On Oct. 7, 2012, in only the fifth game of his NFL career, fresh-faced running back David Wilson took his first carry of the game to the house, exploding for a 40-yard touchdown run.
A little more than two months later, on Dec. 9, Wilson etched himself into New York Giants lore, setting the team record for all-purpose yards in a single game. The multipurpose back nearly did it all — he returned four kickoffs for 227 yards (including a 97-yard touchdown) and ran for 100 yards and two scores, accounting for nearly half of New York’s total points.
The Giants had a future superstar in their grasp, and looked like geniuses for selecting Wilson with its first-round pick (No. 32 overall) that year. Running backs may be going the way of the Dodo bird, but Wilson quickly proved to be so much more.
I bring up those two key dates because, as you read this, Wilson is now newly retired, gone from the game at the ripe age of 23. If you’ve kept up with his story (or, you know, flipped on NFL Network recently), you know it wasn’t by choice. His debilitating neck injuries — spinal stenosis suffered in 2013 and a burner last month — forced him to walk away.
And, if anything else, he’s grateful for that.
“I’m thankful that I can literally walk away from the game and that I am healthy and capable of doing the same things I have done all my life, except play football,” Wilson said in a tearful retirement speech. “I always try to find the positive in everything. This morning, I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, but I expected what they told me could be a possibility. I had played out both scenarios in my mind.”
Wilson was a world-class athlete on the field, and an extremely classy individual off of it. Despite a career cut entirely too short, he was thankful — thankful — for the brief time he spent playing professional ball.
“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me or pity me,” he said. “I lived my dream. A lot of people only get to dream their dream. I lived that dream. Now I have a chance to dream another dream and live that, too.”
Some bitter Giants fan will remember Wilson as a fumbler — he coughed up the ball on his second career carry with Big Blue — but there were few other talents like him.
Blessed with 4.49 speed to go along with his 5-foot-10, 206-pound frame, he routinely dazzled whenever the ball was in his hands. During his time at Virginia Tech, Wilson, who doubled as a track athlete, set a school record with 1,709 rushing yards in 2011, leading to ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
He impressed enough to rise up draft boards and, upon his selection from the Giants, beat out the team’s veteran running backs for prominent duties. Though his fumbling issues landed him in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse, the coach knew better than to keep such a special talent rotting on the bench. Remember, this was when the Giants had just come off a Super Bowl title and were arguably in contention to repeat.
Wilson finished his first NFL campaign, the only season he’d complete in its entirety, with 358 rushing yards (four rushing TDs) and 1,533 return yards (and one TD). The numbers were enough to earn him a second-team All-Pro selection. The sky was the limit, his ceiling was nowhere to be found.
And then poof. Twenty-four months later, doctors advised him that it would be in his best interests to hang up his cleats. Those weren’t the words he wanted to hear, not after the extensive rehab he put himself through. Months he spent working toward re-joining his teammates, attempting to continue realizing his dream, only for a fluke re-aggravation to again cause it crumbling all down … this time for good.
There are many other players of all major sports who’ve suffered a fate similar to Wilson’s. Like he said, don’t feel bad for him; he got to do what he truly loved. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that his cursed downfall is a sad ending to what appeared to be a very promising story.
Wilson will no doubt continue to work closely to football, having already secured an analyst role on ESPN’s NFL Live show. This wasn’t meant as a eulogy to him, but rather a hat-tip to a player that nearly changed the game with his dynamic abilities, unrivaled competitiveness and refreshing humility.
“I want to see them guys be great and push themselves,” Wilson said of the Giants. “That’s where my joy will come from. I’ve got a long life to live. I’m 23 years old and I’ve been blessed with an amazing head start.”