Everybody has his reasons for anointing a certain player as his favorite.
Maybe the player is an elite superstar. Maybe he became a nationally known professional who was an ambassador for the program. Maybe he turned into an even better man -- an even better father -- than he was football player, and that's a life you admire. Maybe he is one of the greatest leaders you've ever witnessed.
Maybe he's all of these things.
Al Wilson is all of these things.
That's why he's my all-time favorite Tennessee Volunteer. He wanted to destroy the other team every single play he lined up, so he never took off a play and was all over the field, making tackles and generally wreaking havoc. He wanted to suit up no matter what injury he was suffering, so he played with intense pain throughout a good portion of his career. He wanted to win as much as anybody else who has ever worn the orange and white. So, he won. And won big, universally given credit for leading the Vols to the 1998 national championship.
But before that '98 season that made him a legend, he was already a leader.
The first real story that came out about Wilson's leadership skills -- remember, his first three years got overshadowed by the presence of Peyton Manning, an intense leader in his own right, and Leonard Little, who was a year ahead of him and another ridiculously talented player -- was after UT's 1997 SEC Championship Game win over Auburn.
With Tennessee trailing 20-10 at halftime, the Vols needed somebody to step up. I'll let my buddy Jim Masilak -- who would become my first sports editor at the Daily Beacon -- take over from here:
"...the Vols were in desperate shape. They needed a spark. Things weren't going their way and everything they had dreamed of -- the conference championship, the Orange Bowl, the national championship -- was 30 minutes away from being dashed. Wilson, the Vols' junior linebacker, playing with an injured right ankle, wasn't going to stand for that."
The players' quotes say it all. One way Peyton Manning described the speech later is that it peeled the paint off the Georgia Dome locker room wall. It was one that some of the most recognized names in UT's recent history will never forget.
"Al Wilson gave the greatest speech. I'll remember that."
"I'll tell my kids about how he cried about never winning a championship in his life and how I felt it. I wanted to win for him and the team wanted to win for him. He broke down in tears and said we had to dig deep, that nobody believed we could come back and win. He convinced me. I think he convinced the coaching staff. I think he convinced everyone in the locker room."
"Al is our spiritual leader and he showed it tonight. He showed a lot of guts by playing through his injury. I'm just so happy for him."
"It was very intense. It was very motivating. Al's a very intense guy. He said, 'Let's go. We're not playing like Tennessee.' This game just proves that Tennessee doesn't always choke in a big game and this was obviously a big game."
"I told them to remember how hard they'd played all season. We didn't come down here to lose, we came to be victorious. We came here to bring the championship back to Knoxville. If the guys took it to heart, then that means so much to me. I was pretty emotional. I told them I had never won a championship. I told them I'd do anything in this world to win this game. I shed a few tears. I knew we had to play a better game than we did in the first half."
All those accounts indicate that Wilson didn't just become a leader during that game but had already been one that the team looked to for leadership and spiritual/motivational needs.
The Vols went on to win that game over the Tigers 30-29, and they didn't lose another football game until after Wilson left and they traveled to Florida in 1999. Wilson graduated after the national championship season and went on to play for the Denver Broncos where he went to five Pro Bowls in his eight NFL seasons. His career was cut short because of injuries.
Al Wilson the player was a sight to behold. Wilson was highly recruited out of Jackson Central Merry High School, where he excelled as a running back and linebacker. The Vols wanted him as a defensive player, and it was obvious early on that is where he was born to play. He played outside linebacker at UT before moving inside where he became great. Throughout his NFL career, he was known as one of the speediest middle linebackers in the league. As a Vol, he was a team captain and first-team All-American in '98 after enjoying a career as a three-year starter.
As a freshman in 1995, Wilson finished with 25 tackles, a sack, two tackles for a loss, a pass breakup and an interception. He became a starter in '96 and thrived, registering 87 tackles, recovering two fumbles, getting a sack, eight tackles for a loss and three pass breakups. As a junior in '97, Wilson finished with 83 tackles, a fumble recovery, five sacks, seven TFLs and three pass breakups. Then, his All-American year, he had 77 total tackles, five fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, four sacks, six tackles for a loss, three pass breakups and a pick.
The most legendary game for Wilson came in a 12-tackle performance in UT's 20-17 overtime win against second-ranked Florida.
He missed three games due to injuries that season, but still stood, jumped, waved towels, got in teammates' ears, celebrated and stomped the sideline like he was angry he wasn't out there. More than any of those statistics, he will be remembered for being a leader and a champion.
Wilson has spent some time in Knoxville since retiring, talking to Tennessee teams and hosting youth camps. But most of his time is spent at his Atlanta home, and it hasn't always been the happiest times. Wilson's son was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, and Wilson devoted all his time to helping his son get over the two brain tumors.
“My son was diagnosed with cancer last year," Wilson told the KNS's Dave Hooker in 2010, "so these days all I’m doing is taking care of him and making sure that he has everything he needs and being a father to him.”
World-class player. World-class leader. World-class father. I'm hoping one of these days that UT recognizes Wilson's leadership by retiring his No. 27 jersey the way it has others. Hooker notes in the above-linked story that the university places some emphasis on pro accolades and Wilson's injuries didn't allow him to play long enough to reach them. But, really, why should UT care what he did in the NFL when he accomplished so much in Knoxville?
Al Wilson is an all-time great Vol. He may be the greatest Vols leader to ever wear the orange and white. And he's always going to be a hero of mine.