George Wilson still remembers the days when he was practically attached to Jim Leonhard's hip for the better part of three months. In the offseason prior to the Bills 2007 campaign wherever Leonhard went so too did Wilson. In the defensive meeting room, Wilson was seated right next to Leonhard. During positional drills he was lined up behind Leonhard. And in the film room he was asking Leonhard every question he had while taking copious notes in the process. That's because four years ago Wilson was learning how to play safety.
"It started in April and it went all the way through training camp," said Wilson, who made the risky decision to learn a position he had never played before in an effort to finally make an NFL roster. "What Jim helped me to do was look at the playbook in its simplest form as far as what's my responsibility? How do I get lined up? What's my adjustment based on what the offense does? And then making sure everybody in the secondary is on the same page. That's what Jim helped me to do. He helped me to simplify all of the diagrams and all of the terminology to learn it in a way where I could spoon feed it to other guys when they had questions."
"He's a true competitor and he went in there every day and he worked," said Leonhard, now with the Jets. "He hadn't played safety or defense since high school, so he was in there every day trying to learn, putting in the time, putting in the effort. So he was going to find a way to have success, or at least give himself a chance. He knows how to play this game, and he plays it the right way, so I've got a lot of respect for George."
After toiling for three years to make an opening-day roster as a receiver, Wilson finally made Buffalo's squad as a safety and made nine starts in 2007. The first start of his career could not have been more storybook as he returned his first career interception for a touchdown on Monday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys.
Wilson would go on to start the final eight games that season. Though it appeared as though his pro career finally had legs his personal success paralleled that of the team for which he played. Come 2008 Wilson was reduced to a reserve role serving mainly on special teams. Meanwhile Leonhard was not re-signed and moved on to Baltimore.
For Wilson, Leonhard's willingness to tutor him, a direct competitor for a job, was not lost on him.
"That just shows his character," said Wilson. "And what Jim did for me I've done for somebody else. You've got to pay it forward. You teach other guys that it's about competition and everybody wants to win and everybody wants to play, but you have to wait for your opportunity."
"I'm one of those guys who wants to help out," said Leonhard. "I knew George could help our football team if he made it. And he was there every day. He would sit me down all the time. If he had a question, he would ask, he was not shy about it at all. Those are the type of guys you want to play with, those are the type of guys you want to work with. He did everything the way that he should have."
Come 2009 Wilson was still waiting as again he was a backup. Injuries at safety however, allowed him to post a career-high four interceptions. And when he stepped into the starting lineup he played so well he did not relinquish the spot even when Donte Whitner was again healthy.
Being tendered at the second-round level the following offseason and under a new coaching staff, 2010 appeared to have promise with respect to a starting assignment. Unfortunately Wilson, despite quality production the year before, was relegated to a subpackage role as he again took a back seat to the former first-round pick.
It wasn't until Whitner departed in free agency in 2011 that Wilson was able to put his fully adapted defensive game on display.
"Patience is a virtue," said Wilson. "If you always stay focused and if you always prepare like you're the starter then when that opportunity comes you can take full advantage of it. There's a great saying that I live by. I stay ready so I don't have to get ready."
And ready Wilson has been after finally earning the full time starting role at strong safety. Through the first five weeks of the 2011 campaign Wilson very quietly leads the team in tackles, pass breakups and interceptions. In fact Wilson enters Sunday's game with a three-game interception streak.
"The thing about George is he works at his trade," said head coach Chan Gailey. "He tries to get better every time he walks into a film room or onto the field. He is a product of hard work and determination and being a smart football player. Just expecting more from yourself doesn't get it. You've got to go through the other steps to get where you have to be."
What's ironic is Wilson's production in fewer than half the starts of his predecessor has already outperformed him in several big play categories. In 31 career starts Wilson has almost double the interceptions (11) that Whitner has (6) in his 70 career starts.
In fact Wilson has even outperformed his tutor, Leonhard, now with the Jets, who has six interceptions in his 52 career starts. Both of them are NFLPA player representatives for their respective clubs so they do cross paths, and they make sure to catch up after the Bills and Jets square off twice a year.
Wilson still has his first safety notebook from that 2007 offseason when he shadowed Leonhard. The pages still frayed and ruffled from being thumbed through so many times over. Being passed over only encouraged Wilson to review what he was learning all the more.
Though 2011 is his first season as a full-time starter, Wilson has played enough to learn a lot more about his position than what he absorbed those first few months with Leonhard on paper.
"You've got to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way whether it's a tipped ball or a poorly thrown ball by the quarterback," he said. "You've got to be able to carry the meeting room to the practice field and the practice field to the game field. The great ones are able to do that."
Wilson made it clear that he does not believe that he has in any way arrived as a safety, so greatness is only something he's striving for as he sees it. For now he's committed to helping maintain Buffalo's top ranking in the league when it comes to takeaways, while leading a secondary down a path of success with an unrelenting work ethic.
For Wilson it's all a part of his responsibility as an NFL starter.
"I'm just out there having fun," he said. "I've prepared my whole life for this opportunity."