The vehicle pulls into a parking lot off Tifft Road and out steps James Wilder Jr. He’s not alone, either.
There’s his fianceé, Bianca. There are his two children. No, don’t tell Wilder he’s buried on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart. This running back on the brink brought his entire life to Western New York, from his family to his car to his furniture, because he plans on sticking in Western New York.
His 3-year-old daughter, Nala, takes off with a kite while his 2-month-old son, Jaylen, is tucked underneath his arm.
As the Tampa, Fla., native explains, they all drove 18 hours north in a U-Haul to stay in Buffalo.
“I’m not going back,” Wilder said. “How I look at it, I have a two-year contract so I’m here for the next two years. That’s not being arrogant; it’s being confident. Confident in my game, confident in knowing what I have to do.
“I’m here to stay. I have no intentions of leaving.”
Because James Wilder Jr. believes he's himself again.
He’s not merely the son of James Wilder, a NFL great who rushed for more than 6,000 yards and 37 touchdowns. He’s not the practice-squad scrub in a state of depression. No, he’s an uber-confident, 6-foot-2, 228-pounder rocking an upside down, backward Bills visor and camouflaged shorts. He's the proud father now sprinting across this field with his daughter's kite, laughing with each stride. He’s the former No. 1 prospect in the country who really doesn’t care that his backfield in Buffalo is overcrowded.
Since chatting on these rustic bleachers along the George J Hartman Play Fields, a lot has changed. Wilder’s close friend, Karlos Williams, is suspended four games for substance abuse. Rookie Jonathan Williams is arrested for DWI. Wilder, signed in January with zero fanfare, now has a legitimate shot at a role.
The quest to truly become his own man begins next week at St. John Fisher College.
His own man
He didn’t grow up watching cartoons. He was glued to highlights of his father. He didn’t grow up with the benefit of a clean slate. He was always — always — compared to his father.
So of course Wilder Jr. cringed when his new head coach couldn’t praise him without mentioning pops.
“I’ve been really impressed with James Wilder,” Rex Ryan said last month. “He’s not as good as his dad, but there’s only been about a handful of backs that have been.”
Howled Wilder Jr., “I’ve been hearing that my whole life!”
So there are pros and cons to these genes. Despite a two-year falling out with Mom, Dad was always a presence in his life. Tough love was constant. When Wilder Jr. was 17 years old, a star who could attend any college he chose, Wilder Sr. refused to coddle him. Son still remembers sitting in the film room with Plant High School head coach Robert Weiner and his father.
His on-field advice? “Stick and move, stick and move!” son imitates in a low rumble. Make decisions quickly. And it didn't matter if he ran for 200 yards — Dad wanted more.
On to Florida State, where he rushed for 1,203 yards on 191 carries (6.3 avg.) with 19 touchdowns his final two years, biting critiques continued. Once Wilder Jr. told his Dad he wished he had one play back. "One?" was the reply. "I've got seven written down right here."
And this past spring, when son told Dad he was the first one in the locker room and last to leave, Wilder Sr. didn’t want to hear it. Such actions are “expected” he told him.
“He’s always been that type of father,” Wilder Jr. said. “He’s the hardest person on me. Now, that I’m older I see that it’s what made me toughest. It always pushed me a step further.”
As Nala boots a soccer ball on the field, he admits he's becoming his Dad, too. Wilder had her playing with three- and four-year olds when she was only two. He films her cone drills, too.
Indeed, forever, James Wilder Jr. has lived in Dad’s shadow. After all, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer once had 407 carries in a season, the NFL record until 1998.
“I got used to it,” his son said. “It’s an honor. Hopefully by the end of my career, they say ‘He lived up to his Dad.’”
This is why he added the “Jr” to the name on his jersey, to "have my own legacy."
This pursuit has not been easy. He wasn’t even drafted mainly because of two off-field incidents at Florida State. To this day, he insists he never pushed an officer as the officer claimed during one encounter. Rather, his lawyer told him that if he pleaded guilty to a charge then he’d still be able to play football. If he pleaded innocent — which Wilder insists he was — then the case could’ve dragged along through his junior season at Florida State.
Wilder Jr. spent 21 days in anger management and moved on with the red flag on his resume.
“I didn’t push him," he said. "And I looked my attorney in the eye and looked the judge in the eye and looked Coach Fisher in the eye and looked my parents in the eye to say that. ... I told the other officer, ‘Don’t put me in the back of this cop car. I have so much going on in my life. I’m at a high point in my life.’”
He spent one night in jail, later spent 10 days in jail for underage drinking and then was twice arrested for a suspended license. At the NFL scouting combine, teams didn't ask one football question. They wanted to know if he pushed the cop.
One coach with the Cincinnati Bengals flat out told him “We can get you for cheap” as a free agent, words that still haunt him to this day.
“That’s something I keep in my head,” Wilder Jr. said. “Man, when I’m training, whatever I do, when I’m on the field, I’m taking it personally.”
Those same Bengals gave Wilder Jr. a shot. Sort of. He toiled two years on the practice squad, losing all confidence in the process.
He remembers the conversations in his pocket of the locker room. Players from small schools were happy to have a job.
“I’m like ‘Man, this is the group of guys I’m categorized in,’” Wilder said. “People who are just happy to be in the NFL. That’s not me. I’m not happy with this at all. I’m pissed every day. Every day, I’m pissed. And when you’re pissed, you just act like you really don’t care anymore.
“You’re just practicing like, ‘I’m practicing but I’m not going to play.’ You’re still going hard to give them a good look but…”
But he couldn’t be himself. Wilder, weekly, pretended to be a running back on a different team. Isaiah Crowell one week, DeAngelo Williams the next.
And that’s when the sadness seeped into his day-to-day life.
“I’m nameless again,” he said. “I worked all my life for my name and now I’m just a scout guy.”
When Wilder hyperextended his knee, one coach laughed and told him he's the first practice guy he's ever seen sit out with an injury. The back laughed along with the coach at the time—he’s still close with that coach, too—but was defeated inside. He missed five days when he knew should’ve sat out much longer.
“When you’re depressed, you don’t laugh at those things,” he said. “Those things don’t fly well with me because I know for a fact I shouldn’t be in that position.”
During the preseason, he was too caught up into statistics. Whenever tackled, Wilder instantly glanced to the sideline to see how many yards he gained, doing the math in his head. How many yards did he have? How many did Cedric Peerman have? The other backs? And when you’re thinking like this, he admits, “you can’t focus at all.” He felt the weight of expectations with every carry.
After two years it was obvious there was zero room for upward mobility in Cincinnati. Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Peerman were entrenched. Wilder could only shake his head as he saw countless college teammates shine in the NFL. He lists off name after name: Devonta Freeman. Karlos Williams. Jameis Winston. Kelvin Benjamin. Timmy Jernigan. Telvin Smith.
“I’m like ‘Man, those are the guys I was playing with!’” said Wilder. “I’m proud to watch them play but I’m like, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ … I lost my confidence, I lost my touch. I got real depressed.”
Everyone from his father to Tony Dungy, a close mentor, told him he needed to get his swagger back. They didn't recognize the quiet, introverted, miserable man in Cincy. So he signed the futures contract with the Bills, moved north in April and immediately got his swag back.
He hopes, finally, he'll create his own legacy.
His eyes gaze out at the field where Bianca plays with their daughter on this perfect summer day. Right there, he repeats, is his daily inspiration.
Wilder signed a 12-month lease at an apartment to force himself to make the Bills’ roster. He’s even helping his fianceé land a broadcasting job here in Western New York. They’ve been together since middle school, lived together since high school and want to make Buffalo home. Considering she has left jobs behind for his career, he feels a sense of responsibility to make it for her.
So on the spot, he lets everyone know who to expect this August.
“A confident James Wilder, a James Wilder who was No. 1 in the nation. A leader bringing up other guys. Outspoken. Loud. I’m having fun again. It feels like a fresh start, like I just got drafted.
“I’m going to ball. I’m going to lead my team to some wins.”
If McCoy is the speed guy, he feels he can be a power counterpunch. Considering Karlos Williams was considerably overweight even before the suspension was announced, he'll get that opportunity. And, true, he woke up at 5:45 a.m. each morning through OTA's and minicamp to be the first player at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
His fiancé told him she never wants to see him depressed like he was in Cincinnati. So far, so good.
“If I ever get back to where I was — which I won’t — to a depressed state,” Wilder said, “I can wake up in the morning to them like ‘They’re here. This is who I’m doing it for. C’mon, James, snap out of it. Let’s get this money today, let’s grind today, let’s put in extra work today.’ Because I see them right there.”
His arms are a collage of tattoos with one emblem standing out — a NFL logo. This was his third tat, one he had inked way back in high school. Friends told him he was nuts then. What if didn't make it? What if the NFL wanted no part of him? He didn't care.
“That’s the confidence," he says, blankly. "I’m trying to find that back again.”
The family trudges back toward their vehicle with James carefully placing Jaylen into a car seat. Everyone is waiting inside but he absolutely needs to share something first. He taps open the Instagram app on his cellphone, says "My Dad was a beast!" and hits play on a video of his father rampaging through defenses in those creamsicle jerseys.
He can’t get enough. He loves seeing No. 32 dominate. But then son reads comments left by readers saying he’s nothing like his Dad.
“Even on Instagram they won’t give me a break!” he bellows.
Maybe this August, he changes the narrative once and for all.