Football: Devout junior Wilson emerges as top target
What was going through Roman Wilson’s mind as he made one of the biggest plays in Princeton football history?
“I was just running as fast as I could,” he said. “Just trying to keep my eye on the ball.”
That simple attitude, exemplified by the 36-yard catch that sealed a stunning comeback victory against Harvard three weeks ago, is typical of the junior wide receiver from Broken Arrow, Okla. The possibility of losing focus, or of doing anything halfheartedly, seems never to have crossed Wilson’s mind.
It might seem as if the possibility of playing something other than football has never crossed his mind, either. Wilson’s brothers also play, and their father, Curtis Wilson, was a center at Missouri who went on to play professionally for the New England Patriots, the Detroit Lions and teams in the now-defunct NFL Europe.
Surprisingly, Wilson did not grow up playing football.
“My dad, he wanted me to do whatever I liked to play,” he said. “So I kind of grew up playing soccer.”
It was not until his sophomore year of high school, by which time the college recruiting process has already begun for some, that he decided to give the family sport a try. His brother, Cody, who now plays at Tulsa, had stopped playing football but decided to come back to the high school team the same year, and Roman decided to join him. From there, it looked like the Wilson genes took over.
Wilson led his team to a state championship, of which he was voted MVP. He caught 80 passes each of his last two seasons and was first-team all-state, all while lettering in basketball and track — not bad for his first three years of football.
Princeton, among other schools, soon had its eyes on the standout receiver. Harry Flaherty ’11, then a Tiger tight end, happened to be a friend of the Wilson family, and talking with him piqued Wilson’s interest in Old Nassau. After “falling in love with the place” on his official recruiting visit, Wilson committed.
He wasted no time finding his place at Princeton. He became interested in sociology while taking classes the summer before his freshman year and is now a sociology major.
“It gives you a lot of freedom to study what interests you,” Wilson said of his department.
Fittingly, his junior paper will deal with the attitudes of students and professors toward college athletes. He expects to find that these attitudes vary depending on the sport and seems not to have high hopes as far as attitudes toward football players, but his genuine academic interest may well challenge such views.
A devout Christian, Wilson is active in several religious organizations on campus, including Athletes in Action and Princeton Faith and Action. AIA’s weekly services, which he helps lead, have given him a chance to showcase his considerable musical talent.
As he did with football, Wilson picked up the guitar in his sophomore year of high school.
“All my friends in high school just got in a phase where they played guitar, so I just picked it up and started playing,” he explained. “And I’ve stuck with it.”
Though he refers to music as “just a hobby,” Wilson’s friends are quick to extol his talent. Among them is senior defensive tackle Caraun Reid, who shares Wilson’s devotion to faith and love of music. Reid and Wilson have made a name for themselves as a singing and guitar-playing duo, at least within the football and Christian communities on campus, and make music often, though they have yet to schedule a public performance together.
“We live literally across a courtyard from each other,” Reid said. “So I’ll go over to his room and we’ll jam now and then.”
Both enjoy gospel music, but Wilson added that R&B usually finds its way into their jam sessions. For him, music is just one more way to accomplish his ultimate goal.
“My goal is to glorify God and just to live on a daily basis, and focus on what’s right in front of you and not take anything for granted,” he said. “You gotta see everything as a blessing, an opportunity.”
This outlook has taken Wilson far. After a combined three catches in his first two years at Princeton, he leads the team with 32 so far this season and has done plenty with these opportunities. Going into week nine, he has 608 receiving yards — almost a third of the team’s total — and five touchdowns, both being the most of any receiver on the team. He also leads the Tigers in all-purpose yards, averaging 90.5 per game.
“He’s becoming a go-to guy for us,” Reid said. “We always need a playmaker, and he’s beginning to show that more each game.”
The team has benefited from Wilson’s penchant for trying new things and getting good at them quickly. In addition to his considerable receiving stats, he also has over 100 yards rushing this season. His speed has provided a pleasantly surprising boost to the Tigers’ crucial ground game, and he put points on the board with his 34-yard ramble in week five’s win over Lafayette — all this despite never having run the ball before college.
“I didn’t do it in high school,” he said. “It’s been one of those progressive things. We’ve run some of those wide receiver sweeps over the years, and it’s the first time I’ve really been able to set up as a running back.”
True to form, Wilson was quick to credit the offensive line and each of the team’s running backs for the team’s success on the ground. He also cited the seniors as the inspiration for this year’s surprising turnaround. Princeton’s rise from the cellar of the Ivy League is due, he says, to an “attitude and cultural change” brought to the team by veterans like senior captains Mike Catapano, a defensive end, and Andrew Starks, a linebacker. Having spent time working out and hanging out with them on campus this summer, Wilson listed them both as mentors.
His humility, faith, work ethic and performance this year are making Wilson a team leader in his own right.
“It stands out more just in the way that he interacts with people,” Reid said. “He’s just one of those guys who works really hard, and that stands out more than anything.”