TAMPA — Football is the best solace Kion Wilson has found.
There is some occasional reprieve in the rare chance he has to go fishing, but for USF's senior linebacker, the normalcy of a hard practice, the familiarity of lining up in pads and the friendship of his teammates are the best escape he has from the tragedies of his past five months.
"That's the only thing that keeps my mind clear," said Wilson, 22, who will anchor USF's defense as the starting middle linebacker. "I try not to think about it much. I'm around guys that love me, and I love them back."
In March, while Wilson and the Bulls were in the middle of spring practice, his brother Kellon "Herbie" Wilson, 24, was shot in the back of the head and killed after an argument in Miami Gardens. Herbie Wilson was unarmed, but a man was charged with first-degree murder and his trial is pending. USF coach Jim Leavitt and an assistant coach attended the funeral with Kion Wilson.
Two months later, tragedy struck again, as another brother, Darius Wilson, 29, who had spoken at Herbie's funeral, died after being shot in the upper leg while working as a security guard at a Miami nightclub.
"We all grew up in Miami together. Born and raised," said Wilson, who moved to Jacksonville after his freshman year in high school to get away from the violent, dangerous life that would take his two brothers.
The football team, now more than ever, is an extended family to Wilson, who has stepped up as a quiet leader at a key position.
"With everything that young man has been through, he has a tremendous work ethic," said linebackers coach David Blackwell, who worked at Pitt and Clemson. "I've coached some pretty good guys, (NFL linebackers) Gerald Hayes, Anthony Waters, Leroy Hill. Those guys played hard, but I've never coached anyone who plays harder than Kion does. The guys on the team immensely respect him."
Blackwell can relate in some ways to the sudden adversity that Wilson has endured. His father died when he was a freshman in college, and he broke his neck as an offensive lineman at East Carolina, seeing his football career gone in one moment.
"You've got guys from all different backgrounds melted in here, but a lot of them have experienced some rough times in their life," Blackwell said. "We all face adversity in our life, and it's how we deal with it that makes you who you are. I'd sure put my money on Kion Wilson. He impresses me every day with his attitude and how he leads his life."
Wilson, a stout, punishing hitter at 6 feet 2 and 235 pounds, grew up one of nine children, accustomed to being part of a big, close family. He said he has grown closer to his teammates this summer, especially senior Donte Spires, who was a teammate at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi before both transferred to USF.
"You have certain guys you cling to more, and Donte Spires, he's been like another brother to me," Wilson said.
Wilson had 66 tackles last fall in his first season at USF, and he will anchor USF's base and nickel defense this fall. With first-year starters at both outside linebacker positions, Wilson is in a crucial position. Leavitt said he puts Wilson in the same breath with the program's best middle linebackers and defensive leaders, Kawika Mitchell and Ben Moffitt.
"He's just really special to me," Leavitt said. "I love him so much. I try not to think about what he's gone through, because I can't imagine it, the pain he's gone through, the ordeal of it all. His leadership, he leads more by example, but he's always working, always finishing drills. He's a special player."
In a program that has faced more than its share of tragedy — Wilson learned of the first shooting this spring on the day the Bulls attended the memorial of former tight end Will Bleakley, who was lost at sea on a boating trip that also claimed the lives of two NFL players — the Bulls now have a leader who is all the more motivated to make something of his life, in tribute to two brothers he still mourns.
"This is what makes it happen," Wilson said of his final year at USF. "I plan on making this my best season, for the team and for my future."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.