Alabama's Mack Truck Linebacker Plays to Honor His Lost Friends
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because after dominating the college game, he’s about to hit the NFL.
By Ray Glier
It sounds like the usual blather when Mack Wilson’s teammates, mentor and coach laud Wilson’s “discipline.” Would they tell you if the Alabama junior linebacker flouted his talent as a me-first player hunting tackles and getting himself out of position? Out of loyalty to the player, probably not.
So you have to take a look for yourself and decide what Wilson is all about. In Monday’s national championship game against Clemson, keep the binoculars on No. 30.
He lives up to the gloss. On the first play of the SEC championship game against Georgia, Wilson showed off his eye discipline. The play flowed left, but Bulldog running back D’Andre Swift cut back right, and there was Wilson, exactly where a middle linebacker is supposed to be, standing in the hole, and he stymied Swift. Wilson did this over and over in a win for No. 1 Alabama (14-0). He never ran himself out of position attempting to make plays that were not his to make. “He sets an example,” says sophomore linebacker Dylan Moses. “He’s disciplined.”
There is a warping effect talent can have on a player. It can make them reckless, but Wilson does not try to demonstrate his ability on every play. He has boundaries, and when that constancy is combined with skill, you get a player growing into a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
Wilson is the perfect fit as the leader of an Alabama defense that got better as the season progressed, keeping his teammates in position to make sure every gap is covered.
Wilson is 239 pounds and possesses a high jumper’s bounce and a safety’s speed. The 6-foot-2 muscled thumper can shed blocks and bring down 220-pound running backs. Wilson is projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick in the draft, but his stock could go even higher depending on how he performs in the College Football Playoffs. An every-down linebacker who does not come off the field, Wilson is the hybrid of speed and muscle the NFL covets.
“Our game is a space game,” says an NFL scout who requested anonymity to provide a frank assessment of Wilson’s draft stock, referring to how linebackers must make plays in open spaces against dynamic offenses. “He’ll fit in our game.”
For now, Wilson is the perfect fit as the leader of an Alabama defense that got better as the season progressed, keeping his teammates in position to make sure every gap is covered. “Play a part. You have to do your job for everybody to make plays,” Wilson says. “If your play is not coming, keep doing your job.”
Tracy Varner, who trained Wilson in high school at Madhouse Athletic Training in Montgomery, Alabama, says the normally quiet Wilson had to be pushed into being a boisterous leader who could call the defense. It is a complex system of checks, so Wilson had to be comfortable barking orders.
Still, he leads mostly by example. The Wednesday before the 2017 season opener against Florida State, Wilson broke his right foot. A sophomore fighting for playing time, he played on it for eight weeks. He took time off to get healthy for the playoff games and was the Crimson Tide’s most valuable defensive player in a run to the national championship. “It motivates you,” says Moses of his teammate’s sacrifice. “I broke my foot and played, so I know the pain.”
Wilson understands his position off the field: a soon-to-be millionaire, a signpost for children in his Montgomery neighborhood, particularly those raised by a single parent as he was. During Alabama’s off-week in late October, Varner says, Wilson came home to Montgomery and while at dinner one night gave an autograph to everyone in the restaurant. “I’m a role model in my community, so any chance I get to show that, that’s something I take pride in and something I enjoy,” Wilson says. “I love kids. I’m a people person. It’s something I like to do.”
Wilson started training with Varner when he was 13 years old, with training sessions as early as 5 am. The Madhouse owners (Varner, his brother, Chris, and Todd Dowell) expect athletes to be dutiful and stick to the regimen — and the results are clear, with 25 to 30 Madhouse students playing Division I football around the country.
The relationship didn’t begin with dreams of gridiron glory. Dowell started mentoring Wilson as a kid who came to shoot baskets at his community center. Wilson’s unsettled home life led him to move in with Dowell at age 13 and live with him through high school. “He was a typical kid, getting in trouble in school,” Varner says. “He had to go to the alternative school. He wasn’t a bad, bad kid, just the normal trouble of talking back, things like that.”
Wilson was shaped by the Madhouse crew but also by tragedy. One friend died in a car accident, another died in a drive-by shooting. Wilson’s back is covered in a tattoo honoring his friends. He plays for them, he says, as much as for himself and his neighborhood. “They’ll be always praying over me, I know it,” he says. “They would be balling just like me.”
Wilson believes he was left behind to carry on for his friends. Matching his physical skills with sincere discipline is his tribute to them. Standing on the field in Atlanta, in the bedlam that followed Alabama’s dramatic SEC Championship victory, Wilson is more reflective than celebratory. “I have to do this,” he says.
Read more: Why Alabama is a sweet home for defensive backs.