Payton Wilson is clearly right at home at Orange High School. One day after school in early December, he gives a quick tour of the building. He shows off the newest addition to the atrium connected to the gymnasium, which he is quick to point out has a new floor.
The tour continues down to the football field, where Wilson was an outside linebacker, part-time running back, quarterback and wide receiver before tearing his ACL in October.
As Wilson and his father, Chad, make their way to the field, Payton offers to help a photographer with his equipment. He is the subject of the photo shoot, but he couldn’t just stand by and not offer to help. Wearing a black Nike windbreaker and black shorts on a windy 50-degree day, the 6-4, 225-pound Orange High football star isn’t bothered by the cold. He jokes that the wind should help heal his surgically repaired right knee.
Nothing seems to bother Wilson, which he proved recently by making one of the hardest decisions of his athletic life, then letting the pressures of his choice roll off his back. Wilson, 17, a senior and a four-star prospect who finished his junior season at Orange with 127 tackles and 13 sacks, recently went through the most hectic months of his young life.
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On May 1, inside the same Orange High School gym, Wilson had verbally committed to North Carolina, choosing the Tar Heels over Ohio State and Clemson. By November, he would not only reopen his commitment but would choose rival N.C. State for his football future. As thousands of high school athletes signed their National Letter of Intent with schools on Wednesday, Wilson’s journey from the Tar Heels to the Wolfpack illustrates the difficult and consequential decisions faced by young athletes in the pressurized atmosphere of college recruiting.
Last May, when he committed to North Carolina, just 12 miles from his hometown of Hillsborough, most figured it was a lock that the local kid would join the Tar Heels, giving UNC head coach Larry Fedora a player from his own backyard who could step on the field and contribute right away. When he committed to North Carolina it felt like the right choice.
Then Dave Doeren showed up.
Payton Wilson’s recruitment did not end when he chose UNC. In some ways it had just begun.
Shortly after Wilson committed to UNC, Doeren, N.C. State’s head coach, called Chad Wilson to say his staff wasn’t giving up on Payton.
In early October, Doeren and his defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable showed up at one of Wilson’s games, standing on the sidelines with UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis between them.
That’s when N.C. State fans started to wonder if Wilson could be flipped from the Tar Heels to the Wolfpack.
Wilson remained committed to UNC, though, his father said in late October. But there also seemed to be a hint of uncertainty in that commitment. Chad Wilson said Payton was not reconsidering his UNC decision, but would take official visits to N.C. State and Notre Dame.
On Nov. 4, Payton attended the Wolfpack’s game against Clemson. The environment at Carter-Finley Stadium immediately caught his attention.
“Before the game they take us on a golf cart through the tailgating (area) and the fans knew who I was and that meant a lot,” Wilson said. “That meant I didn’t just mean a bunch to the coaches, but also N.C. State in general. Then 30 or 40 minutes before the game they are already packing the stadium, people are there. Their atmosphere was second to none.”
Wilson had surgery to repair his ACL the following week and then visited Notre Dame on Nov. 18.
The visits to those other schools were enough for him to see that maybe he’d decided on UNC too soon.
“I felt like I did fit in (at UNC) at the time,” Wilson said. “I felt like I had an early chance to play and could make an impact, but, I don’t know, it just changed over time,” he said.
On Nov. 22, five months after committing to UNC, Wilson announced on Twitter that he had decommitted from the Tar Heels.
Three days after that, on Nov. 25, Wilson went to another game at Carter-Finley, this one against UNC. He said at the time that he was just there to “have a good time.”
But that visit fired up both Tar Heels and Wolfpack fans, with many now convinced Payton would commit to N.C. State.
And the next week, in an announcement on Twitter, he did.
Not the only one
Payton Wilson has 3,182 followers on Twitter. Thousands of others have access to his page. After he decommitted from UNC, not all were well wishers.
When Wilson announced his decision on Twitter to decommit from UNC, the majority of the 218 comments on his post were kind, even from Tar Heels fans who seemed to understand that he needed to do what was best for him. Several of those who reached out were fans of schools like N.C. State, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech who encouraged Wilson to join those teams.
But some weren’t so nice.
One Tar Heels fan used curse words to describe Wilson. Another Twitter user called him “disloyal,” and others tweeted that he needed to learn what it means to commit, even suggesting he never marry.
Wilson mostly ignored the noise.
“I’m used to it. I’ve always had people bashing me and stuff,” Wilson said. “Twitter was blowing up so I couldn’t be on my phone because I was getting so many notifications … it was hard not to fire back at some of the people.”
A.J. Davis can relate to what Wilson was going through. Davis, who played football at Northern High School, was rated by Tom Lemming’s Prep Football Report as the top cornerback in the nation in the class of 2002. One week before National Signing Day, Davis committed to then-North Carolina head coach John Bunting.
But the night before signing day, Davis got a call from then-N.C. State coach Chuck Amato. Amato starting singing Dean Martin’s “Return to Me.”
The next day, Davis, who still lives in Durham, faxed his Letter of Intent to N.C. State.
“I was on the bubble when I committed,” Davis, 34, said. “It was still up in the air. There wasn’t much more one could offer. I just went with my gut, I just felt like they believed in me and the rest is history.”
Davis’ flip was before the era of social media, but he said even back then the “message boards were on fire.”
Drawn to Raleigh
Doeren and his staff made their final home visit to Wilson and his family on Nov. 30, just hours after the coach announced he had turned down a $4 million offer at Tennessee to stay with the Wolfpack.
The next day, on Dec. 1, Doeren signed a new, five-year contract worth $3 million a season. Wilson was sold on the Wolfpack and announced his decision once he knew Doeren was returning.
“Coach Doeren turned down a lot of money to stay at N.C. State so I know he’s not going anywhere, and he can see that he has something special in Raleigh,” Wilson said.
“I mean, if he goes a lot of those coaches go. That’s basically him saying that they are going to build something great. That was basically the final point.”
Wilson said there were also other factors that led him to N.C. State.
He likes to fish, and said there are plenty of fishing spots in or around Raleigh. He wants to work in special education and got to meet others who work in that field while in Raleigh, already “starting the networking process.”
Being ‘a kid again’
Since making his announcement on Dec. 1, things have slowed down for Wilson. Not many schools are calling because they know he plans on graduating early and enrolling at N.C. State in January. He says he is finally relaxed and can “be a kid again.”
The last few years, especially the last couple of months, have been hectic and stressful, but he realizes not everyone gets to be in his position.
“It had its ups and downs,” Wilson said. “It’s a blessing to have the best schools in the nation hit you up all the time, but it’s stressful because you’re spending a lot of time on the phone responding to text and Twitter. Sometimes you just feel like you can’t live high school like you want to live it.”
Davis, who now works in law enforcement and has three sons of his own, said if he ever met Wilson he would tell him to “live with your decision and enjoy it.”
“It’s going to be over before you know it,” Davis said.
His high school days almost behind him, Wilson will come back to Orange High School to graduate with his class in the spring. Prom is still up in the air, but he is looking forward to settling in on the next phase of his life.
On Wednesday, he signed his National Letter of Intent with N.C. State in the gym of Orange High School.
He’s ready to start rehab on his knee. His doctors have told him his recovery is ahead of schedule, he said. At the time of the season-ending injury, Wilson had 103 tackles and 10 sacks on defense and 754 yards of total offense as a part-time running back, quarterback and wide receiver.
Asked what he’s looking forward to the most, Wilson said working with Wolfpack strength and conditioning coach Dantonio “Thunder” Burnette and developing his body.
Chad Wilson said Payton won’t fully participate in spring drills as his knee heels, but he will be ready to practice once camp rolls around in August. Payton knows once he enrolls in college he’ll be able to blend in, for the most part, like a regular college kid.
On the football field, he’ll start from scratch, just a freshman trying to find his place.
“I’m ready to meet new friends and new people,” Wilson said. “Once you get into college the stars and the rankings don’t matter anymore. You start as a regular freshman. I’m just ready to prove myself.”