Albert Wilson was 2 years old when his father, Albert Wilson Sr., predicted his future.
“You’re our ticket out of the ghetto,” Wilson told his precocious son.
Albert Jr. fulfilled his father’s prophecy by making it off the streets of Fort Pierce, Fla., and all the way to the NFL as a free-agent rookie wide receiver with the Chiefs this season.
Undersized at 5 feet 9 and 200 pounds, unheralded in high school in Port Lucie, Fla., and under the radar playing at Georgia State, the young man known to his friends and family as Junior has become one of the feel-good stories in an NFL season marred by sordid behavior.
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Wilson will return to south Florida for Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins and will be reunited with parents who spent his formative years in Florida prisons while he experienced a childhood in group homes and too many foster homes to count. In the eighth grade alone, he attended five different schools.
Somehow, someway, Wilson found his way.
“It’s amazing to have this opportunity to show how hard work pays off and opens eyes for people who came from the same situation I have,” said Wilson, who was signed by the Chiefs immediately after the draft.
“Just believing in yourself, and believing with the talent God gave you, everything will work out fine.”
Wilson’s story is almost a sequel to the story of NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame. Oher was homeless in Memphis, Tenn., before he was adopted by a wealthy family and went on to the University of Mississippi, where he became a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
“You can look at it that way,” Wilson said. “My parents were a part of my life the whole time ever since I was born. Even the years they were in prison, it was daily phone calls, letters back and forth, visitations all the time. They were a big part of my life.”
Indeed, Albert Sr., was Junior’s biggest fan and supporter. But it was difficult raising five daughters and a son on a forklift operator’s salary. So Albert Sr. began selling and delivering drugs. When Junior was 8 years old, his father began the first of three stints in Florida prisons.
“I didn’t have the money, just working jobs, to pay for the stuff he needed and for the places he needed to go,” Albert Sr. said from his home in Fort Pierce. “The uniforms that he needed, the cleats that he needed. … But I got them for him. And I introduced him to baseball. … He can play baseball just as good as he played football.
“I knew I’d never have the money to send him to college. When I disappeared … he started to almost give up, but he didn’t. I told him that’s what it’s all about. ‘Never give up. … You stick with this … you can make it, bro.’”
Without parents to live with, Wilson’s journey took him from a Boys Town in Oveido, Fla., to the Hibiscus Center in Vero Beach, Fla., and to multiple homes with other families before he found the security he needed with Brian and Rose Bailey in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
The Baileys, who have adopted eight foster children, knew of Junior through their kids and brought him to their home when he was in 10th grade.
“He was friends with some of my children, played football with them, and my daughter used to do his hair when his hair was long,” said Rose Bailey, who works for the agency that runs the foster care and adoption program in the area.
At the time, the Baileys had maxed out the number of children they could adopt, but they took in Junior anyway in what was called a non-relative placement. After spending 10th grade with them, Wilson could have returned to his parents after they were released from prison in Fort Pierce. But he moved in with a cousin, Sherri Brown, in Port St. Lucie, so he wouldn’t have to change high schools.
“Without the Baileys and my cousin, I don’t know what would have happened,” Wilson said. “I didn’t get a straight mind until my 10th grade year. I was running with the (wrong) crowd, and after a while, I realized Fort Pierce was somewhere I didn’t want to be, and football would give me the best opportunity to get out of Fort Pierce, which it did.
“The Baileys brought me in like I was one of their own. I felt like their kids were my brothers and sisters and they were my mom and dad.”
While grateful for the roof over his head and warmth of a loving family, Wilson was still an angry young man who missed his natural parents, three older sisters and two younger sisters.
“He was just angry about the situation he was in,” Rose Bailey said. “He was angry about being separated from his family. He didn’t understand the big picture. He didn’t understand everything that he really didn’t have control over his life.
“Your focus at that point is just to survive and get through today to get to tomorrow. At that age, can you concentrate on school? And especially for Junior, who is so close with his family … that was very difficult.
“He persevered, and his success is on him, because he did not have somebody there, pushing him along, every step of the way. When his dad could finally come to one of his games, the smile on that boy’s face was priceless.”
As a diminutive high school quarterback, Wilson totaled 2,631 all-purpose yards as a senior at Port St. Lucie High School, including 1,029 yards passing with nine touchdowns; 824 yards rushing with 11 scores; 81 receiving yards, 132 interception return yards; and 565 kick/punt return yards.
And he received an athletic scholarship to Georgia State.
“He’s always been the underdog,” Rose Bailey said. “Our school was never the greatest football team. … We had more losses than wins. But he did whatever he had to do in school and in college to fulfill his dream.”
Football, like his father said, was the ticket.
“All the way through my childhood, football was my escape route from reality,” Wilson said. “I turned to football to help with all my worries and uncertainties. Those few hours a day with football really meant a lot to me as I saw that as being a possible escape route from my situation.”
Georgia State, an urban school in Atlanta with aspirations to be a major program, did not field a football team until 2010 when Wilson was a member of the Panthers’ second recruiting class.
The Panthers worked their way from Football Championship Subdivision status during 2010-12 when they went 6-5, 3-8 and 1-10 before moving up to the top level of NCAA Division I, the Football Bowl Subdivision, in 2013, when they went 0-12.
But Wilson stood out from the crowd, beginning with his freshman year, when his 97-yard kickoff return against Alabama supplied the only points in a 63-7 loss to the Crimson Tide, through his senior year, when he finished his career with 6,235 all-purpose yards, ranking among the top 30 in NCAA history.
“I kind of knew what I was getting into,” said Wilson, who is a semester shy of a degree in, appropriately enough, sociology. “The first year was good and the following years were the build-up (to FBS). It was a great experience. I learned a lot from the school; the university was great. It turned out good for me, even the 0-12.”
Wilson, who owned the longest reception (93 yards), run from scrimmage (80 yards), kickoff return (100 yards) and punt return (62) in school history, was the first Panther to be invited to the NFL Combine and was signed quickly by the Chiefs as a free agent after the draft.
“He came to our rookie camp and gave us a spark and made us raise our eyebrows and say, ‘Let’s give this guy an opportunity,’” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “Right away, he was very explosive. You noticed his speed. You noticed his agility. And by putting him in the slot position, you saw him beat bump-and-run.
“It carried over into training camp. Sometimes in shorts, it’s one thing. But you put the pads on, and he carried it the same way. There was a long list of guys we were looking at for the slot position, and he kept emerging as one of the top guys at that position.”
Wilson made a big impression by returning a kickoff 65 yards against Cincinnati in the third preseason game and by catching a 1-yard touchdown pass against Minnesota in the third exhibition game.
“It was an opportunity that presented itself, and I took full advantage of it,” Wilson said. “From the time I woke up, I was learning to get better until the time I fell asleep. I was in my playbook, so I felt like I was taking care of business, doing what I had to do, being very coachable, just try and be as mistake-free as possible.”
A sore ankle kept Wilson out of last week’s game at Denver, and he might be inactive again for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.
But he’ll at least see his parents, who still live in Fort Pierce, and his two younger sisters, Albertina, who is a senior in high school, and Porchee, who is attending an art institute.
Albert has been an inspiration to his sisters as well as others who have grown up in similar circumstances.
“I tell kids in tough situations … me doing what I have done speaks for itself,” Wilson said. “If they read and see that it is able to happen that people can do it, that should be motivation enough.”