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An Emotional Journey

Hidden or not, Wilson's trip to Super Bowl touches his core


Safety Adrian Wilson sits with his head down as the Cardinals closed in on their NFC Championship game victory.

TAMPA, Fla. – He often wants to seem gruff, and sometimes, Adrian Wilson can pull it off.

The physique is scary enough, 6-foot-3 and 230 perfectly sculpted pounds that can first race to and then crush a ballcarrier. Then the Cardinals' strong safety will give a few clipped answers to questions with no hint of a smile.

But that simply isn't the real A-Dub.

The real Wilson is about emotion. And loyalty. He's the man who stuck with the Cardinals for so long without a peep about his contract, which is likely outdated. He's the man who viewed reaching a Super Bowl with his original team more important than trying to go elsewhere.

He's the man who was choked up, a tear streaming down his cheek, on national TV after the Cards won the NFC Championship, realizing a dream had been fulfilled.

"He always wants to be tough, but he ain't tough like that," linebacker Karlos Dansby, Wilson's closest friend on the team, said with a laugh. "Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. I hang out with him all the time. He's soft."

Soft isn't a word most would choose. Wilson's football credentials are indisputable. Wilson is making his second Pro Bowl appearance next week and might have more on the résumé had he played for a higher profile team. He will likely reach a rare NFL plateau next season, when he gets to 20 career sacks and 20 career interceptions (Wilson has 18½ sacks and 18 interceptions).

He became the player the Cardinals hoped he would be when he was a third-round draft pick in 2001.

That he would become the longest-tenured Cardinal in their first Super  Bowl appearance – that he would, more than Kurt Warner or Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin or any other player, represent the Cards' hard journey here – may have been less expected.

Wilson may have once questioned it himself. But when he signed a contract extension in late 2004, he said he was going to be a Cardinal for his entire career.

Wilson said that extension sent a message that he was "all in" with the franchise. That meant too many seasons of disappointment; too many times his hopes were trampled in defeat.

He never wavered in his choice.

"The greatest sacrifice is patience," Wilson said. "I think it really defines you. It defines your character. Just being able to stick through something, not always jump ship when things go bad, I think it speaks volumes.

"It speaks for the organization for being patient and putting the right pieces in place. You can't build a team overnight. I don't care what anyone says, you can't do it. It took us a while to get here."

If an organization were to draw up a player to epitomize the team, it'd choose someone like their veteran defensive playmaker. He thanks owner Bill Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves and does so in a genuine manner. He never gets into any trouble (even if grumpy A-Dub pops out once in a while when the media is looking for him). He needs a contract extension – he'll be a free agent after the 2009 season – but he's never made a fuss about the situation.

When he missed half the 2007 season with a heel injury, Wilson used the time to change how he dealt with younger players. He became more approachable, more of a mentor. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who has coached Wilson five years, said no defensive player is more of a "gym rat" than Wilson because he constantly watches tape and strives to learn new information.

Teammates saw Wilson gear up before this season. Eager to show he was just as good after his injury, Boldin said he saw a drive in Wilson that was unmatched. Defensive end Bertrand Berry said Wilson has "been emotional" as the Cards creep closer to what Wilson once wondered possible – a Super Bowl victory.

"I'm sure 'Finally' has gone through his head the last couple of weeks," Berry said. "You root for a guy like Adrian."

If the NFC title generated tears for Wilson, what would a Super Bowl title bring?

"I've been through some tough things," Wilson said. "But it is so much more rewarding. To be with a team for so long and see the ups and downs we have been through, to get to this point is so much more rewarding, so much more gratifying.

"It's not football. It's about life."

Contact Darren Urban at Posted 1/28/09.

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