Lyndell “Mack” Wilson remembers what it felt like not knowing where his next meal would be coming from, or where they would be sleeping that night.
Those memories still haunt the now-former Alabama middle linebacker and served as a key motivating factor for his ultimate decision to leave early for the 2019 NFL draft.
“It played a huge factor, because growing up I saw my mom struggle trying to raise five kids, and it was really hard for us,” Wilson said.
For several months back in 2011, Sandra Wilson and her three youngest boys — Wendell Jr., Lyndell and Lamario — lived out of the InTown Suites beside the Stivers Ford Lincoln dealership in southeast Montgomery after she lost her job and was unable to pay rent.
“We stayed in the hotel for four to six months, and it might have been longer,” Sandra Wilson recalled recently.
During this time, Sandra had few options and four young children to worry about. She managed to place her high school-aged daughter, Jakeisha, with her sister for a few months, but Sandra and her three boys — Lyndell and Lamario were still in middle school at the time — were relegated to a double-bed room at an extended stay hotel unsure what the future held.
“One particular time, money got so low, I couldn’t buy my children anything to eat,” Sandra said.
Thankfully, the generosity of a close friend helped provide groceries, and it wasn’t long before Sandra’s mother learned of their situation and took her and her children in until she could get back on her feet financially.
But it’s those moments of watching his mother’s struggles that weighed heavily on “Mack” Wilson’s mind as he contemplated whether to return to Alabama for his senior season or forgo that in favor of early entrance to the NFL.
As a potential first- or second-round selection in April’s NFL draft, it could substantially alter the lives of his family for generations.
“That’s something I really want to try to achieve,” Wilson said. “I want to get as much money as I can while playing in the National Football League. I want to be able to take care of my mom forever, because she sacrificed a lot when we were young.”
According to Spotrac.com, if Wilson — who’s widely considered one of the top inside linebackers in an otherwise weak draft class at his position — is selected between picks No. 20-32 in the first round, he could receive a rookie contract worth between $10-$12.5 million with a guaranteed signing bonus ranging from $5.3-7.1 million.
For comparison, former Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley earned a $10.9 million deal as the 26th overall pick last year by the Atlanta Falcons, including $9.9 million guaranteed.
Wilson’s slot value obviously drops if he were to fall out of the first round. But even within the first 15 picks of the second round, where the value of his projected rookie contract dips to between $6.2-7.8 million with a signing bonus ranging between $2.5-3.5 million.
Wilson projects as a Day 1-2 tweener
The significant financial drop-off between the first and second round is one of the main reasons Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban generally prefers that any of his players that aren’t first-round locks return to school for another year to hopefully improve their draft stock with a productive senior season.
“If you’re a first-round draft pick, to me, it’s a no-brainer that you go out for the draft,” Saban said last August. “We’ve had 29 guys go out, and we’ve probably had four guys that made not so good decisions. And I don’t think any of those four guys played much longer than a year (in the NFL). So, they should have stayed in college.
“If you have a second- or third-round grade, to me, you have a tough decision to make as to whether you come back and try to move up or graduate, stay in school, and the benefits of all that. To me, every guy’s a little bit different in what their goals and aspirations are. But your security really is created by where do you enter the league?
“The higher you get picked in the draft, the more guaranteed money you have, the better off your security circumstances are because you’re not going to get cut if you have a lot of guaranteed money. So, now they have to develop you. But when you get drafted in the third round, you’re rolling the dice big time.”
While it’s yet to be seen if Wilson is “rolling the dice” or just betting on himself, Saban made it clear to those closest to Wilson that it was his hope he’d stay at Alabama.
And, at least initially, Wilson was of the same opinion, especially immediately following the Crimson Tide’s disappointing 44-16 loss to Clemson in the national championship game.
“It was definitely a back-and-forth thing, but I feel like I was making an emotional decision because after we lost, I wanted to come back,” Wilson said. “I wanted to win (another national championship), I wanted to achieve all these accolades that I set goals for last season. It was really hard, trying to think about what could possibly happen in the future.”
Even Wilson’s own mother believed he’d return for his senior season, telling the Montgomery Advertiser in mid-December: “My baby, you know, he told me that he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready to go to the next level yet because I guess there’s certain goals that he’s set that he’s trying to accomplish.”
“And the way he was posting (on social media) I thought he was going back,” Sandra said recently. “But then he sat down here and said, ‘Momma, I’m going to do what’s best for me.’ And I said, ‘Well, baby, you do what’s best for you because you know Momma has your back. Whatever decision you make I’m with you.’ ”
Saban made late push for Wilson return
Even then, Wilson labored over his decision, especially as Saban ramped up the pressure on Wilson to return while more of his fellow underclassmen made their own decisions to turn pro.
In the weekend leading up to the NFL’s Jan. 14 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft, Saban made multiple attempts to sway Wilson to come back, including reaching out to both Sandra and Wilson’s godfather, Todd Dowell.
“I talked with Coach (Saban), he talked to me, and he explained to me that he felt like ‘Mack’ was really not ready to go to the next level, there’s still a little more that he needed to learn,” Sandra said. “And like I told him, I understood that, but at the end of the day, it’s still Mack’s decision.”
Dowell, a well-known mentor in the Montgomery area who took Wilson in as a ward when he was 13, said he and Saban spoke on the phone Jan. 12, the day before Wilson was set to finalize his decision.
After Saban made his case for Wilson’s return to Alabama, citing his lack of maturity and potential for further growth within the Tide’s highly structured environment, Dowell countered with a question: “You’ve had him three years. What are you going to do in a year that you haven’t done in three?”
Dowell said Saban fell silent.
“He couldn’t answer,” Dowell recalled.
In a last-ditch effort, Saban suggested he’d fly to Montgomery that Sunday for a face-to-face meeting with Wilson and his family.
“I was like, ‘There’s no need, there’s no need for that,’” Dowell said.
A day later, after first mustering the courage to tell Saban of his decision, Wilson announced he was turning pro in a social media post, becoming the record-seventh Alabama underclassman to formerly declare for the 2019 NFL draft.
“Saban called and called, and I was like, ‘’Mack,’ you’ve got to tell him,’” Dowell recalled. “’Mack’ finally said, ‘Coach, I’m going to declare,’ and (Saban) was like, ‘You sure, ‘Mack’?’ He said, ‘Mack, do you have all the facts?’ And ‘Mack’ was like, ‘Yes sir.’ That was the hardest part.”
Wilson makes final preparations for combine
Since making his decision, Wilson has dedicated himself to preparing for the NFL combine, which runs Feb. 26-March 4 from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Wilson has split his time over the last month working out alongside fellow Alabama NFL hopefuls at the team’s athletic complex in Tuscaloosa and individually at Montgomery’s M.A.D.House Training facility off Brewbaker Boulevard, where he gets specialized workouts and a meal plan intended to help further refine his already natural speed and athleticism in an effort to impress scouts and general managers next week.
Those closest to him believe if Wilson performs at the combine like they know he’s capable of — namely running a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard-dash, a vertical jump of 35 inches or more, and an 11-12-foot broad jump — he’ll more than do enough to secure that’s he’s a first-round selection.
“’Mack’ does that in his sleep,” Dowell said. “His competition right now is (LSU’s) Devin White. (Michigan linebacker Devin) Bush pops in here and there, but none of them are as explosive as ‘Mack.’ Devin (White) can probably run as fast as ‘Mack,’ but definitely isn’t going to be able to do drills like ‘Mack.’
“So, at this point, if ‘Mack’ does that (at the combine), Mack’s going to be a first-round pick.”
Of course, not everyone is so sure.
ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. didn’t have Wilson among his top-32 selections in his initial first-round mock draft released this week, projecting Wilson as a second-round selection.
During a teleconference Tuesday, Kiper said he considered Wilson a “solid mid-first rounder” in August but dropped him down his draft board after a less-than-stellar junior campaign.
“I thought ‘Mack’ Wilson, back in August, would be a guy that would be a solid mid-first rounder, and follow in the footsteps of all those other great inside linebackers coming out of Alabama,” Kiper said Tuesday. “But he didn’t have the year expected. I thought he’d go back, he didn’t. He’s in this draft.
“I think he could be a late one, but I’m projecting him more as a two.”
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranks Wilson as the draft’s No. three inside linebacker, praising his natural athleticism and elite ability as a “violent hit-lift-drive tackler” that “competes with an attacking mindset and burst as a blitzer.”
In the same article, Brugler also described Wilson’s “poor habits in pursuit,” and as a player who “tends to attack before reading, leading to false steps” with “minimal production behind the line of scrimmage,” citing his single season as Alabama’s starting middle linebacker among his “weaknesses.”
Brugler called Wilson an “inconsistent version” of Indianapolis Colts second-round pick Darius Leonard, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 163 tackles last season.
He said Wilson remains one to the top linebackers in this year’s class, mostly due to his status as an “impressive size/speed/strength athlete with the versatile skill set to develop into a true three-down NFL player.”
Still, whether Wilson made the right choice to forgo his final season at Alabama and turn pro pays off like he hopes is to be determined.
But Wilson has finally found peace with his choice.
“I had to go with what was best for me and my family, which is why I feel like I made the best decision,” Wilson said.
‘Road to Nashville’
The “Road to Nashville” is a series produced by Gannett newspapers in the South to chronicle the journeys of six football stars on their journeys and preparations for the NFL draft to be held in Nashville on April 25-27 in Nashville.
Each Tuesday and Friday from Feb. 22 through April 23, a story will be released profiling one of six players from the best college football programs in the country.
The reporters featured include the Montgomery Advertiser’s Alex Byington (Alabama) and Josh Vitale (Auburn), the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s Nick Suss (Ole Miss) and Tyler Horka (Mississippi State), The Shreveport Times’ Roy Lang III (LSU) and The Greenville News’ Scott Keepfer (Clemson).