The Moments that Made Tavon Wilson

We tend to overlook players fighting for their NFL lives this time of year. This safety's story of survival should be used as the blueprint. Ten years in, Wilson is still going strong. Here is why...

At the 10-minute mark exactly, his voice cracks. His words come to a screeching halt. It’s unexpected. Up to this point — story to story — Tavon Wilson is all glow, all bliss. Yet the moment this conversation shifts from what he didn’t have to what he does have now, the veteran NFL safety cannot help himself.

He mentions his two boys’ names out loud — “TJ” and “Tyler” — and stares ahead.

“They’re my whole world,” Wilson says. “To have two sons and not have… I’m getting a little emotional… not have a Dad there throughout your life. To be able to be there for them every day? It’s so special.”

Wilson lost his Dad at one. He was murdered.

Wilson lost his Mom at 12. She drowned.

Yet, still, being a parent came so natural to him. He’s with his boys all the time — four-wheelin,’ playing Madden, at the trampoline park. TJ? He’s the sports fanatic. He’s only seven years old and can name virtually any player on any NFL team. The other day, he made Dad play as Washington on Madden and Dad couldn’t believe it when TJ told him that he has to feed Antonio Gibson. Tyler? He’s the ball of energy, the “busy body,” who never stops moving and loves baseball and gymnastics.

It’s not complicated. The key is time. That’s how Wilson learned how to be a Dad without a Dad himself.

“Just hopping in there,” Wilson says. “I’m literally with my kids all the time.”

Years past, Wilson would dive right back into training mode. But on the eve of free agency, the first time we chat, he says he’s making a point to cherish this family time. He’s set on a playing a 10th NFL season.

He still has that itch. He needs to press on.

We so often obsess over the free agents cashing in on contracts we cannot even fathom. But for every Dak Prescott, every Leonard Williams, there are dozens of vets fighting, scratching, clawing, doing everything they possibly can to stay in this game, to provide for their families. And Tavon Wilson? He’s the blueprint for them all because Tavon Wilson finds a way — always — to keep on playing. By the time we chat again, he has inked a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers and Wilson, a cerebral 6-foot, 210-pound safety, may be exactly the presence this 49ers defense needs to boomerang back to the league’s elite.

What is that blueprint? How does one on the fringes manage to stay in the NFL?

Wilson doesn’t revel in his Super Bowl triumph or any highlights at all. Instead, he points to his darkest moments because those are the moments that made him. Mom’s death. The Indiana Game. The 3 a.m. partying in the pros. These are the moments that forced Wilson to truly evolve as a human being. How he responded to each, no doubt, is a lesson for every player trying to survive in this cutthroat league.

So, no wonder there’s a tear dripping from Wilson’s eye. He knows everything that went into that tear. His jersey won’t fly off the shelf, no. His signing is hardly a blip across your Twitter feed and there’s a 50/50 chance you’ve even confused Tavon Wilson for Tavon Austin at some point. His career hasn’t been romanticized in the media the least bit. But right here is the more realistic NFL player in an NFL offseason.

Wilson knows that whenever something bad happens, he’s gotten to the other side.

Maybe one day he can relax for an eternity. His family is building a new house down in North Carolina and his boys would love for Wilson to retire and get a dog.

But he can’t quite yet. Good things seem to happen in this sport so Tavon Wilson is going to stay in this sport.

“When I show up to any training camp, my motto is, ‘I’m showing up and I’m not going to leave,’” Wilson begins. “It’s been a crazy, crazy, crazy ride.”

Losing Mom

When he first heard the news, Wilson didn’t believe it. At 12, he was old enough to understand what was happening, yet young enough to create his own reality.

People kept telling him it was real.

He kept telling those people they were wrong.

Wilson never knew his Dad, who was caught up into the streets and killed at 19 years old. But he did know Mom and her smile stood out most. Her smile is something he’ll never forget — how Robin Williams was always full of energy and how Robin wasn’t just “the best Mom ever,” no, she was also his best friend. It took a good 48 hours for son to understand Mom wasn’t coming back.

“You wake up every day,” Wilson says, “and see this person there. They’re gone. And you don’t understand why.”

As Wilson recalls, one family member was having an adults-only pool party. He was hanging out at his grandparents’ home when someone called to say his mother had drowned. Huh? he thought, How does this happen when she doesn’t swim? Only later did he discover that his mother actually slipped, fell and broke her skull on her way into the pool. There were other people around her at the time. This was a “big” party, he says. Drinks were had with no kids around. But Wilson isn’t sure, blow by blow, how everyone reacted in that moment. Asked if there was panic, if people around Mom were able to help when she fell in and he says her death wasn’t quite instant.

“She got to the hospital,” he says. “But with all of the damages and everything, it was for the best.”

Either way, his best friend was gone.

Once that reality set in, the pain ran deep. School felt meaningless. Always an excellent student, that was Wilson’s worst year ever.

“It took a long time for me to overcome.”

Football seemed to help because football soothed that pain. The day of the funeral, Wilson actually had a game. Once the service concluded, he wasn’t going to strap on the pads but decided to last minute. Two years prior, Mom had told him it was her dream for him to play in the NFL so those words stayed fresh on his mind that day, that week, that month, for years to come. Those words served as a shield between Wilson and a world that could’ve eaten him alive. As Wilson grew into a teenager in D.C., he admits he saw things he “probably shouldn’t have seen” and was around things he “probably shouldn’t have been around.”

Mom’s dream stayed at the forefront of his conscience. His “sole focus.”

Because roughly one year after Mom died, Wilson saw firsthand how quickly a dream can shatter. For many friends, the cool thing to do back then was to drive north to Virginia and steal cars. At 12 and 13 years old, friends would creep through parking lots and, car to car, see who left their keys inside. And one day, one of Wilson’s closest friends stole a car and ended up in prison. In Virginia, he says, this friend was charged as an adult and sentenced to nine years. He adds that his friend didn’t have a gun on him but that this was still considered “armed robbery.”

That friend didn’t exit prison until Wilson was in the NFL. His entire young-adult life — age 12 to 21 — was gone. Just like that. Wilson is positive this friend would’ve been a better athlete than him.

“When he went in there, he was a kid,” Wilson says. “He basically grew up in jail. To come home, it was different for him. He’s doing really well now. I’m proud of him. He has a daughter now. It was just different, a different world for him.”

Wilson has other friends who are still in prison, too.

His choice was always clear. He chose sports over those trips to Virginia. Wilson surrounded himself with better influences, rattling off the names of seven new friends who went on to play Division I football. They all played basketball, football, ran track. They all pushed each other to earn scholarships to Kent State and North Carolina and Old Dominion and Howard and Illinois.

Whenever basketball practice was over, Wilson hit the field to do football drills.

His work ethic was a cut above.

“The shit I was doing at that time,” Wilson says, “nobody was matching it.”

All along, his grandparents provided structure. Nothing could replace Mom but he learned to move forward. Only forward with Darlene Williams Simmons and Freddie Simmons. His grandfather was a coach himself and the reason — to this day — Wilson studies the game the way he does. They’d watch Peter Warrick and Florida State football. They watched so many Dallas Cowboys games. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, “all those guys,” Wilson says. And since his grandfather loved defensive football so much, they’d dissect the X’s and O’s together all the time.

He knows his grandfather is the No. 1 reason he thinks the way he does today on the field, saying he’s had a greater impact on his career than anyone realizes. When Wilson committed to the University of Maryland, Simmons talked him into heading to Illinois instead.

And when this conversation shifts to college, no, Tavon Wilson doesn’t bring up his best moments.

He brings up his worst.

Up all night

This was the worst game of his life and Tavon Wilson only had himself to blame.

He knows it now, of course, but the key is that he knew it then.

A wide receiver named “Tandon Doss” who’d go on to catch a grand total of 23 passes in the NFL, whose name sounds more like a cocktail flat-out embarrassed him. One week after playing lights out against Michigan State —13 tackles, one interception, a half-sack — Wilson got cocky. Wilson didn’t prepare much at all for this game. Wilson admits he took both Doss and the Indiana Hoosiers “for granted.”

And when he uses those words, Wilson simultaneously holds out his right index finger and thumb one centimeter apart. Right then is when he learned that the slightest minuscule, microscopic misstep is the difference in a football game. That night, an utter lack of preparation cost the sophomore. In all, Doss toasted Illinois for 130 yards on seven receptions with one touchdown in a 27-14 Indiana win. It was ugly. So ugly that Wilson was benched a mere week after a career game.

“For that one time in my career — in my life — I wasn’t on it,” Wilson says. “I literally wasn’t on it.

“I was just playing bad. They just had me off-balance.”

Illinois players trudged onto the team bus in Bloomington, Ind. — at one win, five losses on the season — and took the gloomy three-hour drive back to Champaign, Ill. For a program familiar with dread, this was just another loss in just another season. The bus rolled into campus around 2 a.m. and players hopped into their cars to head home. Wilson? His adrenaline was pumping. He could not head back to his dorm. He could not rest easy. Something inside of him (Mom’s words maybe?) sent him directly to the film room.

Wilson popped in tape of this game and rewatched his snaps over… and over… and over as the clock ticked to 4 a.m., then 5, then 6, then 7 a.m.

Eventually, coaches started to trickle in for that next day’s work. The head coach, Ron Zook, saw Wilson and couldn’t believe it.

“Coach Zook was like, ‘I think you need to go home,’” Wilson says. “I was like, ‘I’ll go home when I feel like it.’ And then me and him sat and watched the game again. I told him everything I did wrong in the game. Everything I did wrong. It was probably my last bad game in college.”

Wilson reclaimed his starting spot and never looked back. Illinois went 7-6 in each of the next two seasons which feels more like 12-1 in these parts considering the program has had only one other winning season between 2002-2020. Wilson wasn’t even invited to the NFL Combine, but the greatest coach ever saw something in him. Bill Belichick made Wilson the 48th overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Today, his adrenaline still pumps after games. It’s common for him to watch three hours of film back home.

Of course, he had one more rough moment to overcome.

Once he turned Mom’s NFL dream into a reality, Wilson nearly lost it all.

Difficult Conversations

Year 1 was storybook. In Year 1, Wilson picked off four passes and the Patriots were one win from a Super Bowl.

Year 2? Disaster.

Wilson again points to one of his lowest lows because, again, that’s the best way to explain how he’s still here. This is when Wilson essentially treated the sport the way he did out of that Michigan State game — to the extreme. Drinking. Partying. Gaining weight. Wilson succumbed to all possible trappings a 23-year-old could with a $1.5 million signing bonus in his account. Tavon Now hardly recognizes Tavon Then and still considers it a miracle his career didn’t end that second season.

He’d repeatedly party until 2 or 3 a.m., grab a few hours of sleep, and wake up for work the next day.

“You’re burning the candle at both ends,” Wilson says. “So eventually, it’s going to catch up to you. It’s the NFL. Are you really much better than guys who were benched? No, you’re not. The difference is that much.”

Again, Wilson illustrates with that same thumb and index finger. That’s the honest difference between making it in pro football and being a never-was.

As a rookie, he didn’t act like this. Looking back, Wilson knows this all started with his grandfather’s sudden death. One month after Wilson was drafted, he lost Simmons to a heart attack. Yet since his head was spinning so fast as a rookie, he was able to get “lost” in football. That rookie season ended and the void in his life was undeniable. He didn’t only lose the man who introduced him to football — Simmons was a “life guide.”

Whenever he needed anything, ever, Wilson called his grandfather.

“So,” he says. “I kind of lost my way.”

From the end of Year 1, right into his second offseason and through his second regular season, Wilson was complacent. And partying. And drinking Ciroc, so much Ciroc. This luxury vodka was his drink of choice.

He remembers Belichick berating him in practice and deserving every bit of the head coach’s ire. That second season, Wilson was on the Patriots’ roster in name only. If the Patriots had six safeties on the roster, he calls himself the eighth because Belichick would’ve trusted a random corner over him. And Wilson knows the Patriots would’ve rightfully sent him packing if he wasn’t a second-round pick. (“It was that bad,” he assures.) In fact, it was Wilson’s self-destruction that compelled the Patriots to bring Patrick Chung back after his one season in Philly.

“I wasn’t ready at all. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically,” Wilson says. “I didn’t even belong out there that second year.”

That second season came to a merciful end and… in came the tough love.

His position coach in New England — and current Dolphins head coach — Brian Flores told Wilson he needed to make structural life changes, that he couldn’t go out and party like this during the season. If he got right? Flores was sure he could play 10 years. If not? He’d be history in no time. This became a football intervention of sorts with all of the trusty vets in this Patriots secondary — Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Chung — telling Wilson what he needed to hear.

His then-girlfriend, now-wife talked to him, too. They had just started to date but she wasn’t shy, either.

Wilson also credits her for getting his weight under control and his career back on track.

“To have her in my corner during that time was very important,” Wilson says, “and a big reason I still feel like I’m in the NFL today.”

Wilson realized he could not waste his career away.

A crucial lesson was learned in Year 2: Talent alone does not ensure employment.

“If you’re not putting the same time in that those guys are and focusing on the details when it’s time to go out there and play,” he continues, “it’s going to show. It’s going to show quick because you haven’t been preparing. You’ve been bullshitting the whole offseason. Now, me being the older guy, I walk in and see a guy falling asleep and shit. It’s like, ‘Hey, bro, what did you do last night?’ ‘Man, I went to sleep at 10.’ ‘Get the f--- out of here, bro! I’ve been there before. You don’t have to lie to me! I know! Because I was that guy for a year.’”

That feeling of something he loves slip… slip… slipping away was something Wilson realized he never wanted to feel again.

“Football has always been my first love,” Wilson says, “so if you start taking me off the football field… it’s like, ‘You are f------ up. You’ve gotta be doing something wrong. You’ve gotta do something better.’ I just started to listen and hear what they were saying. No one wants to hear the bad shit about themselves. Everybody wants to hear the great stuff. At that time, I needed to hear it and I stood up and I heard it. It was the best information I’ve ever gotten about myself because it really changed my life and my trajectory of where I was going.”

What he did next is the reason Wilson’s still here. He flew to Chicago to train alone for three weeks. Next, he flew to Arizona for another three weeks to train with McCourty, Logan Ryan and others. Wilson never had a big brother himself but, that offseason, McCourty became one. Training with the longtime Patriot put action to words. He saw how McCourty trained, how McCourty conducted himself and, he says, it all made him want more out of not just football but life itself.

By OTAs of Year 3, Wilson was himself again.

When the Patriots won the Super Bowl over Seattle, the sacrifice was all worth it.

He still treasures that moment with his family as the confetti fell.

Wilson spent one more season in New England before earning a starting gig with the Detroit Lions where his 89 tackles and two picks helped the Lions reach the playoffs in 2016. That season, Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the 10 best strong safeties in the league. For four seasons, he was a fixture in Detroit’s defense and then, in 2020, he signed with the Colts. Last season was a whole new challenge, too. It wasn’t easy being a backup again. In Indy, Wilson felt like he could still play at a high level but wasn’t given a chance to show it.

The Colts made the playoffs but Wilson was a nonfactor, playing nine special-teams snaps in that wild card loss to Buffalo.

He had no choice but to live through other DBs.

“It taught me a whole lot about leadership and being able to be confident in who you are, no matter what’s going on around you,” Wilson says. “Because it was hard. It was hard going into work every day knowing you can play but they just wanted to do something else. It has nothing to do with you. So I just learned that even when things aren’t perfect for you, to still be able to contribute in a way to those people around you.”

Sure, he’s 31 now. Sure, this is Year 10. But since Wilson has only been a starter half the time, he’s certain he has a ton of football still to give.

He promises to forever “fight for every inch.”

He’ll now take all of these lessons learned to San Francisco.

His purpose

Football has always been more coping mechanism than all-out cure for the pain Mom’s death caused Tavon Wilson.

He calls her death “a lifelong struggle.” It’s still hard — 19 years later. Wilson didn’t even try to swim until 2014 and the only reason he learned how was out of necessity. On a family vacation, 1-year-old TJ leapt into the water and Dad was helpless. He didn’t know how to swim so his pregnant wife needed to jump in to save him.

“I’m a professional athlete and I couldn’t swim,” Wilson says. “After that, it was like, ‘You have to put this aside and learn how to swim.”

And the trauma of that first life-changing moment struck most whenever his teammates’ parents ever visited campus at Illinois. He wanted his Mom to be there, too.

He’s keeping her spirit alive. Mom’s name is tattooed on his left arm and her face is tattooed on his chest.

He’s keeping her dream alive, too.

Don’t count on Wilson blowing any of his one-year, $1.125 million contract on Ciroc now. He’s a family man. The plan is to settle down in their new N.C. home one day but, for now, the Wilsons will either rent or find an Airbnb out west and just see where this next step takes them. A few days after inking his deal, Wilson walks around his current basement. Miraculously, there isn’t one children’s toy on the ground — Wilson chuckles and says the “toy room” is upstairs. Up on the wall, he shows off a 3-D portrait of himself that pops off the wall. He’s in a half-Ilinois, half-New England uniform with an actual game towel draped from the waist.

Every pro has a shrine but nothing like this. Count on this migrating to the new house.

Wilson should’ve disappeared into football oblivion long ago, yet he’s still going. He has lasted a full decade.

He’s an authentic NFL success story.

Now, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are counting on Wilson being a player who helps get them over the top.

“When a world-class organization wants you to be a part of it, you’re always grateful for that,” Wilson says. “It’s an up-and-coming organization because they haven’t been able to accomplish the ultimate goal with Coach Shanahan and John Lynch yet but they’ve been a good team ever since those guys got out there. No matter who’s on the field for them, they’re still competing in every game. So those are the type of guys I want to be around and the type of guy that I am. So I feel like I’ll be able to fit in well there.”

Asked what kind of effect — after everything — he can have on these Niners and Wilson downplays his impact. He calls himself a “piece” of a larger puzzle and says all he cares about right now is winning. That’s it. Winning.

Life has come full circle, too.

Other 12-year-olds absolutely go the other direction when their Mom dies in such tragic fashion and when they never even had a Dad to begin with. They fade away in a city like DC, never to be heard from again. They’re certainly not NFL veterans. Ask Wilson once more how in the hell he was able to move on after that phone call and he leans in.

Maybe it’s the thick, seasoned beard talking but Wilson sounds like a man full of wisdom. A man every NFL player on the brink should listen to.

“I really couldn’t stop going,” Wilson says. “At times, you want to make excuses. You want to quit, too. But for me, when a kid says, ‘I want to get a college diploma for my Mom or my Grandmother,’ that’s what I wanted to do for my Mom. She couldn’t be here physically to experience it but she’s always watching.”

He thinks of TJ and Tyler and all of the four-wheelin’ and Madden ahead. He’s “self-made” himself but, dammit, you better believe these two are going to learn all about life from their Dad. He’ll forever be a presence in their life and that is true happiness.

That is the childhood he never had.

“To be able to develop a relationship with them,” Wilson says, “when I didn’t have that opportunity, is second to none.”

First, there’s more football to be played. In San Francisco.

If anything bad happens again, Tavon Wilson will know exactly what to do.

Email: golongtd@gmail.com

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