When the time finally comes for John Wilson to look back over his playing career, it’s likely that the defining moment won’t be his high-water mark in Major League Soccer, but a phone call that came at a low-point when he had all but given up the game.
That was 2007-08, after Wilson’s release by D.C. United in the middle of his third season with the club. DCU would be his final stop on an intermittent MLS resume that included being drafted – twice – by the Kansas City Wizards and touring with the precursor to the league’s Generation Adidas program. Injured, unemployed, mired in a union appeal and pushing 30, Wilson looked around at his college friends who had gone on to real jobs and wondered what on earth he was doing chasing a soccer ball.
So Wilson left Alexandria, Va., and moved back to his native Upstate. He crashed with a friend in Greenville while he rehabbed his post-surgical knee, tried to get workman’s comp, and started looking for a job in medical sales.
“I’m glad that didn’t happen, because one day Coach called,” Wilson said. “He was like ‘I heard you’re training.’ I was like, ‘I’m not training, I’m going out and knocking the ball around.’
“He was like, ‘Do you want to play?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think I can.’”
“Coach,” of course, is what Battery players call Mike Anhaeuser.
“We had heard that he had an injury that might be something that would make him unable to play,” Anhaeuser said. “But when I picked up the phone, Number One, it was ‘How are you?’ Sometimes when you get left out and you’re injured, you get pushed to the side. And I’m sure for him it might have been a mental thing. So really, I wanted to open the door.”
In his first training session with his former team, Wilson’s limp was noticeable. The pain of being discarded by MLS he kept hidden.
And so John Wilson’s second career began in Charleston, the place where he’d started his professional story in 1999. Local fans celebrated, but Wilson’s own emotions were more conflicted. Though glad to be back, bitter currents of competitive disappointment still stirred beneath his quiet, thoughtful surface.
‘That communist sport’
Five seasons later, it’s no secret that Wilson’s return stint in Charleston turned out well. He holds the franchise records for games, appearances and minutes. He’s been part of three of the Battery’s four championship teams. Winner of the Derek Revord Defender of the Year Award in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He’s a beloved figure among fans, several of whom remember him as a shy rookie in 1999. Today he’s a worldly figure on a team of kids born during the Clinton Administration, as unlikely for the inner peace he’s found as for the journey that brought him to this point.
Born in little Seneca, S.C., in the fall of 1977, John Wilson grew up as the middle son in a family with three boys. His father was a non-denominational preacher and roofer, his mother a homemaker who sometimes worked at nursing homes. They raised John in the Christian faith and taught him to see all people equally. By third grade he was spending a lot of time hanging out after school with his good friend Andy Mace, a white kid who had moved to town from Louisiana.
This is how John Wilson discovered soccer: One afternoon he went to Andy’s house and Andy’s mom had forgotten to tell John’s mom that Andy had soccer practice.
“So they just took me along,” Wilson said. “I was standing there at practice, had on a pair of the old high- top, black-and-white Larry Bird Converse, tight jogging pants and a T-shirt, and the coach at the time was Tony Stevens. He also was an assistant coach at Clemson a little bit, and he looked at me and said ‘Do you want to play?’
Wilson had raw athletic talent and no bad habits from previous coaching – the perfect combination for a coach looking to develop young players. Stevens was one of the rare coaches in South Carolina who taught the technical side of the game in those days, and Wilson says you can see Stevens’ technical influence in his playing style today.
But youth soccer was an expensive proposition even in Seneca in the late 1980s, and after John’s first season with the team, his parents had to tell him they couldn’t afford a second one. That’s when the community stepped up. “Ever since then, families really pitched in and kinda took me under their wing,” Wilson said. “And there were a lot of people who were a big part of it. Weekends I would stay at people’s houses, because we’d maybe train over the weekend. Just some great people. And that was how it started.”
Not everyone understood his fascination with the game. Black friends occasionally asked him why he played a white man’s game, and even while starting for the soccer and football teams (as the place kicker) at Seneca High, his football coach once asked him if he was still playing “that communist sport.”
Nearby Clemson University offered him a chance to play collegiate soccer, but even that came with a hitch. Wilson spent his first season driving back and forth to campus from Seneca because the program didn’t immediately grant him a scholarship. And even after Kansas City made him the 14th pick in the 1999 MLS Draft, the path the Wizards set for him proved difficult.
Kansas City drafted Wilson as a forward and midfielder, but soon made plans to convert the college forward to a professional defender. It was a bigger jump than Wilson could make in one preseason, and he wound up signing with the Charleston Battery, which in those days competed in the old USL A-League. His rookie season here was good enough that a year later, new Kanasas City Coach Bob Gansler made him the 9th overall pick in the 2000 MLS Draft (Wilson suspects that makes him the only MLS player to have been drafted twice).
“It was a lot for me to learn. And I still had to work on my game a lot. Even my technical side. You see this in young players. Some players it just clicks. Their eyes open and the game starts to become easier. For me it was a little bit later, I guess.
“I was in KC, I was probably 22, and it was all new to me. I spent a lot of my time growing up playing away from my family, so they really didn’t know much about the game, so I was learning this all on my own. So sometimes you gravitate to the wrong people. And you want to do so well, but in doing that sometimes it kinda hinders your game.”
Wilson’s 2000 season in Kansas City was a modest one. He appeared in three matches, with one start, as the Wizards marched to both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup.
“The best evaluation I ever got was from Bob Gansler,” Wilson said. “At the end of the year you get your evaluation, and we were playing at Arrowhead Stadium and he calls me in the office and he says ‘John, we have to release you.’ It was really my first time being fired.
“And he goes, ‘You need games.’ I was raw. In college I was a forward. So that’s when I came back (to Charleston) in 2001. It was the best evaluation he gave me. Because there were a lot of guys who stayed in MLS and they weren’t playing. And when you’re not playing and you want to go play somewhere else, they’re going to look at how many games you played.”
Over the next three seasons in Charleston, Wilson would begin assembling the pieces of his raw talent into the makings of a complete professional defender. He was a major contributor to the Battery team that won the USL A-League Championship in 2003, and saw his success as a way to revive his career aspirations. But as Wilson would eventually learn, ambition brings its own risks.
“So we win the championship here, and I was like ‘I’m not coming back,’” Wilson said. “I was trying to get back to MLS. But then I was like, you know, ‘Rochester’s just offered me a great deal, I should take it.’ So I take the deal.
“A week later, (new D.C. United Assistant Coach) Mark Simpson calls … and he goes, ‘Listen, I thought you were the best defender in the league this year, and we’d love to sign you.’ And I was like ‘I just signed with Rochester.’
“And this all gets better, too, because the year before, (USL contracts allowed you to) just leave and go to MLS. But that year they said no more of that. Also D.C. won the championship that year. So I go to Rochester.”
It didn’t turn out well. Wilson didn’t like living in Upstate New York. The following preseason, under a new coaching staff with orders to cut the budget, Wilson hurt his ankle. “I was one of the higher-paid players there. I’m hurt. They cut me.
“As my mom would say, ‘This is the Good Lord in the works.’ At the time I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ So my agent calls Mark Simpson… I go down to D.C. for a trial, and two weeks later I’m in the starting lineup (because of an injury to starter Bryan Namoff).”
After The Fall
Though Wilson played well in relief in 2005, the club gave Namoff his job back when he returned from injury. Still, Wilson was 26 years old, entering the prime years of his soccer-playing career, and he had reasons to feel optimistic. He thought about making the jump to Europe, about fighting his way into the U.S. National Team player pool.
He made 17 appearances in 2005, including 11 starts, and helped D.C. United’s Reserves to the Reserve League title. In 2006 he was an opening-day starter, but his season numbers declined due to chronic tendinitis in his knee. By late summer, Wilson couldn’t walk up stairs after games, and the tendon was on the verge of catastrophic rupture. In September the club announced that Wilson had undergone surgery and would miss the rest of the season. A surgeon told him afterward that the inflamed tendon was three times normal size.
He didn’t know it at the time, but at 27, his MLS career was effectively over.
Wilson rehabbed for the 2007 season, but wasn’t fully recovered by the start of preseason camp and never worked his way back into the rotation. When the staff left him out of the lineup during a CONCACAF match in Honduras, he knew the end was near. “It was tough, because I knew I was about to really make a dent into D.C. United, and even the next level.”
The ax fell in June 2007. He hung around Alexandria for a while, waiting for the player’s union to resolve his pay dispute with D.C. United, then went down to Greenville, S.C. for rehab, driving to Spartanburg five days a week for treatments. He started thinking hard about life after soccer, but he was also wrestling with the unfairness of it all.
Throughout his professional career, Wilson’s timing had always seemed just a bit off. At first he’d been a quiet, trusting country kid who could be put off by adversity and new situations. By the time he’d learned the mental side of the game and mastered his new position, knee problems prevented him from demonstrating it. And out on his own in the Upstate, approaching the age when most soccer careers begin winding down, it wasn’t irrational for Wilson to think about hanging up his boots.
So while he was glad when Coach Anhaeuser called him, the early days of his comeback in Charleston were still marked by physical limitations and private ambivalence.
“I won’t lie,” he said. “When I came back from D.C., I wasn’t happy. Training was different. You weren’t flying everywhere. And obviously you weren’t playing in front of the crowds. It was tough.
“I had to really work on my mental side. There were some days when I’d train and I’d just be out of it. That’s something, I look back now, and I’m like ‘What were you thinking, John? You have an opportunity to come back and play.’ And that’s part of the game, the mental side. You find a lot of former pros who had the opportunity to come play in USL and they’re like ‘I’m too good for that.’”
His first season back in Charleston was largely about getting back to full strength, but 2008 was also the year the Battery made it to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup – against D.C. United. The Battery lost, but that cup run remains one of the franchise’s proudest achievements. And Wilson got to prove to his former team that he was far from finished.
From 2009 on, the importance of Wilson’s career-threatening knee condition faded into memory. He became a defensive fixture and helped lead the team to the USL First Division Championship in 2010.
Afterward, Wilson announced his retirement. And it kinda made sense. He’d come back from a serious injury and proven himself all over again. He was almost 33 years old. He could walk out a champion. But again, Anhaeuser left the door open, and again, Wilson returned.
“I realized after some time away from the game and also days spent running through downtown and playing in a few pick-up games, that playing was still in my system,” Wilson was quoted as saying at the time. “Many of my friends, family, and ex-teammates all said the same thing. ’If there is something you love to do, do it as long as you can.’”
In 2011, center back Colin Falvey replaced Wilson as the team’s on-field caption. Anhaeuser said it was in part about consistent minutes, since he was preparing to manage Wilson’s playing time differently. But the change probably had something to do with the personalities of the two men as well. Falvey is extroverted, assertive and talkative. Wilson can be equally direct, but is by nature not much for on-field chatter. “I don’t say much, honestly. And when I want to say something, I want it to mean something.”
But the bigger change for Wilson going into 2012 was his full-time return to the outside.
“When I came back from my injury, I was playing center back, (because) center back is not as taxing on the body,” Wilson said. “But to be honest with you, I got bored with it, just heading the ball and kicking guys. So when (Anhaeuser) put me out at left back, that kinda rejuvenated me a little bit. One, because I knew I wasn’t as young as I used to be, and it made me really think again.”
Said Anhaeuser: “I’ll be honest, it was something we talked about, because I could see (it). You can’t get bored at center back, because if you go out of it, unfortunately, it’s like a goalie: It’s a goal. Outside, it keeps him into it. Last year, I told him, ‘I’ll move you back outside. You’re still running.’ I said ‘The only thing I need out of you is you’re going to have to get very fit again, because running up and down the wing isn’t easy.’ And he’s took that to heart. I mean peak fitness. I think he was second in the beep test this year.”
With Falvey stabilizing the central defense and Wilson given room to roam at left back, the veteran from Seneca turned in what Anhaeuser called one of Wilson’s best seasons, helping the Battery to the club’s fourth league championship.
Wilson doesn’t quite agree with that assessment of his performance, but when he talks about 2012, it’s clear that something in his outlook on life changed last year.
The veteran perspective
While Wilson admits that he struggled a mentally during his 2008 return to the minor leagues, he had no complaints about the Battery or the fans. It was his own thinking about his MLS career that needed to change, and over time it has come full circle.
“I believe people were meant to be in a certain area where they can affect people’s lives and enjoy it,” he said. “I look back now (on returning to Charleston), and I’ve had the most fun, I’ve had the most time to spend with family and friends. I talk to my friends now and they’re like ‘We’re so happy you’re still playing.’ And I’m living in this city. I was being a bit selfish and maybe naive. I think professional athletes fall into that trap that they have to be making tons of money to enjoy life. Or they’ve got to live up to the status quo.
“I realized, this has been my career. This is my way to network. This is my way to get out there and get around and play. I’ve had more opportunities from playing than I wold have had (otherwise).”
One of those opportunities is working part-time as a speaker for NCSA, a sports consulting firm that pays him to talk to young athletes about the recruiting process. He’s also an ambassador for the club, representing it in public appearances around the community. He’s coaching younger players. He talks about feeling a personal responsibility to “give back to the game.”
But it’s not just about off-the-pitch altruism. At 35 he’s in amazing shape, and though he’s no longer the top-end burner he once was, he remains one of the fastest players on the team — and probably in the league. He’s an MLS-quality left back in USL PRO, and for whatever he’s lost in speed, “I make up for that with angles.”
The modern John Wilson thinks moves ahead, not just reading his opponents but setting them up for surprises later. He made multiple outstanding runs in the preseason and scored in Game 1 against Richmond, but those attacks weren’t random raids.
“I had a kid tell me, ‘My coach wants me to go 100 percent all the time.’ And I said ‘That’s not possible.’ I told him ,’If I’m playing against you, I’ll let you do your sprints the first 30 minutes, because I know you’re going to get tired. And then I’m going the other way.’
“And I’ll do that now. If there’s a guy running at me? Sometimes the best defense is offense. I’m like ‘Alright, I’m going to make you work now.’ So when we get the ball, I’m going the other way. So it’s a cat-and-mouse game.
“Buddies come to town and say ‘You’re lucky.’ and in my (NCSA) talks I say that you have to appreciate those things, because if you don’t you’re never content. You keep going, you keep going, and nothing ever satisfies you. And all along, I’ve been here. In Charleston. Great facility. Great people. I’m sitting outside right now. I’ve got buddies who are maybe in Rochester, or maybe playing on an MLS team, and they’re not even sure if they’re going to be back next year.
“You have to maintain that desire (to compete at the highest level), but the whole time I was here the first time, I was using Charleston as a home base to get another contract, to go to Europe, to get that next (step). And at a young age, that’s fine. But as you get older, you have to start to appreciate how, wow, I’m in a good place where people love me and care about me. Or you could end up somewhere in a country where you’re away from your family. Yes, you might be making more money, but maybe you’re only there for one year. Now you’ve got to come back, and you’re in the cycle of trying to find a team, trying to find a home.”
There were rumors of a Wilson retirement after the 2012 championship as well, but today Wilson waves those off. So how much longer does he think he can play?
“I figure the Good Lord will let me know,” he said. “I mean, I enjoy going to practice. I didn’t realize until last year. It’s like 95 degrees, the humidity is up there, and I love it. I’m just out there running around. Some days I like training better than others, but … it’s fun to be out there. And I think coach will let me know, as well. Because now I want to play until I know it’s time. No more of that ‘I’m done early.’ You only have so long to be able to do what you’re passionate about, and I’ve been doing it since 1999.”
TOP PHOTO: John Wilson sizes up an opponent during a March 30, 2013, preseason win over the Carolina Railhawks. Kim Morgan Gregory photo.