THE LAST THING Marco Wilson wants to do is take a picture. He has been summoned out of the University of Florida locker room, a den of frustration, stunned sadness and possibly a few dagger stares pointed in his direction. The Florida-LSU game has been over for a while, but Wilson is still in his uniform and eye black. He finds his family near the 30-yard line, not too far from the spot where a hundred memes are being launched.
Wilson’s grandmothers are there, along with his parents. They risked COVID-19 exposure because they didn’t want to miss the junior cornerback’s last game at The Swamp. They are holding homemade, spray-painted cutout letters that spell M-A-R-C-O. They don’t know that Marco was just crying in the locker room, or that his cellphone is blowing up with venomous messages that blame him for ruining the Gators’ chances for a national championship.
He has to get out of here. He contorts his face and stares into the camera. The fog that had enveloped the stadium in the second half lingers in the background, adding to the illusory nature of the night. But it’s not a dream. It’s Dec. 12, 2020, 4½ months before the NFL draft, and Wilson has just committed the worst blunder of his football career.
“I’m telling you, it was like a movie script,” Wilson’s father, Chad, said last week as his wife, Carmen, texted a couple of photos from possibly the most bizarre night of the 2020 college football season. Marco Wilson made what was supposed to be a game-saving tackle, but then he threw his opponent’s shoe, and three officials threw flags for unsportsmanlike conduct. The fresh set of downs allowed LSU to boot an improbable, game-winning 57-yard field goal through the pea-souped sky.
The fallout was so intense that Wilson said he received death threats and racial slurs over social media. (He decided not to notify police.) The internet mob even reached his girlfriend, Madiya Harriott, a defender for the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team, and harassed her on Instagram. Asked when the trolls finally laid off him, Wilson said, “Oh no, it’s still going on.”
On Wednesday, Wilson returns to Gainesville for Florida’s pro day. He hasn’t spoken much about that night against LSU, and he’s hoping his performance alongside projected first-day pick Kyle Pitts, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney will shift the NFL draft conversation from what he did one Saturday night in the fog to what he can do on Sundays.
He wants to flash the closing speed and the physical and mental gifts that made him a team captain. Wilson didn’t, after all, break a law or hurt anyone, aside from legions of Gators fans. He chucked a shoe 20 yards downfield.
Inevitably, though, he’ll have to prove to coaches, scouts and team personnel that he can be trusted. His childhood friend and fellow prospect Elijah Moore has proved it can be done.
“I tell them it’s a great learning lesson,” Wilson said.
“I just tell them what happened.”
THE ODDSMAKERS SAID Florida-LSU wasn’t supposed to be much of a game, making the Gators three-touchdown favorites. But Wilson was pumped all day. He had already decided he was declaring for the NFL draft, and he wanted to make his final home game memorable.
But the night started with some bad news: Pitts, their otherworldly talented tight end, was out with a lingering injury. The Gators fell behind 27-17, but the defense kept them in it in the second half, an unusual twist for a team that rode its high-powered offense to an 8-1 record.
A thick fog rolled in around the fourth quarter. Cornerback Kaiir Elam, and others in the stadium, would say they’d never seen anything like it. “It was like a freaking Michael Bay movie,” Elam said. “It was crazy. I thought something was burning.”
LSU freshman quarterback Max Johnson was making his first collegiate start, and late in the fourth quarter, he was in a 34-34 game with two minutes to go.
On third-and-10, Johnson threw a pass in the flat to Kole Taylor, and Wilson and Tre’Vez Johnson closed in fast. Taylor tried to hurdle them, but Johnson grabbed him high, and Wilson, who was on his knees, took hold of Taylor’s legs. They stopped him 6 yards short of the first down, and for a heartbeat, Wilson had helped save the game. But as he finished the tackle, Taylor’s Size 14 Nike popped into Wilson’s hand.
Wilson was elated yet surprised. In 15 years of football, he’d never had someone’s shoe come off and into his hand.
“In that type of energy, what did people expect?” Wilson said. “Like I was going to hand it back nicely to him? I was super excited and I threw it. I didn’t purposely do it; it was just a reaction. It went pretty far. I mean, I didn’t think it would go that far. But it did.”
It might’ve gone unnoticed had it been a simple fling. But the shoe went at least 20 yards, and almost hit an official.
Referee James Carter announced the penalty.
“After the play, unsportsmanlike conduct … throwing an LSU player’s shoe 20 yards down the field. That’s his first unsportsmanlike conduct foul of the game. Automatic first down.”
Roughly 20 rows above the LSU bench, Chad and Carmen Wilson couldn’t see a number of things, but they had a perfect view of the tackle, the throw, and the subsequent flags. Once the cleated shoe flew through the air, Chad Wilson took a deep breath. Marco, meanwhile, tried to talk to his teammates. “Yo, I made a mistake,” he told them. “Let’s try to make another stop.”
The Gators couldn’t. LSU advanced another 17 yards on five plays before Cade York hit a fog-cloaked 57-yard field goal. Chad Wilson felt incrementally worse with every development. Florida drove 42 yards over 21 seconds and lined up for a tying 51-yard field goal. But the kick was wide left, and Wilson sat on the bench alone after the game, knowing he let down his team.
He finally got up, made his final walk from the Florida bench to the locker room, where he found his teammates far more forgiving than he expected. Still, deep down, he knew they were angry.
“I was disappointed at that play, but I wasn’t mad at him,” Elam said. “I probably could’ve been excited and made that same boneheaded mistake. But we still had an opportunity to win that game.”
Wilson would retreat back to his apartment in Gainesville, and his parents and grandmas would follow, sharing a quiet dinner of jerk chicken pasta from Bahama Breeze.
But before he left the stadium, a random person shouted at him from the stands.
“Marco! Don’t go on Twitter!”
NONE OF THIS would’ve ever happened if Wilson had followed an instinct a year earlier. Twenty years old and not too far removed from his second ACL injury, Wilson spent a month contemplating whether he should enter the 2020 NFL draft.
He was coming off a three-interception season, and his dad said they were hearing second- or third-round projections. His backfield mate C.J. Henderson already had announced he was going pro, and Wilson was intrigued by the idea of entering the league with his good friend.
“I definitely felt like I was ready to leave and play at the next level,” Wilson said, “but I wanted to come back and accomplish more things. I wanted to try and go to the SEC championship. I really wanted to beat Georgia because I didn’t want to go 0-3 against those guys.”
On Jan. 6, 2020, Wilson tweeted that he was returning to Florida for his junior season. Next to the gator emoji at the end of the tweet, he typed, “Jeremiah 29:11,” a Bible verse that says, “For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for prosperity and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Two months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit. The Gators spent the next few months wondering if there would even be a season, and the uncertainty weighed on Wilson mentally. On July 30, the SEC announced it would play a 10-game schedule starting in late September.
Expectations in Gainesville were high. The Gators were ranked fifth in the country to start the season. But the third week of the season, Florida lost 41-38 at Texas A&M. The defense gave up 543 yards, but the fans fixated on Wilson, who gave up several big plays.
The team had a rash of positive COVID-19 tests a few days later and went into quarantine, leaving Wilson without football and alone with his negative thoughts. At the urging of his girlfriend and dad, Wilson started writing a journal.
He said it allowed him to “just talk to myself and get the right messaging.
“Your mental health is just as important as your physical health when it comes to the game of football,” Wilson said. “I realized I know who I am, and these people who are saying bad things don’t know me personally.”
Wilson set a high bar his freshman season. He was just the fourth cornerback in Gators history to start on opening day, joining the ranks of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Roberson. He led the team with 10 pass breakups, but the following year he tore his ACL in Week 2 against Kentucky. In his time rehabbing, he made the SEC academic honor roll.
He came back in 2019 and started all 13 games, collecting 23 solo tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and those three interceptions. Then came the highs and lows of 2020 that make Wilson a confounding draft prospect.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has the 6-foot, 187-pound Wilson listed as a fourth-round pick. NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms recently ranked him as the sixth-best cornerback in the draft.
“I think purely from a talent standpoint, he’s probably a second- or third-round pick,” McShay said of Wilson, who opted out of the Cotton Bowl to prepare for the draft. “He has really great range. He plays aggressively. He’ll lay his body on the line; he’ll do all the little things. Athletically and speedwise, he’s really gifted.
“The two big problems in his game based off the tape that I’ve studied is that he lacks good ball skills. So even though he’s there and covering guys, he’s not coming down with big plays very often. And then the other big issue is his tackling skills.”
Elam, who said Wilson has mentored him, concedes that statistically, Wilson’s 2019 season was better. “Playing corner, you’re going to have your highs and lows,” Elam said. “But Marco’s been working his butt off. I feel like he’s gotten way better. He’s more mature now. I feel like he cares less what people think. All he wants to do is go out and prove himself.”
WILSON WAS BORN to be a corner. Dad Chad Wilson played cornerback for the University of Miami during its heyday in the 1990s and was teammates with Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Chad makes a living coaching and training cornerbacks, and recently did some pre-draft work in Arizona with Marco and former Alabama star corner Patrick Surtain II, a projected first-round pick.
Marco’s older brother, Quincy, is a cornerback for the New York Giants.
Chad and Carmen wanted their sons to play baseball, in part because it’s safer and more lucrative. But Marco and Quincy would have their own ideas. Marco was so into football by the time he was 5 that he kept tackling his opponents, unaware that you’re not supposed to do that in flag football.
But he had a softer side, too. When he was 2 or 3 years old, he would regularly bring his mom flowers. The fact that the flowers came from the neighbor’s yard was a slight problem, and Carmen would try to gently tell him to stop.
“He was always in tune with people’s feelings,” she said. “If he saw you sad, he’d say, ‘Why are you sad today?’ He had a sensitive side.”
Wilson went to American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida, a private institution that cranks out Division I cornerbacks and won five state championships in the last eight years. He was coached by Patrick Surtain Sr., and Chad was an assistant coach. When Wilson was a 10th grader, he gave up a late touchdown in a rare Heritage loss.
He pulled up the video, took a picture of the play, and hung it in his room.
“Obviously his athleticism jumps off the page,” Surtain Sr. said. “He’s a really, really good cover guy who’s not afraid to come up and tackle. He did everything well.”
While his older brother Quincy was more chill in his teenage years, Marco had unlimited energy, and took up Parkour, doing corkscrews and backflips. In a YouTube video from 2013, when Wilson is 14, he is leapfrogging over his parents’ Pontiac sedan.
He chose Florida over USC for college, not because his brother was a Gator, but because he thought the coaches could elevate him to the player he wanted to be, to an NFL cornerback.
Before Marco arrived in Gainesville, Quincy declared for the 2017 NFL draft, and was projected to be a first-round pick. The family rented out a Marriott conference room in Fort Lauderdale for the occasion, and dozens of people showed up. But Quincy did not hear his name on the first night.
He was dismayed when he left the party that night, but the hotel offered them the room for free the next day.
He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the 46th pick, and, in a sign that he was not going to take the moment as seriously as he had the night before, Quincy arrived that day wearing a T-shirt. It had a poop emoji on it with the word “happens” underneath.
Marco watched his brother on draft day and imagined his own future. Quincy has tried to prepare him for what’s next. He has warned Marco to be ready for anything in team interviews. Quincy told his brother about the time the Bears replayed at least six missed tackles from his junior year at Florida and asked him what happened on each one. At the end of the conversation, Quincy said he thought, “Well, damn, I’m not going to Chicago.” Quincy knows his brother faces different questions.
But how heavily will the shoe incident weigh in 2021 war rooms? Randy Mueller, a former GM for the Dolphins and Saints, said the first thing he’d want to know is if it was an isolated lapse in judgment. He’d also want to talk to him about the incident.
“I don’t know if the card moves on [my] board based on this,” Mueller said. “I’ll say this — this kid has some skills. He can run, he can move, he plays inside, he plays outside. He has a lot of versatility in his game that I would like to have.
“He may be more equipped going forward to not make a similar mistake than others who have never thought of this. I guess we all learn from experience, right?”
MARCO WILSON GREW up in South Florida with former Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore. They were childhood friends who went their separate SEC ways for college. On Thanksgiving Day 2019, in the Egg Bowl, Moore crashed into the end zone for the potential tying touchdown with 4 seconds to go against rival Mississippi State. Then he got down on all fours, lifted his leg and mimicked peeing like a dog.
Moore was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing the extra-point attempt back 15 yards. The kick went wide right and the Rebels lost to the Bulldogs 21-20.
He apologized in a statement the next day, but it didn’t matter. Moore, who was 19 at the time, was vilified. T-shirts would be printed about the celebration: “Ole Piss.”
Moore said that hostile Ole Miss fans were calling him everything from “[N-word] to thug.
“People were threatening my family, saying they’re going to kill me. I even got [phone] messages. I don’t know how they got my number.”
A year later, he had the LSU-Florida game on, but was distracted. He got on Twitter after the game and saw that his old friend Marco Wilson was trending. “Oh boy,” he thought.
He watched the shoe video, read all the vitriol and decided he’d wait until the next day to reach out. He sent him a Snapchat the next day, told him not to worry about it, told him to pray and trust everything would be OK. They talked several more times.
Last week, Moore participated in Ole Miss’ pro day. He ran a scorching 4.32 40-yard dash, possibly vaulting him into the first round of the NFL draft.
“I’m being completely honest with you,” Moore said, “after [the peeing incident] I had no clue where things were going to go. I just knew what I had to do. I put my head down and kept working, just praying and giving everything to God.”
Moore said that every team he has talked to has asked him about the incident, but it’s not a large part of the conversation. He tells them that it made him a better person and player. He feels the same way about Wilson: Four months after the shoe dropped, Wilson is mentally strong and in a good place.
“Marco is going to kill his pro day,” Moore said. “You watch. He’s going to smash it.
“I feel like when he gets into the league he’s going to have three times a better career than he did in college.”