Salisbury receiver fought illness, depression to return to football
From end zones to hospital beds, the story of Salisbury University wide receiver Octavion Wilson goes far beyond the gridiron.
The former starting receiver at one of the top Division III programs in the country struggled to climb stairs and could not feel his hands when catching the ball.
Two separate medical conditions kept Wilson off the field and threatened to end his football career.
He missed over two years of action while he recovered.
But he refused to give up.
His relationship with his family, friends and God helped him get through his darkest times.
But on Sept. 6, Wilson made his return to the field, this time donning the maroon and gold.
The senior wide-out now heads the receiving corps for the sixth-ranked team in Division III football and will be playing in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
“It’s honestly been like a Cinderella story,” Wilson said. “Not many things happen the way this has happened.”
Joining the Mount
Wilson played high school ball at Milford High School, where he made the varsity team as a freshman running back. But the 6-foot, 212-pound standout would move out wide for college, and the process to choose a collegiate program did not take long.
A visit to Alliance, Ohio was the only one he would make. The opportunity to join the University of Mount Union, who held 11 titles at the time, was something Wilson couldn’t pass up.
While he did not play in his first season, Wilson was named a starter in his sophomore campaign and brought in 167 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
A successful season for the Mount brought on a playoff matchup against St. Lawrence. Wilson would bring in 19 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The Raiders secured the victory over St. Lawrence and would eventually claim the 2015 Division III National Championship.
But the first-round matchup was Wilson’s final game of the season.
He felt off after the contest, primarily suffering from a headache.
However, the situation proved to be much worse.
He was diagnosed was pericarditis, the inflammation of the pericardium, two thin layers of a sac-like tissue that surround the heart, hold it in place and help it work, according to heart.org.
Rather than worry about the X’s and O’s, Wilson had to fight to get back on the field.
“I scored the first touchdown in the playoff game, we were on ESPN… I was 19 years old and I was living the dream at Mount Union,” Wilson said. “Then the next week, I was in the hospital bed and they were pumping morphine in me because I was in so much pain, and it took me to a dark place.”
Despite the condition, Wilson was able to suit up for the 2016 campaign.
But something was still wrong.
Wilson would be diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy after the season, the result of damage to the nerves around the spinal cord and brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
After fighting to get back on the field, Wilson was sidelined once again.
He decided to leave Mount Union to return home to recover. With the different health problems taking place, Wilson said he needed to get away.
“I was so sick, I didn’t really care about the classes or the money,” Wilson said, “I just got in my little blue Chevy Aveo and booked it home.”
Wilson had fallen to a new low. He said the medicine he was taking caused suicidal thoughts, and he tried to take his life. According to the receiver, doctors had said this could be a side effect of the medication.
His mother, Teresa Wilson, felt the pain her son was going through every day and was thankful that he decided to return home.
“It was really hard for me, because he was seven hours away, so it’s not like I can hop in my car and drive all the way to Ohio,” she said.
Getting Back on Track
There were numerous steps on the road to recovery for Wilson.
When Wilson decided to come home, the charges he left behind began to pile up. His room and board, meal plan, past-due tuition and other expenses totaled over $10,000.
Wilson got four jobs back home, working for Uber and Lyft while also holding two pizza delivery jobs.
Jared Ruth, a close friend and former teammate at Mount Union, said Wilson never let the situation get to him.
“He actually kept a pretty positive attitude, better than most would do in his situation,” Ruth said. “He went through a lot of stuff, but he always kept working and training.”
The next hurdle was recovering academically. When Wilson left Mount Union, he failed the classes he was enrolled in and his 3.0 GPA dropped to a 1.2.
Wilson took 24 credits at Delaware Technical Community College in order to rectify his GPA and get back on schedule with his academics.
His mother said no matter how much pain Wilson was in, he was not going to sit back and let the illness win.
“There were times I know he would be hurting, but he was determined to not just sit home and do nothing,” Teresa Wilson said. “He still worked, did what he had to do and tried to come home and rest his body as much as he could.”
But one morning in 2018, something changed.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Wilson said. “I just woke up one day and my body was free from all pain.”
The numbness and pain that Wilson was feeling throughout his body was gone.
He began running, working out and taking all the steps needed to make it back to the football field. He also reached out to collegiate programs, as he had one final year of eligibility and a desire to earn his degree in engineering physics.
But Wilson said Salisbury and head coach Sherman Wood were the ones who stood out.
“I emailed every college, D-I, D-II, D-III, within a two-hour radius of my house and Coach Wood was the only coach to get back with me,” Wilson said. “He said to come for a visit, and I came and told him I don’t care who else hits me up after this, I’m here.”
While Salisbury runs the triple-option offense, Wood said having physical threats out wide is invaluable as it puts opposing defensive backs in a tough situation.
“He can absolutely break a game open if you let him,” Wood said.
But getting on the field in the maroon and gold proved to be much more challenging.
Wilson had to sit out an extra year in order to fully restore his GPA and class standing as a Salisbury University student.
But recruiting coordinator Doug Fleetwood stayed dedicated to Wilson.
“We were excited about having him and if it meant having to wait a little bit of time, then it meant having to wait a little bit of time,” Fleetwood said. “He’s certainly been worth the wait, I promise you that.
“We knew we were getting quality character and a quality person, and he just happens to be a pretty good football player, too.”
Wilson said the way Fleetwood stayed in touch with him and kept an interest played a large role in his transition to Salisbury.
“Coach Fleetwood told me if it takes a year, Salisbury would wait for me,” Wilson said. “I followed the team all last year, he would call me after every game, compared to most schools who stopped calling when they found out I couldn’t play last year.”
Salisbury was also much closer to home for the Delaware native.
Wilson worked every day over the summer to ready himself for the 2019 campaign. He had seen the game he loves taken from him and knew how important this opportunity was.
Opportunity on the Horizon
Now, Wilson is a Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year nominee and leads the third-ranked team in the nation in receiving.
“I knew what could happen if I got here… I have a chance to do something great this season, I think that’s kept me driven,” Wilson said.
As the premier target for the Salisbury offense, Wilson has brought in 22 receptions for 393 yards and three touchdowns, as of Dec. 5.
Wilson has also been a valuable cog in the machine for Salisbury, boasting an undefeated season and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2015.
Despite every obstacle and challenge Wilson faced, his friends and family knew that he would come out on top.
“If anyone was going to come back from all of that, it would be O.T.,” Ruth said. “To see him where he is now, it’s encouraging and motivating.”
Now with a conference championship in hand and a trip to the third round of the NCAA tournament, Wilson’s life is drastically different from where it was just a few years ago.
But regardless of what the future may hold for Octavion Wilson, he has nothing but a positive outlook for the future.
“Right now, honestly, I’m just on cloud nine,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
By NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: File Image.