Author Dave Steidel takes a look at the rather sad story of Miami Dolphins quarterback, George Wilson, Jr.
No doubt several readers of Tales have coached at least one of their children in some sport. I have read that over 85% of people who coach youth sports have children on their teams. That percentage drops significantly as athletes grow older and begin their careers as high school, then college players and drops to next to nothing for those who reach the professional level. But in 1966 the Miami Dolphins had the anomaly in George Wilson Jr. who played for his father George who was the head coach for the AFL’s first expansion team. Some would say that would be a dream situation with the perception that being a professional athlete, let alone a pro football player playing for your father, would be the best of all possible worlds. For George Wilson Jr. the reality of his situation was a short lived perception.
Young George grew up in Detroit where his father was the head coach of the Lions, one of the most powerful NFL teams during the fifties. Junior learned his passing skills from Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bobby Layne and how to punt by HOF punter/safety Yale Lary. He took those skills with him to Notre Dame as a freshman, but a dorm violation forced him to transfer to Xavier for his second year. George Jr. spent the next few seasons as a backup quarterback and in fact threw only two passes during his senior year. Still, in 1965 the Lions drafted Wilson in the 20th round although he ended up signing with the AFL Buffalo Bills until George Sr., acquired him in the pre-season for his first year team. Junior was listed as the Dolphins top punter and third string quarterback behind Kentucky All-American Rick Norton, Miami’s top draft pick and veteran Dick Wood.
As was to be expected the expansion Dolphins took their lumps for the first few weeks of the season with Jr. seeing only spot action relieving Wood, who had become interception prone and Norton, who as injury prone. In their third game of the season Wilson got his first AFL quarterbacking chance as he relived Wood with the Dolphins behind 41-3 in Buffalo during the second quarter. In short order Wilson fired his first professional touchdown pass, a four yarder to fellow rookie John Roderick. Wearing #48, he completed nine more passes on the day, including three for touchdowns and found himself as the starter in San Diego the following week. Now wearing a more quarterback worthy #10 he completed 2 of 5 passes before he was injured and relieved in the second quarter.
Without a win after five games the stage was set for Wilson to emerge as a hero as the Broncos brought their 1-4 record to the Orange Bowl on October 16. In his second start he completed 9 of 18 passes, one for a 67 yard TD on a screen pass to Billy Joe, and brought the Dolphins their first franchise victory, 24-7 over Denver. In Houston the next week Wilson struck it rich again, completing all four of his passes, including an 80 yard TD to Bo Roberson while sharing the play calling duties with both Wood and Norton and leading Miami to its second win of the season. The Dolphin players voted Wilson the team’s MVP for the month.
Suddenly, for George Wilson Jr. the perception that he was on top of the world playing professional football for his father while leading the team to victory as its top quarterback could not match his reality. Prior to his second season George Sr. trade his son to Denver where he was cut after three days. George Jr. found some short-term work under center with the Toronto Argonauts in Canada and the minor-league Pottstown Firebirds in Pennsylvania but by 1969 his football career was over. In the years that followed George’s reality found him working several different jobs from South Florida to Michigan and Nashville before retiring in Florida.
Sadly, his story also includes divorcing his wife Maragret, his high school girlfriend and losing contact with his three daughters. Accepting his fate, Wilson was said to never have felt sorry for himself over his life’s path and according to one friend, Wilson saw that fame could be fleeting.
He remarried another former high school classmate but his second marriage seemed to drive his children further away and he did not see them for the next twenty-five years until the day before he died. He had never met any of his seven grandchildren. George Wilson Jr. died on August 6, 2011 of throat cancer at the age of 68.
A Miami hero for a few weeks in 1966, Wilson played only one year in the AFL and his final numbers of 46 completions on 112 passes, a quarterback rating of 42.4 and a punting average of 42 yards on 42 punts seem insignificant when held up against the light of his reality. For those who perceive that pro football is the best of all worlds, the reality of stories like George Wilson Jr. should give cause to reflect upon the gifts that come into our own lives and make the most of all of them. In 1966 I had a George Wilson Jr. football card and was fascinated by his prominence. He was young, good looking and a starting quarterback in the AFL playing for his father. As the twists and turns that lead him on his future paths occurred on his way to his final resting place, I feel sadness for his journey and final outcome.