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The Stanley Steamer Rolls Again : Ex-Prep Star Back on Track in Cincinnati After Bouts With Drugs

The meeting for running backs has just broken up, and Stanley Wilson is sitting on the floor in the Cincinnati Bengals’ locker room, eating a thick deli sandwich and nacho chips.

Across the way, a teammate is reading “Patriot Games” by Tom Clancy. In the bathroom behind him, two Bengals are discussing the comparative worth of municipal bonds. Players wander about casually in bare feet, sipping soft drinks and exchanging insults.

It is midday, midweek before the first football game of the season, and Wilson feels good about where he is. With his history of drug abuse, he knows he has to earn the trust of the other men in the room. And he is doing it, and making friends. “Nothing could be missing from my life at this moment,” he said.

For a year, though, everything was missing. For two of the last three years, Stanley Wilson’s life has been missing joy and purpose--i.e., missing football. In the vicious slugfest with cocaine, Wilson has twice been sent to the canvas on his back. But, legs and faculties intact, he has walked out of the ring of drugs and taken his place once again with the Cincinnati franchise of the National Football League. And, to hear him testify, he is the happiest man in the AFC Central.

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“The camaraderie, hanging out with the guys--all of that stays with you when you’re not here,” he said. “That’s one of the things I really missed. Just being in here over the lunch hour, working together, playing the games. . . . Football is something I love. I’m doing something I love to do.”

Football is also something at which Wilson is naturally adept. At Banning High School, he was twice the Los Angeles City Section Player of the Year. At Oklahoma, he was the fourth-leading rusher in the glorious Sooner history. And in Cincinnati, he has averaged more than five yards a carry in a stop-and-go career that has been characterized equally by its promise and trouble.

Despite his production at Oklahoma, Wilson at 6-1, 210 pounds was considered an off-sized running back for the pros and was only a ninth-round draft choice of the Bengals in 1983. But in his first start, he gained 84 yards. In his next start, he picked up 99 before tumbling into his first round of trouble. It was a knee injury, and it was nothing compared to what was ahead. In December of that year--shortly after the final game of the season--Wilson was admitted to the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota for chemical dependency.

Within a year, he would be admitted to the hospital three more times for drug addiction.

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Football is Wilson’s life now, and for the moment he has it all.

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against the Rams in September, gaining 74 yards in 17 carries. In practice the next week, he dislocated his left shoulder. A month later, he was suspended by the NFL for involvement with cocaine.

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He was out of football for a year. Back in Los Angeles, Wilson worked for the Census Bureau and held a second job as a security guard. He was reinstated with the Bengals in the spring of 1986, and all parties assumed that it was his last chance. Chance had never been generous with Wilson, anyway. Going into what should have been his fourth professional season, he had carried the football just 73 times. And yet, he had carried often enough to impress the Bengals and the league with his explosive quickness and tackle-breaking ability. “Stanley Wilson is potentially one of the most exciting backs in the game,” said Coach Sam Wyche.

Wilson was drug-free in 1986, but not injury-free. He missed the first half of the season with a bad knee, then burst into the lineup with eight touchdowns in only 68 carries. On a team deep in fullbacks, he established himself as the starter.

But the chance to defend his position was undermined in July of 1987 when Commissioner Pete Rozelle sentenced Wilson again for drug abuse. It was the first time a player had been suspended, returned to the game and been suspended again. The Bengals said they considered Wilson to be finished in the NFL. Wilson himself doubted that he would ever be back with them.

But in April of this year, Rozelle reinstated Wilson once more, and when the 27-year-old Californian reported to camp, he was in for another surprise. Larry Kinnebrew, Cincinnati’s incumbent fullback, was holding out in a contract dispute. Bill Johnson, another veteran, walked out of camp on the first day. Ickey Woods, a rookie from Nevada-Las Vegas, nursed an injury and started slowly. Stanley Wilson was the starting fullback.

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“When I came in here and they said, ‘Stanley, you’re starting,’ that was enough to last me all year,” said Wilson. He held the position throughout the preseason, leading the Bengals in rushing and steering clear of incident or injury. Meanwhile, the Bengals released Kinnebrew, and Wyche talked about a balanced running game in which Wilson and star halfback James Brooks would be featured nearly equally.

Wilson accounted for 47 yards on 11 carries and opened the way for some of Brooks’ 75 yards on nine rushes in the Bengals’ opening 21-14 victory over Phoenix. Last week in a 28-24 win over Philadelphia, Wilson had 11 carries for 30 yards and two receptions for 20 yards.

“With Stanley,” says Wyche, “the biggest thing is keeping him on the field and clean. He’s never had a problem being productive. I think if he would have stayed on the field his whole career, he would have been in a Pro Bowl by now--or at least in the class of the players who were. Right now, having been away from the game for a year and two of the last three, I’d say that Stanley’s not 100%, but he’s very close to the same skills he had. I think he had a little more explosion the first time around, but he’s a natural player. The thing about Stanley, though, is that he’s never been injury-free. This is the first training camp he’s been in that he hasn’t been injured.”

Wilson’s 1988 training camp was a high point in his life and football career. Before the first game of the season, two Bengals--linebacker Emanuel King and defensive back Daryl Smith--were suspended for drug abuse, but Wilson was nowhere near the action. In fact, the only action Wilson engaged in during training camp was a series of fights on the practice field. His competitive spirit was sharp.

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Wilson showed enthusiasm for all aspects of the game, and it suggested a man who was glad and grateful to be there. It suggested a man who saw a gridiron at the end of the tunnel in which he was desperately captive. But that’s not exactly the case. Wilson is, indeed, happy to be a football player once again, but it wasn’t the prospect of being one that brought him back from the depths of drug abuse.

“Football had nothing to do with it,” he said. “If you ever had anything to do with drugs, you know it’s a life thing. Having my life was motivation enough for me.”

Football is Wilson’s life now, and for the moment he has it all. Having worked out on his own at his Hollywood home the past year, he is in the best shape of his career. In training camp, the Bengals paired him with veteran quarterback Turk Schonert as his roommate, knowing Schonert would not lead Wilson into temptation, and it worked. But now Wilson is on his own, and his sense of direction tells him that the goal line is one way and drugs are another.

He knows too that if he keeps pointed the right way, drugs will remain behind him. As a result, he doesn’t talk in detail about his history with cocaine. “I’m not here to go back to the past,” he said. “I’m not trying to do an autobiography of the recent years.”

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If he did, there would be a conspicuous scarcity of material pertaining to his accomplishments on the football field. For all of the ability and ballyhoo attending Wilson, he has gained but 720 NFL yards five years after coming into the league. His value to his team is so profound that he earned a starting position on his obvious capabilities, and yet he has more to prove than a rookie from Division III. Wilson is a star-quality player without credentials. He has done nothing in his career but tease persuasively.

“I don’t think I’m an unproven player,” he said, chuckling confidently at the notion. “But as far as being a star in this league, I know that’s something I haven’t accomplished. I think that can happen in the near future. I’d like to gain 1,000 yards at least once in my career. All I have to do is do what I’ve done in the past and be consistent.”

To that end, Wilson has a sign in his room that reminds him, “Be consistent.” But it was there a year ago when he surrendered again to drugs. So there is no catch-phrase to keep him away from cocaine. There is no amount of gridiron glory that can do it.

Wilson has to do it. If he does, the glory is bound to come.

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