BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Football is a passion for Darnell Wilson.
And every day, Wilson puts that passion on display in downtown Traverse City when he walks up and down Front Street tossing a football.
"I do it every day during my breaks," Wilson said. "It gives me a little reminder that I am still playing the game I love. It's like I go to work and I do my job, but on my breaks it gives me some time to get away and think about things I like to do. Like play football."
"It's all about being around the game of football. It's motivation I need."
After his collegiate and professional careers came to an end, Wilson thought he was done with football. He moved to Traverse City and began working for the state of Michigan.
And then the Traverse City Wolves came to be. Wilson attended tryouts in 2008, made the team and practiced for a full year before locking in his position at defensive end for last year's inaugural season.
"I thought my career was done," Wilson said. "It was a great feeling to know there was a team coming up. I thought, 'Wow. What would it be like to get out there and play one more year of the game you love.' It's the perfect opportunity and a great feeling to know you can still play the game you love."
At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Wilson had a ton of success for Traverse City last season as the Wolves finished 8-4. He recorded 40 tackles, 13 sacks, forced a fumble and recovered three other ones.
Wilson's achievements put him in the NAFL All-Star game, where he earned co-MVP honors.
"We did a great job last year as a first-year team, and we're doing an excellent job right now also," Wilson said.
This year has been more of the same for Wilson, who says he's having more fun than he ever has playing the game. In a 40-17 win over Capital City last Saturday in TC's home opener, Wilson had eight tackles and two sacks. And on the first defensive play of the game, he sacked Capital City's quarterback and forced a fumble, which teammate Matt Ohlert picked up and took for a touchdown.
"He's a hard worker, he loves the game of football and he understands the system," Wolves coach Brad Haney said. "He turned it on Saturday and it really showed in his stats."
As one of the veteran players on the team, Wilson has served stepped into a leadership role.
"He always has his little speech before the game, and we all expect it now," Haney said. "He gave his speech before kickoff on Saturday and we were ready. He brings that leadership, just in his words, his mentality and the way he plays football. People follow him."
"I'm not scared of anyone, that's my motto," Wilson said. "I want to let these guys know that they shouldn't be scared of anyone either. We put the pads on just like everyone else. For a guy that's 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, I'm not worried that he's going to crush me. You've got to have that faith and understanding that you can overcome anything. Just don't be afraid to take that next step."
Wilson's leadership, though, comes from more than just his words. It's also his experience.
After graduating from Flint Beecher in 1991, he played at Central Michigan University. He went undrafted in the 2000 NFL draft, but had workouts with Green Bay and Chicago. Later, Wilson played in the Arena Football League for NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith with the Norfolk Nighthawks, as well as with the Tallahassee Thunder.
"He's been there, done that," Haney said. "A lot of guys are doing this to try to get where he has been. They look right up to him and follow his lead, because he works just as hard as them, too."
At 34 years old, Wilson considered calling it a football career after one season with the Wolves. But after discussing it with teammate and friend Pete Boyles, they both decided to come back for one more round.
"One of the bigger reasons I stuck around were those guys that come up from down-state," Wilson said. "They gave me some motivation to come back for one more season. I saw some guys that want to win. They want to travel two hours just to practice and play games. They come up here three times a week. That was a great motivator for me."
Wilson also dedicated this season to his father, who passed away during last year's campaign.
"It was tough," Wilson said. "Guys supported me, but I had to battle through it the entire season. I still went out and played hard through the trials and tribulations, but this year is more calm."
And in his tribute year, Wilson wants a national championship, as well as record 20 sacks. So far, so good, as the Wolves are 1-0 and he already has a pair of sacks under his belt.
"You do this for the love of the game," he said. "We all put ourselves at risk every time we step on the field. We all have jobs, we all have families. We're risking a lot, but it's for the love of the game."
That love of the game, which puts him on Front Street every day tossing a football.
"I actually have people out of town that come back to Traverse City every year, they come downtown and they remember me from tossing that football," Wilson said. "It's actually a ball I scored my first touchdown with when I played Arena Football. I scored a touchdown and I said, 'I'm going to keep this ball.' It's kind of deflated, but it's been around for almost 10 years now."