WEEKI WACHEE — The fledgling Miami Dolphins started their first season with five losses. One quarterback threw lots of interceptions, another was injured. Fans thirsted for a win.
Enter rookie quarterback George Wilson Jr., the unlikeliest of heroes. As the son of George Wilson Sr., the Dolphins' first head coach, Mr. Wilson looked like a beneficiary of nepotism. A lot of people thought he didn't deserve to be there, and they had a strong case. At little Xavier University his senior year, he hadn't started a game.
But on Oct. 16, 1966, it was Mr. Wilson who quarterbacked the Dolphins to their first win, a 24-7 victory over Denver. Another win followed the next week. Teammates named him most valuable player of the month.
Then the dream dissipated like a soap bubble. Mr. Wilson was traded to Denver, then went on to Canadian and minor-league football. By 1969 he was out of the game for good.
He worked in a variety of sales jobs before retiring to Weeki Wachee in 2004. Mr. Wilson, a brief hero of the original Dolphins, died Aug. 6 of throat cancer. He was 68.
"He was an average quarterback, not good enough in my opinion to be a starter or a strong backup," said John Stofa, 69, of Columbus, Ohio, who lost his own starting quarterback job with the Dolphins in 1967 to rookie Bob Griese. "But he punted the ball well and could be a backup quarterback in emergencies."
As a boy, Mr. Wilson learned passing and punting from future Hall-of-Famers Bobby Layne and Yale Lary, who played for the Detroit Lions under coach George Wilson Sr. By high school he was 6 feet tall and good-looking, a football and basketball star.
Friends found him funny and quiet, not flamboyant. "He never really talked unless he had something to say," said Patti Wilson, who dated him in high school and married him more than 20 years later.
Mr. Wilson went to the University of Notre Dame on a football scholarship, but was kicked out for having beer in his room. He transferred to Xavier in Cincinnati, where he finished as a backup quarterback.
George Wilson Sr. picked up his son from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a future draft pick. In training camp in St. Pete Beach, Mr. Wilson hung a $43 portrait of himself for inspiration in his hotel room. He is holding a football in quarterback pose, wearing a No. 10 jersey.
The team's third-string quarterback found playing time in game six at home against Denver. In a moment fans of the original Dolphins will never forget, Mr. Wilson found Billy Joe in the first quarter, on a screen pass.
"I caught it in the flat. Cut to the left. Shook off a couple of people," said Joe, now 70 and living in Hoover, Ala. Joe ran 67 yards to the end zone.
A few feet away, Flipper, a real dolphin mascot in a tank behind the goal posts, leaped out of the water. The Orange Bowl went crazy. The Dolphins were on their way to their first win.
"It was national news," said Joe, who went on to a coaching career that landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame. "Everyone was ecstatic and thought we had arrived and were now going to be competitive."
A week later in Houston, Mr. Wilson led the Dolphins to their first road win. Suddenly, the undeserving rookie was starting to look like a hero.
A November 1966 wire story gushed: "How about this for a long-shot parlay — the AFL Miami Dolphins as the most successful expansion team in modern pro football history, quarterback George Wilson Jr. as rookie of the year and coach George Wilson as coach of the year?"
Instead, Mr. Wilson was injured and phased out at quarterback, although he continued to punt. The Dolphins won just one more game. Mr. Wilson was traded by his own father to Denver, where he was cut after three days. He eventually landed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, then with the minor-league Pottstown Firebirds in Pennsylvania.
By the end of the 1969 season, his father and Flipper were gone, too.
Mr. Wilson worked as an investment broker in South Florida; sold real estate in Michigan and Old Mr. Boston liquor in Nashville.
According to childhood friend Art Mier, Mr. Wilson did not brood over lost chances. "He saw a lot of highlights in his life," said Mier, 68, of Bloomington, Ill. "But I think he also saw that (fame) could be fleeting. I'm not sure I ever heard him grumble about not being in the limelight."
In the mid 1980s, he divorced Margaret, his high school girlfriend with whom he had raised three daughters, and married Patti, whom he had also dated in high school.
The new marriage caused ripples. A rift developed. Over the years, Mr. Wilson lost touch with his daughters.
"He was given bits and pieces of opportunities, and he didn't do anything with those opportunities," said daughter Maureen Kaczmarek, 44.
Mr. Wilson worked as a sales director for Mr. Graphics, a Jupiter printing company. In retirement he played golf, went on cruises and palled around with buddies to watch the NFL playoffs.
Occasionally, strangers sent him self-addressed stamped envelopes and his rookie card to autograph. His rookie card without an autograph sells for $70 on eBay.
The day before he died, daughters Maureen, Colleen and Kathleen visited Mr. Wilson in a room decorated with football mementos. He had not seen them in 25 years, and he had not met any of his seven grandchildren.
"He had a moment of clarity," his daughter said, "in which he opened his eyes wide and individually looked at each at each one of us."
His wife plans to scatter his cremated remains on Sanibel Island, a favorite vacation spot of theirs.
"Then he'll always be swimming with the dolphins," she said.
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248.