The upside of promised roster turnover and subsequent transition -- (a 45 percent turnover from last season's finale) -- is that the Pittsburgh Steelers
' training camp turned into a playground for overachievers.
They generally came to camp in shape, kept their mouths shut, and put their exemplary work habits on display.
Figuring out who was first-on, last-off was a futile exercise, because there were just too many of them.
First-on, last-off, in fact, is a habit I'm trying to teach my kid, so I figured I'd ask notable overachiever Kion Wilson about it right after practice.
I waited to catch Wilson, after all of the youngsters were done with their post-practice overtime sessions, but -- whoa! -- Wilson ran right past me after the final whistle, ahead of the rest of the players, and into the locker room -- first.
OK, first-off the field today. Did he have to hit the bathroom or something?
"No," Wilson said later with a shy smile. "I always run off the field."
That seemed counter-intuitive to all I had watched from this hard-working, quiet and smart inside linebacker this past spring and summer. But Wilson had a good explanation.
"Whenever I have an opportunity -- if the coaches don't have anything else for us -- it's something I always like to do," he said. "I dedicate it to my brothers who passed. Ever since that day, I thank God for allowing me to have the strength to run off the field, and I dedicate that back to my brothers.
"Hey, the work isn't done," he added. "I still come in and lift, and I still do my recovery work. I still get upstairs. But that's just one thing that I dedicate to them."
Wilson grew up in a rough part of Miami. His father was murdered when Kion was three, and two of his brothers were murdered on the same day, right before Kion started his senior season at South Florida.
"My older brother was the father figure," Wilson said. "He raised us. He helped pay the bills while my mom worked as well. We were really a close-knit family. I used it as motivation that season."
And what a season it was. Wilson led South Florida in tackles, was named first-team Big East by the coaches, and was unanimously voted Defensive MVP by his teammates. And some of his defensive teammates were pretty deserving of the
award themselves. In fact, Jason Pierre-Paul, Nate Allen, Jerome Murphy and George Selvie all were drafted, and this past
week all made NFL teams once again, some four years later.
Wilson wasn't drafted, but he signed with San Diego in 2010, made the team and played in 3 games, and was cut the following camp. He then signed with Carolina and played in 5 games in 2011, but was cut the following camp.
With the help of a friend, Rich Martin, whom Wilson calls his "God-pop," Kion persevered through a football-less 2012 season.
"I got into insurance adjusting," Wilson said. "I had to pay bills, so I went up to New York. I worked Hurricane Sandy. I put out more money than I did bring in. My God-pop asked me to come work for him. Now, I know I had to pay bills, so I get
certified, I get the license, and he helped me get everything. He kept me afloat while I was out of football. Just from the
mental aspect, the physical aspect, he's just one of the greatest leaders that I know."
Wilson got back into football when he signed with the Steelers this past January. And his 8 preseason tackles, a sack, 2 other
QB pressures, and most importantly his play on special teams, gave him a home, the same home -- Pittsburgh -- that his
uncle, former Pitt great Elliott Walker, got to know some 40 years ago.
"It is a small world," Wilson said with a chuckle. "He's down in Miami, working right now."
Wilson shared a story about his Uncle Elliott, who used to babysit Kion and his siblings:
"He was babysitting us, and I said, 'Uncle Elliott, I want apple juice.' He said, 'Do you think I made it to the NFL from drinking
apple juice? I used to drink hot water from the sink -- scalding hot water from the sink.' So I would go to the sink and turn
the sink on until the water started coming out gray. I would get hot water and I would drink it out of the faucet, and I would
say, 'See Uncle Elliott, I'm going to make it to the NFL just like you.'"
Uncle Elliott was obviously joking. Kion wasn't.
Wilson eventually moved to Jacksonville to attend high school, and while he missed his uncle it may have been the smartest
move his mother ever made because it got young Kion out of that neighborhood.
"It wasn't the best area," Wilson said. "But I feel like I've been through so many things in my life to shape who I am now. I try
to always remember where I am from, but I'm always striving to get better, striving to do better, striving to be better. That's
just how I look at life."
That work ethic has paid off in the past, but this time, with the Steelers, Wilson was able to add a little bit of guidance that
was so very helpful.
"When I was out of the game last year, me and Rich would talk day in and day out about what coaches wanted," Wilson said.
"Rich would always keep me focused on what coaches wanted. And when Coach (Mike) Tomlin said 'special teams,' that
became my approach.
"You know, that's the funny part, because the other places I have been, it has never been said, 'Oh we like that; we don't like
that. That's a good job here; a bad job there.' It has never been said, but here it was flat out: 'We want the guy who's going
to be the stud on special teams.' And that's it. So I took that as my approach. I took that as my fuel and knew that was the
route I had to take."
Clearly, the fuel worked. And he has just enough left over to run off the field every day. He knows that some fires shouldn't be allowed to die.
Kion Wilson is proof that perseverence does pay off. The story of the new Steelers linebacker should be required reading for young athletes.
Kion Wilson's story should be required reading for young athletes.