Remember that Florida game in 1998. Or for that matter, the entire national championship season.
Ask anyone there and they’ll say that no player was more integral to that once in a half century run than Al Wilson.
Teammates will tell you that the linebacker with the steely glare was the ultimate Volunteer. Now, that same Vol could use a similar lift from his former teammates as he faces the most daunting challenge in his life.
The cheers during a hastily planned halftime flag football game were a welcome escape for Tennessee’s former All American linebacker. Being with his teammates allowed Wilson a few moments to forget about the real-life struggle he’s facing.
“My son is sick,” Wilson said Saturday. “My son was diagnosed with cancer last year, so these days all I’m doing is taking care of him and making sure that he has everything he needs and being a father to him.”
Chemotherapy treatments have eradicated one of the two brain tumors. Another still must be dealt with. Wilson, always the fighting optimist, sees an advantage in his son’s battle.
“He’s young,” Wilson said of his 15-year-old. “His body can come back.”
The revelation suddenly turns the tables on one of UT’s most respected leaders. Now, Wilson needs his teammates just like they needed him in 1998 when the Vols won a national championship for the first time in 47 years.
“It’s huge for a guy like Al Wilson to come back because he means so much for the university,” said former safety Fred White, who started alongside Wilson in 1998. “I don’t think we have a national championship without Al Wilson. He loves the University of Tennessee. He loves the orange.”
Former UT receiver Peerless Price, who competed in the halftime event, still remembers the impact Wilson had as a leader on UT’s most accomplished team in the modern era.
“Being a vocal leader, motivating guys, getting guys excited and focused and ready to play, I think Al definitely was the MVP of that,” Price said. “... you could say he is the MVP of the team because he made so many plays on the field too. The way his passion on and off the field for the game of football and his passion for leading men showed too.”
To most, Wilson embodied the chemistry that UT’s 1998 team had. One of the most productive Vols of all time also happened to be one of its best leaders.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Price said. “Myself for an example, I’m not a vocal guy. I try to lead by example but Al leads by example and he has that quality to lead men and touch men and speak to men and get them motivated to play. That’s unique. You don’t find that often.”
Some have debated whether Wilson should be added to the three modern-era players (Doug Atkins, Peyton Manning and Reggie White) that have had their jerseys retired. It’s hard to find an argument against the honor among Wilson’s teammates.
“You’re right; that’s enough said,” Price said to the reporter that suggested the notion. “You’re exactly right. It should be. He did so much, brought too much.”
Said Wilson, “That would be the icing on the cake. To be able to help lead this team to a national championship and have great success and to be able to come back to my alma mater and see my jersey retired, that would be great.
Wilson, however, isn’t biding his time.
“It’s not something I’m looking forward to because you just have to keep moving on with life and hope for the best,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. If not, I’ll still love the university as much as I do now.”
As per the current stipulations for jersey retirement, that will never happen. UT places a strong emphasis on professional accomplishments that Wilson, despite five Pro Bowls, didn’t reach.
“I don’t think the pros really determine what you did in college,” Wilson said. “A lot of great players in the pros were not good college football players. I believe what you did in a university, what you had a chance to contribute, what you brought to a university should be the leading things.
“Now, if you go on to have success in the pros that should be a bonus but it definitely shouldn’t be held against you if you didn’t.”
Wilson readily engaged in the jersey retirement debate. Even more so he enjoyed playing football again with his teammates. The few hours were a brief respite.
Life soon came calling.
“Just trying to find my way and figure out what’s best for me and my family,” Wilson said as he was leaving Neyland Stadium.