Something to prove

On what was just another first day of football practice all over the country, rivers of sweat poured off number 70 as he went through the drills at the north end of the field. He was out there with a bunch of freshmen and although he was obviously older than everybody else, he played with the kind of enthusiasm you might expect of a walk-on with something to prove.

Number 70 is Ronnie Wilson and by the time 7:30 arrived he could have caused a flood of Ark proportions if you had run him through an old-fashioned wringer. He was completely drenched but there was no sign of letting up. All the other position players had run to the locker room but Wilson and a few defensive linemen were kept for one more set of drills at the goal line. This one was all about keeping the feet moving while spinning out of the grasp of offensive linemen. It’s tough, it’s physical and it’s probably the last drill you want to do at the end of a hot August morning when practice is ready to end. Still, Wilson went at it like it was the first drill of the morning. He gave the impression that as long as the coaches wanted to work him our, he would summon whatever energy was necessary to get the job done.

Now, the first day of football practice on an August morning really doesn’t prove anything.  There are 26 days of the practice grind before the Gators take the field for game one against Hawaii but the fact that Ronnie Wilson was out there practicing again proved that he grabbed and hung on to a life-saving hand that was extended, giving him one more chance.

By now, most of you probably know or are aware of the Ronnie Wilson story. You’ve probably heard a dozen versions of the incident where he shot a semi-automatic weapon in the air back in the spring of 2007 and you probably know all about the failed drug test in January of 2008. That means Wilson is at least on his third chance. For all we know it might be the fourth or fifth or sixth. Does it really matter how many chances he’s gotten? He’s obviously doing his best to climb out of a hole he dug for himself and as long as he’s willing to climb, isn’t it best to keep on giving him chances?

Some of you probably wonder what the heck is Ronnie Wilson doing on one of our football fields? You’re probably one of those that think it is such a privilege and honor to be a Gator that anyone bringing dishonor to the program must be shipped out immediately. I know your type. I used to be that way, too. Emphasis on used to be. I’ve done a 180 because of two things: Avery Atkins death and understanding that Urban Meyer is about saving the lives of these kids. Because of that, I’m all for as many chances as necessary for kids that want to change for the better. Better a kid that’s had 10 chances than a kid that is dead.

I hope Gators will take the time to understand. I know they won’t even try in Tallahassee, Miami and a few other outposts where self-righteousness is being measured for a brand new suit this morning.  Go to the message boards in some of those places and they’re too busy calling Wilson a thug and mocking Meyer, their overwhelming choice as the Anti-Christ. You can bet they’re having a field day now that news has leaked out that Wilson is indeed back in uniform and practicing football.

And all of these holier than thou types are so busy proclaiming their righteous virtues and spewing their anti-Meyer venom that they’re missing out on something that extends far beyond the football field. Maybe they don’t understand that there are some things in life that are much more important than winning or losing a game.

Ronnie Wilson isn’t out there because Urban Meyer needs him to win another football game although it is possible that at some point in the future he might be a star who makes a game-winning play. The reasons that Ronnie Wilson is practicing football again have far less to do with football than you can imagine. Football is simply a vehicle here. It’s a vehicle to help him regain his own self-respect. Nobody knows better than Ronnie Wilson that Ronnie Wilson got him in this fix and nobody knows better than Ronnie Wilson that it’s possible to prove you’re a man who’s learned his lessons and no longer the boy that made those stupid mistakes.

Meyer’s been doing this type of thing for years. He wins a lot of football games and that earns him well-deserved pats on the back but the thing I think he does best is reach out to kids who are at risk. The euphoria of winning a football game lasts only a little while. The satisfaction of helping an at risk kid get his life on the right track lasts a lifetime.

That’s why Meyer continues to reach out to kids who have made monumental blunders. He gives them a second, third and fourth chances. Sometimes more. As long as the kid shows that willingness to keep on fighting to turn his life around Meyer will give another chance.

Another chance doesn’t mean a carte blanche pathway back to privilege. There is no free lunch here. Nothing is easy. Everything is earned. It’s a serious dose of tough love but the key here is the love. Meyer might not like what the kid has done but he won’t ever stop loving the kid.

Not every kid is willing to do it Meyer’s way. To do it Meyer’s way, you have to make good grades, you have to live your life right and you have to show that you are either changed or in the process of changing. Some kids think it’s too Boy Scout for them and they choose to transfer rather than earn their way back on the team by following Meyer’s rules. It’s obvious by the number of transfers in the last three years that quite a few kids would rather take the easy way out than try to redeem themselves by following Meyer’s redemption plan.

And this is why Ronnie Wilson needs to be applauded.

No, we don’t applaud him for making the stupid, immature mistakes that cost him his scholarship and might have cost him a chance to earn a large amount of money as a professional football player someday. We do applaud him for being man enough to face up to his mistakes. We applaud him because he’s willing to endure any and all criticism to prove that he’s not the kid that did all the dumb stuff.

He’s playing football again and he’s doing it on his own dime. He’s been working long hours at Home Depot while still carrying a full load of classes. He’s not getting any special privileges either. He can’t eat at the training table. He doesn’t get free books or a check at the beginning of every semester to pay for his room and board. He still has to go to class and make good grades but he doesn’t have all the tutoring advantages that his on-scholarship teammates have.

It would have been so much easier if he had done what a lot of folks suggested and transferred to Georgia Southern or Bethune-Cookman. They would have loved him and nobody would have made a big deal about what happened at Florida. He stayed, however, and earned one more chance to play football by getting every other priority in life straight. If he does nothing else, he has done something very important with his life. 

I have no idea if Ronnie Wilson will ever be anything more than a practice player for the Florida Gators. I hope he becomes a big star but that chance might have already come and gone. What hasn’t come and gone is his chance to be a real man. A lot of kids play football. Some of them become real men. I hope that Monday was just another step on the long road Ronnie Wilson will take toward being a real man.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.