Start against Bengals is dream come true for Steelers’ Wilson

September 14, 2013

PITTSBURGH – Kion Wilson doesn’t want to let his teammates down.

He might want to introduce himself to many of them first.

Wilson is the Steelers’ new starting inside linebacker, where he’ll replace veteran Larry Foote when Pittsburgh (0-1) plays at Cincinnati (0-1) Monday. Foote was lost for the year with a torn biceps in last week’s season-opening 16-9 loss to Tennessee.

Several teammates suggested they needed some kind of introduction to the soft-spoken Wilson. They were only half-kidding.

Wilson, a three-year NFL veteran who has appeared in eight career games with San Diego and Carolina, was a long-shot just to play in the NFL, let alone earn a roster spot with the Steelers this season.

After all, he wasn’t on an NFL roster in 2012 after being released by the Panthers in their final cut. He held two jobs – one as a debt collector, the other as an insurance salesman – while continuing his training, hoping for another shot at earning a roster spot in the NFL.

The Steelers, looking to improve their special teams, took a chance on Wilson, signing him to a Reserve/Future contract immediately after the 2012 season ended. He caught head coach Mike Tomlin’s eye on special teams in the preseason, playing on every one of the team’s special teams units.

“Coach Tomlin said that whoever was going to be the final pick at linebacker would be the best player on special teams,” Wilson said. “Fortunately, I was blessed to be able to make some plays that caught the coaches’ attention.”

Little did Wilson know, a week after earning his roster spot – beating out Marshall McFadden, who was with the Steelers last year, and Brian Rolle, a veteran who had started 13 games for Philadelphia in 2011 – he’d be in the starting lineup.

A former defensive captain at South Florida, where he played on a defense that included Jason Pierre-Paul and George Selvie, Wilson knew his time was running out to achieve his NFL dreams.

“I just knew I would get one more chance,” Wilson said. “I knew I would get one more opportunity.”

And he knew that if things didn’t work out, it wouldn’t be because of a lack of effort on his part.

Wilson (6-0, 230) isn’t exactly a prototypical NFL linebacker. Then again, that’s about the same size of the man he’s replacing. Foote is listed at 6-1, 239, but often plays at a weight lighter than that to help his speed.

“I definitely have big shoes to fill,” Wilson said. “I’m really excited about the opportunity. I don’t want to disappoint anybody. I want to play to the level that is expected of me.”

Because of his special teams acumen, Wilson was active against Tennessee instead of rookie Vince Williams and was the lone backup at inside linebacker. Stepping in for Foote, he made two tackles in what was the first non-special teams action of his NFL career.

The Steelers also are preparing Williams for duty, but Wilson will get the first opportunity to replace Foote.

“With Larry Foote going down, we are definitely going to need him,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “(Wilson and Williams) are young players learning what to do. I think they’ve all made great progress to this point.

“I am confident. I know they will play physical and play hard. We just have to coach them and get them in the right place.”

Wilson already feels he’s in that place.

“It’s still the childhood dream being achieved by me,” Wilson said. “All of the emotions, all of the excitement are there. But I have one mission to accomplish.

“Just playing among these guys, it’s great. I still feel my best football is to come. I want to show the guys that I’m someone they can trust to fill that void. I don’t want them to worry while we’re out there on the field.”

Odds and end zones

Cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) running back Le’Veon Bell (foot) and tight end Heath Miller (knee) will not play Monday. ... Cornerback Curtis Brown (illness) is doubtful. ... Kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring) and nose tackles Steve McLendon (hamstring) are probable. ... It appears that Fernando Velasco will start at center in place of injured Maurkice Pouncey. Velasco was signed Monday after Pouncey suffered a season-ending injury last Sunday.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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