Kion Wilson hasn't run a cross-country race in four years.
He's 35 pounds north of 200 and the biceps on his 6-foot-2 frame would dwarf any real runner's calves, but Wilson still swears he could run the 3 1/2 miles in under 20 minutes.
"Kion said that?" Joe Tresey asked. The South Florida defensive coordinator stopped, pictured his middle linebacker and then blew out a sigh. "Well, I wouldn't bet against Kion."
Time was, Wilson was the longest of long shots. The sixth of nine kids, Wilson grew up in a gritty Miami neighborhood where menace danced in front, around and even out in the backyard, where an alligator named Charley roamed the canal.
When Wilson was three, his father was murdered. Before he finished grammar school, his oldest brother had landed in jail. By the time he hit his teens, his mother's second job left no time for church -- but plenty for Wilson to hook up with the 191 Boys, a group his mother derisively called "a little gang."
Wilson sold some pot, shattered the jaw of a cop's little brother. His mother sought out an undercover police officer, begging him to please arrest her son. When the officer did, Glenda Marshall petitioned the court to send her son to the Bay Point School, an alternative boarding school she said serves at-risk teens and that Wilson remembers as "basically a boot camp."
"I told him, 'I am going to save your life,'" Marshall said, the force in her voice palpable even now.
Wilson spent nine months at Bay Point, thinking and studying and playing football for the first time. He watched the kids in pads at the Carol City parks from the time he was small, but while his mother put him and his siblings in the clothes and shoes they wanted, her budget never stretched to sports fees. Turns out, Wilson was a natural at the game. And it was a natural fit for him.
"Football was my escape route," he said. "It's what kept me safe."
Life outside Bay Point was anything but safe, and neither Wilson nor Marshall wanted him back in Miami when his time at Bay Point ended. So Marshall found a job in Jacksonville, moved her entire brood and enrolled Wilson in Raines High. Wilson went straight to the football coach and said he was a quarterback. The coach put him at defensive end.
Wilson played football and ran cross-country, but when he got a low score on his SAT he started thinking about where he would work. Then a coach from Pearl River Community College came by Raines and asked Wilson to come out to Mississippi. Wilson went, and he racked up a Division-I-coach-drawing 215 tackles in two years as a strongside linebacker. For the first time, he said, "I realized football could take me somewhere."
Somewhere could have been Miami, or North Carolina. But Wilson picked Tampa and Jim Leavitt's fledgling South Florida program, where he slid right in at middle linebacker. He recorded 66 tackles last fall, and linebackers coach David Blackwell said he'd never met a player who worked harder. Wilson pledged to do even more in 2009.
"I told myself this had to be my real breakout year," he said.
Then in March, just as spring practice was set to begin, Wilson's 24-year old brother, Kellon, was shot in the back of the head following an argument with his girlfriend's husband in Miami Gardens. Two months later his older brother Darius, 29, was shot while working security at a Miami nightclub. He died that night.
Wilson's response to the tragedy still staggers Tresey. "You could see he was hurt, but at the same time, he knew what he had to do every day to be successful," said Tresey. "And he does it, every day, every play at the same speed -- full bore."
A few months ago, Wilson would see the NFL scouts and start thinking about how an NFL paycheck could buy his mother a house. Now what he sees is Kellon standing at his games. What he hears is Darius screaming across the phone line how he just played as his little brother on NCAA Football and how the Kion on his Xbox snagged two interceptions. Before and after every one of Leavitt's grueling practices, Wilson sprints the 350 yards, in full pads, between the USF locker room and the Bulls' practice field because "every step I take is one my brothers can't."
Tresey only met Wilson this past spring, a day after his hiring and two days before Kellon was shot. Leavitt promised Tresey that Wilson would be the anchor of the defense; the first-year coordinator said he's been so much more. It's a presence, it's a demeanor, it's that Sept. 26 game at Florida State. It was somewhere early in the second quarter down in Tallahassee when Wilson had ripped apart the skin between his pinkie and ring finger. He left the field, got 26 stitches and then, in the third quarter, sidled up to Tresey.
One eye on the field, one glancing at his linebacker, Tresey said, "What's up?"
"I'm ready," Wilson said.
"You're what?" Tresey asked, turning fully.
"I'm ready," Wilson said again.
"Unless his limb is detached, he's going," Tresey said, five weeks after Wilson did indeed get back on that Florida State field.
Wilson forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and paced the Bulls to a milestone win that Saturday. Then last week, he nearly did the same thing, ignoring a pre-game bruised quad and an in-game strained groin with West Virginia in town and the Bulls ostensibly penned in for another October swoon. He limped all across the Friday night broadcast, picked off a pass, had 12 tackles and willed the no-longer-slumping Bulls past West Virginia.
Now, as Wilson prepares for Rutgers Thursday night, Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano used "instinctual" and "smart" and then said, no, the Bulls' defensive rock is something more.
"I have listened to him and he just sounds like a guy that gets it," Schiano said. "You listen to him talk about football or whatever and say, 'This guy gets it.' You can see he gets it on the field (too)."
He has to. Four of the 191 Boys he ran with way back when are dead now, one from a drive-by, one from trying to break into a drug dealer's house. Louis Lee Bradshaw, the man convicted of shooting Kellon, was sentenced to life last Friday. Darius' shooter remains at large.
Wilson has his younger brother Josh's grades to monitor at Miami Dade Community College and his baby brother Jarrod to counsel, Marshall said, "On always moving forward."
With Kellon's murder trial to attend and what she hopes will soon be Darius' too, Marshall moved back to Miami this summer. She's married again, to one of her oldest friends, and Wilson very proudly said, "My mom's doing really well for herself." She just as proudly said he's still headstrong.
"Before the Pittsburgh game, we called him and said, 'Kion, you should really take this one off. You need to take care of your body.' He said, 'Okay, Mom.' Then we turned on the TV and he was out there playing," she said, sounding both surprised and not all at once.
There are no days off or plays off for Wilson. His mom made him her priority. Now, he said, she's his. She did everything for him, he said, "Now I want to do something for her. If that can be through football, then I need to make sure I work at it as hard as any human being can work."
He has, and people have noticed. He's on the Butkus watch list and is a repeat Big East honoree. He's already been invited to the East-West Shrine Game and Tresey pledged to dial up every NFL front office and leave the same message: "Kion Wilson is the player coaches dream about."
Not that Tresey thinks that will be necessary. Not that the scouts who have become fixtures at USF game think so, either. If it wasn't known before, it is now: Wilson isn't a long shot anymore.