Early in the Cardinals' Red-White public practice in Flagstaff, strong safety Adrian Wilson broke through the offensive line and greeted running back Ryan Williams in the backfield.
The pop of plastic pads filled the air, and Williams dropped to the ground. But the hit wasnt what it might have been had this been a regular-season game. At the last possible moment, Wilson restrained his very nature and spread his arms to the sides like a hawk slowing its descent as it grabs its prey.
I knew that Ryan was coming off an (knee) injury, and to be honest with you, I was actually wrong on the play and I had to make myself right, Wilson said later. In making myself right we kind of collided with each other. It was a good moment for me and him. It was really my first big hit of training camp, and that was the first time he was actually taking a hit. Im glad we were able to share it.
With that, Wilson broke into his unmistakable baritone laugh, and you realized what it was you had witnessed that day at Northern Arizona University. You read the message behind that post-hit pose. After two seasons worth of playing through major injuries (torn biceps tendon last year, torn abductor muscle in 2010), after two seasons of playoff-less football, after a season spent learning a new defensive scheme, the joy is back in Wilsons game.
Thats because I know what I know now, he said, nodding. When you dont know the defense, you dont feel as though you belong. Even though you put the work in and do everything in the offseason, if you dont know it like all the other guys know it, then its a different feeling.
In a rare glimpse into a very private man, Wilson admitted that last seasons transition to Ray Hortons defense drained some of his well of confidence.
It does because it brings a sense of doubt into your mind, he said. Whenever that happens, youre slow to react to things youd normally react to right away.
It would be accurate to write that Wilson redoubled his efforts to learn that defense this offseason. In what Horton calls behind-the-scenes stuff, Wilson digested reams of film. He turned up his maniacal offseason workout regimen, and he chided any teammate who didnt exhibit the same level of commitment.
But it would paint an incomplete and clichd picture to stop there. It would undersell Wilson to say he recommitted himself. Wilson goes beyond commitment.
In an era where loyalty is just a marketing term for athletes, owners and coaches, Wilson defines it -- fiercely. Hes the athlete you dream of as a fan the guy who will never betray his team.
The Cardinals extended his contract by two years into 2015 this offseason, but the deal includes a significant pay cut. Wilson was supposed to make 6.5 million this season. Instead, hell earn 1.5 million plus a 1.5 million signing bonus. The difference will be about 10 million over two years.
Wilson is happy with the two extra years because he wants to keep playing. More important, he gets to play with his first and only NFL love, the Cardinals.
I gave my heart to this team, he said. Theres no way I could leave here. Theres no way I could put my heart in another team.
Thats because its difficult to win Wilsons trust.
The reason why Im so loyal is because it takes people so long to get to know me and who I actually am, he said. Once they understand me and whats inside of me and what drives me, that means Ive let them in and then I feel like my heart is the most I can give.
Of course, Wilson doesnt view his new contract as a pay cut because there are incentives that allow him to make up that lost money.
They pay me if I play at a high level, he said. I plan on playing at a high level. Problem solved.
The injury-ravaged NFL offers no such guarantees, so Wilsons loyalty warrants mention. And that loyalty extends into all facets of his life, even if he occasionally stumbles trying to achieve it.
Wilson and his wife, Alicia, renewed their vows in Hawaii this offseason. The decision came after strife in their 10-year marriage went public and Wilson appeared on two episodes of E's "Khloe and Lamar" with actress Malika Haqq during his six-month-long separation.
Wilson didnt want to discuss the situation, but he told Essence.com, "being able to get through that, and be where we are now, makes me think the experience helped us out tremendously. I think it made us stronger."
That isnt the only sign of strength, Horton said.
In one of our packages, we have to bring one of the safeties out, and he said Ill do that, Horton said. Hes helping us by subtraction. Hes saying: Ill be man enough, Ill be secure enough to come out -- to put somebody else in if its going to help the team.
Wilson admits it wasnt easy.
Youve got to swallow your pride a lot, he said. Whenever you come out of the game and somebody else goes into the game, you feel like you can do what that person can do. But you dont want to let egos get in the way of the defense succeeding. Youve got to know that its not about you, its about the team -- especially in this defense. Its about a unit and guys sacrificing for that unit.
To Horton, that sacrifice defines leadership.
Its one thing to say: Im the captain, Horton said. But being the captain doesnt mean youre a leader. Captain means you were voted something.
Hes more focused on making other guys around him better, and some of that means taking a lesser role. Hes accepted a leadership role and what that truly means.
With his life in balance, his health restored and his confidence soaring, Wilson is itching to start the 2012 season.
Im not going to say Im content, he said. Even though Ive accomplished a lot in my career and have been here for so long, I still feel like theres more for me, more I can accomplish as a player and as a teammate. Thats what motivates me and thats what got me where I am now.
I think this is what I was put on this earth to do is play ball. As hard as it gets and as much adversity as comes with it, it helps you grow as a person. It helps you understand who you are as a person off the field as well. Thats why Im so happy. Im in a good place now.
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