By RYAN HERMAN
The site of the final high school game C.J. Wilson played wearing a Lincolnton Wolves uniform just happened to be where his collegiate career began. As a child Wilson most likely dreamed of playing in the NFL and at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
Still trying to make the NFL dreams a permanent reality, Wilson opens his professional career tonight in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers.
Wilson, a Lincolnton native who signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in May, will make his NFL debut when the Bears and Panthers kick off their preseasons at 8 o’clock.
The former N.C. State defensive back who left the Wolfpack with 104 total tackles, nine pass breakups, four interceptions –– three returned for touchdowns –– in 47 total games is trying his best to make Chicago’s 53-man roster and into a guaranteed rookie contract.
Tonight’s game is all about showing what the 5-foot-11, 187-pound cornerback can do.
“I look at it like I haven’t made it yet,” Wilson told the Lincoln Times-News after signing in May. “I still have to make the roster. Once I make the roster I go to the next step. I’m going to break it down into steps and keep working hard and staying focused on making the roster.”
According to his N.C. State senior bio, Wilson graduated from Lincolnton as Lincoln County’s all-time leader in career rushing yards (3,951), career all-purpose yards (5,919) and career points (468).
The former running back was also named the Most Valuable Player as a senior after he helped lead the Wolves to the 2007 NCHSAA state 2A championship –– at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Following a redshirt his first year, Wilson played in all 12 games, starting six, as a redshirt freshman –– and moved to the secondary. Wilson started all 13 games for the Wolfpack as a sophomore in what was his best season in Raleigh, with two interceptions, both returned for TDs, and eight pass breakups.
While Wilson’s playing time gradually declined at N.C. State his junior and senior years –– he played in just nine games last season –– the speedster graduated in 3 1/2 years, went to graduate school, and his drive to play professionally never quit.
Wilson’s former high school coach, Scott Cloninger, remembers that drive well.
“He’s one of the hardest-working football players we ever had,” said Cloninger. “God gave him a lot of talent, and he’s deserving of the recognition and the accomplishments that he has received because he is a fine young man.
“He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had –– in the weight room, on the field, in practice –– he just works all the time.”
Cloninger, who said he will be in attendance for tonight’s game, said he knew Wilson was a special talent and felt like he had the potential to crack an NFL regular-season roster.
“We knew with the speed –– and that’s one of the things the NFL, you have to either be a big, huge player, or as fast as Greased Lightning –– and that’s what C.J. was. C.J. had lots of speed. … He made the plays that you had to make to win games,” Cloninger said.
“Could we see him in the NFL? Yes. There’s not many in my lifetime here that I thought had the chance, but he was one of them that I thought, with the speed that he had and the work ethics that he had, that he could have made it.”
While Wilson has spent the majority of the summer in Chicago working out with the organization and his teammates –– he took part in offseason training activities in June –– the former Wolves star has made time to stop by and workout in their facilities and speak to members of their 2013 squad, Cloninger said.
While Wilson is busy motivating himself to earn a permanent spot with a team that has won eight NFL championships and a Super Bowl, he’s found the time to motivate those from his hometown.
“I’m just trying to give a good example to the people back home that, just because we’re a small town, we can make it,” Wilson said. “Just keep working hard and you can get your foot in the door.”
Tonight he’ll try to pry the door open just a little wider.
“He’s a leader (who’s) motivating our kids,” Cloninger said. “We’re just happy he’s got this opportunity and look forward to going down Friday and watching him play.”