Tuesday, September 21, 2010

There's Only One Johnny Wilson!

Off the field, he is mild mannered and has a smile that is contagious.  He always had time for anyone that came to wish him well or ask for an autograph. 

On the field he was a tough defender.  Tenacious, one that could get up the field, cause problems and fast enough to get back if needed.  Steadfast, calm and able to lead from the back.

photo by Kim Gregory
For many fans, number 25, John Wilson WAS the Charleston Battery.  He played 186 games for the Battery, a number only Paul Conway and Dusty Hudock beat and logged more than 16,200 minutes on the pitch.  His athleticism, never say die attitude and dedication to the club, quickly made him a fan favorite.

After a career that saw him in a Charleston Battery uniform for seven seasons, Wilson announced his retirement after the 2010 Championship match.

"It's been a great run, not only this season, but for my career," Wilson said in an interview with the Post and Courier. "To end my career like this is a dream come true. For my last game to be played here at Blackbaud Stadium, where my career began, in front of my hometown fans and to win a championship in my last game is awesome. Every player wants to go out like this."

Wilson’s road as a professional soccer player almost didn’t happen.  It was a communication error, and a good friend, that laid the course.

“I was 9 years old and had met Andy Mace at school. He had just moved to Seneca, South Carolina from Louisiana,” Wilson told No Quarter. “We became good friends and I would go to his house after school and play.”

“Andy had already been playing soccer before he arrived in South Carolina.  One day I went to Andy's house after school on the bus.  His mom or my mom forgot to tell me that he had soccer practice and that I was actually supposed to take the bus to my house. So Andy's mom asked if I would like to come along and I yes.”

“I went to his practice and was standing on the sideline until an Englishman named Tony Stevens asked me if I would like to join in the practice” Fortunately for Battery fans, he said yes.  “I will never forget it; I was wearing a white t-shirt, black jogging pants, and a pair of leather black and white Larry Bird Converse shoes. I just ran around chasing the ball. After the practice coach Stevens asked if I would like to join the team and I said sure.”
Little did he know at that time that one day he would be playing soccer at the highest levels in this country and competing with and against players that had played in some of the top soccer leagues in the world.  But even in high school, Wilson’s path almost took another direction.
“I had always been a fan of American football and wanted to be like Walter Payton some day. A lot of my friends played and I always wanted to play not only because I loved the sport, but because it gave me a chance to hang with my friends. I wanted to be a running back until my brother hurt his knee playing football as a running back.”  Wilson’s coaches thought he had a future playing in college and he became a kicker on his team.  “Just being around the guys and the atmosphere made me happy. I think I got some of physical play and defending from American football.”

As turned out, Wilson wasn’t too bad at kicking footballs. “My first letter was from Notre Dame,” said Wilson. “Soccer was what I wanted to do though. I continued to kick through high school while also concentrating on soccer.”
John went on to play college soccer at Clemson University as a forward and helped the team reach the NCAA Final Eight in 1998.  He was drafted MLS side, Kansas City Wizards in 1999 but decided to play his rookie season with the Charleston Battery that year. 
photo by Mikey Buytas
Andrew Bell, Charleston Battery President, remembers Wilson’s early years with the Battery.
“I think I’ve been there for every single game that John has played in a Charleston Battery uniform including his first game back in 1999,” said Bell.  “When he was in college he was a forward but our coach at the time Alan Dicks saw his potential as a defender and converted him to play at left-back.  I think he went straight into the first team and never looked back!”

Long time Battery fan Jim Gregory remembers Johnny as well. 

"When the 1999 Charleston Battery season opened in the brand new shiny Blackbaud stadium, most of us had never heard of Johnny Wilson, even though he was born in South Carolina and had a successful career at Clemson,"  said Gregory.  "He was incredibly fast for a defender and we always enjoyed his blazing runs down the wing."   

"Unlike most pro soccer players, what many of us will remember years from now will be the man, not the athlete,"  Gregory continued. "Not because his athletic talent can’t stand the test of time.  But  because he was a true sportsman on the field.  And there has never been a player with a bigger, more infectious smile.  He was the consummate gentleman to all fans young and old.  He always had time to talk to people before or after a match, even if the result didn’t go his way.  He never made excuses for himself or the team.   History has shown that it’s unusual for a Battery player to leave the team and move on but return later.  Johnny didn’t do it once, he did it twice.  And each time, the Battery would win a championship thus disproving the old adage that 'Nice guys finish last'.  Whatever the future holds for Johnny, I have no doubt he will be successful and earn many new friends along the way."
After the Battery’s season in 1999, he went back to Kansas City on loan in 2000 and on to win the MLS Cup.  Wilson returned to the Battery in 2001 through 2003 seasons, winning the A-League Championship.  Following a season with Rochester Rhinos, Wilson then played two years with D.C. United before returning to Charleston for his final three seasons as a professional.  Those last three years with the Battery he was a leader both on and off the field and key to the Battery’s success.
“His experience helped set the tone and motivated the younger guys,” said Battery captain Stephen Armstrong.  “He leads by example, preparing for the upcoming match all week long in training and that carries into the locker room.  He is the strong but silent type.”

“He’s been a tremendous asset to the club on and off the field,” added Bell.  “Not least of which because of his background and that fact that he is a true local product.  I’ve said on many occasions that he is one of the best soccer players that South Carolina has produced, possibly the best, and we’ve been fortunate to have him here for a very successful and long pro career.”
After a successful career, would Wilson have changed anything?
“There are many times you look back and you wish you would have done something differently, but for the most part I am happy with what I have accomplished and everyone who has been a part of it,” said Wilson.  “My dad always reminds me to look at where I came from and where I started; but to really look at where I am now and still going.” 
And who were Johnny’s biggest influences?
“I would have to say my biggest influence was my parents. They saw what the sport could do to change my life. I didn't know it at the time but they were laying down a foundation that would stick with me for life.  They played a major role in allowing me to pursue a sport that they knew nothing about while also trusting in some great people to guide me along the way.”
“I also had many great coaches from Tony Stevens, Bruce Talbot, Pierce Tormey, Bob Gansler, Peter Nowak and Trevo Adair to name a few.  On that first day, I think Coach Stevens saw something in me. I was very blessed to have a first coach that taught me so many things that have stuck with me today. I was blessed to have a family like the Mace's to not only introduce me to the game, but to also help me succeed in the game.”
“My parents did not get to see me play as much as they would have liked. They also didn't know much about the game. It was a blessing in disguise, “he explained “because I had no pressure and I was able to tune into the coach and the game better. It allowed me to grow as player and person.”

“When they did get to see me play it was the best feeling. When they attend games they just cheered for me and at the end of the game they would say did you have fun, good game, or always something positive.”
Now that he has retired from the professional game he is still involved with sports.  “Right now I am working with NCSA Sports. My goal is to reach out to all student athletes from all walks of life and motivate, educate, and empower them through sports, while also giving them examples from my career.”

“Through sports I have learned so much. Through sports I was also able to become the first person from my family to go to college.  Soccer changed my life.”
So as the Battery faithful come through the gate of Blackbaud stadium for the 2011 season, they do so knowing that Johnny won't be on the pitch.
Or will he?
"I saw John at the Charleston Riverdog's game a couple of weeks ago and he said never say never...so who knows, maybe he'll pull a Brett Favre and come back for one more year!"  joked Bell.  "If not, I know he will be very successful in whatever career path he chooses, and the Charleston Batter certainly wishes him the very best of luck!"
Johnny added some final words.  " I would like to thank everyone who has supported me in my career.  Every person out there was a part of making a boy of Seneca, South Carolina dreams come true."
For the Battery faithful, there is, and always will, One Johnny Wilson.
You can follow John Wilson or contact him for more information about NCSA at:

No comments: