Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the generals of video and, last but not least, the general public are going to love James Wilder once he bursts from the anonymity and cigar smoke of Tampa and writes his name over the landscape of pro football. Right now Wilder is a cipher to all but the aficionados who have kept track of his wonderfully outrageous performances in the new mold of the running back, a type made popular by Walter Payton of Chicago, William Andrews of Atlanta and Marcus Allen of the Raiders. These are "all-purpose" athletes, and like vaudeville's song-and-dance men, they can entertain you in different ways. At 6'3" and 225 pounds, Wilder storms over people, but he is also a deft and shifty pass receiver.
Already in this season he has racked up some implausible figures, and after the Buccaneers' game with the Chicago Bears in Tampa last Sunday he was leading the NFL with 1,071 total yards from scrimmage. He has also displayed remarkable durability, most dramatically against Green Bay on Sept. 30, when he carried the ball 43 times to tie a league record.
Wilder was not called upon heavily in what turned out to be a 44-9 blowout by the Bears on Sunday, but he did get 56 yards, all but five in the first half, though the Bears' top-rated NFL defense denied him openings. Still, he remained No. 1 in yards from scrimmage (a total that combines rushing and reception gains), six ahead of Chicago's Payton. It was not a good day for running backs. Payton had only 72 yards rushing, ending a bid by His Sweetness to tie the record of seven consecutive 100-yard performances held by O.J. Simpson (1972-73) and Earl Campbell (1979).
Wilder finished with 44 hard-earned yards on the ground and picked up another 12 on two pass receptions, fair figures for the average guy—especially in a game in which his team had to all but eschew running plays and short passes in the second half—but pocket change for him. Still, this has been a season of superlatives for Wilder, and all the good stuff couldn't happen to a nicer guy. He's a dutiful, non-complaining sort, the hardest worker on the Tampa Bay team, and he's tall and handsome. When he was asked to play out of position at fullback during his first 2½ years with the Bucs, he didn't gripe but dedicated himself to being the best at the dirty work of blocking. It was like asking a gourmet cook to open a can of beans. But then Wilder likes the challenge afforded by adversity. Each February he flees balmy Florida and heads north for a month's stay at a relative's farm in chilly Columbus, Ky. "It's great to get back into that snow," says Wilder. "It's wonderful, getting all frostbitten and feeling those tears in your eyes."
Wilder's teammates marvel at how a man who's a league leader can summon up such enthusiasm day after day. He goes all out in practice, racing back and forth to the huddle, and at the end he sprints off the field, fresh as ever. Well into his fourth season, he's as gung-ho as a rookie. "Most guys put it on cruise control, but not James," says Adger Armstrong, a Tampa Bay fullback. There is, according to Wilder, a method to his fervor. "If you work hard, when it comes game time, nothing changes," he says. "You can give your 110 percent because you do it every day."
But not even a Wilder can compensate for the Bucs' inadequacies. A little event that took place last week illustrates the wariness with which the club faces a sometimes hostile citizenry: Coach John McKay was given a gift-wrapped box by a local booster club in honor of his 25 years as a head man. "You better stand back while I open it," McKay said jokingly, alluding to a possible booby trap.
"Oh, don't worry," said the boosters. "We dunked it in water before bringing it over."
If Wilder is ever able to overcome his team's lowly circumstances and ascend to widely recognized stardom, he'll have to thank luck for getting him started. He was shifted to tailback in October 1983 after his roommate, James Owens, went out with a bruised knee. Wilder lasted four games before he, too, suffered an injury—the first serious one of his career. He cracked a couple of ribs and missed the last five games of the season. But counting his work last year and the eight games he has played in '84, he has some eye-popping statistics: 1,361 yards gained rushing, another 780 on receptions, and 11 TDs.
Save for his relative lack of fame—he gets mistaken for teammate Jimmie Giles even in Tampa—Wilder thinks he has arrived. "I've really been waiting for this day," he says. "To get to this level has been my goal. Last year the injury put me on the decline, but it gave me even more to push for this year. I've got my mind made up now that I should be All-Pro every year. A 1,000-yard season, that's a low goal. That's easy. I want to take Tampa to the Super Bowl." James, bringing back vaudeville might be easier.
Wilder wanted to be a football player when he was a boy growing up on a farm outside Sikeston, near the bootheel of Missouri. The family also had a café in town, and young James helped out at the stove, but he really concentrated on running for touchdowns at Sikeston High School.
At the University of Missouri, Wilder was a superb running back, but quiet. "I'd play my game and close myself up in my locker," he says. "Most people thought I was shy. I just said, 'Hey, I'm in college. I don't have to take criticism from the press.' " Then Wilder smiles and says, "Now I'd like them to write anything about me."
Even if the rest of the citizenry seems ignorant of his exploits, his teammates stand in awe of Wilder. Quarterback Steve DeBerg says, "He's the best back I've seen." Sean Farrell, a guard who blocked for Curt Warner at Penn State, adds, "The thing that makes him different is his exceptional strength. He's as strong as anybody on this team." And Scott Dierking, a veteran fullback who came to the Bucs from the New York Jets, compares Wilder's powerful, bounce-off-people running style to that of Jim Brown. Says Dierking, "He doesn't go down unless someone gets a good shot on him. He's always scrappin'. God doesn't make many bodies like that. You combine that with extreme competitiveness, plus being a nice guy, and you have a rare breed. And I've never seen a guy who can run the ball 40 times and still look as fresh as the rest of us who have done nothing."
In Wilder's file at Tampa Bay, there's a questionnaire that the running back has filled out. One of the queries on it is, "What don't you like about football?" Wilder answered, "Nothing." He says, "If there was something I didn't like about it, I'd walk away from the game."
As of now it looks like he'll run, not walk—right into the record books.