Army Ranger tough, Harvard smart, Penn State proud. Can Eric Wilson make it in the NFL?
He's the most eclectic 300-pound lineman in the NFL Draft.
Eric Wilson must be the only one who plays three instruments, sang his way through Europe and owns a degree from Harvard.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion is pretty good at blocking defenders, too.
This all should make him one of the best pro football bargains later this month as a late-round draft pick or free agent signee.
"What he brings to the offensive line is the smarts, the ability to quickly understand plays and what's in front of him," said his mother, Kate, a lawyer, pianist, organist and amateur football analyst. "The academics and arts helped him understand he has to have faith and confidence in himself, and they've (developed) his communication skills.
"It's the combination of all of it. I think that's what makes him a unicorn."
Eric Wilson, the former Ivy Leaguer from Minnesota, became Penn State's steadiest offensive lineman last season and appears to be trending upwards for an NFL career. He is an accomplished FBS lineman who missed only one football practice, ever. Never missed a game.
Consider that a nearly-ruptured appendix is that ruined his perfect football attendance, sophomore year at Harvard. "I was about to go out there, it was my last spring ball practice. But (medical personnel) said, 'Yeah, you gotta get this thing out.'
"The point was, to just be on the field as much as possible. If you control that than you can do the best you can."
Learning from military men
A certain toughness and will to perform was instilled in him early on.
His father, Bruce, trained as an Army Ranger and served a seven-month tour in Iraq during Desert Storm. One grandfather was a Navy lifer, the other grew up in a boarding house with iron miners and served in World War II.
"They always instilled a sense of discipline. That I was always doing the right thing, so to speak," Wilson said, before pausing.
"Yeah, my Dad was a tough guy."
Before Army Ranger training, Bruce Wilson played football and earned an engineering degree from West Point. He shifted careers after marrying Kate: Teaching math would allow him to train and coach his sure-to-be athlete son during the summers.
Kate remembers one occasion, when Eric was about 9, when she heard a distinct commotion coming from the basement. She knew.
"Bruce, he’s too young to be lifting weights!"
He looked at her and smiled. “This is not going south under my watch.”
And so Eric Wilson would soon grow into the highest-achieving, schoolboy dynamo.
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His days went like this: a 6 a.m. workout, a full day of classes, football practice, a 40-minute drive to boys' choir rehearsal. He often didn't start his homework until 10 p.m. He became an expert at grabbing quick showers, naps, dinners in his car.
That regimen molded him into the class valedictorian, a Division I football prospect, a record-breaking track and field thrower and an all-conference band performer. He could have pursued a career in music. He plays the saxophone, piano, guitar and sang for years in the Minnesota Boychoir.
He ultimately chose football, but with a catch. He wanted an exclusive education to go with it. So he turned down scholarship offers from hometown Minnesota and Iowa State, didn't even pursue Michigan and Michigan State.
Rather, he signed on to study and play football at Harvard, which has groomed NFL linemen in recent years.
"I definitely heard that was the wrong move from more than a few big coaches," Wilson said.
He could have cared less. At Harvard, he breezed through multi-variable calculus as a freshman before migrating to psychology. His senior thesis was 60-some pages entitled, "Reputational Effects of Observability on Strategic Ignorance." The paper tracked data regarding how people make decisions based on avoiding negative consequences.
From Harvard to Penn State
He earned that Harvard degree and All-Ivy League status on the football field. He was a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, college football's academic Heisman. But he felt he had more to prove after Harvard's 2020 season was canceled because of COVID. Wilson owned another year of college eligibility, so why not prove himself on the highest football level possible?
He transferred to Penn State, picking it over offers from LSU, Auburn and others.
He was the tough guy everyone saw but knew little about, other than his elite academic degree. He played an anonymous position for an offensive line that underachieved, once more.
Still, he was the most reliable of the bunch.
He played in every game and started 11, even when the flu bug ripped through Penn State's ocker room, knocking out what seemed like half the team against Rutgers. He played the entire way that day.
A nasty high ankle sprain against Michigan? He just kept on blocking. "That one was pretty fun to fight through," he said. "Just thinking about how banged up the ankle was ... big ankle brace, all taped up."
His father offered this analysis: "You're not going to be soft in this family."
He laughed when he said that because he knows how toughness comes in different shades. The toughest part of his Army Ranger training? That was the deprivation of sleep and food to hone performance under duress.
So he would come to marvel at how his son handled the rigors of singing for an elite choir: 45-minute drives to rehearsals, high-pressure auditions, standing in perfect form for hours.
"The beauty of (it) was there was another adult telling him how to tuck his shirt in, keep his hair combed, and when he did have solos it was a moving moment," his father said. "I became extremely respectful of the process. He's learned so many human interaction skills from music."
It's all made him a versatile, confident performer on the football field who feels at ease adjusting on the fly. He deftly moved from guard to center during that Rutgers' game. He figures that snapping ability gives him one more prized asset to offer NFL teams.
He performed well during a college senior bowl game in January.
He hit 29 reps on the bench press at Penn State's Pro Day in March, which would have ranked second among linemen at the NFL Combine.
He's hitting the football training stretch run before the draft, which means he's back home in Minnesota.
"I still spend every second of the day doing what I do to play football. (Because) having the opportunity to have fun as a job is a pretty crazy concept. It's what I love doing the most. To do this for a living, it's a no-brainer."
There will be a time to focus on playing his sax "to blow off steam" and re-work the callouses on his guitar-playing fingers and even figure out how he wants to apply that Harvard psychology degree.
Time yet to come for the most eclectic lineman in the NFL Draft.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.