Wilson: Beacon of Hope
Melrose High School Stadium in Memphis, Tenn., used to sit vacant on football Friday nights. Relatives, neighbors and a couple of stragglers would trickle in to watch the Golden Wildcats.
And that was on a good day.
Then, along came a 5-foot-9 quarterback by the name of Cedrick Wilson, whose skills struck the town with the intensity of an Elvis Presley gyration.
The wunderkind threw for four touchdowns in a game, then five, then six, then seven, then eight.
"The next thing you knew, we went from having 600 people at our games to 10,000 every time -- because they all wanted to see this incredible quarterback," then-Melrose coach Tim Thompson said Wednesday. "Cedrick Wilson was a legend here; he's still a legend here."
That's why so many look on proudly as Wilson continues to turn heads at Steelers training camp, now as a lightning-quick wide receiver. Wilson is working at the flanker position while Hines Ward holds out, but his ultimate home will be either at split end (where he'll compete with Antwaan Randle El for the starting job) or in the slot.
Steelers fans get their first good look at Wilson in an exhibition against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night at Heinz Field.
"They're going to see what I'm all about," Wilson said.
Wilson is confident, quick and pays attention to detail. Those qualities served him well as a sought-after high school quarterback, and as a wideout at the University of Tennessee, where he helped the Vols to a national title in 1998. Wilson ranked fourth in UT history in receiving yards with 2,137 and finished with 159 receptions and 24 touchdowns.
He might have made an impact on baseball diamond at UT, considering he threw six no-hitters in high school, but football coach Phil Fulmer quashed the idea.
"No regrets about that," Wilson said. "I'm happy with the way things have gone in my life."
Of course, things could have gone a lot differently, according to his high school football coach.
"This story didn't necessarily have to have a happy ending," Thompson said. "Cedrick did this against all odds."
Wilson grew up in a single-parent home as the oldest of Janice Wilson's five children. By the age of 9, he was delivering newspapers. At 13, he was working in restaurants. At 16, he was a lifeguard.
He turned most of his money over to his mother, and became an adult well before his time. His maturation process had a two-pronged effect, however: It contributed to the well being of the family, yet it also caused Wilson to stray from his mother's rules.
He wanted to test the streets.
"And those streets were no good," Thompson said. "He grew up in an area called Orange Mound, which is like Harlem. There were drugs, murders, all of those things on those streets. Cedrick wasn't a part of that, but he wasn't on the right path, either."
That's where Thompson stepped in. He served as a mentor. He introduced Wilson to religion and insisted that there was a better life out there for him. He emphasized schoolwork and a renewed commitment to athletics.
Wilson listened and learned. And he eventually flourished as an athlete and as a young adult.
"Because I was the man of my house, I felt like I didn't need have to pay attention to what people were telling me," Wilson said. "There were a lot of directions I could have gone, with the drugs and violence and all of those things around me, but I was blessed that I didn't get caught up in those things."
Fair or unfair, Wilson had a reputation to uphold for so many folks in Orange Mound. He was their hero, their hope, their inspiration. If he failed them, then who would they have to turn to?
It was a pressure-filled existence for a kid who was still finding himself, but Wilson found a way to lead. He has since guided his family through poverty, watched his siblings move on to higher education and celebrated his mother's return to college.
His brother, Ellix, is a strong safety at Tennessee and his youngest brother, Monte, is one of the top prep wideouts in Memphis.
"I can't begin to tell you the impact he had then and the impact he has now," Thompson said. "He's the reason three other players from this area followed his path to the NFL. And the great thing about this story is, it's all true. Cedrick Wilson brought magic to this place."
He'd like to bring some magic to the Steelers, too.
"I've worked hard to get to this point," Wilson said. "I've been through ups and downs, just like anybody else, but now, I'm here and I'm ready to help the Pittsburgh Steelers win a Super Bowl."
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