Wilson reappears for CFLs


Walter Wilson came home last June with his game face on and his vocal cords in excellent condition.

The first thing his new Baltimore teammates noticed was a confidence that bordered on arrogance.

The next thing they noticed was, he played as well as he talked.

In a matter of days, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound wide receiver had a nickname -- "Franchise" -- courtesy of the quarterback, Tracy Ham.

"He was talking to the receivers one day," Ham said. "He said, 'In three years, I'll be the franchise player here.'

"Somebody came and told me, and I said, 'Let's call him Franchise.' "

The nickname has held five months, with a variation or two. A few weeks ago, when Wilson was limping around the practice field, linebacker Elfrid Payton dubbed him "French Fries."

Wilson made a similar splash with the San Diego Chargers as a rookie in 1990. The third-round draft choice out of East Carolina showed up bold and brassy.

"He was telling [Hall of Fame receiver and Chargers coach] Charlie Joiner how he was going to run his routes," said Baltimore safety Michael Brooks, who was with San Diego then. "He was never shy. He told you what he was going to do, and he backed it up."

Wilson played 14 games for the Chargers, caught 10 passes, then fell out of favor. He was cut at the end of his second training camp.

From there he drifted -- through the World League to the Miami Dolphins (1992) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993). He failed to make either NFL team.

Last June, when the native son returned home to Baltimore, Wilson, 28, was attempting to resuscitate his once-promising pro career in the Canadian Football League.

He did it not once, but twice this season. Consider his season.

At the end of August, after eight games, Wilson ranked fifth in the league in receiving yards with 652 on 36 catches, two for touchdowns.

In eight games since, he has 11 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

Houdini-like, he vanished. And Houdini-like, he reappeared. In Saturday's 48-31 victory over the B.C. Lions, he had three catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. After falling to 18th in league rankings, Wilson was up to 16th heading into this week's game against Winnipeg.

"I've been just a few plays from breaking out," he said. "I still feel this is going to be the week."

Saturday was nearly it. He conceivably could have had a four-touchdown day. But he dropped one certain touchdown pass, saw another batted away on the goal line, then saw another wiped out by a penalty. When Wilson pulled down a 26-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, he was back on solid ground.

"It was important for Walter to come back and make some plays after the drop," CFLs coach Don Matthews said. "He has the ability to make plays. He just disappeared for a while."

Wilson said his disappearance had to do mainly with what defense Baltimore faced.

"If a team plays us man-to-man, I'm in the offense," he said. "If a team plays a zone, I'm out of the offense. I've been disappointed the last four games because I hadn't been getting the ball. . . . But it will all even itself out."

Matthews said defenses have been forcing Ham to go inside to his slotbacks with the passing game. "We wanted to go outside against B.C.," Matthews said.

After Wilson dropped a potential 57-yard touchdown at the end of the half, he went to Ham and said: "I owe you one. If we get in that situation again, put it up. I'll get it."

Ham didn't hesitate in the second half. He hit Wilson on a 48-yard touchdown pass that was nullified when Robert Clark was called for clipping. (The league since has told Matthews it was a bad call.)

When his next catch went for a touchdown, Wilson felt rejuvenated.

"I came up big for [Ham]," he said. "No way I can't beat a man playing me 3 to 4 yards off the ball up the field."

Ham can readily see the difference in Wilson since last June.

"He's doing a good job learning to appreciate the win is more important than stats," Ham said. "He blocks now; he runs complementary routes. That's his biggest improvement."

Said receivers coach Don Hill: "He stretches coverage for us. He's a threat and he knows how to get open."

Despite his 47 catches, Wilson said he's had a topsy-turvy season. But he expects to finish on a high note.

"I started out very well, then hit a slide in midseason," he said. "Now I think I'm going back up. I still haven't reached my peak. You still haven't seen it all from me."

NOTES: Matthews said nose tackle Jearld Baylis' injured calf is much improved and he is now expected to play against Winnipeg. . . . Baltimore cut three from its practice roster -- rush end Mike Kerr, linebacker Earnest Fields and guard Diego London. . . . Alvin Walton and Mike Alexander will sign autographs at Hecht's at Harford Mall from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. today.

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