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James Wilder: born to be an athlete

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 08:42 PM
TAMPA -

James Wilder entered this world with a grimace on his face and his hands balled up in fists.

"I thought he was going to be a boxer because of those hands," said his mother, Barbara. "I knew he would be an athlete."

Of course he would.

The son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers all-time leading rusher James Wilder was surrounded by sports from Day 1. He grew up watching highlight videos of his dad's NFL career.

Everyone in the family, including Wilder's older brother and sister, played sports. Even his mom took home a trophy once, though it's a source of family ribbing.

"They tease me, saying, 'Mom, you only have one trophy,' " Barbara Wilder said. "My trophy is a bowling pin I won. But I tell them I'm the main one behind all of them, pushing them. I tell them they're my trophies - my living trophies."

Wilder, the Plant High two-way starter, has added a lot of hardware to the family trophy collection. Last season, he carved up opponents on both sides of the ball.

From his defensive end/linebacker position, Wilder led Hillsborough County with 19 sacks and was fifth with 136 tackles. As a running back, he rushed for 1,004 yards, including 100-plus-yard efforts in each of the final three games.

In Plant's Class 5A state championship victory against Bradenton Manatee in December, Wilder rushed for 146 yards and one touchdown and collected 11 tackles and two sacks.

"He is absolutely, positively the most destructive force I've ever seen on defense," Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "But I think he's going to be a tremendous running back. If you put him at any spot, he'd probably be the best guy on the field."

That destructive nature developed at an early age.

"All my kids were rough-housers. They loved to hit things," James Wilder Sr. said. "I saw James as a kid who wasn't afraid to put his head in and wasn't afraid to get hit. He's a tough cookie."

And just like his dad, Wilder wanted to run with the ball. He didn't mind absorbing the hard tackles. He loved to run and score.

"I loved it from the start," he said.

'Smallest player on the field'

Wilder's first official introduction to the sport came at age 7 playing flag football for the Ybor City Eagles. His older brother coached the tackle football team, so the next year, he put on the pads.

"I was the smallest player on the field," he said. "My first year, I was short and fat, so I played nose tackle and then after that I played running back."

Wilder lost the baby fat and soon grew taller, developing lean muscle mass. His game developed along with his body.

During his freshman year at Chamberlain High, Wilder discovered football was in his future when Coach Billy Turner told him there was a special guest watching him practice.

"He said, 'Urban Meyer is here to see you,' " Wilder said. "I said, 'Florida coach Urban Meyer?' I was like, 'Whoa, this is really serious.' That was my wake-up call."

After transferring to Plant before his junior year, Wilder's stock continued to rise. Florida was his first offer, followed by South Carolina, followed by virtually every top Division I program in the country.

If they handed out Oscars for highlight-film plays, Wilder would have won three last year. His runs against Armwood and Lakeland, when he dragged defenders for several yards, and against Manatee, when he pushed three defenders down like bowling pins, are the types of plays that make college coaches sit up taller in their chairs.

Because of runs like that, several colleges recruited Wilder as a running back. He chose Florida State two weeks ago because of his opportunities to develop his offensive skills and because the running backs coach has sent several players to the NFL, but also because of Barbara.

"A lot of people wanted to know why I wouldn't go that far for college," Wilder said. "I've got to see my mom on weekends. I'm a big mama's boy."

Keeping him in his place

The baby of the family, the youngest of three, is built like his dad on the outside and like his mom on the inside.

"She's the kind of person if there are 100 bad things, she'll find one bright spot," he said. "I'm like her that way. We're always looking at the good side."

That's not to say she's not tough. Barbara didn't mind knocking her son down a peg or two when the national accolades started rolling in.

"She'd tell me just cause you're No.1 in the nation doesn't mean you can quit cleaning your room," Wilder said. "She makes sure I keep my head on straight. She just looks out for me."

Every home game, Wilder knows to look in the top corner of Dad's Stadium to find his family. That's their spot.

"I can look up there. I know where they are," Wilder said. "They're up there screaming and I hear my mom's whistle. She's loud. She's got the Coach Weiner whistle."

There was plenty to cheer about last season as Plant won the 5A state championship. Wilder wants to give them a lot more to cheer about this season.

"That was my high school dream, to win a state championship," he said. "That was the best feeling ever. But I'm like super hungry now. I'm starving to get another one."

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