SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jeff Wilson Jr. punched the air, flexing his muscles in front of a raucous crowd at Levi’s Stadium as he had just lifted San Francisco over the Arizona Cardinals.
Catching a ball at the ear hole of his helmet, the 49ers running back sprinted into the end zone untouched with 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter two weeks ago.
Jeff Wilson Sr. had watched nearly every one of his son’s games, from high school through college and into the NFL. That Sunday, though, the man Wilson Jr. credits as the reason why he’s become a key member of the second-most-productive running back unit in the NFL was in church.
“All of the sudden, he called me back after he got done and was going crazy,” Wilson Jr. said. “He was like, ‘Man, I said a prayer in church to let you do something great earlier!’ He was just going crazy.”
Wilson Jr. built those muscles he flexed with his father — a former running back at the University of Texas-Arlington — using concrete weights and a tire sled in their backyard.
“At first, I’m not gonna lie, I hated him working me out,” Wilson Jr. said. “But I always did it and it’s turned out really good for me. He’s always been the guy at the top that’s pushed me in that way and I thank him for that.”
In 2008, Wilson Jr. left Dallas, where he was staying with his mother, Angela to move in with Jeff Sr., who lived 125 miles southeast in Elkhart. After football, Wilson Sr. became a correctional officer at in the Mark W. Michael Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where he handled hardened criminals on a routine basis.
“There are just about five units of prisons in the area and it was one of the best jobs in the area,” Jeff Sr. said. “It worked out for me. I got an opportunity to work there and now I can follow my son whenever I want to.”
Understanding the hardships that come with blue-collar work, Jeff Sr. was determined to help his son hone his craft as a running back, which was one of the main reasons Wilson Jr. left Dallas.
Waking his son up at 6 a.m. at times, Wilson Sr. put his son on a strict workout regimen that consisted of running a steep hill behind their 2005 GMC Yukon, pushing a large tire as a sled and lifting home-made weights filled with cement.
Thinking back on the workouts last week, Wilson Jr. laughed, remembering what a hassle it was to get out of bed and lace up his running shoes, but it was his dad who gave him the perspective he needed to continue with the monotonous grind.
“He really broke it down for me and was like, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” Wilson Jr. said. “‘Do you want to slave and work like I did my whole life? Or do you want to do something you actually love?’”
As Wilson Jr. pursued a career as an NFL running back, his father’s training began to pay off.
In his junior and senior season at Elkhart High School, Wilson Jr. rushed for a combined total of 5,078 yards and 59 touchdowns, earning a scholarship to North Texas, where he rushed for 3,205 yards in four years.
Jeff Sr. seldomly missed a game, including a 2017 matchup against Army in West Point, N.Y. Jeff Sr. and his wife, Lavonda, drove 23 hours to attend in person.
Wilson Jr.’s favorite memory with his dad, though, involves a church drum set.
Jeff Sr. was a part of a gospel band at his local church where he taught Wilson Jr. how to play the drums. Along with the rest of his father’s band, Wilson Jr. would travel with Jeff Sr. where they’d play shows. Sometimes Wilson Jr. would get on stage, too, to perform.
“You’re never going to be able to play football with him but it’s something else that you do that they can participate with you in,” Jeff Sr. said. “That’s a great feeling, man, to see your son up there with you playing.”
Wilson Jr. says he still plays the drums, but considering his current duties as a member of the 49ers running back unit that’s averaged 145.6 yards per game this season, his time is often occupied. But he still has a knack for performing, just now on a larger stage.
Undrafted in 2018, he signed with the 49ers as a practice squad player, until making his debut in Week 12 of last season. Wilson Jr. began this season on the active roster. He was moved up to the active roster again this September after an ankle injury to Tevin Coleman. While Wilson Jr. hasn’t seen as many snaps as running backs like Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, he’s taken advantage of his rare opportunities. He’s rushed for 105 yards on 27 carries in eight games, scoring four rushing touchdowns. When he entered against the Cardinals, he jumped up and down, warming up for a fourth-down route designed specifically for him.
Ironically, Jeff Sr. didn’t get to see Wilson Jr.’s play live, as he was in the middle of church. A family friend had to show him the highlight when he got back to his car.
“He was like, ‘Man I missed it! I was freaking out,’” Wilson Jr. said. “He was mad at himself for not being able to watch it …. But that’s okay because I wouldn’t be doing this without him in the first place.”