Martez Wilson wants to open convenience stores

Martez Wilson at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. Erica Magda

Martez Wilson at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. Erica Magda

By Daniel Johnson

Martez Wilson wants to start a line of convenience stores.

Read that again if you like; he said most people don’t really believe him or understand when they first hear, anyway.

Nothing fancy, just a place people can go to and buy things from. Stop after work and get food for dinner, stop on their way to school to get a snack, things along those lines.

It’s been a dream of Wilson’s since he could remember, wanting to do something more substantial than just sports.

“I’ve always wanted to own something since when I was younger, own my own business,” he said.

But somewhere between then and now, stratospheric expectations were lumped on him. When a player has Wilson’s size, speed and inherent physical ability, things can escalate quickly.

“I’ve coached Rashard Mendenhall, who was a tremendous talent,” running back coach Reggie Mitchell said. “But when you just talk about a guy’s raw talent, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a guy that can do the things he can.”

Why even care about anything other than making it to the NFL? He’s clearly on his way having already found a spot on the 2008 Butkus Award watch list as a sophomore and a preseason First-Team All-Big Ten selection by some news organizations – this after recording only 29 tackles in 2007. Why not just coast by on your talent until your junior year, come out early and get a first-round pick contract, which seem to go up in dollar value every year?

“Most people think my number one goal is just make it to the NFL,” Wilson said. “Which, I mean, yeah, it can be my number one goal, but it just can’t be my only one. I have other goals I want to accomplish too.”

Wilson seems to use his desire for something other than football as an escape, which may be why people have a hard time believing his mind is on anything but football at all times.

Don’t get him wrong. As he said, he wants to go to the NFL, wants to become the next Dick Butkus, Kevin Hardy or Dana Howard. Wilson wants to be an All-American more than anything.

But there’s one thing that’s stopping him right now.

Himself.

Wilson is, if nothing else, a classic can’t-miss talent that makes scouts lose control of their jaws. The Simeon product has consistently run in the 4.4-range for the 40-yard dash – for point of reference, Mendenhall ran a 4.45 at the NFL combine and only one linebacker ran a sub-4.5 last year – and his body is described almost erotically by media and Internet message board fans. Wilson was the team’s “Rejus Benn on defense” in his recruiting class, as Coach Reggie Mitchell put it, and he came to Illinois as an all-down athlete: defense, special teams and offense.

But not playing offense may explain what is holding him back. He can’t play on each side of the ball, both by his reasoning and a coaching decision, until he is playing linebacker at the desired All-American level.

“The only thing that really changed (since I was recruited) was that Coach Zook doesn’t want me to play (offense),” he said. “He wants me to be sound on defense before I play offense, if I do. I can understand that because, when I look at film, there are a lot places that I need to improve, instead of trying to focus on two positions, when I don’t have one really solid yet.”

The linebacker knows he has more physical talent than almost anyone he’ll play with for now, but he’s trying to disprove those who only consider him a physical freak.

“You gather more of a mental thing for the game, definitely as a starter,” Wilson said. “I have to get the mental part of the game now though, you know? It’s something that I’m working on because I don’t want to just be a physical player. You’ve got the younger guys looking up to you, and you’ve got the coaches looking up to you.”

Wilson understands that during the 2007 campaign he wasn’t where he should have been. Rather than a controlled player using his abilities effectively, he became more or less a caricature of a linebacker, a blitz mercenary.

“Last year, I definitely wanted to play more, I was just so geeked and eager to play and show the fans and coaches what I can do. I just wanted to get in and blitz,” Wilson said. “This year, I still want to blitz, but I want to get in and make plays all over the field.”

Dan Disch and the other defensive coaches are critical of their linebacker for only showcasing his ability on open-field plays. Disch knows Wilson can exploit his speed on every down.

“Potentially, as an athlete, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” Disch said. “But as a linebacker, he’s still not there. He’s middle of the road right now. If you go back to when J Leman and some of those guys were his age, they weren’t great linebackers yet.”

And while the defensive coaches are working constantly on the field with Martez, Mitchell, Illinois’ running backs coach, is likely the coach impacting Wilson the most off the field right now. Since recruiting him, in what was arguably Zook’s best class, Mitchell and Wilson have become more than friends.

“Since he’s been here, I’ve been trying to mentor him, trying to get him to do the right things on and off the field,” Mitchell says with a vocal tone that is obviously reserved for Wilson. “He’s a tremendous talent. It’s just a matter of us developing friendship and trust. He believes that I have his best interests at heart.”

Serving as his presumptive life coach, Mitchell said he doesn’t try to sway Wilson one way or the other on the field – he has his own unit to deal with – but the things that the two work at together off the field translate to gameday.

“I don’t try to coach him, he gets enough of that already,” Mitchell says with a laugh, motioning toward the defensive coaches with his head. “Our (relationship) is more strictly, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to be successful on and off the field.’ Coach Disch and Coach Zook and all those guys coach him on defense; he’s got enough people in his ear doing that.”

Even with coaches, players, scouts and the like telling him a million different things, Wilson is trying to keep everything in perspective. He’s trying to let the game come to him and embrace whatever the game will throw his way in the future.

“I think it’s just that I’ve gotten more used to my surroundings. I’m normally pretty laid back and a keep to myself kind of guy at first. But now, I’ve got a bigger role to play, I feel more confident, I love my teammates, I just feel open.”

His role is always going to evolve. Brit Miller will graduate after this year, possibly moving Wilson to inside linebacker or defensive line, furthering his mental growth. He might, and likely will, stay at weak side linebacker and continue to be a controlled and mental blitz mercenary.

It’s going to be an arduous process for Wilson. There’s going to be unknown physical, mental and emotional barriers for him.

When asked what he thinks his career is going to hold for him, Wilson shifted his frame on the metal benches at Illinois’ practice fields, causing the bench to respond in an audible shift of its own. Does he believe he can excel on Sundays in the NFL? Does he think he can be the best linebacker to come out of Illinois since Butkus, Hardy or Howard? Does he believe he can really open a line of convenience stores which he’d like to aptly name ‘Sacks ‘N Stuff?’

“We’ll see what the future holds,” Wilson said. “Whatever I make it to be, I think it’s going to be something very good.”