The first hint of something big came nearly two weeks ago. Devonte Wilson pulled out his phone, pulled up his Instagram app and saw a new comment. It was from an account run by Barstarzz, an fitness group that specializes in hardcore calisthenics using pull-up bars.
Barstarzz then followed Wilson’s Instagram account, which he uses to show off an assortment of his own crazy workouts, insane box jumps and “dude, look out!” leaps over stationary equipment in the weight room. In one of his videos, Wilson jumps over a tower of weight plates that is close to 6 feet, 3 inches tall (Wilson is 6-1.).
So, yeah, a little while after that, Wilson says, Barstarzz’s Instagram account posted one of Wilson’s videos, blasting it out to its more than 290,000 followers. A little while after that, a fitness celebrity named Frank Medrano posted the video on his Facebook page. Medrano has more than 3.8 million subscribers.
For Wilson, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, that was the moment:
“After that,” he says, “it was like I was everywhere.”
Indeed. From that moment, the video spread, and spread, like any great piece of Internet virality. On Medrano’s Facebook page, that one post has garnered 7.3 million views, close to 112,000 likes and 60,000 shares. And then, of course, the rest of the Internet started to notice:
In the last week, after the initial videos went viral, the following headlines surfaced on websites, blogs and traditional media, bubbling up everywhere in the vast confines of the Internet:
“Kansas Running Back Devonte Wilson Has Serious Hops” — Athlon Sports
“Kansas Jayhawks sophomore Devonte Wilson has INSANE hops” — SportsCenter’s Facebook and Twitter accounts (The headline was later changed)
“Football Player DeVonte Wilson Shows Off His Vertical With These Insane Box Jumps” — Uproxx (The headline was later changed)
“Kansas running back posts insane compilation of box jumps” — USA Today’s “For the Win”
“Devonte Wilson Shows Off Crazy Hops, Weights Can’t Hold Him Down” — Bleacher Report
But here’s thing about Devonte Wilson. Despite what the headlines would have you believe, he is not a KU running back. He is not even a member of the KU football program, at least not anymore. And he didn’t even play much football in high school.
“I played,” Wilson says. “But when it got to games, I didn’t play. If that makes sense.”
Yes, this is how the strangest KU football story of the year begins.
Devonte Wilson is on the phone, and he wants to explain. He is Internet famous right now — at least, he is at this very moment. Internet fame can be fleeting, you know. His phone has been blowing up for days. He’s heard from friends that he hasn’t talked to in a decade. One man, somebody in the fitness industry, offered to fly Wilson across the country for a workout. And then there’s his family. Back home in Junction City, Kan., where Wilson grew up and his parents still live, kids at the high school have been buzzing over Wilson’s videos.
But yes, Wilson wants to tell the whole story. How did half the Internet mistake him for a Kansas football player? He can sort of explain that. He was a KU football player — at least for a few days.
It all started earlier this year. It was February, and Wilson was in the second semester of his freshman year at KU. Wilson was interested in walking on the Kansas football team, so he tried to get in touch.
This might be a good time to point out that Wilson says he wasn’t much of a football player in high school. Part of it was opportunity. That’s the way Wilson puts it, at least. He believes never really got a fair shake from the coaches. He played three seasons at Junction City High School, but he never saw the field too much. One year, he moved from running back to nose tackle. And Wilson says he quit the team his senior year.
Wilson, though, was always a freak athlete, and it showed most on the wrestling mat, where he did excel. He was a two-time medalist at the Kansas 6A wrestling tournament, and when he finished third in 2014, his wrestling coach remembers Wilson pulling off a celebratory backflip.
“He was always doing amazing stunts like that,” says Robert Laster, the wrestling coach at Junction City.
If you needed to find Wilson, Laster says, you looked in the weight room. Wilson was a gym rat, to use a cliche, and he spent most of his days at the local YMCA or the fitness center at Fort Riley. His father, Doris, was in the U.S. Army when he was growing up, and Wilson had access to the facilities on the post.
“I’ve been working out for nine, maybe 10 years,” Wilson says. “Since I was like 11.”
After high school, Wilson had some offers from mostly Division II and junior-college schools for wrestling, Laster says, but Wilson preferred to attend KU. He envisioned walking on the football team, even if nobody else did.
At first, Wilson says, he had trouble making headway with the new KU football staff. But then his mother sent an email to coach David Beaty, and pretty soon, a secretary from the KU football office was calling. Beaty was interested in meeting Wilson. So he found his way to the Anderson Family Football Complex.
“He said: ‘It takes a lot of guts for a parent to email the head coach of a Division I university,’” Wilson recalled Beaty saying. “And that he really respected that. And that he would like to give her credit.”
The staff offered Wilson a tryout, but first he had to fill out a bunch of forms and get medical clearance. That took a couple weeks, Wilson says, and by the time he was cleared to attend spring practice, it was half over. His stint was short — maybe three or four days — and even then, he was way behind, Wilson says.
On April 25, the day of the KU spring game, Wilson spent most of the afternoon on the sideline. He hardly knew the plays, and he wasn’t sure if he would see the field. But late in the game, he says, KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell called him over and sent him into the game. He got one carry — for exactly 1 yard (his name is spelled with an uppercase V in the box score, but Wilson says it’s lowercase).
A few days later, Mitchell called Wilson. Told him thanks for coming out — and that he wouldn’t need to report for summer conditioning.
“And then that was it,” Wilson says. “I went in the building. I got all my stuff. And I just left.”
Wilson was disappointed by the news, he says, but it also served as motivation. This past summer, he says, he hit the gym harder than ever. He kept posting videos to Instagram. Kept trying crazy things like doing box jumps with 225 pounds (or more) on his shoulders.
“That was kind of the beginning of this whole thing,” he says.
When Wilson started to go viral — and he saw websites identifying him as a KU football player — he was a little worried. He figured the videos would get back to the KU coaching staff; that somebody would ask Beaty about Wilson and his status with the team. The whole thing was bizarre. It’s not as if KU football finds itself garnering nationally publicity too often. And here was Wilson, going viral as a “Kansas running back,” with even the “SportsCenter” Twitter account calling him a KU athlete, and he wasn’t even on the team.
“That bothered me a lot,” Wilson says. “Especially, I knew eventually word was going to get out to the head coach, about ‘Who’s this guy? Is he playing for you?’
“What I can’t believe is how people were giving me more credit than the whole team themselves. Like, ‘Oh gosh,’ I bet some of the players who have been putting in their hard work over the summer aren’t too pleased about that.”
And, yes, eventually the videos did get back to Beaty. As the stories of Wilson continued to spread, and KU fans wondered about this mystery kid, a reporter approached Beaty after a news conference and asked about his status.
Beaty confirmed that Wilson wasn’t with the team. The mystery kid with the freakish athleticism, and the viral videos, and the dozens of news stories? It was all too good to be true.
“You’ve got to be careful with all the cone work,” Beaty said, implying that you can’t always judge players on their workouts.
So what do you do after you go viral? What do you do when your name has crashed the Internet blogosphere for a few days — in this case, over somewhat inaccurate pretenses?
Wilson is basically doing what he’s always done. He lives in a scholarship hall at KU. He’s a solid student. He’s interested in getting a degree in Exercise Science, and seeing where that goes.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it,” he says.
One man, Wilson says, emailed him about offering sponsorship for his workouts. Who knows if it was legit? But Wilson wasn’t interested. He still harbors dreams of playing college football, and accepting any money would compromise his amateur status.
So yeah, that college football career probably isn’t coming at KU. But Wilson is still busy working out, still posting his videos to Instagram. He has more than 33,000 followers, so that’s cool. The other day, he went to the KU student recreation center, did a squat workout and posted a clip.
It has more than 1,700 “likes.”