The coaches knew Damien Wilson was something different the first time they saw they him participate in a high school football practice. Within just a few snaps, actually.
Well, they were hopeful, at least. The confirmation would come later, in game after game, when Wilson did some things they had simply never before witnessed.
“You should’ve seen this one play,” says Sedric Cain, Wilson’s high school coach at Amite County in small-town Liberty, Mississippi.
When a kid develops into an NFL linebacker — Wilson now starts for the Chiefs in his first year in Kansas City after an offseason free-agency pact — you would expect there are some anecdotes about him dominating the high school ranks. That’s not what this story is about, but it must start there.
On the play queued in Cain’s memory, Wilson tracked from one sideline to the other, an estimated 50-yard sprint that’s probably grown in lore, and he ran down a wide receiver granted a 10-yard head start.
Whoa, Cain thought.
Cain sent tape of that play everywhere. He began calling Wilson “D-Wil”, mostly because he compared him to Patrick Willis, an All-American linebacker at Ole Miss who he’d once heard called “P-Will.”
Wilson wanted to play football at Ole Miss, too. Or maybe Mississippi State. LSU would’ve been cool.
But for years, Cain sent tape after tape to college scouts. And, well, nothing. Nobody came to visit. Nobody called. Nobody even acknowledged they had received it.
“The kid averaged 16 tackles a game. Fast. Athletic. Strong,” Cain says. “And we couldn’t get a call back. Couldn’t get a scout to come to the school.”
Cain is leaving out one small detail. One tiny hurdle.
Those tapes he sent to potential college recruiters?
They were on VHS.
“Yeah, I had the tape tape,” Wilson says.
Under the radar
Some 20 years ago, high school football coaches reserved designated meeting spots. Restaurants. Coffee shops. Sometimes just an exit off the side of the highway. They would bring a couple of DVDs of game footage and exchange them with an opposing coach. A gentleman’s agreement.
In 2006, Hudl changed the game. Coaches could exchange film online. They could email college recruiters highlights of their players. DVDs were becoming a thing of the past. VHS tapes? Long, long obsolete.
The virality and accessibility of highlight packages sparked some unique recruiting opportunities. Charles Harris, a defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, received a scholarship to Missouri only after coaches watched his basketball highlights. They were easy to find online. Quarterback Carter Stanley wound up at Kansas after a Twitter notification that then-coach David Beaty had followed him and a subsequent FaceTime video chat with an assistant. Simple enough.
But none of that existed at Amite County. The school couldn’t afford the technology to film with DVDs. Heck, it couldn’t even afford the technology to upload the film online. Which would have been tough to do anyway, considering they used an old camcorder to capture games.
Eight years ago.
Wilson is just 26. He graduated high school 14 years after the birth of DVDs and five after Hudl launched. And yet his playing future rested on a VHS tape. Long after most had quite literally trashed their VCRs, Wilson continued sending out videos that required the device.
“All we had, man,” Wilson says. “I know nobody was watching that. They were like, ‘What the heck is this? Toss.’”
By the time his signing day rolled around, Wilson, an NFL starter, had collected one scholarship offer to a four-year program.
Alcorn State, an FCS program in Lorman, Mississippi, had a spot for him. Could’ve been a courtesy. His parents attended the school. His older brother was already there. His grandparents went to Alcorn State, too.
Wilson had little choice but to take the offer. Mississippi State presented the chance to walk-on, but he wanted football to pay for his education. Didn’t want to dip into his parents’ savings.
As a freshman at Alcorn State, Wilson totaled 13 sacks. The coaches had moved him from linebacker to the defensive line.
He weighed 220 pounds.
It wasn’t exactly a compelling body frame to colleges. Again, no four-year offers came.
“I said to myself, ‘This ain’t it,’” Wilson says. “It’s a great school, but it’s a small school. I knew what I wanted to do. It would have been hard to get where I wanted to be from there. I had to go JUCO.”
In nearby Ellisville, Wilson transferred to Jones County JC. He won the region’s defensive player of the year award ... playing safety.
This time, his film available for anyone to see, the scouts salivated.
By season’s end, 17 offers awaited.
He jumped at one from Minnesota, where his cousin attended.
“The rest was the rest,” Wilson says. “That changed everything for me.”
Prime fit in Kansas City
A few years ago, Cain invested in the NFL Sunday Ticket, a television package that allows him to watch any game he wants. He’s a huge San Fransisco 49ers fan, but he can’t turn off one of Wilson’s games. So the Chiefs receive top preference.
As he watched Wilson in the Chiefs’ opener in Jacksonville two weeks ago, Cain noticed him switching positions from snap to snap.
“Just like he was for me. He could play anywhere,” Cain says. “There’s more to come.”
Wilson actually played quarterback in high school, simply a way to get the football in the hands of the team’s best athlete. “I was Pat before Pat,” he quipped, referring to Mahomes. On the defensive side, he played almost everywhere, moving mostly across the three linebacker positions.
Eight years later, therein lies his value with the Chiefs.
“He knows all three of the (linebacker) positions if he has to play in there. You’ve seen him go from the SAM to the WILL, and he has good coverage ability,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says. “He’s big and strong, so matchups become important there.”
On a Chiefs team ravaged by linebacker coverage issues in 2018, Wilson has been a revelation since arriving from Dallas. The Cowboys had plucked him in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He’s the third-highest rated coverage linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s not a small sample size, either. Wilson has been in coverage on 53 snaps.
“He’s been great,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo says. “He gives us a little bit of flexibility because he moves around. I’ve been really happy with him.”
It’s why the Chiefs sought him.
It’s why he sought the Chiefs.
Well, that and the fact that former Cowboys teammate Anthony Hitchens told him if he wanted to win a Super Bowl, he should probably join him in Kansas City. The thought of having an opportunity to play for a championship is enough to entice many, but it was particularly alluring to a kid who grew up in in a town of fewer than 1,000.
Who couldn’t get a call back in high school. Who twice failed to find an opportunity to even play in the most competitive subdivision of college football.
“I kept telling people,” Cain says. “Just watch the tape.”