The greatest player in the history of Georgia State football — granted the collection of candidates is less than kiddie-pool deep — plays his final college game Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
There’s not even a debate. No close second. Whatever scarce highlights the Panthers have produced in their four seasons, odds are you will find wide receiver/return man Albert Wilson somewhere in the frame.
“The most productive, explosive player in the program,” Panthers coach Trent Miles said. “It’s going to be hard to find someone else like him who brings so much to the table.”
Beaten by lordly Alabama 63-7 in their inaugural season, Georgia State scratched the scoreboard only because of the many kickoffs to the Panthers that day. Wilson returned one 97 yards.
Beaten by 26 by Old Dominion in 2012, Wilson had a 100-yard kickoff return and a 93-yard touchdown reception. In a victory over South Alabama in 2011, he set the school record for reception yardage (175). For his career he has 10 scoring plays of 70 yards or longer. Some players require water breaks. With the mileage Wilson covers, he needs pit stops.
On Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark., was all too typical of his life as a Panther: Wilson was individually brilliant — seven catches, 149 yards; two carries for 104 yards, becoming the first GSU player go for more than 100 in both categories. And the Panthers lost. In excruciating fashion, 35-33 to Arkansas State.
Those are just some of the moments that go largely unseen and unappreciated when your football program is maternity-ward new, its place in the collegiate firmament is ever shifting and its victories taper down to nothing.
For all that, Wilson may remember most a nondescript 10-yard play in GSU’s first-ever game against Shorter.
“My first game, my first catch. Ran a curl route. It was like the best feeling in the world. I just couldn’t believe I had made it to college and was able to play at the college level,” he said, still proud four years later.
Should they one day build a memorial to those who took a beating for the sake of starting a football program — The Martyrs of Georgia State — place Wilson’s likeness front and center.
Yet while Wilson’s story is connected to the struggles this program has faced on the field — one win in two seasons leading to Saturday’s closer vs. South Alabama — it is not defined by them.
It is one thing to lose football games. It is another to not get any of the losing on you, to emerge unstained.
The former pass-around child who grew up in South Florida, going from group home to group home while his parents were twice imprisoned for drug offenses, has come to mark success in more real-world ways.
“The last four years have been a time for me to grow up and find out who I am as a person and an athlete, to discover my strengths and weaknesses,” he said. The combination of his small stature (5-foot-9) and the rootlessness throughout his youth had made Wilson, a high school quarterback, a great uncertainty among college recruiters. It was simpler to overlook him than to look him over.
College was just another crack to fall through for the kid. But there was this urban campus in Atlanta, a place he only heard about through a high school teammate that was going to give a willing athlete a shot. The kid nobody seemed to want and the program nobody seemed to know were about as good a match as could be made.
And in the end, maybe it didn’t matter so much how many games he would win or how many people watched him.
“I was a lost kid coming up here,” he said.
“My four years here — through my coaches, through my academic advisers — I became an intelligent young man. I feel like I found myself. I know who I am.”
Pass along that quote to Bill Curry, the Panthers’ first coach before giving way this season to Miles, and he responds, “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.”
The athletic legacy of Wilson is tricky to measure because of how all the losses and the lowered profile of Georgia State and its competition tends to obscure individual brilliance. Being the best player on a winless team is an unglamorous task, sort of like being the best guitarist in a garage band or the top chef at Huddle House.
Curry has one way of summing up Wilson’s contribution, in a classically “coach-y” kind of way: “When you rate players who are in a start-up situation like this, what you look at is the unselfishness of the player and his willingness to throw his hat into the ring every single time he was asked.
“Return punts, Albert. Return kickoffs, Albert. Catch the ball, Albert. Run with the ball, Albert. Block the guy, Albert. He never wavered. He just went out there and got after it every day.”
He has contributed to every possible offensive category save one: Wilson is 0-for-2 career passing. “We’re going to have to clean that up,” he said smiling, with only one game left to do it.
In his first group home at the age of 6, back in the Florida foster system all through middle and high school, Wilson became an expert very quickly in disappointment.
Accordingly, there was a very personal reason he chose to major in sociology. “I feel like there are not a lot of social workers who are there for the kids themselves. I had a couple who were just doing their job. There could have been a lot better people doing it,” he said.
His background also ingrained in him a perseverance that no amount of losing could significantly chip away at. Call it a survival mechanism.
Wilson’s transformation from a kid who blended in at the group home to a leader on a football team “has been thrilling to see,” Miles said. Add that to the fact that from a Dickensonian upbringing, Wilson has rescued a surprisingly optimistic outlook.
“I’ve always tried to find the best in every situation,” he said. “There’s always good in something, it just depends on how you look at things.
“Outside looking in, foster care doesn’t seem so good. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience the things I did. But from the inside looking out, it made me independent. It made me stronger. If I did have to survive on my own, I would know how to.”
Because of his speed, because of his big-play potential and ability to perform on special teams, Wilson likely will get at least a look in some NFL camp. Miles expects to be either a late-round draft pick or a free-agent signee immediately after the draft.
All he’ll ask for then, just as all he has ever asked for, is a chance.
“I feel like I’ve done everything I can to get noticed. I feel like if I keep marching forward, everything is going to take care of itself,” he said.
Sure would be nice if he could do something with that last chance to win a game in this, his final collegiate season. Still, win or lose, Wilson expects both his parents to be at the Georgia Dome on Saturday to see it. They all have come a long way these past four years, he said.