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Wilson's love for the game never faltered

Driven, talented, productive and instinctive.

Those are just a few of the words used to describe linebacker Payton Wilson.

But those attributes don't even begin to tell the story of Wilson, a third-round draft pick of the Steelers out of North Carolina State.

No matter where he's been at and who he's played against, Wilson has always been the best player on the field – or at least in that conversation.

And yet, Wilson was forced to wait until the 98th pick in this year's NFL Draft to hear his name called.

A unanimous All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Bednarik Award winner as the nation's best defender and Butkus winner as college football's best linebacker, Wilson was coming off a season in which he had 138 tackles, including 17 for a loss, six sacks, nine pass defenses and three interceptions. He then tore up the NFL Scouting Combine, running a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, the fastest time of any linebacker who ran in Indianapolis. Then, at his pro day, Wilson ran a 4.20-second short shuttle – the fastest for a linebacker at the Combine was 4.23 seconds – and a 6.85-second three-cone drill that would have been just outside the top-10 at the Combine regardless of position.

And he did it all at 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds.

"He's one of the most elite competitive spirits I've ever coached," North Carolina State head coach Dave Dorean said of Wilson. "He's a warrior."

So, why was Wilson the sixth linebacker selected in this year's draft?

Rumors in the weeks leading up to the draft claimed that Wilson was missing an ACL in his knee, something the linebacker feels just isn't correct.

"I really don't have a clue," Wilson said about where that rumor came from. "When I went to the Combine, that was the first time I heard of it. I haven't had problems with my knees since 2018. I've been playing a long time on what they call the bum knee. I've been playing like this for so long, like it doesn't bother me. My knees don't bother me. I'm not going to have problems."

The problem might be coming for all the teams that passed on Wilson – at least the ones on the Steelers' schedule.

To understand Wilson, you have to go back to where he started in Hillsborough, N.C., at Orange High School.

Wilson's father, Chad, had been a standout football player at Orange High School, while his mother, Tracey, also was a star athlete. In addition, his older brother Bryse, had been a star athlete at Orange, as well, in both football and baseball before being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Bryse Wilson is currently a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.

So, then-Orange head football coach Van Smith knew all about Wilson before the gangly freshman set foot on the high school campus.

"Bryse was an All-State football player. He did everything. He was quarterback, receiver, running back, linebacker, punter. Our kicker got hurt on an extra point one time, and Bryse had to kick off. He kicked the ball into the end zone," said Smith, who retired in 2022. "It's just the gene pool that the Wilson boys have for their mom and dad. We had high expectations coming up, just knowing his brother and his parents like we did.

"But our middle school coach told us, 'He'll be your favorite player, the one you love the most. But he's also going to get on your nerves if he's not on the field. He has to be on the field. And if he's not on the field, he got to tug on your shoulder during the game,, 'Coach, I can run that better. Coach, I can catch that. Coach, I can do that better.' And that panned out to be true. He was one of our favorite players to coach, but when he was a young little puppy, 14-year-old freshman, goodness he could be on your nerves to be on the field. He thought he could do everything better. And he pretty much could."

It didn't happen right away. As a freshman, Wilson played on the junior varsity team – doing a little bit of everything.

As a sophomore, with big brother Bryse leading the team in tackles, rushing and total yards in his senior season, Payton could ease into things defensively. He recorded 36 tackles, including 10 for a loss, in just five varsity games, giving a glimpse of things to come.

Wilson rushed for just over 750 yards and caught 13 passes for just over 300 yards, while also recording 127 tackles, including a ridiculous 39 for a loss.

"A lot of kids that grow really tall, really fast are awkward, like a newborn giraffe," said Smith. "But he never really had that. He was a man among boys on the field and in middle school and as a freshman player on the JV level. He ran punts back for touchdowns and kickoff back and played linebacker, running back and things like that. We put him at receiver as a sophomore. He was a matchup nightmare at wide receiver as you can imagine. He was tougher and stronger. And he could jump out of the gym and catch everything.

"It was fun to watch. I think his first game as a junior he had over 200 yards in punt returns before they finally started kicking the ball out of bounds. He was just special."

The college offers came rolling in.

And they increased during his senior season, when he played some quarterback, running back, wide receiver and linebacker, pacing the Panthers with nearly 100 yards from scrimmage per game while also wracking up an average of 13 tackles per game – at least until tearing his ACL eight games into the season.

Choosing to stay close to home at North Carolina State after initially committing to North Carolina, Wilson enrolled in college early. But he reinjured his knee was rehabbing and was redshirted his freshman season.

It was during that time that Wilson had his knee surgeries.

"I had a graft on my ACL that just it looks a little different, but I definitely have something in there," Wilson said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be able to run around and cut the way that I do or move the way that I do. So I think a lot of it is kind of just hearsay. But at the end of the day, I've been playing for five or six years on it just perfectly fine."

After his redshirt season, it was injuries to both shoulders that sidelined him at times. But those times away from the game helped him in so many ways.

"I've definitely had some injuries but I just come back stronger and better and faster every single time," Wilson said. "My love for the game has grown so much because it's been taken away from me, and I literally do anything in the world to be on that field. I love this game so much."

In 47 career college games, Wilson made 402 tackles, including 48 for a loss. He added 15 sacks and seven interceptions.

Wilson's style of playing with reckless abandon shows that game in and game out. He plays like every play is his to make.

Smith's been watching it for a long time.

"In high school, he was just so much bigger, faster for everybody else, but I could see watching him at the college level he's getting faster and faster," Smith said. "That's just a credit to the strength conditioning guys and the coaches he had (at N.C. State). But he did seem to get more explosive and overall speed. I think I saw the play when he ran the (wide receiver) down from Notre Dame and they clocked him at 22 miles an hour or something crazy. That's just the way he played.

"In high school, teams would try to run away from him. I remember one team was running an option to the opposite side of the field. He outran his other linebackers, ran past all of them, got to the quarterback and when he pitched it, he tackled the pitch man and the running back by the time the ball hit his hands. I've never seen a linebacker from the opposite side of the field play an option like that. That's just the way he plays."

His style of play caught the eyes of the Steelers, who struggled through a bevy of linebacker injuries in 2023.

They signed All-Pro Patrick Queen away from the Ravens in free agency in the offseason to help bolster the position along with returnees Elandon Roberts, Cole Holcomb and Mark Robinson, but Wilson was just too good to pass up.

"He was a guy we had high on our board," said Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "I liked him as a football player. He's very productive, fast, and really has good football instincts. All the things you kind of want in a football player. To see him where he was and have an opportunity to get him, we thought that was a good thing and we like where we are at with that."

Some players are fast when running a 40, but don't play as fast as they tested. Wilson doesn't have that issue.

"He can really go," Austin said. "He is a quick-trigger guy, which I think you like as a linebacker. He sees and diagnoses things fairly quickly. And allows us his speed to really show up in games."

Smith agrees.

And he's seen that continued growth from Wilson throughout his career.

"He doesn't have a lot of wasted motion," Smith said. "He reads the play really fast. So he reacts and he's moving in the right direction a half a step before everybody else. So in addition to his just flat speed that he's gained. It's just been so fun to watch him grow."

As such, Smith was just as shocked as most pundits were that Wilson lasted until nearly the end of the third round in the draft.

He had the production on the field. He tested well off it. He did everything he needed to do.

"I was with my family watching. I don't know if I've ever watched an NFL draft, more than the top 12 or so picks, but I was intently watching this," Smith said. "I was just chomping at the bit. They were taking a linebacker from this school and that school. And I was like what are they thinking, 'What is going on?' I was watching the broadcast that had (former Alabama head coach) Nick Saban on the broadcast, and he kept saying Payton was one of his favorite 11 defenders in the draft, and he's only one of the 11 that has not been taken."

And then the Steelers' second pick in the third round came along.

Smith feels Wilson landed in the perfect spot, regardless of how it happened.

"I'm so happy he went to a place that traditionally has a premium on defense," Smith said. "He'll fit right in there and do great things. I'm hoping and praying for him."

Despite the disappointment of not being selected earlier, Wilson feels the same way.

The Steelers value their linebackers as playmakers. And Wilson is a playmaker.

"I'm a super-confident person, and I believe in my talent," Wilson said. "So I'm just going to continue to work and get better and help this team win a Super Bowl. Every team's goal is to win a Super Bowl, and I want to contribute to that anywhere possible."