James Wilder Jr. making his own way
The man wearing No. 32 is a brute. The fibers of his jersey strain around his thick frame and stretch as defenders futilely grab, pull and scrape for leverage. He barrels over the line then seeks out linebackers because he knows it's a battle he'll win. He treats the sideline as hostile terrain, choosing contact over any visage of self-preservation.
The images are singed into James Wilder Jr.'s conscious, the first memories of a childhood shaped by one well-worn VHS tape. He was 4 years old when he found the compilation of his dad's football highlights, six years after James Wilder Sr. had retired from the NFL. Every day, the boy followed a similar routine: school, playtime, the tape.
Each juke the man on the tape made, the boy mimicked with increasing precision. Each time his father dove toward the goal line, the same scene splashed across the living room floor. And after a few hours, the father would tell his son he'd practiced enough, and the dream would be set aside until the next night.
"Watching his tape, it made me want to fill his shoes," James Jr. said. "I feel like I'm getting pretty close."
Over the years, father and son drifted apart for stretches, then reconnected again and again. Somewhere along the way, the tape was lost, but every few weeks, James Jr. scours the Internet looking for old highlights of his dad. Those low-resolution images of a behemoth in a Creamsicle uniform tell the story of two generations, of one man's past and another's future.
James Sr. grew up in a small town in Missouri. He was a hulk at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He was a punishing defender, but he loved running with the football. At Missouri, he earned the nickname "The Sikeston Train," a nod to his hometown and his style of play. It was there he met a track star named Barbara, and the couple would have three children together over the next 12 years -- two boys and a girl, all of which would play football, too. In 1981, the Bucs drafted James Sr. with the 34th overall pick, and three years later he was a Pro Bowler. In a game against Green Bay that season, James Sr. set an NFL record with 43 carries in a single game. He'd finish the year with nearly 500 touches.
That was ancient history by the time his youngest son was born in 1992. Two years prior, James Sr. retired from the NFL, and while he'd been an attentive father to his first two children, James Jr. came along at the perfect time.
"My career was over with, and another career started. That was for the kids," James Sr. said. "He was the last one standing, so we gave attention to him, and he bloomed up pretty good."
The father was free to coach at the Boys and Girls Club, and the son was a prized pupil. The pair made frequent trips to old Tampa Stadium, where James Sr. remained a cult hero, and James Jr. was introduced to the likes of Lee Roy Selmon, Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks and Tony Dungy.
The trappings of growing up the son of an NFL star weren't lost on James Jr., but years would pass before he understood the uniqueness of the lifestyle. As a boy, he thought everyone had tapes of their dads trampling NFL linebackers. It wasn't until middle school, when teachers who'd seen his father play gawked at the name on the class roll, that James Jr. grasped the magnitude of his pedigree.
But if James Sr.'s NFL glory was ubiquitous for a son with the same name, the relationship wasn't always as consistent. Sometimes James Sr. would leave for a stretch, sometimes Barbara would escape with James Jr. in tow. Regardless of circumstance, father and son talked, but the bond was strained.
"I was used to being there with my dad, playing catch with my dad," James Jr. said. "I didn't understand. I was like, 'Where's Dad?' It left me empty-hearted."
The separations never lasted, though, and as James Jr. grew up, the two always found common ground on the football field.
It helped that, by his early teens, the son already looked like the battering ram his father had been in the NFL. James Jr. was a star linebacker, but at Plant High, he tried his hand at tailback, too. As a junior, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and recorded 136 tackles. He blossomed into a top recruit, but most coaches wanted him on defense. James Jr. wanted to be like his dad. James Sr. encouraged his son to follow his heart.
"He fell in love with running back," James Sr. said. "He felt like I do, that if somebody hits you, lay some wood back on them. I guess he emulated me."
Advice was rare from the elder Wilder. His mantra, which he still repeats, is that he'd prefer to see his son after a game, rather than before it. Constructive criticism of a performance is one thing, but the performance should belong entirely to his son.
The outlier to that philosophy came before the 2009 state championship game. James Sr. pulled his son aside for a pregame pep talk about opportunities and effort. The conversation lasted more than 30 minutes.
"That day, he was like a whole different person," James Jr. said.
The performance that followed is now a part of Florida high school lore. The man in the No. 32 jersey takes a handoff up the middle. He trudges through the line of scrimmage, thunders into the secondary. There, he finds a trio of Miramar defenders, who converge all at once. The collision is brutal. The three boys from Miramar topple to the ground in a scene reminiscent of "The Three Stooges," while James Jr. emerges unscathed. He rumbles another 42 yards for the decisive touchdown in a 21-14 win. That video has more than 60,000 views on YouTube.
"People give you motivational speeches and quote Vince Lombardi or something, but he just told me what was in his heart," James Jr. said. "That really touched me. Even sometimes to this day, I think of that conversation."
A year later, James Jr. rushed for nearly 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns and committed to Florida State -- as a running back.
College brought father and son closer than they'd ever been. James Sr. attends every home game. They share game film online and critique James Jr. 's play each week. Run with passion, his father will say, and stay low.
"I think he realized how much we missed out," James Jr. said. "Conversations over the phone is not the same as seeing him in person, so now we've been kind of playing catch-up a little bit. And it's really been helping me, especially through the hard times."
Those hard times began early in James Jr.'s college career. In February 2012, he was arrested on charges of obstructing a law enforcement officer. Four months later, he was arrested again for probation violation and spent nine days in jail. His mother visited every day, and James Sr. offered support over the phone. In January, Wilder was arrested a third time after failing to appear in court because of a suspended license. James Jr. insists the mistake marked a turning point.
"I've talked to my dad more," James Jr. said, "about situations I need to stay out of, that it's time to mature up."
Eight months ago, James Jr. became a dad, too. His locker is littered with pictures of his daughter, Nala, who has been in Tampa since fall camp began. She's too young to talk, but he calls her every day using the video application on his phone. He wants her to see his face. Phone conversations, he knows, only go so far.
"It makes a difference when you know your father is there for you," he said.
James Sr. knows, too. He was still at Missouri when his first son was born, and football transformed from a dream to a necessity.
His success helped him earn a good living in the NFL, and it's afforded him the opportunity to provide a foundation for his children and grandchildren, too. But James Jr. said his father has been thrifty since Nala arrived.
"If things are a little bit too hard, he'll help me out," James Jr. said. "But he's teaching me how things work with being able to lead my own family."
It's a half-hearted lesson, James Sr. admits. He's played it cool with his son, but he gets to see Nala often, and he loves being a grandfather.
"I'm not letting him know I'm spoiling her," James Sr. said. "But he's doing the right thing."
Since the second arrest and the stint in jail, father and son set aside time to talk about the future. Each year, they devise a master plan -- for football, for school, for family, for life.
James Jr. is poised for a breakthrough season in 2013. He has been the vocal leader of Florida State's offense, and and fresh off a season in which he scored 13 times and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry, he's on the precipice of an NFL career. For Wilder Sr., it's an exciting time, too, but he worries about the path ahead. There's a price to be paid for earning each yard with brute force and vicious determination.
James Jr.'s shoulder has bothered him for more than a year. He rubs it during games, admits it has gone numb a few times after a big hit. He keeps playing, he said, because it's what's expected. He's the big back, the old-school throwback to days when runners ran with bumps or bruises or broken ribs. That's what his dad would've done.
"For my running style, it's something I expect," James Jr. said.
James Sr. has told plenty of stories about the old days, when players were tougher and ran harder. But what he really wants, more than anything, is for his son to follow his heart, to be judged against his own expectations, rather than his father's accomplishments.
As a freshman, "Wilder" was inscribed atop the back of the son's jersey. At season's end, he added the "Jr." as a symbol of independence from the legacy attached to his name. For years, James Jr. wore a high-top haircut -- "that '80s swag," he said -- a callback to the look his dad made fashionable 30 years ago. After the shoulder injury, however, James Jr. trimmed it, wondering if the hairstyle had brought bad luck.
Still, old habits remain.
There's that No. 32 jersey, rolled up under his chest guard just like his dad used to do. It's harder for defenders to grab.
There's the daughter back home, and there's the NFL looming on the horizon -- a combination of dreams and reality that motivated two generations of Wilder men.
And there are the runs, those brutal, punishing gallops into traffic like a train chugging over scattered debris. They look just like those old highlights on the tape.
The steps along the path are all so familiar -- plodded by a giant 30 years ago then practiced again and again by his son a decade later.
"He knows what he has to do," James Sr. said. "He's gone a long road to get there, and he knows what steps to take."