Packers tune in when Wilson plays the piano
Green Bay Packers defensive end C.J. Wilson has been playing the piano since the tender age of 2, urged to learn by his father, who is a pastor, and his mother, who's been singing in church her whole life. Wilson's teammates on the Packers didn't find out about his musical talent until the night before the Super Bowl in 2011.
There was a baby grand piano in the lobby of the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Irving, Texas, just outside the Packers' main meeting room. Wilson, then a rookie, discovered it on the Thursday of Super Bowl week. He started sneaking down to play by himself each day, hoping to clear his head in anticipation of the biggest game of his life.
On the eve of the Super Bowl, Wilson and a handful of teammates were standing around waiting to head in for a team meeting. He decided to help them pass the time with an impromptu concert.
At first, Wilson said they were laughing a bit, shocked to see the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive end tickle the ivories with such grace.
"Who would have ever thought I can play piano?" Wilson said, laughing. "I'm a big dude playing D-line. They were laughing, like, 'Oh man, you can play?' But then it was, 'Wow, this is great!' Everybody loves some type of music. Everybody, I don't care who you are.
"They all gathered 'round. A lot of my teammates came from Christian homes, too, so some of the old hymns I was playing, they knew 'em, like 'Amazing Grace.' I was playing and Greg Jennings -- his dad is a pastor too -- he was singing behind me."
Soon enough, more and more guys joined in. Then, teammates started making requests.
"I'd play five or 10 seconds of one song and guys would sing it and then [ask for another]," Wilson said. "It was just a great team moment. We all went to church!
"I don't really remember the songs, just gospel music. All the guys knew how the piano players do it in church and how old women in churches act. That was really funny 'cause guys were acting like they were women at church. Acting like an old lady -- a grandma or an aunt that they remember."
It felt like home for Wilson, who used to accompany his parents and eight siblings to church every Sunday. That night in Irving, his teammates were just like the congregation at his father's church in Belhaven, N.C.
"I played for my church for many years," Wilson said. "From about age 13 up until I graduated and got drafted to the NFL. My college [East Carolina] was 45 minutes from my house so I always went back on Sundays to church to play."
Wilson doesn't read sheet music -- never has -- but he learned to play on a piano in his childhood home, mimicking his mother's singing.
"When we were little, every day my mother would sit down and show me how to play a little bit," he explained. "But the funny thing is she can't really play herself -- she can't play anything. She'd sing a song and tell me to follow it on the piano. So I did that every day, day in and day out. Follow what key she was singing in.
"I always liked playing, but as I got older I stopped for four of five years. I actually stopped when I was 9 because I lost to this other kid in a talent show," Wilson admitted sheepishly. "I said, 'I don't wanna play no more.' After a while, though, it followed me and came back to me. I missed it."
Sometimes he misses it now, too. He gets the chance to play only once every two weeks or so, an hour at a time to relax his mind.
"I'm up late always studying film," Wilson said. "It's a long season in the NFL and you gotta really prepare."
He took his first official lesson this past offseason, but his schedule was so inconsistent he couldn't keep it up.
"I was supposed to go back, but I didn't have time to sit down and really do it. It's hard to teach an old person how to play something," Wilson admits. "It was more my schedule, though. I plan to finish [the lessons] during the offseason."
"When you love music, you love it -- like, really love it. If someone's just playing the cello, I'll just sit there and watch 30, 40 minutes before I'll get tired of it."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a music buff, as well. Perhaps that common bond is what draws the guitar-playing signal-caller to Wilson. A few weeks ago on a radio show, Rodgers said if he had to read a book about any of his teammates, his first choice would be Wilson.
Wilson said that with his unique childhood, the book wouldn't be half-bad, but he sounded a bit embarrassed when he heard that Rodgers mentioned an interest in his "dating habits."
"Oh my God," Wilson said, laughing. "I fall in love! I fall for a girl and I always think she's the one. I fall so easily. I think she's the one that I was to marry, and then the next week I'll find someone else and say she's the one!"
It's no surprise, then, that Wilson's piano talents have been used to woo the ladies.
"Like I said, everybody loves some kind of music," Wilson said. "Most girls find it interesting that I play. I liked to sing a little bit to this one girl I liked. [Another] girl I really liked, she loved this song by Dru Hill called 'Incomplete' so I learned it. Took me probably about a good couple days to learn. I didn't tell her; one day I was playing the piano and I just started playing it."
Needless to say, it worked.
"I most definitely [won her over]," Wilson beamed. "Thought we were gonna be married, but turned out she wasn't the one."
For now, his music -- and his love life -- have taken a backseat to getting healthy. Wilson will likely sit out this Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears because of a knee injury suffered against the Giants.
Green Bay is hoping to have Wilson back on the field for the playoffs. And if the Packers do make it to the Super Bowl in New Orleans, you can bet on another Wilson-led sing-along on the eve of the big game.