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Garrett Wilson’s athletic voyage: From cruise-ship phenom to Jets first-rounder

Aug 31, 2022

  • Rich CiminiESPN Staff Writer

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    • Longtime Jets beat writer for NY Daily News
    • Syracuse University graduate

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Greetings from the Wilson vacation, circa 2008. We’re on an extravagance cruise ship in the center of the Caribbean, sailing toward the island of St. Thomas. Up to speed is a awesome basketball court, where Kenny Wilson and the three oldest of his four boys — ages 12 to 14 — are dominating 4-on-4 games. The youngest, Garrett, 8, future wide receiver and NY Jets first-round draft pick, is off aside, dribbling by himself.

Sorry, kid, no room on the team. Not yet, anyway.

The Wilsons won’t relinquish the court, humbling teams of daiquiri-swilling vacationers seeking to recapture their senior high school glory days. Kenny, 6-foot-4, is really a former Davidson star who flirted with the NBA. Sons Donovan and Cameron are future college football players; the oldest, Shea, is really a terrific player in their own right. It gets so one-sided that the defeated passengers decide the simplest way to remove the Wilsons would be to expand it to 5-on-5, permitting them to stack teams.

You’re in, Garrett.

“My baby,” as Kenny calls him, works on the court, his floppy hair blowing in the breeze. He finds himself with the ball near the top of the key, no-one guarding because what adult guards an 8-year-old kid 20 feet from the basket? Garrett looks to his dad, asking along with his eyes for permission to shoot. Kenny nods.

Swish.

Lucky shot, right? He tries another.

Swish.

Soon it’s 8-0, with little Garrett making jumpers, dribbling between his legs and drawing a crowd of onlookers. The SS Wilson is cruising big-time, and suddenly the opposing players, embarrassed, are bickering among themselves. These were seasick of losing.

“It had been an incredible display for an 8-year-old,” Kenny said recently. “He was just like a big little folk hero included for some time, because he just dominated. I thought to myself, ‘Man, this kid is another thing.’ It’s among my first recollections that Garrett would be something just a little different.”

Coaches and scouts discuss his speed (4.38 seconds in the 40), his big hands (9 7/8 inches), his 36-inch vertical jump, his elite body control and his slip-and-go talent following the catch. Those will be the physical abilities that prompted the Jets to choose Wilson with the 10th overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, their highest-drafted wide receiver since Keyshawn Johnson went No. 1 overall in 1996.

But why is the former Ohio State star just a little different, to utilize his father’s words, is how he plays having an edge, a fearlessness born from growing up within an athletic family. He embraces big moments and won’t back off from opponents. In early training camp practice, he experienced a heated exchange with defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, who’s 132 pounds heavier and six years more than Wilson. There is some shoving. Later, coach Robert Saleh said Wilson’s response was “kinda cute.”

“I didn’t think it had been cute,” Wilson said. “Regardless of what age you’re, I can’t stand being tried.”

You shouldn’t be fooled by that baby face, the Hollywood smile and his polite demeanor — he’s an intensely fierce competitor, no fun to be around on game day. “Irritable” was how his father described Garrett’s pregame mood; he meant that as a compliment. His son gets so locked for the reason that his mind would go to another place.

In the initial preseason game, Wilson beat his man on a brief out route and, despite the fact that quarterback Zach Wilson‘s pass sailed over his head, he ensured to allow Philadelphia Eagles‘ sideline understand that he was all business.

It will likely be an extended night,” he shouted at the Eagles … on the Jets’ second play from scrimmage.

“We was raised in a competitive household that my father set up,” Garrett said. “It had been just competitive constantly. I feel enjoy it exercised well for all those.”

Cameron, 27, was a broad receiver at Iowa and Ohio University. Donovan, 26, played running back at Georgia Tech and Bowling Green. Shea, 28, attended Ohio and pursued a lifetime career running a business. Their sister, Sydney, 20, is really a student at Ohio State. Each of them played senior high school basketball, their father’s favorite sport.

Kenny finished his career at Davidson in 1984 because the school’s No. 5 all-time leading scorer (1,573 points), a complete surpassed by 10 others since that time — including a skinny sharpshooter named Stephen Curry. Kenny tried the NBA, receiving tryouts with the Denver Nuggets and Washington Bullets. A self-described “classic ‘tweener” at 6-foot-4 — a scoring forward in a guard’s body — he came agonizingly near creating a roster.

“I was there. I was all over the promised land,” he said. “To possess a kid like Garrett, who went so far as he’s gone in sports, for me personally, as a dad, it buries plenty of demons.”

Kenny quit the professional basketball dream in his mid-20s, deciding on a lifetime career in sales while staying active in a variety of 3-on-3 tournaments. He became a basketball dad, however, not the overbearing kind, Garrett said, who also credited his mother, Candace. He averaged 21 points per game in senior high school and received scholarship offers from two dozen schools, including Tennessee, Tulsa and Davidson, his first offer.

Garrett’s basketball game was “beautiful,” in accordance with his dad, who sheepishly revealed that Garrett was the only person of his kids to beat him in a casino game of one-on-one. He recalled an AAU championship game when a 12-year-old Garrett lifted his team to victory after it had lost its leading scorer. Individuals were impressed by his competitive drive, his insatiable need to win. He loved basketball — still does — but he broke the news headlines to his father that football was the activity he wished to pursue in college.

Kenny was disappointed initially, but he quickly realized it had been the proper decision. He always taught his kids to generate their very own path, and deep down he knew Garrett belonged on the football field, where he “made magic.”

There is a little basketball in the manner he plays wide receiver. You can observe it along with his stop-and-start explosiveness and his spatial awareness. A three-step release at the type of scrimmage, he said, is similar to executing a crossover dribble.

“The crucial thing is rebounds,” he said. “I was always a guard that has been an excellent rebounder. Personally i think like that means getting 50-50 balls — the high ball. Personally i think like I owe basketball too much to my football ability.”

Following a stellar career at Lake Travis SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL in Austin, Texas, exactly the same school that produced Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield, Wilson visited Ohio State. (He actually spent the first section of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio.) It had been a hardcore transition. As a freshman, he found himself in a receiver room with three future NFL draft picks — K.J. Hill Jr., Chris Olave and Jameson Williams, who later used in Alabama.

Your competition at the positioning and the extraordinary demands of playing for a powerhouse like Ohio State “broke him down a little,” in accordance with his father. Wilson had reached a crossroads in his career. He did lots of soul-searching, reflecting on the advice his father supplied: “Greatness is lonely.”

Wilson pushed through and improved each season, finishing with 70 receptions, 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns in mere 11 games in 2021. He chosen the draft after his junior year and was the No. 1-rated receiver on the Jets’ draft board. Saleh raves about his exceptional body control and “violent hands.” Some receivers depend on body-catching; Wilson snatches passes from the air with quick hands.

“After all, he jumps from the film,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Personally, the way he can breakdown and explode out of cuts, it’s amazing just how [he can] rise and obtain a ball when he’s standing still or when he’s going top speed. He is able to just cut on a dime, switch and rise in the air and obtain balls.”

Still, it was not a seamless transition. The coaches want Wilson to become more physical against press coverage and he must lessen the drops. In training camp, he dropped several passes, however, not in bunches. Hey, it happens. This past year, Cincinnati Bengals rookie Ja’Marr Chase was a drop machine in camp and finished up winning AP Offensive Rookie of the entire year. Wilson admittedly will get down on himself, but he’s attempting to sort out that process to get rid of the strain.

“My quarterbacks need to believe me,” he said.

Wilson figures to contribute immediately because the fourth receiver in a four-man rotation, behind Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios. Once more, he’s the newbie, exactly like he was on that cruise liner in the Caribbean those years back.

He smiled.

“That’s probably my earliest memory to be athletic and competitive with my brothers,” he said. “We dominated. I recall I was making older dudes mad that I was scoring in it. They got humbled real fast. I held my very own. I knew my role at that age and played it well.”

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