Senior lineman ready to continue career after reluctant start

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On Wednesday, Liberty Hill High School senior Justin Wilson, front row, center, signed his letter of intent to play football at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene. Present for the signing were, back row from left, football coaches David Griffin, Jimmy Duncan, Jerry Vance and Rudy Acevedo; front row, father Michael Wilson, Justin Wilson and mother Melissa Wilson. (Lauren Jette Photo)

On Wednesday, Liberty Hill High School senior Justin Wilson, front row, center, signed his letter of intent to play football at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene. Present for the signing were, back row from left, football coaches David Griffin, Jimmy Duncan, Jerry Vance and Rudy Acevedo; front row, father Michael Wilson, Justin Wilson and mother Melissa Wilson. (Lauren Jette Photo)

By LAUREN JETTE

It might be hard to believe after seeing senior offensive lineman Justin Wilson on the field for the Panthers the last three seasons, but he wasn’t always so keen on football.

Or sports at all, for that matter.

“I started playing when I was in fourth grade. A friend of mine convinced me to play,” Wilson explained.

“I’d never played sports up until then and didn’t even think I liked it. I was into art, actually.”

Wilson ended up bringing his dad along to coach.

“They didn’t have a second football coach, so we thought we weren’t going to have a second team and then I convinced my dad to do it, so he coached me all the way up until junior high. Every year, I felt like I loved it more and more.”

On Wednesday, the athlete signed his letter of intent to play at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene after three successful varsity seasons at Liberty Hill, where Wilson was a part of three perfect district championships.

“I just enjoy the mentality,” he said about playing on the offensive line.

“It’s probably the most tightly-knitted group because there’s five of us and if one person doesn’t work, doesn’t do their job, then the whole unit doesn’t work. That’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed having.”

This past season, Wilson was the only returning starter on the line that anchored the District 14-4A Champion Panthers, who lost in the regional quarterfinal to eventual state champion Waco La Vega.

“My sophomore and junior year, it was the exact same five people on the line. This year, it was a whole new group and I was the only starter that came back,” Wilson said.

“That was different for me, having a whole new group, but I really enjoyed having the group I had this year. I’ve known a bunch of them since I was little. I’ve played with one of the guys on the line, and the other ones I just grew up around. It was real nice to have that year and be as successful as we were.”

Wilson said he started looking at colleges after deciding he wanted to continue playing after high school.

“I guess it started back at the end of my junior year. I sat down with my parents and decided that I wanted to play football, so we started going to football camps and kind of narrowing it down,” he said.

After taking visits and going to games during the season, Wilson said Hardin Simmons just felt like the perfect fit.

“Hardin Simmons just felt like home. Abilene is a college town, it’s a small town, like everyone knows each other,” Wilson said.

“The college felt small enough. I’m not a big college person, I’m not big on the large colleges, I like to know everyone in my class and the class sizes are 15 people.”

Another big factor in Wilson’s decision was that the school has a graduate program in his major.

“The academics are good too. It’s nice because Hardin Simmons has physical therapy as a post-grad, and that’s what I’m going to do, so I’d be able to go all seven years there,” Wilson said. “So that was big for me.”

While Wilson played the guard position for Liberty Hill, he is excited about trying a slightly different position at Hardin Simmons.

“I’m playing h-back. I’m playing the tight end, back kind of thing. It’s kind of a hybrid player,” Wilson explained.

“They get to catch the ball so that’s kind of different for me. I’m eager to see how that goes. It’s going to be a change in the style. That’s exciting.

“Catching the ball is something that I’ve always wanted to do, so that’s exciting,” he added.

Wilson will say goodbye to Liberty Hill’s notorious Slot-T offense and mix things up at the next level, while keeping the familiar purple and gold that the Division III Cowboys also sport.

“They run a smash-mouth offense. They run a mix of the spread and the run. It’s real exciting to watch their offense,” Wilson said.

“It’s really high-tempo and they don’t really like to huddle. It’s kind of a change from our offense. (Hardin Simmons) is real fun to watch.”

The Cowboys compete in the American Southwest Conference and made it to the playoffs before finishing with a 9-2 record under head coach Jesse Burleson.

Since the Panthers’ season ended the last week of November, Wilson is looking forward to returning to the sport he almost didn’t try, and building camaraderie with a new band of brothers.

“I hadn’t realized how much football really means to me until I’ve been out of it. I don’t even really get to be in athletics anymore because I’m a senior and I don’t do football anymore,” Wilson said.

“I’m just ready to get back in the groove with football and meet new brothers and make a new team and hopefully along the road maybe win a national championship. That would be nice.”

Wilson’s presence on the team here in Liberty Hill will be missed, however.

Coach Jerry Vance said Wilson brought leadership and a strong work ethic to the Panthers over the last three seasons.

“Those are intangibles and I know that they are old coaches sayings, leadership and work ethic, but they are things that are very important for a successful team to be successful,” Vance said.

“You’ve got to have those kids that lead by example and are vocal. Leading by example is a big thing I think. That was one of the big things that he brought to the table, and his experience for sure this last year was huge for us.”

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