In an NFL playing career that spanned 18 years, Wade Wilson started more than 60 games and was part of a team that won the Super Bowl. But, before that career began, Wilson was just a young boy born in Greenville and growing up in Commerce who wanted to make a name on the gridiron.
“My father was a coach, so I grew up around football,” Wilson said. “It was that background that really pushed me to play.”
Wilson grew up a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. He recalls taking part in a Punt, Pass & Kick competition as an 8-year old and getting to show his skills in front of a crowd at the Cotton Bowl.
“Growing up a fan of the Cowboys, getting to do that was a special moment for me,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s love of football led him to join the team upon entering high school in Commerce, but an incident during his sophomore year almost ended his career before it began.
“I quit the football team,” Wilson said. “I was not seeing eye to eye with the way some of the coaches were doing their thing, so I made a huge decision. I cried my eyes out afterward.”
Wilson later changed his mind. By his senior year, he was the Tigers’ starting quarterback and team leader. In his senior season, Wilson helped lead Commerce to a 10 win season and a district championship.
Wilson said that one of the best things about his time in high school football were home games at Memorial Stadium in Commerce.
“It was cool getting to play in a college stadium,” Wilson said. “It was a neat experience for a small-town guy.”
Wilson’s talent was not unnoticed. One of the college coaches that showed interest was Ernest Hawkins, head coach at East Texas State University, known today as Texas A&M University-Commerce. At the time, the Lions were just five years removed from an NAIA National Championship, and were still a formidable force.
“Wade was a local boy who had a heck of an arm,” Hawkins said. “He had the skills to help us win.”
And win he did. By his junior year at ETSU, Wilson was thrust into the starting role, where he flourished. In 1980, Wilson and the Lions roared out to a six-game winning streak to start the season. East Texas finished the year with a playoff appearance, beating No. 1-ranked Central Arkansas in the quarterfinal round before falling in the national semifinals. The Lone Star Conference championship that year was the school’s first since 1972.
“I was fortunate to have a quarterback like Wade on the field,” recalled Hawkins. “He had good size and arm strength, and the ability to read defenses.”
Wilson was drafted by the NFL Minnesota Vikings in 1981. Wilson said that it was tough making it in the pros coming from outside the world of big-time college football.
“There were other quarterbacks from bigger schools that I was competing with,” Wilson said. “I was able to show (the Vikings) what I had and I made the squad.”
Throughout his first few years, Wilson backed up veteran quarterback Tommy Kramer, occasionally filling in when Kramer was unable to play. One of his first chances to start was on a frigid December day in Philadelphia in 1985. After a sub-par half of football, the Vikings trailed 20-0, and Wilson was pulled from the game.
“I was angry,” Wilson said. “I was just beside myself that I didn’t perform when I had the chance.”
After his replacement, Steve Bono, fared even worse during his time on the field, Wilson was brought back in with eight minutes remaining. The team caught fire, and Wilson threw three touchdown passes as the Vikings scored 28 unanswered points to come away with a win. Wilson says that it was one of the most memorable games of his career.
“Getting pulled out of the game really shook me up,” Wilson said. “I was hungry to get back in, so I made the most of the opportunity I was given.”
Wilson played in the NFL from 1981 until 1998, drawing paychecks from the Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Cowboys and Raiders. He was voted into the Pro Bowl in 1988 and led the league in completion percentage the same year. Wilson was the No. 2 quarterback behind Troy Aikman on the 1995 Cowboys team that won Super Bowl XXX.
Since retiring from playing, Wilson has worked as the quarterbacks coach for the Chicago Bears from 2004 to 2006, and the Cowboys from 2000 to 2002, and again from 2007 to the present. In his most recent stint with Dallas, he has had the opportunity to work closely with Tony Romo and this season with rookie sensation Dak Prescott.
Prescott has been the talk of the NFL this season, and Wilson says it has been a great experience to work with him.
“We spent a lot of time with him before the season,” Wilson said. “He showed us he can perform in any situation.”
Wilson said that there is “no stage too big for Dak,” and that Prescott has been a pleasant surprise for the team.
Beyond that, Wilson’s still being employed by the team he rooted for as a child.
“It’s the coolest thing. There’s no other organization I would rather be with,” Wilson said.