Cardinals wide receiver overcomes college injuries with important Senior BowlDarren Urban
The Instagram video was posted up by T.J. Houshmandzadeh at the height of COVID, on Sept. 21, 2020.
It featured Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson, then waiting for his junior year and coming off his solid sophomore campaign of 56 catches for 672 yards and five touchdowns. Houshmandzadeh, the former Cincinnati Bengals wideout, counted Wilson has one of many college receivers he had trained. Houshmandzadeh's caption with the post was simple: "Next (up)" with an arrow emoji representing "up."
"I had to show him I believed in him, before he believed in himself," Houshmandzadeh said.
Wilson believes now, after he emerged from an injury-filled college career to have a draft-saving showing at the Senior Bowl, and after he was taken by the Cardinals with the second of their two third-round picks.
Whether he will ever have a bigger believer than he has in Houshmandzadeh seems doubtful.
"I never charged Mike a dollar. I just helped him," Houshmandzadeh said. "I told Mike, 'If you stay committed and you train with me, I guaran(expletive)tee you you'll be drafted in the second or third round.'
"Even in December, his agent called me and said, 'Mike has an undrafted grade.' I said, 'Listen, I'm going to get him into the Senior Bowl, and a guarantee he'll be the best receiver there and I guarantee he'll go in the second or third round.' I've trained other receivers ... and Mike was better than all of them."
Told of Houshmandzadeh's praise, Wilson smiled. The two have grown close since Wilson was first introduced to Houshmandzadeh in 2020 by Wilson's high school receivers coach Jerome Riley. Riley knew Houshmandzadeh a little, having trained with him sometimes back when both were playing.
During COVID, Wilson would drive from his home in Simi Valley through Southern California traffic to Cerritos to train with Houshmandzadeh five days a week - a 112-mile round trip. Last year, when in Palo Alto in the offseason, he'd fly home every Friday night, drive to San Dimas at 5 a.m. Saturday (a 55-mile drive) to train for two hours with his strength and conditioning guy before then driving to Cerritos to work with Houshmandzadeh.
"I think sometimes, as young men, we need a mentor who has done what we are trying to do," Wilson said. "And that's what T.J. is."
Wilson's luck since that high point of his sophomore year was not good. Twice he fractured his foot, and then broke his collarbone midway through last season to end his year. He played just 14 games his final three seasons, with 64 catches and 864 yards total.
There was a reason he had an undrafted grade.
But Wilson managed to get that Senior Bowl invitation, and then spent two months rehabbing and acting like it was going to be the biggest game of his life - which, for his draft hopes, it was.
"Because I had only played 14 games, in my head, I'm like, 'Man, I hope I don't have to do a sixth year,'" Wilson said. "If I hadn't gotten the Senior Bowl invite - or an all-star invite - that was probably going to be a viable option if I wanted to get drafted or at least get drafted as high as I possibly could.
"A few weeks later, (Senior Bowl president) Jim Nagy called me and I was like, 'Jim, thank you so much. I promise this invite is not going to go to waste.' I'm treating this like the Super Bowl, like my life literally depends on it."
Wilson knows he didn't have the statistics or career in college that would normally earn a Senior Bowl invite. But he knew he has strong character, and that, along with a Houshmandzadeh endorsement, couldn't hurt.
He impressed all week of practice. He had four receptions in the game for 76 yards and a touchdown, and suddenly, Houshmandzadeh was looking like a prophet.
"One of my goals in my football career was to prove T.J. right," Wilson said. "Your word is everything, right? When you vouch for a guy, your word can be on the line. Going to the Senior Bowl, I was like, 'T.J., he's like an uncle to me, he's a mentor to me, I cannot let his word go to waste.'"
Houshmandzadeh has trained NFL receivers like Michael Pittman Jr., Tee Higgins and Chase Claypool. But he has made a connection with Wilson, even among the small group of family and friends that was at Wilson's house when he was drafted.
"Mike is a great human being," Houshmandzadeh said. "But he is a really good football player and the biggest thing with Mike ... I had to work on Mike's mind.
"I've trained Mike more than any player that I've ever worked with. That's why I believe in Mike, because physically and mentally I know he's ready to go."
The Senior Bowl was a turning point for Wilson - "That's when I kind of confirmed to myself, 'Damn, I actually am one of the best," he said - and now that DeAndre Hopkins has moved on and the Cardinals are working with a new staff, Wilson is going to have opportunity to show such things.
Houshmandzadeh said he already warned some coaches he knows in the league they will regret not drafting his protege.
"I know what a good receiver looks like," Houshmandzadeh said. "That's Mike."