There is little doubt that Tyler Wilson is having the time of his life. He's the face of the Arkansas football program, the returning all-SEC quarterback.
Wilson has been advertised as the pride of Greenwood, but he's more than that. He's the pride of Arkansas. He's all of what's good in college football, a man who passed up the sure bucks of a first-round NFL contract to come back for his fifth year of college.
It's the second time he's passed on the chance to be a professional. A highly regarded pitcher in high school, Wilson was invited to a private workout in Florida for the Yankees just weeks before he was scheduled to enroll in summer school at Arkansas ahead of his freshman season. They wanted to clock Tyler's fastball one last time before the draft.
"It's all been a little surreal since then," said Don Wilson, Tyler's father. "They wanted him to throw a pre-draft bullpen. So what do you do?"
Wilson did what all fathers should, do a little research.
"It was a life changing moment," he said. "So I called the director of scouting with the Yankees. I wanted an honest answer, what would you do if it was your son?"
If Tyler could hit the middle 90s on the radar gun, come to the bullpen session. He'd be drafted high — and worth a fortune — based on his scouting evaluation on file.
"If he only could throw 90 to 92, he told me he ought to go to school and play football," Don Wilson said. "I called Tyler and asked what he thought he could do that day. It was probably in the high 80s. He had a sore shoulder. He'd probably hit 92 on his best day, but that wasn't in front of a scout and he couldn't at that time."
So it was football and there's never been a doubt it was the right decision — or about the choice to play one more year despite high interest from the NFL last winter after an 11-2 season.
"The Good Lord worked it all out," Don Wilson said. "I think in the back of his mind if football didn't work out, Tyler knew he could go play baseball for Coach (Dave) Van Horn. It's never been close to coming to that."
It's fun to think back about all of that with Don Wilson. But there is really much more in the Wilson roots. The story starts in Fontana, Calif., when Don's father died during his senior year in high school. He had bought land on Beaver Lake that Don needed to check out.
"I really didn't know whether I needed to go to college, get a job or sell his land," Don said. "I came out here in the spring of 1980 and my cousin, Wendell Easterling, a Springdale builder and Razorback booster, said he could get me a tryout with Eddie Sutton."
Don Wilson's life changed fast. Indeed, Easterling got Sutton with what seemed like the first phone call and a pickup basketball game took place the next morning.
"I played with Steve Stroud, Scott Hastings, Steve Schall and U.S. Reed," Don said. "It was the best 20 minutes of basketball of my life."
There was only one problem, the 6-foot-6 Wilson was out of his league. He was a high school center. The centers he saw at Arkansas in that pickup game were 6-10 and 6-11.
"I remember getting the best rebounding position," he said. "I blocked out and went up and there were six elbows above my fingertips. I remember it like it was yesterday. Everyone went the other way and U.S. Reed was dunking."
It was easy to see. He wouldn't make it at Arkansas. But assistant coach Jim Counce told him a call had been made to Gayle Kaundart. He would be in Fayetteville soon to watch him.
"That 20-minute game changed my life and everything for my family," he said. "It was my opportunity to play under Coach Kaundart on a national championship team at Westark. I had no idea that the best junior college program in the country was in Fort Smith. I still am proud to be one of Gayle's boys."
The pickup game at the UA was followed by another similar workout at Westark that included future Razorbacks star Darrell Walker.
"I didn't do as well in that game, but Coach Kaundart said they would offer me a scholarship," Wilson said. "I came to Westark and never returned to California except for business."
Wilson has been a winner for 28 years at Pradco, the Fort Smith-based fishing lure company. He sells to Walmart. And he gives firm advice to his son.
"Tyler is having fun," Don Wilson said. "He sees the opportunity. That's how we always look at things, as an opportunity. There's been some drama, but we always talk that it's the way you see it. Either it's an opportunity or an excuse. We live by the motto that it's opportunity."
That's how Don Wilson saw that plane trip in 1980 to evaluate some Beaver Lake property.
This is the first part of a two-part series. Look for more later today at Hawgs Illustrated.com.
State of the Hogs: Opportunity, Part I
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