Until he actually stood in Michael Vick Hall outside Virginia Tech's football meeting rooms, David Wilson was convinced he was going to be the next Bo Jackson.
He can't put his finger on what changed, but Wilson's feelings about Tech and his future at the school became clear in that hallway in the summer of 2008. Now, as he prepares to lead No. 9 Tech into next Saturday's annual rivalry game at Virginia, it's hard for him to imagine a time when he ever thought about spending his college days elsewhere.
"I don't know what it was, but I just felt my heart flip right there," Wilson said. "It was a gut feeling. Nobody really said anything to me to get me to change, but I knew it's where I wanted to be."
Though Wilson grew up only about two hours from Blacksburg in Danville, where he became one of the nation's top five running backs coming out of high school according to most recruiting analysts, Auburn captured his heart first.
On a recruiting trip he took to Auburn days before taking the life-changing trip to Blacksburg, he got to hear stories of Jackson's Heisman Trophy year in 1985. Wilson also learned more about former Auburn running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown — two guys Wilson loved to watch.
One question about Jackson may have gotten Wilson to at least start thinking about where he fit in.
"When I was down there, I asked somebody where he was from," said Wilson, who graduated from George Washington High in Danville with a grade point average near 3.7. "Somebody told me, 'Oh, he's from Alabama.' I thought, 'Bo Jackson is from Alabama. Reggie Bush is from California. Michael Vick is from Virginia.' All these players that I liked are from the states where they went to school."
If geography truly had something to do with Wilson's final college decision, Tech (10-1 overall, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has benefited from the presence of a homegrown player that has gone on to produce numbers akin to those posted by Jackson and Bush in their best seasons.
As a junior this season, Wilson has gained 1,442 yards on 231 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. He had a streak of seven consecutive 100-plus yard rushing games. He needs just 213 yards to surpass Ryan Williams for Tech's single-season rushing yardage record (1,655 yards in '09).
Wilson even has started to generate a little Heisman Trophy buzz of his own, but probably not enough to cause much of a real ripple in the voting. Still, Tech coach Frank Beamer hopes it might be enough to convince Wilson to hang around Blacksburg for another season, as opposed to bolting for the NFL.
"I think once you get in the mix, your name is out there next year, too," Beamer said. "Most of the people this year that are being mentioned are seniors. They're going to be gone, so I think there are some great opportunities for him.
"To me, it'd be a factor. I mean, how many people have a legitimate shot to win the Heisman? Hopefully he gets it done this year. This season isn't over."
In his first two seasons at Tech, Wilson played behind Williams and Darren Evans. Wilson remains close with Williams, who is rehabilitating a knee injury that derailed what would've been his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals before it got started.
Wilson also has developed a friendship with former Tech running back Kevin Jones, who still is second on the Hokies' career rushing yardage list after running for 3,475 yards from '01 to '03. After spending six seasons in the NFL, Jones is back in Blacksburg and aiming to earn a degree industrial design.
The first thing Wilson asked for from Jones was a highlight tape, which Jones gladly handed over. In return, Jones offered some advice.
"He's an incredible runner, but I told him I wanted to see him learn to use that stiff arm," Jones said. "I'm telling you, if he just sticks that arm out there and starts pushing some of those defenders away, he'll be unstoppable. He's got a real future, man. He could be the best Tech has ever seen."
While Wilson listened to what Jones had to say, even trying to implement a few half-hearted attempts at stiff arms against Wake Forest, Wilson has developed his own running style.
It's a mix of power between the tackles, one-cut inside pounding, pure outside speed and crazy, field-reversing, coach-maddening running. The latter he most famously displayed Oct. 1 in Tech's 23-3 loss to Clemson, where he changed directions three times, running back-and-forth for a total of 125 yards to pick up an actual 19-yard gain on the field.
Shane Beamer, who is in his first season as Tech's running backs coach, saw plenty of Wilson's unique running on film from his freshman and sophomore seasons. It wasn't always picture perfect.
"I think he'd get the ball in his hands and just kind of go wherever he wanted to go," Shane said.
Still, there's something to be said for having a running back that never wants to come off the field. That's exactly what Shane has with Wilson, who had enough left in his tank after last season to earn All-America status as a triple jumper for Tech's track team.
"It's hard to get him tired," Shane said. "He looks at me like I'm an idiot for taking him out of the game."
That boundless energy is a characteristic Wilson developed before he got to high school. He remembers scoring 32 touchdowns as a 9-year-old running quarterback in his "mighty mite" youth league.
When the season ended, his father, Dwight, told him he needed to start doing some pushups and getting his body ready because teams were going to target him the next season.
"He told me, 'Don't be gettin' no big head' " Wilson said. "I said, 'I don't need to do any of that stuff. I'll be fine.' "
The next season, Wilson said he spent more time crying than he did in the end zone. After scoring only five touchdowns as a 10 year old in youth league, he decided to listen to his dad.
"He'd give me a dollar if I ran around the block outside our house in less than three minutes," said Wilson, who added his dad limited him to three revolutions around the near half-mile block per day. "I'd do it, then I'd do it again, and I'd do it again. I'd get the dollars, stick 'em in my pocket."
Wilson loved the payoff, but it was more than just monetary. He said he began to notice his body changing from all the running. His first real exposure to weight training came in his own backyard.
When he was 10, he started helping his dad on house construction projects, lugging 40-pound bags of rooftop shingles off trucks and up hills, along with cinder blocks, bricks and rocks. It was all he could do to keep up with his then 40-something dad, who David said he routinely saw lug refrigerators on his back.
These days, Wilson doesn't need much outside motivation. He set his own lofty ambitions prior to the season: 1,700 rushing yards, score a touchdown in every game and 20 for the season, minimum 100 yards per game and six yards per carry, 260 yards in one game, no fumbles, All-ACC, All-American.
Though he has seven fumbles on the season (four lost), he's well on his way to checking off at least three of the goals — 1,700 yards, six yards per carry and All-ACC — and possibly a fourth — All-American.
As for where all those achievements will put him at the end of the season, he'll wait and see. He said he plans to submit paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board to help determine where he might fit into the '12 draft. If he's projected to be a first- or second-round selection, he said he'll likely put Blacksburg in the rear view.
"Since I was about 8 years old, that's been my goal," said Wilson of getting drafted. "A lot of people ask me if my mom and dad will be upset if I don't get my degree. All I tell them is my parents want me to be successful. I look at it like you get a degree to be able to get a good job, go to work and make money. If you can get a good job already without getting a degree, why wouldn't you do it? I mean, I'd almost be more upset if I got my degree, and then had to go get a job.
"I feel like if I do the things I want to do this season, everything else will take care of itself. Right now, all I want to do is help this team get more wins. That's the most important thing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times