SEATTLE – Josh Wilson thought covering Larry Fitzgerald 1-on-1 was harrowing.
Now he knows there’s far worse.
The Seattle Seahawks defensive back was in Iraq last month chatting with generals who are leading the U.S. Army’s war effort when a mortar round exploded nearby. Even though the blast was far enough away to only shake the building, even though he was inside the supposedly safe zone U.S. forces have secured in downtown Baghdad, Wilson was spooked.
“I looked up, and I’m ready to run the other way,” the 24-year-old said, chuckling as he recounted the episode from his visit to Iraq and Kuwait.
“I’ve got something to say to my kids, that I was in the line of fire.”
Wilson, New England Patriots running back Sammy Morris and retired Pro Bowl tackle Willie Roaf joined cheerleaders from the Oakland Raiders on a 10-day goodwill tour of the war region called the “Super Sunday Tour.”
“Oh, this is definitely something I will never forget. Something that kind of changed my outlook on life as a U.S. citizen and just as a person,” said Wilson, the son of the late Tim Wilson, Earl Campbell’s blocking back with the Houston Oilers of the late 1970s.
Like many Americans, Josh Wilson opposes the war in Iraq. But most don’t get the chance he did to see firsthand what it is they oppose – while wearing body armor and a bulletproof helmet.
“Going there, I now understand why we are there, and in Afghanistan. We have a reason, but my mind-set doesn’t change. I believe we are there on false pretenses,” said Wilson, who was on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-academic team while at Maryland before the Seahawks made him their top draft choice in 2007.
Sitting with soldiers in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, to watch Pittsburgh and Arizona play in the Super Bowl at 2:30 a.m. local time on Feb. 2, Wilson dispensed tips on how to defend wide receiver Fitzgerald of the NFC West-rival Cardinals.
He also rode in Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters, over the deadly deserts of Iraq. He met scores of U.S. soldiers, some of whom waved to him blue, “12th Man” flags that signify the Seahawks’ rabid fan base. He spent time with Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
In Kuwait, he met a man who sold goods at Camp Arifjan, the new, $200 million base for U.S. troops south of Kuwait City.
The man heard “Seahawks,” and recalled all the gear he sold in Kuwait during Seattle’s run to the 2006 Super Bowl.
“He was all excited about the Seahawks and told me, ‘We used to sell a lot of No. 37 Shaun Alexander jerseys,’ ” Wilson said.
“I let him know No. 37 wasn’t on the team anymore, unfortunately.”
In Iraq, he met combat demolitions experts who diffuse roadside bombs. Wilson asked one how good he was at his job.
“Well, I must be pretty good because I’m still standing here,” the soldier told him.
“I think that’s amazing, that that’s his job,” Wilson said, still sounding awed.
On Feb. 4, Wilson met Iraqi soldiers at the site of what used to be the “Crossed Sabers” monument, a 160-ton bronze depiction of two crossed swords held in Saddam Hussein’s hands in Baghdad. The monument was one of several toppled by Iraqis and by U.S. troops after Hussein was driven from power at the start of the war.
What did the Iraqi soldiers say to Wilson?
“They wanted to take pictures with the Raiderettes. They shoved Willie Roaf, Sammy Morris and me to the side,” he said, laughing.
“Oh, man, I thought it was a great experience to see how the war actually is,” Wilson said. “It’s not killing everybody, every day.
“The guys were kind of winding things down there. There are still random attacks, but they are really just winding down. I met a two-star general who has been there for 13 months. He’s just tired – really tired – and ready to go home.”
The trip, which Wilson learned of through his agent, enriched Wilson far more than another two weeks of off-season running and weight lifting. It enlightened him on the culture, religion and history of another world.