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Garrett Wilson’s athletic voyage: From cruise-ship phenom to Jets first-rounder

Garrett Wilson’s athletic voyage: From cruise-ship phenom to Jets first-rounder

Aug 31, 2022

  • Rich CiminiESPN Staff Writer

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    • Longtime Jets beat writer for New York Daily News
    • Syracuse University graduate

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Greetings from the Wilson family vacation, circa 2008. We’re on a luxury cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean, sailing toward the island of St. Thomas. On board is a really cool basketball court, where Kenny Wilson and the three oldest of his four boys — ages 12 to 14 — are dominating 4-on-4 games. The youngest, Garrett, 8, future wide receiver and New York Jets first-round draft pick, is off to the side, dribbling on his own.

Sorry, kid, no room on the team. Not yet, anyway.

The Wilsons refuse to relinquish the court, humbling teams of daiquiri-swilling vacationers looking to recapture their high school glory days. Kenny, 6-foot-4, is a former Davidson star who flirted with the NBA. Sons Donovan and Cameron are future college football players; the oldest, Shea, is a terrific player in his own right. It gets so one-sided that the defeated passengers decide the best way to take down the Wilsons is to expand it to 5-on-5, allowing them to stack teams.

You’re in, Garrett.

“My baby,” as Kenny calls him, runs on the court, his floppy hair blowing in the breeze. He finds himself with the ball at the top of the key, no one guarding because what adult guards an 8-year-old kid 20 feet from the basket? Garrett looks to his dad, asking with his eyes for permission to shoot. Kenny nods.

Swish.

Lucky shot, right? He tries another.

Swish.

Soon it’s 8-0, with little Garrett making jumpers, dribbling between his legs and drawing a crowd of onlookers. The SS Wilson is cruising big-time, and suddenly the opposing players, embarrassed, are bickering among themselves. They were seasick of losing.

“It was an amazing display for an 8-year-old,” Kenny said recently. “He was like a big little folk hero on the boat for a while, because he just dominated. I said to myself, ‘Man, this kid is something else.’ It’s one of my first recollections that Garrett was going to be something a little different.”

Coaches and scouts talk about his speed (4.38 seconds in the 40), his big hands (9 7/8 inches), his 36-inch vertical jump, his elite body control and his slip-and-go talent after the catch. Those are the physical abilities that prompted the Jets to select Wilson with the 10th overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, their highest-drafted wide receiver since Keyshawn Johnson went No. 1 overall in 1996.

But what makes the former Ohio State star a little different, to use his father’s words, is how he plays with an edge, a fearlessness born from growing up in an athletic family. He embraces big moments and refuses to back down from opponents. In early training camp practice, he got into a heated exchange with defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, who is 132 pounds heavier and six years older than Wilson. There was some shoving. Later, coach Robert Saleh said Wilson’s response was “kinda cute.”

“I didn’t think it was cute,” Wilson said. “No matter what age you are, I don’t like being tried.”

Don’t be fooled by that baby face, the Hollywood smile and his polite demeanor — he’s an intensely fierce competitor, no fun to be around on game day. “Irritable” was how his father described Garrett’s pregame mood; he meant that as a compliment. His son gets so locked in that his mind goes to a different place.

In the first preseason game, Wilson beat his man on a short out route and, even though quarterback Zach Wilson‘s pass sailed over his head, he made sure to let the Philadelphia Eagles‘ sideline know that he was all business.

It’s going to be a long night,” he shouted at the Eagles … on the Jets’ second play from scrimmage.

“We grew up in a competitive household that my dad put in place,” Garrett said. “It was just competitive all the time. I feel like it worked out well for all of us.”

Cameron, 27, was a wide receiver at Iowa and Ohio University. Donovan, 26, played running back at Georgia Tech and Bowling Green. Shea, 28, attended Ohio and pursued a career in business. Their sister, Sydney, 20, is a student at Ohio State. They all played high school basketball, their father’s favorite sport.

Kenny finished his career at Davidson in 1984 as the school’s No. 5 all-time leading scorer (1,573 points), a total surpassed by 10 others since then — including a skinny sharpshooter named Stephen Curry. Kenny tried the NBA, receiving tryouts with the Denver Nuggets and Washington Bullets. A self-described “classic ‘tweener” at 6-foot-4 — a scoring forward in a guard’s body — he came agonizingly close to making a roster.

“I was right there. I was all around the promised land,” he said. “To have a kid like Garrett, who has gone as far as he’s gone in sports, for me, as a dad, it buries a lot of demons.”

Kenny gave up the professional basketball dream in his mid-20s, opting for a career in sales while staying active in various 3-on-3 tournaments. He became a basketball dad, but not the overbearing kind, Garrett said, who also credited his mother, Candace. He averaged 21 points per game in high school and received scholarship offers from two dozen schools, including Tennessee, Tulsa and Davidson, his first offer.

Garrett’s basketball game was “beautiful,” according to his dad, who sheepishly revealed that Garrett was the only one of his kids to beat him in a game of one-on-one. He recalled an AAU championship game in which a 12-year-old Garrett lifted his team to victory after it had lost its leading scorer. Everyone was blown away by his competitive drive, his insatiable desire to win. He loved basketball — still does — but he broke the news to his father that football was the sport he wanted to pursue in college.

Kenny was disappointed at first, but he quickly realized it was the right decision. He always taught his kids to create their own path, and deep down he knew Garrett belonged on the football field, where he “made magic.”

There’s a little bit of basketball in the way he plays wide receiver. You can see it with his stop-and-start explosiveness and his spatial awareness. A three-step release at the line of scrimmage, he said, is like executing a crossover dribble.

“The main thing is rebounds,” he said. “I was always a guard that was a good rebounder. I feel like that translates to getting 50-50 balls — the high ball. I feel like I owe basketball a lot to my football ability.”

After a stellar career at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, the same school that produced Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield, Wilson went to Ohio State. (He actually spent the early part of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio.) It was a tough transition. As a freshman, he found himself in a receiver room with three future NFL draft picks — K.J. Hill Jr., Chris Olave and Jameson Williams, who later transferred to Alabama.

The competition at the position and the extraordinary demands of playing for a powerhouse like Ohio State “broke him down a bit,” according to his father. Wilson had reached a crossroads in his career. He did a lot of soul-searching, reflecting on the advice his father supplied: “Greatness is lonely.”

Wilson pushed through and improved each season, finishing with 70 receptions, 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns in only 11 games in 2021. He opted for the draft after his junior year and was the No. 1-rated receiver on the Jets’ draft board. Saleh raves about his exceptional body control and “violent hands.” Some receivers rely on body-catching; Wilson snatches passes out of the air with quick hands.

“I mean, he jumps off of the film,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “In person, the way that he can break down and explode out of cuts, it’s amazing the way [he can] go up and get a ball when he’s standing still or when he’s going top speed. He can just cut on a dime, switch and go up in the air and get balls.”

Still, it hasn’t been a seamless transition. The coaches want Wilson to be more physical against press coverage and he needs to cut down on the drops. In training camp, he dropped several passes, but not in bunches. Hey, it happens. A year ago, Cincinnati Bengals rookie Ja’Marr Chase was a drop machine in camp and wound up winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Wilson admittedly tends to get down on himself, but he’s trying to work through that process to eliminate the stress.

“My quarterbacks have to trust me,” he said.

Wilson figures to contribute immediately as the fourth receiver in a four-man rotation, behind Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios. Once again, he’s the newbie, just like he was on that cruise ship in the Caribbean all those years ago.

He smiled.

“That’s probably my earliest memory of being athletic and competitive with my brothers,” he said. “We dominated. I remember I was making older dudes mad that I was scoring on them. They got humbled real fast. I held my own. I knew my role at that age and played it well.”

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