- - Friday, December 23, 2011

BLACKSBURG, Va. — David Wilson ran up and down the field with abandon. His uniform was crisp and new with traces of burgundy and gold.

His father was close by with a camera capturing the boy’s movements. They were the only two people out there, but Wilson was hamming it up like there were thousands of fans cheering for him. He ran the ball. He tossed it. He kicked it.

Wilson wore a tiny replica Washington Redskins jersey that day. He was only 2 years old, but the mold was cast.

Wilson, Virginia Tech’s starting tailback, was destined to be a pro football player. For as long as he can remember, it’s all he wanted to do.

“He was running and punting the ball and throwing it. He was doing it all by himself, and I was taking the pictures,” said Dwight Wilson, David’s father. “The grass was almost at his ankles. It was funny. He just had a love for the sport.”

With much delight, Wilson, now 20, has dazzled Hokies fans with his electrifying runs the past three seasons, but the junior from Danville has remained fixated on the NFL.

The second-team All-American values his college experience, but recent evidence suggests he might be leaning toward declaring for the NFL draft following Tech’s game against No.13 Michigan in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.

Wilson, a projected first-round pick by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, said last week he already has decided whether he’ll return for his senior season or go pro, but will wait until after the bowl game to announce his intentions.

He recently said there were pros and cons to staying in school. If he returned to Tech for his senior season, he’d be a Heisman Trophy candidate for a national championship contender. But there’s also the possibility of having a subpar season next year, or even worse, suffering an injury that could compromise his draft standing.

If he goes to the NFL, he’ll achieve a lifelong dream and receive a hefty paycheck. He was stumped when asked if there were any cons to heading to the NFL a year early.

“I can’t really think of any negatives,” he said.

Dwight Wilson recently said there is a “high percentage” his son would leave school after this season.

“I think he should go,” he said.

When David was young, he didn’t care much for college football. But he loved the NFL, so much so that he’d fuss with his father and older brother Ronald when they wouldn’t let him watch it on television.

Wilson said he was 5 years old when he realized he wanted to play professionally.

“I just saw people playing on TV. And then one day somebody said, ‘They get paid to play that.’ And then I was like, ‘Paid?’ I didn’t know they got paid,” Wilson said. “I was just watching them the whole time and thought they were just doing it for fun, like I’d go outside and play hide-and-go-seek.

“That was about it for me. Just doing that and seeing how much fun it looked for them and all the people watching them, I knew I wanted to do that.”

So he dedicated himself to achieving that goal. He built his body into a football-toting machine. He’s a chiseled 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds now, and he has been timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

His hard work carried over to the football field. He has a long list of accomplishments at every level he has played.

He was an All-American at George Washington High and widely considered one of the top tailback recruits in the country.

That success continued in college, where after waiting two years to win the starting job, Wilson has become one of the top tailbacks in the country.

“I’ve had some good running backs, but David is special,” said Tech quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, who doubles as offensive play-caller. “He’s just a hard, fierce, tough, strong, fast running back.”

Wilson has rushed for 1,627 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and he was named the ACC’s player of the year and a second-team All-American. Also a standout on the Hokies’ track and field team, Wilson is the only Tech athlete to win All-America honors in two sports.

“The things he does now, he’s above and over the rim now,” Dwight Wilson said. “He’s reached the point where I don’t think anybody can help him. It’s like he’s elevated to the point where the only thing I can do is give him spiritual strength.”

Some might think Wilson has gotten all he can out of college, but his current coaches don’t believe that.

Wilson acknowledges there still is much to be gained from another year at Tech. He can get stronger and faster and has the potential to put up numbers nobody has seen from a Hokies’ tailback.

But is that enough to convince him to come back? Is it enough for him to put his lifelong dream on hold for one more year?

Wilson once thought of college as nothing more than a steppingstone to the NFL. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

While Wilson’s time at Virginia Tech has certainly positioned him for a promising NFL future, he has come to recognize his college experience as more than just an interlude before the main act of professional football. He has grown to love Tech and the experience of playing football there.

“When I was young, I thought once you graduated high school, you move on with life,” Wilson said. “But as I got more into football, getting closer to those years when I would enter college, I looked at it as like, ‘All right I guess I’ve got to go to college to get to the NFL, like a pit stop. Let me do this and get to my goal as fast as I can.’

“Anybody wants to reach their goal as fast as they can. I thought it was just going to be a pit stop. Let me go here, play football, play good and then I can leave. But when I got here, I started making friends, having a lot of fun, being in an atmosphere like playing in front of the people at Lane Stadium, building a relationship with the coaches and all kinds of relationships in the community. You get to know people. It’s not like a pit stop anymore. It’s like you found a new home.”

Because of his fun-loving personality, Wilson almost immediately became one of the most popular players on the team. He wowed reporters by doing eight consecutive standing backflips during preseason media day his freshman year, and then did 10 a year later. He impressed his teachers by wearing a shirt and tie to class almost every day.

He has an infectious giggle that fills a room. He likes to sing while running drills in practice. And he’s been known to climb things, anything, from fences to the large support columns outside Cassell Coliseum.

“Just follow him around, he’ll do something every minute that’s funny,” Tech senior right tackle Blake DeChristopher said.

Wilson’s free spirit off the field corresponds perfectly with his freewheeling playing style. He rarely runs in a straight line. He frequently jukes and changes direction to try to make a big gain.

He has had several runs in his career that appeared destined for big losses, but he turned them into long gains. Against Clemson on Oct. 1, he reversed field twice and backtracked 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage while squirming out of tackles, but then he high-tailed it up the sideline for a 20-yard gain.

“Sometimes you question where he’s going, but you know he’s going there full speed, so you’ve got to let him go,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said.

Hokies offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring learned of Wilson’s great improvisational running style while watching one of his high school games his junior season. He capped off one of his zig-zagging runs that night with a flip into the end zone.

“It was the greatest deal. He started on a speed sweep to the left. He started it, ran over to the left sideline, high-fived a coach on their sideline, took a drink of Gatorade and started all the way back across. I didn’t think he was going to get to the sideline on the other side, and then he started back across, and I said, ‘He’s not going to get back over here.’ He got all the way back over and cut it up the field,” Stinespring said.

“I think it was about a 100-yard run when it was all said and done, and when he got to the 3-yard line he flipped it on in. He stuck it nicely. Nadia Comaneci would have been proud of him.”

Stinespring exaggerated some of the details, but not by much. Wilson does things on the field that have to be seen to be believed.

Wilson puts full effort into every one of his passions, and football is only one of them. When asked what drives him most, he said, “Making my family happy.”

He said he loves to please his parents. His mother, Shelia, displays her approval much more than his father, Dwight.

“There have been times where I have made my dad that happy, where they’re both equally expressing their happiness,” Wilson said. “But my dad, he kind of tries to hide his happiness a little bit. So it’s that drive to make his face light up that motivates me.”

Twelve years ago, Wilson marveled as he watched his father rebuild the family house piece by piece. He helped by nailing wood and connecting pipes, among other jobs.

The boy’s work ethic blossomed by watching his father’s tireless diligence.

“I literally sat down before by myself and thought, ‘Does my dad have some super powers?’ Like for real, I sat around and wondered that,” Wilson said. “He was building houses and stuff and going up ladders. He can make anything.”

Dwight Wilson estimates that, with the help of his sons, he rebuilt 80 to 90 percent of that house.

“Every piece of wood in here I touched,” he said.

It’s now one of the nicest houses on the block. It’s where Wilson grew up, and where his parents still live.

“Sometimes I look back at this house I put together and I say, ‘How in the world did I do that?’” Dwight Wilson said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish once you set your mind to it.”

The father’s words apply to his son’s journey as well. The house David Wilson helped build is where his NFL dream took shape. And soon he will step into an NFL uniform again, like the one he wore when he was a little boy.

Read Nathan Warters’ Virginia Tech blog at VTeffect.com