LINCOLN — A dumb freshman. That’s what Mikale Wilbon was three years ago.
“Young and dumb, I’d say,” the running back admits.
That can happen when you’re a football player from Chicago’s inner-city, Wilbon says. Some of the neighborhoods are rife with violence. Plus, the city’s basketball players often get the headlines while football tends to fall by the wayside. You have to learn a lot of the game on your own, Wilbon says. Like he did.
When Wilbon moved to Lincoln in 2014, he couldn’t read defenses. Couldn’t differentiate between different types of linebackers. Was overwhelmed with the jump from a playbook of 50 plays in high school to more than 1,000 at Nebraska.
But over the past three years, one idea drove Wilbon to become one of the three potential running back starters listed on the depth chart for Nebraska’s home opener against Arkansas State on Saturday. He doesn’t talk about it too much, but he thinks about it often. It’s hard not to think about it, he says.
He doesn’t know the exact numbers but he knows they’re not good. In 2016, there were 789 homicides throughout the city of Chicago, according to Chicago Tribune data. Already in 2017, there have been more than 460 homicides.
And the thing that churns within Wilbon most is the idea that maybe he can, if even for a moment, make people forget about those numbers. What if when fans thought about Chicago they thought about it as the hometown of the next great Nebraska running back?
He knows that’s a tall task, but he likes to mull the notion in his head. And on Saturday, and over his final two years at Nebraska, Wilbon will be out to make it reality.
It’s important to know that Wilbon isn’t just from Chicago.
“He’s from the South Side,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said. “And he wants you to know that fact.”
The South Side of Chicago is known for lots of things. It’s where President Barack Obama built most of his political career as a senator in Illinois. It’s where rapper Kanye West is from. Where the Chicago White Sox play. That’s why Wilbon prefers a White Sox hat to a Cubs hat.
But the South Side is also known for its violent crime rate, which in the past few years has been increasing, according to Chicago Tribune data.
Wilbon grew up in the Avalon Park area, the oldest of five. He got into sports early, at the age of 7.
His great-grandfather, Ronald Waters, pushed him to play football. And that’s where Wilbon began to find himself. Where he stayed out of trouble.
“I just felt myself getting way better at football than basketball,” Wilbon said.
Then, at 5-foot-9 in high school, Wilbon stopped growing.
“So then basketball was definitely out of the question.”
For the most part, Wilbon says he was lucky. He had both of his parents in the household, which was a plus for him. He attended an all-boys Catholic school, De La Salle Institute, which is three blocks from Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play.
“So for like my experience, I feel like I had the right people, I feel like I had a good head on my shoulders and it kinda led me in the right direction,” Wilbon said.
But that wasn’t the same for everyone Wilbon knew. He had friends get caught up in the streets. Caught up in the violence. But Wilbon kept his head down, focused on football and ran for 1,600 yards as a sophomore, 863 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior and 1,200 yards as a senior.
With the city in general more focused on high school basketball, Wilbon says he didn’t get as much teaching of the game those years. So most of his development as a football player was by himself, he says. He saw a way out of Chicago through a football scholarship, and spent his time dedicated to chasing that possibility.
When Wilbon made it to Lincoln in the summer of 2014 on a scholarship, he moved into the dorms and soon realized he wasn’t ready.
“I came here, I couldn’t really read defenses. I didn’t even know what the SAM ’backer was or the WILL ’backer,” Wilbon said. “It was kinda tough just coming here and just learning a lot of new things that I wasn’t taught in high school. So pretty much I had to learn a lot of things on my own.”
The shy Wilbon didn’t ask a lot of questions as a freshman. He just watched former Husker Ameer Abdullah.
Abdullah was a senior during Wilbon’s redshirt year. That 2014 season, Abdullah’s name was thrown in the Heisman Trophy race. He carried Nebraska’s offense with 1,611 yards on the ground, 19 touchdowns and 6.1 yards per carry.
Wilbon watched Abdullah’s every move. How he attacked the weight room. How he approached film. He studied Abdullah. And knew he wanted to be like him.
So over the next two years, under coach Mike Riley and Davis, Wilbon began to open up. He started asking questions, being more intentional in his pursuit of learning.
Davis noticed Wilbon becoming persnickety. He was becoming a student of the game.
“It’s the little things that you notice,” Davis said. “The kind of questions he asks in the room, catching other people’s mistakes in the room. ‘Well, Coach, you said this, but it’s actually this,’ correcting me or another player.”
As a runner, Davis sees Wilbon as a “jitterbug.” He sees exceptional short area quickness and acceleration and loves the subtle power Wilbon brings.
All those factors are why Wilbon is considered a starter, despite a packed running backs room and a competitive position battle.
“He’s kind of a quiet young man, but he’s a guy who wants to get better,” Davis said. “He’s a guy who wants to improve himself, not just as a football player, either.”
In the past two seasons, Wilbon has just 24 carries for 124 yards. If he’s named the starter, he could get those numbers in one game alone. And Wilbon knows that, though he doesn’t like to talk much about position battles or stats to the media.
He just wants to win games, he says. Regardless of if he starts Saturday, Wilbon knows one thing: If he gets any time on the field, he wants to show out. He wants people to see him. See him, a Chicago kid, succeeding at the next level.
During the spring game, a BTN camera caught Wilbon smiling on the bench.
“One guy asked me at the spring game, he was like, ‘Why are you smiling so much?’” Wilbon said. “And I was like, ‘Do you see my city? Do you see what’s happening?’ I have to show at least some type of positivity.’”
Starting running back at Nebraska? Or even just a heavy contributor for the Huskers? That would be good for Chicago and the kids back home, Wilbon says. Which is why he’s worked so hard to get where he is now. Why he started to take the game seriously.
So that maybe for a second, he can make you think about his city differently. And maybe along the way, some kid from his city will see him and find some inspiration.
“I’m a Chicago kid,” Wilbon said. “I made it out. I’m just trying to give other kids hope that they can, too.”
Which Husker running back will receive the first carry of the season?
Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant are listed as tri-No. 1s on the depth chart and coach Mike Riley said he won't announce who will start the game before Saturday. Who do you think will receive the first carry?
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
How the cookie crumbles: Nebraska's 2017 football schedule
A week-by-week breakdown of Nebraska's schedule with final predictions for each game. Predictions were made before the season started. Broken cookies are predicted Husker wins, whole cookies are predicted losses. Text by Sam McKewon and Evan Bland. Photos by Kent Sievers. Cookies by Sugar Chic Design.