TAMPA — Adrian Wilson repeats a mantra that is true for practically all NFL players.
"Any year you don't go to the Super Bowl, it's tough," the Cardinals strong safety said. "You play the game to go to the Super Bowl."
But what if you knew your team has almost zero chance of getting there? What if you played for a perennial loser, where thoughts of the Super Bowl are the stuff of dreams?
Wilson can tell you all about it because, as the longest-tenured Cardinal on the roster, the Super Bowl has been nothing more than a mirage for most of his career.
But Tuesday, he found himself sitting on a podium with the gleaming green grass of Raymond James Stadium as a backdrop. If it weren't for his Dior sunglasses, his wide eyes would have been more obvious.
He arrived in the desert eight seasons ago and found nothing but desolation. And he wasn't talking about the landscape.
"I didn't know anything about Arizona in 2001," said Wilson, a third-round pick out of North Carolina State. "I came in, and it was hot. That was about the only thing I could think of. We didn't have the talent to compete. That was the main thing. After the 2001 season, our team got blown up, and we had to start from scratch. Ever since then, it's been an uphill battle.
"Now, here we are on this stage."
In his first seven seasons, Wilson, 29, played on teams that averaged fewer than six wins.
"I've seen some pretty grim times," he said.
Through it all, his play was consistently impressive. He had a breakthrough in 2006 with his first Pro Bowl berth. This year, he'll be there again. In 2005, his eight sacks were the most by a defensive back since it became an official statistic in 1982.
As you might expect, others noticed. He turned heads around the league and surely could have used free agency to rescue him from the purgatory that was Phoenix. Yet in 2004, he re-signed with the Cardinals for five more years.
"They called me stupid. They called me crazy," Wilson said. "But you never know. You never know if the grass is going to be greener on the other side."
Finally, Wilson has been rewarded for staying home.
"Adrian is in his eighth season," free safety Antrel Rolle said. "I've been here four. I can only imagine what eight years feels like. He's been overshadowed by guys because they've been on winning teams, but he's a guy who has shown me the way at safety."
Said linebacker Karlos Dansby: "Eight years, man? In this organization? It's been tough on his soul. To make it to this stage is big. If we win it, it's for him."
Wilson, 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, has certainly done his part to help the Cardinals escape their wretchedness. He has some highlights, like two touchdowns of 99 yards — one fumble and one interception return.
But perhaps one of his most important contributions has been bringing together Arizona's young and impressionable defense. The Cardinals have seven defensive starters 27 or younger, and Wilson has played a key role in their development.
"He's really taken on a leadership role from a team standpoint," defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
But most of his leadership comes by setting an example.
"His ability to make game-changing, impact plays is tremendous," Pendergast said. "We try to use him as much as we can to utilize his skills where he can be that impact-type guy.
"Now I think because of the stage, people are able to see throughout the playoffs what kind of player he really is."
Finally, that stage belongs to Wilson.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377.