MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Lyndell “Mack” Wilson doesn’t lack for confidence.
Sporting stylish, thick-framed glasses and a sling protecting his surgically-repaired shoulder, Wilson matter-of-factly explained why he believes he can bring something special to an Alabama team that has already won four national championships in the last seven seasons, and why he can stand out even in a program that routinely signs the nation’s top-rated recruiting class.
“I feel like personally, I’m probably the most versatile linebacker Alabama has had in a minute because I can do so much,” Wilson told SEC Country. “I feel like as long as I learn the playbook, I’ll be able to play.”
The five-star linebacker isn’t being cocky or arrogant. His statement is more of a faith in the abilities that helped him become one of the top 15 prospects in the country during the 2016 recruiting cycle.
It also helps that on National Signing Day, Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide’s coaching staff would work hard to get Wilson — along with fellow five-star linebacker signee Ben Davis — up to speed as soon as possible with there being a chance the duo could be counted on because of Alabama’s lack of depth at linebacker.
Wilson’s coach at Carver High School, Billy Gresham, agrees with Wilson’s sentiment in relation to the Montgomery, Ala. native’s versatility.
“It’s because of his size, athletic ability and even his ability to rush the passer,” Gresham told SEC Country. “You look at the linebacker position and what it takes to be really good at, he’s pretty much well-rounded in all the areas that it takes to play linebacker. Dropping in pass coverage, covering one-on-one and he’s able to diagnose routes really fast. As far as rushing the passer, he’s one of the best I’ve seen. And of course, he’s a big, physical football player at the same time.”
Wilson gets his shot to prove his worth beyond the high school level when the rest of Alabama’s recruiting class heads to Tuscaloosa later this month and in early June. Wilson will be limited in what he can do physically as he continues to rehab from surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered during his sophomore year of high school. But he’ll be cleared for contact in August prior to fall camp.
“Expect me to make an impact as soon as I touch the field,” he said. “Expect me to be as humble as I can be, and continue to grow and watch the juniors and seniors ahead of me and continue to learn. I’m ready to make an impact.”
But Wilson doesn’t become the poised young man he is today, and his talent likely doesn’t reach its potential without plenty of help from a couple of special sources.
“I decided to go to someone, and he helped me.”
Through his “Make A Difference” Foundation, Todd Dowell has been mentoring inner-city kids from single-parent households since 2002. The foundation does in-home visits, stops by kid’s schools to ensure they’re on track academically and much more in hopes of keeping them on the right path.
Wilson needed that type of direction early in his teenage years while navigating life without a consistent male figure. As Wilson’s mother — Sandra Wilson — puts it, Wilson’s father was absent and “didn’t do his part” after the two split when Lyndell was “still in diapers.”
Along with help from her now deceased grandmother and her sister Shundaline Barnes, Sandra raised Lyndell — nicknamed “Fat Mack” by his grandmother because he “used to eat everything” as a child — and her other four children as a single mother. Without those two, Sandra “wouldn’t have been able to do it” before “Mr. Todd came along.”
As he began to grow into a young man, Wilson sought out that male role model he lacked.
One day in middle school, he visited a local community center where he met Dowell, the man he now calls his godfather.
“We sat down and we talked, and I was telling him about my problems and my life,” Wilson recalled. “He and my mom started contacting each other, and he decided to take me under his wing. He started taking care of me, and everything just started to get better. I was going down the wrong road at the time so I felt like I needed to change. I decided to go to someone, and he helped me.”
As Dowell remembers it, Wilson wasn’t a “bad kid,” but he did have “some behavioral problems in the beginning.”
“After talking with his mom, I started doing more one-on-one stuff with him,” Dowell said. “We do that with all of our kids in the foundation, but he just needed more. He ended up moving in with me from there.”
Wilson eventually moved in with Dowell around the time he started high school, and has been living with him ever since. The two routinely have “heart-to-heart” talks where Dowell expresses how much he cares for Wilson to keep him out of trouble and to “make sure my head is always on straight.” Wilson has approached the relationship with the utmost respect, and has allowed Dowell to guide his life.
“It wasn’t anything I was uncomfortable or unfamiliar with because I’m always respectful to people, but for him to take me under his wing, I couldn’t do nothing but respect him and listen to him because I’m in his house,” Wilson said. “With him laying the rules down to me, and letting me know what’s up, I just had to respect it. From there, everything just changed for me like God opened a new window for me. I just stuck with it, and I continue to respect him to this day.”
Sandra is forever grateful for Dowell’s work with her son, and the love he’s shown him. She gets emotional when thinking about how far her son has come since he and Dowell connected five years ago.
“Mr. Todd has been awesome. He’s been outstanding,” Sandra said. “I mean, words just can’t explain it because he stepped in where the father figure was lacking. … They bonded, and once Mr. Todd saw what type of person Mack is and what he could do, he knew Mack needed structure. Mr. Todd came to me after Mack explained his situation, and told me that he understood because his mom was a single mom. He’s just there as a mentor for Mack, and my younger child Mario – their baby brother.
“He’s there as a father figure. I’ve tried to repay him for what he’s done for my baby, and he won’t take anything. He said, “I know you’re not able. This is from the heart.’ He helps a lot of kids who come from single-parent homes because he knows they can do bigger and better things as long as they get some guidance.”
“Once he understood what his opportunities could be, what he was capable of and what he could become, his maturity level went up.”
Everything began to click for Wilson once his recruiting ramped up. He began to take things more seriously, and he grew into his own as a young man under Dowell’s direction.
Dowell said all Wilson needed was someone to be a little more “forceful” with him.
“Once he understood what his opportunities could be, what he was capable of and what he could become, his maturity level went up,” Dowell said. “He loves that kids look up to him. He goes to speak at some of the elementary school and does community service projects. Things started to click for him probably after his 10th grade year when he started to get recruited more heavily. That’s when the maturity level kicked in, and he understood that – not that he’s better than anybody else – but he’s different and you have to carry yourself a certain way.”
Carrying himself a certain way meant cutting all negative influences out of his life. His circle of friends shrunk to mostly teammates as he preferred to stay in instead of hanging out and partying.
Sandra watched as her son made the right choices and grew into a role model while distancing himself from anyone who did things they “don’t have any business doing.”
“I would wonder and ask him ‘Why aren’t you hanging with so-and-so?’” Sandra said. “And he’d say, ‘Mom, they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, and I don’t want to be around people like that.’ I said, ‘I love you for that. That just shows me that you are listening, and that you’re willing to accept that you have to leave certain people and things alone because they’re not good for you.’ I feel good about that.”
Among other things, Sandra believes fear of failure has kept Lyndell out of bad situations. He avoided alcohol, drugs, gangs and other pitfalls that often plague inner-city youth, particularly young African-American males.
“By him seeing me as a single mom and struggling or seeing other kids get in trouble or going to jail,” Sandra said. “I sit down and talk to him and explain that you don’t have to do those things. When you do those things, there are consequences, and once it’s done it’s done. I also kept him around positive people who were doing the right thing. You can raise kids to the best of your ability, and they’re still going to do what they choose to do. I just tried to guide him and show him the differences. I told him it’s his choice on which direction he wants to go in, but just know that there are consequences behind your choices.”
Wilson and his mother are extremely close, and her words stick with him.
“She’s a big influence because she was always there when I was younger,” he said. “Me and my mom have always had a great relationship. We’ve been through the struggle together. She was always there. We talk a lot. She’s a sports mother. She knows the game. That’s what makes us so close.”
“He just wished me the best of luck and told me to stay in contact because he’d always be there for me.”
During the recruiting process, Wilson was long considered a lock to Alabama. But things became interesting after a late coaching change in Tuscaloosa.
Wilson met former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and other members of the Crimson Tide’s coaching staff around his freshman year of high school in large part because Alabama was recruiting his former teammate and current Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. Wilson used that as an opportunity to “get some attention” around his sophomore year, which was Hamilton’s senior season at Carver.
Smart was the area recruiter for Montgomery, and he and Wilson hit it off from the start. Things heated up more when Wilson attended one of Alabama’s football camps.
“He camped that summer before his 10th grade year and coach Smart recruited him every day since,” Dowell said. “When he left, that was very difficult for Mack. Him and coach Smart developed a real relationship. A lot of kids say their coaches are like father figures, but him and coach Smart had a real good relationship. It was difficult for Mack.
“Mack probably made his decision that Monday (before signing day) but it was difficult with coach Smart leaving.”
Smart was named Georgia’s head coach in December, and left Alabama following the national championship game in January — just weeks before National Signing Day.
“With coach Smart leaving, it kind of shook things up a little bit. I felt like I had to give Georgia a chance to recruit me,” Wilson said. “It was kind of 50/50 because I’ve had a relationship with coach Smart since the 9th grade. We were very close, so it was kind of a hard decision.”
Wilson wanted to talk to Smart man-to-man to let him know he’d be attending Alabama.
“It was (a) long (conversation). We stayed on the phone for a minute,” Wilson said. “He was telling me how he felt about me, and how he felt about the decision I made. He was telling me the good things about my decision. He knew he probably wasn’t going to be able to get me because it was too late. He just wished me the best of luck and told me to stay in contact because he’d always be there for me.”
“They’ll actually get a better player than we had when he was in high school because that injury is taken care of now.”
Wilson’s play on the field garnered national attention. He held offers from the likes of Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Ole Miss and nearly every other Power 5 school.
As a junior at Carver in 2014, Wilson recorded 86 tackles, nine sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. During his senior season, Wilson racked up 115 tackles with five sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.
This, while playing with the torn labrum.
“It was tough on him, and you could see the pain that he was playing with for the last three years,” said Gresham, Wilson’s high school coach. “For him to finish out his career and not tank it because of his shoulder and play very well, that just shows the toughness that he had and not wanting to make excuses. He just fought through it. They’ll actually get a better player than we had when he was in high school because that injury is taken care of now.”
Gresham describes Wilson as a “heady player” who is “freakishly athletic” and “very sound in his technique” for someone his age.
Both Sandra and Dowell believe Alabama is getting a “three-down player” who can “do it all on the field.”
It’s easy to see where Wilson gets his confidence from. His support group has instilled a strong sense of belief in him over the years.
And Wilson has lofty goals for himself in his first season in crimson and white, and he’s confident he can reach them.
“I want to make first-team All-SEC. I want to be a freshman All-American. I want to accomplish all of the goals a freshman can,” Wilson said. “I’m going to work hard, try my best to get on the field and just do whatever it takes to win. Just be that guy that coach can always call on to do anything.”