COLLEGE PARK - A tattered Topps football card dated 1981 is stashed in Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson's wallet, its edges frayed from time. On it, his late father, a former fullback for Maryland and running back for the Houston Oilers, is captured on the bench with a cup in his hand, looking like he just came off the field.
The same picture is tattooed on the left half of Wilson's chest, under the words, "Forever in my heart."
"There are still times when I think about it and say, 'Man, I wish he was here to see all this,'" Wilson said.
"This" is Wilson's academic and athletic success since his father, Tim, died of a heart attack in 1996. It's the shiny red locker with his name above it at the same school where his father was a lead blocker from 1974 to 1976. And it's Wilson's chance to emerge as one of the team's top playmakers on defense.
The first lesson Tim Wilson taught his son about football was to never miss an opportunity.
"This is my time to shine," said Wilson, a junior. "I have to break out this year. There's no more, 'You're a young player.' It's time to step up and perform, especially because I'm supposed to lead the defensive backfield and be a leader on this team, period."
Earlier this month, Wilson topped his red and white No. 4 uniform with a cowboy hat from Houston, where he was born in 1985. The brash, 5-foot-10 defensive back couldn't stand still as he spoke to reporters at media day, boasting to be part of the fastest secondary in the country, if not the best.
Wilson's mouth runs just as much as he does - just ask Virginia receiver Deyon Williams.
"He did a little bit of trash talking last year, saying, 'Ohhh, I'm gonna hit the mess outta you,'" said Williams, who grew up with Wilson in Upper Marlboro and considers him like a brother. "He'll be like, 'Tell the quarterback to throw the ball over here!' and he'll be smiling at the same time. Knowing who he is, I think, 'Oh, there goes that badgering look again.'"
Williams met Wilson when they were about 9, playing football together for the Upper Marlboro Boys and Girls Club. They still call each other's parents Mom and Dad, and talk about three times a week to see how they're holding up in preseason camp. Williams graduated from Suitland, Wilson from DeMatha.
In high school, Wilson was constantly pleading his case for playing time, questioning his coach. He was on offense and wanted to play defense.
"We battled," said Bishop McNamara coach Bryce Bevill, who was then the defensive backs coach at DeMatha. "Josh is a very witty guy. He's very intelligent. He'd come up with some decent arguments for why he should be on the field. I'd say, 'That's a good point. You know what? I'm not playing you.'"
It wasn't until Wilson's junior year that he earned a spot in the starting lineup. As a senior, Wilson snagged five interceptions in addition to leading his team in receptions, with 27 for 694 yards and six touchdowns.
"He was the most self-assured person I've ever been around," Bevill said with a chuckle. "He puts himself out there, but he does do a good job backing it up."
Focus on academics
His coaches aren't the only ones Wilson challenges.
Last fall, he received an 89.5 percent in a four-credit business class. Wilson, who is majoring in business marketing and accounting, wanted the A, not the B he wound up with. He sent four e-mails to the professor, went to the assistant dean's office twice and pleaded with a counselor.
"I was so mad at that," said Wilson, who had a letter to the editor published in the school newspaper, The Diamondback, that refuted a column suggesting football players choose "easy" majors.
Wilson's grades in high school, along with his speed, caught the attention of Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.
"I said, 'Wait a second, guys. He's got an 1,100 [SAT]. He runs a 4.3. His mom and dad were Terps,'" Friedgen said. "I said, 'God only made so many guys that run 4.3 with an 1,100. We've got to take this one.'"
Wilson was just as impressed with Friedgen. Although he had given an early commitment to N.C. State, Wilson said he was dismayed with what seemed to be a lack of emphasis on academics there.
He turned to Maryland, where the football players with the highest grade point averages eat first.
"Oh yeah," Wilson said with a smile. "I eat first. My freshman year, I had to sit there and wait because you don't have a GPA. Last year, I used to get up proudly and eat first. That's what I like. I like being rewarded for making success not only on the football field, but in the classroom."
The only thing missing was having someone to share that success with.
Bevill was also a guidance counselor at DeMatha, and almost daily, Wilson would walk into his office and sit down. It wasn't uncommon for him to be in there for nearly two hours. Conversation ranged from the gridiron to girls, but mostly, it went far beyond football. It had to.
"Your mom wants to talk to you, but she has no idea what to say," Wilson said. "My mom tries so hard, but sometimes, it's like, 'Mom, you can't say that.' You can't say, 'I saw you get beat.' I sit there and laugh. I know she's trying."
'Follow in his footsteps'
Wilson was 11 when his mother, Valanda, told him his father died. It was the first year Wilson played football, and his team made it to the championship game. He had talked to his father over the weekend, and Tim promised he would be there.
"We played the game and we won," Wilson said. "The first person I'm gonna look for is my dad. They said he didn't make it."
Wilson remembered sitting at the kitchen table that day with his mother and sister, Talyce. "All I remember is my sister jumping up and running to the door crying," he said. "I remember falling on the couch crying. I cried for a long time.
"The first year I couldn't even talk about it with my friends," he said. "For a while, if anybody said anything about my dad or football, I started tearing up."
Williams was one of those friends.
"I told him to be strong, you'll be all right," Williams said. "God blessed you with a good father, now he's gone. Follow in his footsteps."
That's exactly what Wilson plans on doing.
His room at home is a football shrine, in memory of his father. He has his father's helmets from Maryland and a stint with the New Orleans Saints. He has his own helmet from DeMatha next to them.
"When I get into the NFL," he said, "I can put my own helmet up there."
Wilson played in all 11 games as a freshman in 2003 and earned his first collegiate start last year against Florida State. He finished with four tackles and went on to start the final three games of the season.
He enters this fall at the top of the depth chart. If nothing else, Wilson has the speed to compete with the ACC's elite. He's already proved it.
He and teammate Gerrick McPhearson joined the track team, and after a slow start to the season, Wilson finished as one of the Terps' top three sprinters. He ran two events at the ACC championships, even though he hadn't practiced for more than two months.
"He brought that football mentality to the track," coach Andrew Valmon said. "Twenty-four/seven, he was talking. ... Sometimes he wore his football gloves."
Close to his heart
Last week, Wilson was sidelined when his teammate, Keon Lattimore, accidentally stepped on him and left a gash in his shin that required nine stitches. He returned to the field Wednesday.
Any setback, though, pales in comparison with the kind of pain Wilson has already experienced. "It kind of makes me emotionless to a lot of things," Wilson said. "It's hard for me to get upset about some things because I've felt one of the biggest hurts you could feel as a kid."
Wilson talks easily about his father now. The pangs of sadness are infrequent and usually come when he wants to pick up the phone to call his dad about something and can't. The two used to talk for so long that his mom would forget Josh was on the phone. Every year, they would bet who would win the Super Bowl.
"Whenever he would call, I would drop everything," Wilson said. "I didn't care what my friends were doing. I gotta talk to my dad. Those are the big things you miss. When you come to the game, you always want your family to be there with you."
That's why Wilson keeps his father's card in his wallet, and close to his heart.
"I knew that if I played football I would still have some connection to him," Wilson said. "He had a very big impact on me playing football. Every little boy wants to be like his dad. ... My dad was in the next level, so why can't I?"
All he needs is the opportunity.
Next for Maryland
Matchup: Maryland (0-0) vs. Navy (0-0)
Site: M&T; Bank Stadium
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Radio: 1090 AM (will break away for 7:05 p.m. Orioles-Red Sox game), 1300 AM, 97.9 FM, 105.7 FM