Payton Wilson held back tears as he trotted onto the field for the first day of NC State football’s fall practice. What should have been a banner 2021 season for Wilson quickly turned into a season to forget.
After injuring his shoulder making a routine tackle in the second game of the season against Mississippi State — a flat out-route to a running back in the open field — one thought crossed his mind.
Wilson had played through dislocated shoulder injuries before — most notably during NC State’s 2020 victory over Mississippi State — but this injury was different. A third shoulder dislocation meant bigger structural problems. He couldn’t get up off the turf. He couldn’t just shake it off and let it heal.
“As soon as the doctor told me what it was, you know, I kind of hit the fan,” Wilson told The N&O. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Regaining his focus
Wilson is from Hillsborough, North Carolina, yet he didn’t make that 45-minute drive back home very often. After he hurt his shoulder — again — and needed that emotional support, Wilson realized how much he took having his family nearby for granted.
Already suffering from the mental toll of another lost season, doctors determined his latest injury required a Bristow procedure, a specific type of surgery used to treat instability caused by shoulder blade issues.
Wilson flew to Florida, where Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery last September at the Andrews Institute for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Pensacola. But things didn’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped. Wilson suffered some complications, including an infection that left Wilson ill and losing weight for a two-to-three-week period.
The downtime allowed Wilson to recalibrate mentally and physically. He took the time to understand why he was suffering injuries, and how to strengthen the weaker parts of his body.
Last year’s setback allowed Wilson to have a greater appreciation for being on the field and playing with his teammates, particularly after dealing with the pressure of praise he received heading into the 2020 season.
“I think just more so that I was playing the game to get to the next level,” Wilson said, adding that he realized he was going about being the best player he could be, but in the “wrong way.”
“The injury just set me back and got me to love football for what it is again, and not the accolades and the winning, but truly just going out there and playing a kids game,” Wilson said.
Safety Tanner Ingle has been Wilson’s teammate at NC State for four years. He has seen the peaks and valleys of his career, but also Wilson’s perseverance.
“The man is a soldier. He has a warrior mindset,” Ingle said. He attacks every day 100 percent, and I think that’s what allows him to just bring that to the defense; that type of enthusiasm, that type of energy, that type of passion on our defense is obviously going to be infectious.”
What’s next for Wilson
When Wilson took the field this past week for the first time with his teammates, his raw emotions bubbled to the surface. His latest injury, and the time spent in recovery, has allowed Wilson to reset himself mentally going into the 2022 season.
“He’s in a really good place mentally right now,” Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren said. “From the team standpoint, everybody’s pulling for him. He’s one of the best players in the country when he’s healthy, so it’s nice to have him back.”
One place he’s focused his energy is increasing his football intelligence through film study. Wilson started to understand other teams’ tendencies in addition to his own, and he worked on understanding his role on a given play call, and where opponents’ weak spots are.
But he’s not planning on letting that more cerebral approach dampen his high-energy pace for which he’s been known on the field.
“It’s always good to have a guy like him back out there on our field, especially with his type of energy,” Ingle said. “Payton brings a different type of fire to our defense.”
Wilson said he is elated to have the opportunity to play with his teammates again. With 17 returning starters — 10 on defense — NC State has high hopes for a program that hasn’t won an ACC championship since 1979.
Wilson’s return — and his continued health — will be a big piece of that puzzle.
“I don’t really look forward,” Wilson said. “I’ve learned that due to injuries. They happen when they happen, and you can’t control them. If you just take it one day at a time and try to do what you’re doing that day the best you can. That’s all you can do.”