Alumni Interview with NFL player Tavon Wilson ’12 LAS

Former Illini Tavon Wilson (David Silverman Photo)
The Patriots safety on Illini football, his first interception as an NFL rookie, and the grandmother who’s keeping an eye on him.

As safety for the New England Patriots, I work hard year-round to stay sharp. Everything moves so fast in the NFL—when the ball is snapped, there’s no time to stop and think. You’ve got to be fully prepared, totally focused and then react. The games are so intense that you tend to forget everything else until the last whistle blows. That’s when I’ll finally take a breath and think, “Hey, it’s time to text my grandmother.”

Her name’s Darlene Williams, and she raised me after my parents died. That was in Washington, D.C., in a pretty tough neighborhood. My father got murdered when I was a year old. My mother died when I was 12. But I make no excuses, because I was fortunate. My grandmother was a nurse who worked hard to bring me up the right way. My grandfather was a bus driver and youth football coach—another lucky thing. They taught me to work hard and stay humble. Twenty years later, I’m still doing both.

After high school I picked Illinois over Maryland, Boston College, Michigan State and North Carolina. I’d watched the team in the 2008 Rose Bowl and made my college choice during the game. I wanted to be part of something special, a real football tradition. And let me tell you, you can’t help feeling special walking around Memorial Stadium. George Halas ’18 ENG, Red Grange ’26, Dick Butkus ’65 AHS—you can hear the echoes of great plays all over the place.

I loved playing for the Illini. I’ve still got a bunch of friends on campus and still train there in the offseason. It’s like staying in touch with your family. I had a solid college career—some people called me a star—but then I got snubbed by the pros. I wasn’t even invited to the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. Football players who don’t attend the combine tend to disappear. But the Patriots knew who I was. The so-called experts thought I might get selected in the fifth or sixth round of the 2012 draft, somewhere around the 170th player chosen. Instead, [head coach] Bill Belichick and New England surprised the football world. They picked me in the second round, 48th overall. That made me more determined than ever. Like my grandparents, the Patriots believed in me.

I wish I could say my desire and hard work made me an instant pro success, but it doesn’t work that way. At least not for me. As an NFL rookie, I worked harder than ever. I studied harder, watched more game film, spent extra hours in the weight room and still felt like a beginner. I admit it—some of the NFL receivers I tried to cover turned me inside out. So I worked harder. And stayed in touch with my grandmother, who kept texting the same message she’d always taught me: Count your blessings. Do your best.

As a rookie last season, I had my share of ups and downs. There are some genius receivers in the NFL—you take one wrong step, and they’re spiking the ball in the end zone. But I had some highlights of my own. In my very first pro game—Sept. 9, 2012, against the Titans at LP Field in Nashville—a teammate tipped a Jake Locker pass. The ball was up for grabs. I kept running and running, got my hands on it and held on. An interception in my first NFL game! My first pro pick kept us ahead at the half, and we went on to win, 34-13. I’ve still got the game ball in my house.

That’s a ball nobody will ever strip from me.

I got five other game balls last season, but I’ll need to prove myself again this year, and I welcome the challenge. It’s an advantage to play for New England. You get to practice against [quarterback] Tom Brady! But there’s always a fast, slippery receiver coming your way, and the other teams’ quarterbacks are pretty good, too.

I’ve got some advantages, though. Illini pride, for one. Plus Bill Belichick and the Patriots—another great football tradition. Plus a grandmother who’s still keeping her eye on me.

We open this season at Buffalo. I’ll be in “total focus” mode all day. Then, when we get off the field, I’ll be keeping up a tradition of my own.

Yes, I’m planning on texting my grandmother:

We won!