Sunday, January 31, 1999

Hard fall for man who had it all

On Super Bowl Sunday 10 years ago, Stanley Wilson let his fans down, his team down and - most of all - himself down. And he's still paying the price. Now, he may go to jail for life.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stanley Wilson was the lead blocking back for the Bengals in 1988. But a cocaine binge the night before the game knocked him out of the Super Bowl.
        MIAMI — Ten years ago this week, Stanley Wilson ruined his life.

        It was just before 8 the night before Cincinnati was to play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII, when the Bengals fullback walked down a hall in the team's hotel and made a U-turn back to his personal hell.

        “I forgot my playbook,” Wilson told several teammates. “I'll meet you guys downstairs.”

        As the Bengals gathered for their last meeting before the game, head coach Sam Wyche took a head count. Players were responsible for their roommates. Wilson's roommate was wide receiver Eddie Brown.

        “Stanley went back for his playbook,” Brown said. “He'll be right down.”

        “We'll wait,” Wyche said.

        Upstairs in his room, Wilson saw the white powder. The devil takes many forms. One of them looks like white powder in a plastic bag. Wilson was already a two-time loser under the NFL's drug policy. The league suspended him the entire 1987 season. Once more and he would be banned for life.

        Cocaine had once put Wilson in the hospital four times in 11 months. He knew its lure. He also knew it could kill him. “Cocaine is seductive, man,” he said that September. “Mentally, you're not convinced it's hurting you. (But) I don't think about the end of my football career if I use again. I think about dying.”

        He had stayed clean the entire '88 season. He passed three drug tests a week. Wilson scored two touchdowns in a divisional playoff win against Seattle. He was a tough, tough football player.

        “Our resident street bully,” in the words of Cris Collinsworth. “Stanley brought an edge to our offense.”

        Solomon Wilcots, a safety, and his defensive teammates called Wilson “Taz” because his playing style reminded them of the hyper cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil.

        “He had this bravado,” Wilcots said last week. “You know, "You don't hit me.' He would tell rookies, "You aren't going to make the team off me.'”

[Stanley Wilson]
In this 1996 photo, Stanley Wilson was helping coach a team at a small Christian school in south-central LA that included his son, Stanley Jr., at left.
(Los Angeles Times photo)
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        The Bengals waited for Stanley Wilson.

        Ten minutes.


        Wyche left the meeting room. He returned a few minutes later. His eyes were red and brimming wet. “Stanley has had a relapse,” he said.

        Boomer Esiason remembers thinking, “Is this another of Sam's motivational stunts? With Sam, you couldn't be sure. He was always doing that stuff.”

        Not this time. “Sam broke up crying so hard, he had to leave the room,” Esiason recalls.

        “Come back in 10 minutes, when I can compose myself,” Wyche said.

        Stanley Wilson used cocaine that night. He snorted it. He smoked it. He couldn't stop. Some 20 minutes after the meeting was to begin, running backs coach Jim Anderson found Wilson in the bathroom of his room at the Holiday Inn in Plantation, Fla., a few miles north of Pro Player Stadium. The player was sweating and shivering. White powder flecked his nose and upper lip. The devil was back, for good.

        “Oh, Stanley,” Anderson said to his fullback. “Why?”

        Nobody knows that. Wilson once compared a cocaine high to an athletic high. He said the feelings of elation, confidence and well-being were similar. Maybe so. You can talk to 10 addicts — drug users, alcohol abusers, gamblers — and each will say he doesn't know why he does what he does, or what makes it so hard to quit.

        All know one thing, though. The only place it ends up is in trouble. Trouble could be in a crack house or a bankruptcy proceeding or a failed marriage. For Stanley Wilson, trouble currently is in a west Los Angeles courtroom, where on Friday he stood accused of first-degree residential burglary, Case No. SA031810.

        If convicted, Wilson will go to jail for the rest of his life. Wilson had three strikes in the NFL; this is his third in the California legal system. The face of trouble for Wilson looks like an 8-by-10 cell from now until forever.

Super Bowl logo
Watch Cris Collinsworth's interview with Stanley Wilson on the FOX pre-game show around 3:30 p.m.
        It's a sad and terrible gaze, which is ironic, because the face everyone remembers on Stanley Wilson was not that way at all.

        “Stanley is a likeable guy,” Jim Anderson said recently. “He's a good person.”

        Said Wilcots, now a reporter for ESPN, “Stanley had the biggest smile of anyone I ever knew. He also had a big man's laugh. You know how big guys can have a laugh that carries a room? That was Stanley.”

        Wilson was quiet and thoughtful, almost shy. He had trouble talking about his addiction, but once he started, he was candid, smart and realistic. “I can arrest it. I can never control it,” he said in '88. “(Football) is a lot easier than anything else I've done the past few years.”

        After the two-touchdown show in the playoffs against Seattle, Wilson said, “I feel reborn.” Addicts “feel like they're committing a slow suicide. That's how I felt. This is almost like a second life.”

        His third life began that night at the Holiday Inn. Jan. 21, 1988. It has taken him to where he was Friday, a 5-foot, 10-inch man, 225 pounds in his playing days, 270 pounds now, fearful, in front of a jury ruling on the merits of his life. Collinsworth, now an analyst for Fox Sports, interviewed Wilson early this month for a story that will air today on the Super Bowl pregame show. His was the only interview Wilson allowed.

        Collinsworth said Wilson admitted in the piece that the numerous burglaries he committed were to feed his cocaine habit. Wilson has done time in prison and in rehabilitation centers. Late in 1990, Long Beach, Calif., police found him in a crack house and arrested him on burglary charges.

        “He was at the bottom of the pit, in a place filled with trash and needles,” police Sgt. Robert Gillissie said at the time. “It was almost like he was asking for help.”

        “He's desperate to get it figured out and pieced together,” Collinsworth said.

Super Bowl logo
Falcons' Eugene Robinson arrested Saturday night on sex charge.
        You never know what people are looking for when they turn to drugs. Wilson knew what he was looking for the night before the Super Bowl, and all the next day: More drugs.

        The Bengals secreted Wilson out of the Holiday Inn and back to the Omni Hotel downtown, where the team had stayed all week. While team business manager Bill Connelly talked on the phone, Wilson slipped out of the room, down a fire escape and into the night.

        According to Wilson's account in Penthouse magazine, he took a cab down Biscayne Boulevard, bought liquor and found street dealers to supply him with cocaine. He checked into a motel.

        He surfaced on Monday, the day after the 49ers beat the Bengals 20-16 in the Super Bowl. “You have to let my family know I'm alive,” he told lawyer James Kidney's secretary.

        Kidney frequently represents local athletes. Wilson hired him after the player had been charged with indecent exposure, when Newport police arrested him for urinating in the parking lot of Rumors, a now-defunct bar, days before the AFC title game.

        Kidney recalls Wilson a week after the Super Bowl, arriving at Kidney's Newport office in his Jaguar, and sobbing. “I (messed) up,” Wilson told Kidney. “I let my team down. I let my son (Stanley Jr., then 6) down.” Wilson gave Kidney his black game jersey as a token of his gratitude, and left.

        “Stanley had a lot of things given to him,” Kidney said this week. “Athletes think God gave them the ability to get away with everything. Even when he was down, Stanley had things given to him.”

        Everyone tried to help Stanley Wilson. Almost everyone tried to save Stanley from Stanley.

        Boomer Esiason put him up at the Westin early in the '88 season. Until then, Wilson had been sleeping in the Jaguar he bought with money from his first contract. He was broke.

        One night two years earlier, Sam Wyche took Wilson home with him and fed him ice cream all night. Wilson was to be tested for drugs the next day. Wyche was a compassionate coach, beyond the NFL norm. He didn't want Wilson on the street. Wilson failed the test anyway.

        Jim Anderson treated Wilson like a son. After the '87 suspension, Anderson went to L.A. to see what the layoff had done to his fullback. He returned to Cincinnati recommending the team give Wilson another chance.

        Anderson and Wilson were frequent visitors to Wyche's office in 1988. Wilson spent an unusual amount of time sleeping in the players lounge. His moods were erratic.

        Was he OK? Always, the conversation was the same:

        Wyche: “Are you having any problems we should know about?”

        Wilson: “No.”

        After the Newport incident, Wyche suggested Wilson see a psychiatrist; Wilson declined.

        He was having a very good year, riding the wave of the best season in Bengals history. Wilson was a devastating lead blocker. His execution of the play-action fake was textbook.

        Nine years later, the resurgent Esiason would tell rookie running back Corey Dillon to “sell the play-fake like Stanley Wilson did.”

        “I'll never forget,” Esiason said. “It was '86, up in New England. The first time we used it. Twenty-nine Boss, we called it. Bruce Coslet designed the play. Stanley ran like he had the ball. I mean he leaped into the line with everything he had.”

        Eddie Brown ran a post pattern. The safety bit on Wilson's fake. “Eddie was wide open. A play was born. A system was born,” Esiason said.

        The Bengals offense destroyed the league in the first part of '88. The play-action was a big reason why; so were James Brooks and Ickey Woods, following Stanley Wilson into the hole.

        “Second (down) and one,” Solomon Wilcots recalled. “Stanley would throw his body up in the air, and you just knew he had the ball. And he didn't just block. He tried to cave your chest in.

        “He was hell-bent for leather. He didn't do anything halfway. On the football field, that was a good thing. In life, maybe not so good.”

        Wilson could not do just a little coke. He could not drink just a little booze. The first time he drank at Oklahoma — where he started as a freshman, in a backfield that included Billy Sims — Wilson imbibed until he blacked out.

        He wasn't using in '88, but he was drinking. And his moods were erratic. One teammate recalled an incident at the end of training camp. Several players had rented limousines to take them to a Dayton nightclub. The evening ended early when Wilson, rebuffed by a woman he'd asked to dance, started “getting physical,” the player said. Teammates had to escort Wilson from the club.

        Then came the incident at Rumors. Kidney maintains that Wilson tried to use the club's restroom, but was interrupted when “two women came in there and wanted to take a picture with him.”

        The case was dismissed. Wilson's demons were not.

        “My God, what have I done?” Wilson says to Collinsworth in the Fox story. That was Wilson's reaction to going AWOL in Miami, 10 years ago this week. Wilson claims to have gotten the coke from teammates, an allegation he made a decade ago in the Penthouse article.

        Collinsworth doesn't know what the national impact from the story might be. Who outside Cincinnati remembers Wilson? Ten years later, who cares? Collinsworth said he did the story as much for himself as for the network.

        “I really wanted to know what happened. It put the story to rest for me,” he said. “At the end of it, I ended up more upset with the people involved that gave him the drugs.”

        Could the Bengals have beaten the San Francisco 49ers with Stanley Wilson in their backfield? The field was a mess, muddy and chewed up. Wilson ran with short, sure steps.

        The game plan featured the running of Woods and Brooks; that depended some on Wilson's presence. The night before the Super Bowl is not the time to change a game plan to account for the loss of your lead blocker.

        Then again, as Wilcots noted, “Had Stanley not gotten caught, how effective would he have been in the game anyway?”

        No one will ever know. It's no more knowable than why Wilson, a smart kid from the middle-class L.A. suburb of Carson, where he grew up with both parents, decided to embrace a demon he has never been able to shake.

        He hasn't left much of a wake. Collinsworth's producer at Fox spent six months tracking him down; Wilson blew off their first interview.

        His last contact with the media came more than two years ago. Wilson was a volunteer coach at a small Christian school in south-central L.A., where Stanley Jr., then 13, was playing eight-man football. The Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote the story, Bill Plaschke, went intending to do a feature on the program. He had no idea Wilson would be there.

        When you call the Crenshaw Christian Center now, asking to speak to Stanley Wilson Jr., the woman on the other end of the line tells you he isn't there. When you begin to ask her if she knows where Wilson Jr. might be, she hangs up.

        Former teammates, upset once with Wilson for hurting their Super chances and a second time for ratting them out for money in the Penthouse article, haven't kept in touch with him. Collinsworth said the friends Wilson has now aren't aware Wilson ever played football.

        James Kidney still hears from his former client, though. Wilson even sent him a Christmas card this year. “Real religious,” Kidney said.

        “God is on my side,” Wilson wrote. “God is in your spirit.”

        Several years ago, Wilson would call Kidney, who tried to get him work in the Canadian Football League and with the L.A. Raiders. Wilson never asked the lawyer for money, though Kidney suspects Wilson had none. His last NFL checks — from the playoff wins in '88 — were used to pay debts, Kidney said.

        Wilson is married. His wife is seven months' pregnant. She cried throughout the Fox interview. Wilson worked construction until he found trouble again.

        Said Collinsworth, “Stanley is the toughest guy I ever dealt with. If cocaine can own Stanley Wilson, it can own you.”

        Maybe that's the lesson. It's not about a football game lost or a football franchise that has lost its way in the decade since. The minute Stanley Wilson returned to his hotel room and put the powder to his nose, the Cincinnati Bengals began a free fall that continues to this day.

        It's not about that. It's about a man on the verge of having it all, a strong man who was powerless against his demons. Stanley Wilson is on trial now, closer to hell than not, a victim of his own urges.

        After they talked, Cris Collinsworth prayed with Stanley Wilson. Both teared up over their fond memories and Wilson's sad waste of them all. “This is a soul worth saving,” Collinsworth said.

        If only that could be.

- Bengals still stinging over '89 Super loss

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