The crazy thing is, he almost hung it up.
Late last fall, watching a lost season play out for Emporia State during the holiday break, Brent Wilson wondered if the fates were trying to tell him something. He’d broken the same collarbone — on his right side — twice in the span of about 13 months. He ached like sin. His future hung, like a flipping coin, in the air.
“It was more me just being frustrated at that time and not knowing exactly if it was worth it or not,” Emporia State’s senior quarterback recalled. “But I prayed about it and I talked to the coaching staff and with my family. And I didn’t want to have any regrets — two years from now, going, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve played my senior year of college football.’
“The pros outweighed the cons. And it was just a great decision for me to just keep playing.”
A historic decision, too. Going into Saturday’s Division II showdown against unbeaten Northwest Missouri State on ASN, Wilson ranks fifth nationally in Division II in passing yards (2,887), passing touchdowns (29) and seventh in total offense (346.2 yards per game). His 73 career passing touchdowns are a school record, and the Oklahoma native is 767 yards short of tying the program’s all-time career passing-yardage mark.
Not too shabby for a guy who, in his first meaningful appearance as a freshman in 2012 — he’d tossed a few balls in garbage time — attempted four passes against Southwest Baptist and saw two of those throws picked off.
“I knew all along I had our guy,” Hornets coach Garin Higgins said. “There were a lot of skeptics, of course. I just knew what I’d seen of him, just his work ethic, just how he is. Which brings me up to the point of how he’s battled through that and how he’s gotten to the point where he’s at.”
Some college journeys are linear, from A to B, allowing for the occasional wobble. Wilson’s path? Wilson’s path looks like one of those old “Family Circus” cartoons that tracks Jeffy’s neighborhood meanderings, a dotted-line pretzel.
When Higgins helped to snag Wilson out of Ponca City, Okla., they knew he was smallish (6-foot), raw, and tougher than an old leather boot. The signal-caller had broken his left collarbone as a prep and tried to play through it.
“With Brent Wilson, the one thing the coaches told me was, ‘Coach, he’s the toughest player I’ve ever seen,’” Higgins recalled. “We kind of knew that coming in.”
As it turned out, Higgins did indeed have his guy. As a sophomore in 2013, Wilson threw 33 touchdown passes, a single-season school record, and amassed 2,985 passing yards over his first 10 games. The kid was cruising — so were the Hornets — until a hit against Washburn broke Wilson’s right collarbone.
“He got sacked, and then threw a flare route, with that broken collarbone, to the running back,” Higgins said. “You could tell that something wasn’t right.
“And the second time (it broke), I remember this play, because I’m the one who called it. Shoot, it was a quarterback draw. And I was like, ‘Man.’”
Higgins had promised himself — and the staff — that he would do everything in his power to keep Wilson upright in the fall of 2014, fates be damned.
The fates laughed.
Fourth game. Northeastern State. Wilson’s collarbone gave again during that draw, shortly before the end of regulation. During overtime, he kept pushing, adrenaline making him oblivious to the pain, at least for a while. An old, familiar shoulder pain returned with a vengeance after the contest, and X-rays confirmed another break.
“I was definitely very frustrated and down in the dumps,” Wilson recalled. “I asked myself, ‘Why did this happen again? Why me?’”
“Brent takes everything in stride — he’s very strong in his faith,” Higgins said. “I know he leaned on that. There are a lot of doubts that go through your mind and I know went through his mind. He put in so much hard work, and to come back and then have it happen in the fourth game (back) and it happened in the fourth quarter. And he played through it in the fourth quarter and in overtime, stayed in there and led us to victory, if that tells you anything about him.”
But even old leather can tear, given time. So Higgins made a point recently to sit Wilson down and show him a package of clips featuring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson on the move, illustrating the value of knowing when to throw the ball away and when to slide, or get out of bounds, to lessen the odds of a game- or season-ending hit.
“Throwing the ball away four times and sliding four times, that’s eight times I’m protecting myself and not taking hits,” Wilson said. “I’m just protecting myself (for the) next play.”
It’s a tricky balance. Higgins doesn’t want to take the spark out of a wild colt. He just wants to keep the wagons moving.
“He’s a very competitive person,” the coach said of Wilson. “I saw it (last) Saturday. He was coming off two weeks of average play for him, and people were asking if he was hurt, and it bothered him.
“The players, they really rally around Brent. He’s not a vocal guy. He really isn’t. But they just rally around him. They see how he plays and how competitive he is.”
Was it worth it? Heck, yeah. No question.
“I can tell you this much: Whenever he said that he was coming back to play, I won’t lie, we were very happy as a staff,” Higgins said. “But also very happy for him.”
And the draw play?
“Needless to say, we don’t have the quarterback draw this year,” the coach chuckled. “I thought about it and I said, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do it.’”
Old habits die hard.
Old collarbones die harder.
“For the most part, little bruises here or there; I don’t think I’ve gotten a single ice pack this entire year,” Wilson said. “I’m so thankful that I have a great offensive line protecting me the best I can. And I’ve tried to protect myself, but at the same time, make smart decisions. And that’s really helped me stay healthy, for the most part.”