian Jr. and Brooklyn – sat alongside mother Juanita Guy, sisters Tina and Nina McNeil, nephew Justin McNeil and even Wilson’s father, Jimmy.
Teachers and coaches that helped shape Wilson – most of whom no longer work at Andrews – returned just for the occasion. The current teams from the sports Wilson starred at in high school – football and basketball – also showed up.
There were messages to send. The night wasn’t just about Wilson’s No. 9. Wilson, who lived in the High Point projects with his mother and siblings until high school, was a symbol of success. He had reached the pinnacle not only as an athlete but as a small business owner (Wilson owns High Point Shoes in Scottsdale) and as a married family man.
“Especially here at Andrews, in my generation, they ain’t right like that,” Andrews football player Antonio Jackson said. “But I think the kids here tonight, they were learning something.”
Said Cardinals director of pro personnel Steve Keim to the crowd, “You have a hometown hero sitting in front of you.”
Part of Wilson’s theme was telling kids how he tries to live his life as if football wasn’t part of it. That was the lesson he wanted to teach, and a big reason Wilson eschewed his prepared speech when he finally stood at the podium to talk.
“I am from here,” Wilson said. “To have notes, it wouldn’t have been as real as I wanted to be. I just wanted to let them know how I feel. I am from High Point and I am proud to say I am from High Point. I wanted them to know how much this meant to me.”
The words had added importance given a tragic coincidence. The school was dealing with the death of a football player, Anthony Hayes, just a couple of days before Wilson arrived in town. For Wilson, whose own two years of high school football were spent dealing with the untimely deaths of two teammates, those memories too came flooding back.
The night wasn’t all serious. Former teacher Debbie Garvlee told a story about Wilson accidentally tripping a fire alarm and getting in trouble. Former basketball coach Frank Hairston recalled a time when Wilson, with his team down 30 to a school led by future NBA star Josh Howard, jacked up three bricks in a row and came to the sideline at an ensuing timeout to declare “I’m feeling it.”
Wilson was also named in a city council resolution, was acknowledged in a letter from the area’s local congressman, and was given a key to the city from High Point mayor Becky Smothers.
“You just remember,” Smothers said. “When you retire, this is home.”
Wilson, flanked much of his time home with best friends Adrian Mack and Anthony Johnson, wasn’t going to forget that. The honor may have meant more to Wilson than his Pro Bowl selections, and as the nostalgia constantly washed over him, fighting tears wasn’t an unexpected battle.
“This,” Mack said, “is kind of like a high point for him.”