Highland High School 2020 graduate Darius Wilson was a three-sport athlete in his four years with the Bulldogs.
He played football, basketball and competed in track and field, and he excelled at all three. That’s why he was named the school’s Senior Athlete of the Year last year.
“He’s a natural,” Highland football coach Richard Lear said. “He has that kind of freak ability.”
Wilson’s talent level is even more evident because of the fact that he didn’t start playing most sports until he was in junior high and he didn’t start football until his freshman year of high school.
Wilson was raised by his grandmother, Diana Wilson, and she made sure his priorities were on his grades, first and foremost.
“She gave me the chance to play basketball in middle school and do a little bit of volleyball,” Wilson said. “She wanted to make sure I kept my grades up that entire time. Once I got into high school, going into summer, I talked to her about it and she was like, ‘Yeah, you can play, as long as you keep your grades up like how you’ve been doing.’ I was like, ‘OK, that’s not a problem.’”
Fast forward four years and now Wilson is starting his first semester at UC Davis and his schooling is paid for with a full football scholarship he signed on Dec. 16.
“It feels good to know that I’m getting my education while playing the sport that I just straight love,” Wilson said.
Wilson went to two football championships with the Bulldogs, who won a CIF title in 2019. Wilson was a big part of that championship run, playing on both sides of the ball and taking on whatever other position the team needed him in.
“He barely came off the field for us. He started offensively at wide receiver and he started defensively at defensive end and he would do everything else in between, like he would punt for us, he’d play on kickoff,” said Lear, who added Wilson would run down the field to tackle after he punted. “He was in great shape and never wanted to come off the field. As durable as he was, not getting injured and playing smart, we gave him every opportunity and he shined.”
That’s why it was surprising the natural athlete didn’t get a football scholarship right out of high school.
“When he was with us, schools were talking, but none had offered,” Lear said.
Wilson was working out with the Antelope Valley College football team over the summer and decided to stay there.
Then, UC Davis came calling in the fall. He didn’t even step on the field with the Marauders and was offered a four-year ride with the Aggies.
Lear had already sent an athlete he coached to UC Davis — Eastside’s Joshua Kelley who now plays for the LA Chargers — and told Wilson everything he knew about the school and sports program.
“For the most part, UC Davis, knowing that coach Lear already had given one of his former athletes over to Davis and seeing how he turned out, it already had started a good connection between me and the coaches,” Wilson said. “After they had a chance to watch my film, they knew what they were betting on, to be honest. Throughout the timeframe of me being at AVC, I just got to know the coaches personally and create a good connection with them. It came to a point that they felt confident enough in me to offer me a spot before I even actually played a snap over at AVC.”
Lear said he can see Wilson following in Kelley’s footsteps to the NFL, which is something Wilson wouldn’t mind.
“Yes, that’s one of my goals, but it’s more of an optional thing because going to Davis and getting my degree at Davis is already a high (accomplishment),” he said.
Wilson arrived at UC Davis on Jan. 2 and started the winter quarter the week of Jan. 4. He is majoring in communications and is currently taking four virtual classes — Entrepreneurship, Communications, English, and American Careers and Identity.
“The teachers are very supportive and motivating and my peers are mixed between the ages of 18-25 but they are laid back and have supportive energy toward one another,” Wilson said after his first week of classes.
He plans on using his degree to help businesses make meaningful connections with one another.
Wilson said he’s also enjoying campus life in Davis.
“It’s an amazing campus, the scenery is beautiful and a big difference from the AV,” he said. “It’s a lot of places you ride your bike around and plenty of trails to walk or ride and the atmosphere is welcoming and kind.”
Wilson’s approach to college life is similar to what helped him excel in high school.
“I’m not going to change what I was doing in high school,” he said. “I’m still going to be interacting with the community over there and just helping people out and trying make the campus a better place than it is right now.”
The UC Davis players all had to quarantine for the first two weeks back at school. Wilson will get to start practicing and working out with the squad next Wednesday.
He’s excited to learn from the coaching staff.
“They have a lot of coaches that are really experienced in the positions that they’re coaching, so I know for a fact that I’m going to be a good fit there, because I’m structured around success,” Wilson said. “Knowing that the entire coaching staff over there all have their own type of success, whether it was coaching or playing, it already felt like a great place to be.”
Lear got to see Wilson progress in the sport for three years, the last two coaching him, and he was impressed with the hard work he put in to get better in the sport each day.
“He worked hard and ended up developing quite a bit from that hard work,” Lear said. “I can see him taking what little bit we gave him and just running with it and now going to the college level and absorbing all of that information of those coaches and continuing to develop and getting better and better.”
When Wilson started out in football as a freshman the freshman team coaching staff at Highland was considering him at linebacker. But the defensive line coach had other plans after seeing Wilson.
“Honestly, I really didn’t care where I played at, as long as I was playing and getting the experience, I was perfect,” Wilson recalled. “Initially they wanted me to play linebacker, because of my size. But the D-line coach, he looked at me, he saw me on the first day when we were getting everything set up for the summer camp and said, ‘He needs to be on the D-line, because there’s something I just notice about him that stands out from everybody else.’
“Who knew it could end up like this?”
UC Davis plans to have Wilson on the line, but also mix him in at side backer every once in awhile.
“They don’t want to keep me one-dimensional,” Wilson said. “They already know the athleticism I have, so they want to try to utilize it as much as they can.”
That’s one of many reasons Lear thinks UC Davis is a good fit for Wilson.
“He’s very deserving of this and it’s going to be fun watching him show the school at the next level what we’ve always seen in him, which is a hardworking young man with a motor that does not stop,” Lear said. “It’s going to be fun to watch him go.”
Wilson is extremely thankful to all of his coaches and teachers who helped him get this far.
“Basically (I want to thank) the entire coaching staff from Highland, whether it was from the beginning of my football career or at the end there,” Wilson said. “The entire staff at Highland for making sure I was the best version I could be without any incidents. Basically, just thank God, because he opened the door for this opportunity for me. He didn’t want me to let that go.”
David Stowe was the head coach at Highland the first two years of Wilson’s career and he was thankful to Stowe for helping him get started.
“Still much respect toward coach Stowe for giving me the opportunity to even play varsity,” Wilson said, adding it was rare for sophomores without high prospects to get to play varsity. “I wouldn’t even be in this position if I didn’t play varsity a year after playing my first year of football.”
He’s also thankful to his older sister and brother for supporting him and his grandmother, who always wanted the best for him and helped him succeed on and off the field.
“She took me in and she just gave me a lot of stuff to work on. She wanted me to be the best version I could be throughout elementary and middle school,” he said. “She had me do extra things that I’m pretty sure other kids would not want to do over summer, instead of going outside and having fun. She had me work on a lot of comprehension, a lot of math, so once I went into the next grade I wouldn’t have trouble.
“She already had a lot of family members who were teachers, so she would ask them to send me stuff for the next grade so I could get started on that, so I wouldn’t have to struggle after I go there.”
Wilson is not only excited for his own opportunity to play Division 1 football, but he’s also excited to help draw attention to other Antelope Valley athletes.
“I’m more excited to create more notice toward the High Desert,” he said. “We have people from the High Desert that are in the pros or playing college football right now, but we want to make it more known than where it’s at right now. We don’t have the respect that we should be having. There’s a lot of programs out here that are just high caliber, but it goes unnoticed.”
Wilson also has some advice to those who are still working toward their goals.
“Word of advice is if you have a goal set that you know that you can achieve, basically push through it throughout adversity or inconveniences,” he said. “The future of the AV really just relies on how much everyone wants to work.”