Friday November 7th, 2008

A boy, no older than 5 or 6, stood close to his father and gawked at the floppy-haired young man towering over him in an elevator in a suburban Atlanta hotel on the morning of Sept. 27. After a few seconds of awed silence, the boy's father spoke to the young man.

"John Parker," the father said. "Can you give him five?"

Alabama senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, only a few hours away from taking the field against Georgia in Athens, smiled. He slapped five with the young Crimson Tide fan and said a few kind words before reaching his floor and stepping out. As the elevator doors closed, the boy's father turned to his friend.

"Now, if he could just throw the deep ball," the father said.

Such is life for Wilson, the quarterback who will lead top-ranked Alabama into Baton Rouge on Saturday to face No. 15 LSU in the Tide's final major test before the Dec. 6 SEC title game. Alabama fans love him now, because he has piloted the Tide with ruthless efficiency -- picking his spots to unleash his arm while allowing the defense, the offensive line and a deep stable of backs to set the tone. Still, it hasn't even been a year since those same fans cursed his name, or worse, mocked it with comparisons to a certain Manolo Blahnik-wearing starlet. On Third Saturday in Blogtober, a Bama fan who calls himself Crimson Daddy used to file posts about the quarterback under the name "Sarah Jessica Parker Wilson."

Before this season, some Bama fans' enduring image of Wilson's first two years as a starter came from last season's LSU game. Facing a third-and-12 from the Alabama 30 with the scored tied at 34 late in the fourth quarter, Wilson dropped back and LSU safety Chad Jones exploded through an opening in the line. Wilson tried desperately to secure the football before Jones flung him down, but the ball squirted loose. LSU recovered on the Alabama 3, and an easy Jacob Hester touchdown run kept the Tigers' national title run alive.

Or maybe those fans fully formed their opinion two weeks later, when Wilson's third-down incompletion sealed a home loss to lowly Louisiana-Monroe. The WarHawks didn't commit a turnover that day; Wilson threw two interceptions.

Andrew Zow can imagine how Wilson probably felt after the Tide dropped their final four regular-season games and Wilson's critics multiplied. As an Alabama quarterback from 1998-2001, Zow experienced the high (the 1999 SEC title) and the low (a 3-7 record in 2000 that got coach Mike DuBose fired). And as much as a quarterback may try to insulate himself from the barbs, Zow said, it's not possible.

"You feel all of it," said Zow, who wrote a book about his Alabama career and who now coaches at his alma mater, Union County High in Lake Butler, Fla. "You think that a lot of it is your fault."

Even though Alabama's struggles weren't all Wilson's fault, it didn't matter. Jay Barker, the last quarterback to lead Alabama to a national title in 1992, acknowledged that the quarterback receives a disproportionate amount of praise and blame on any football team. But in Tuscaloosa, he said, the pendulum between the two swings more wildly than anywhere else.

"The four most powerful people in the state of Alabama in a given year," Barker said, "are the coach at Alabama, the Auburn coach, the quarterback at Alabama and the quarterback at Auburn."

So as the third-most important person in his state, Wilson had to stay tough. He couldn't complain that some of his 2007 teammates didn't have the will to win that he had. He couldn't explain that he sometimes tried to force passes because he felt, at times, that he had to do everything. He just had to keep his mouth shut and endure.

Wilson tried to avoid the critics as much as possible. In an April interview, he said he had one criterion when choosing radio or television programming to watch. "Anything but Alabama football," he said.

He also said all the right things, as if he knew brighter days were ahead. "I just try to block it off, block it out and just focus on what I have to do," he said. "You're not going to be perfect. You're going to make mistakes. If you start to worry about what everybody says, you're going to be in trouble."

Maybe Wilson sensed that because of the faith Tide coach Nick Saban placed in him. Sitting in his office one day during spring practice, Saban refused to entertain the thought of another quarterback leading this team.

"I'm a John Parker fan," Saban said then. "And I know lots of people want to blame everything on him. That's not the case, but that's the nature of the beast when you play the position."

Wilson earned his coach's faith after last season ended. He demanded accountability from his teammates, and he worked to set an example for them. Center Antoine Caldwell, a four-year starter who, along with fellow veterans Wilson, offensive tackle Andre Smith and safety Rashad Johnson, helped whip young Tide players into shape, couldn't help but notice his quarterback's offseason metamorphosis. "He's stepped up more than anyone I've ever seen," Caldwell said last month. "He's become a leader on the field, off the field. He's put a lot of time in."

Confident that he and his teammates were on the same page, Wilson could relax and let the Tide play to its strengths. With a bulldozing, veteran line and dynamic backs Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch, Wilson knew 'Bama could dominate on the ground. So he handed off until opponents started packing the box with eight, nine, and sometimes 10 defenders. When they dared him to throw, he made them pay.

In the 41-30 win at Georgia on Sept. 27 that announced Bama as a national title contender, Wilson completed 13 of 16 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. Last month, Ole Miss piled defenders near the line to stop the run, and Wilson responded with a pair of touchdown passes to lead the Tide to a 24-3 halftime lead. The second, a 30-yarder to Mike McCoy off a flea-flicker between Wilson and Coffee, spiraled so beautifully that it would have brought a tear to the eye of even the most hardened quarterbacks coach or fellow elevator passenger.

Most importantly, Wilson has nearly cut out the mistakes that sometimes crippled the Tide. Through nine games, he has thrown one interception every 51 attempts. Among SEC starters, only Florida's Tim Tebow -- the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner -- has a better attempts-to-interceptions ratio. "I'm just taking care of the ball," Wilson said this week. "I've been in a lot of situations. I know how to handle myself, know what to expect."

'Bama linebacker Cory Reamer knew Wilson had this inside him. Reamer saw it as Wilson's teammate at Hoover (Ala.) High, when Wilson led the Bucs to state titles in 2002 and 2003. As Wilson struggled last year, Reamer could sense the frustration.

"It's tough, especially when you've got guys that aren't as committed as you are to winning football games," Reamer said. "We had that problem last year a little bit. ... This year, he's got guys that want to make plays and want to be part of something special just as bad as he does."

Wilson's perseverance has made a pair of former Tide quarterbacks proud. Zow and Barker have walked in those cleats, and they fully appreciate the mental toughness Wilson needed to reach this point. "JP's done a great job of keeping his cool these past few years," Zow said.

Zow said Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain deserve some credit for that. Zow, who spent much of his career battling with Tyler Watts for the starting job, said the coaches' preseason vote of confidence may have been the boost Wilson needed to evolve. "Once you hear that," Zow said, "you don't have to worry about looking over your shoulder."

Barker, who co-hosts a morning drive show in Birmingham, didn't have to endure as much criticism as Wilson during his career. Barker led the Tide to a national title as a sophomore and went 35-2-1 as a starter. But the weeks after those two losses, he said, were miserable. Barker is thrilled Wilson finally has gotten a chance to enjoy the upside of the job. Still, Barker said, Wilson's work isn't done.

"I just hope he can go away with a championship," Barker said. "That's where your legacy is, how you make your stamp as an Alabama quarterback."

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