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
"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
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
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.
"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.
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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."