State of the Hogs:

George Wilson worthy of Kentucky honor

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, February 25, 2022
Buffalo Bills' George Wilson (37) runs an interception for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter of the NFL football game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday, Oct. 8, 2007. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)
Buffalo Bills' George Wilson (37) runs an interception for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter of the NFL football game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday, Oct. 8, 2007. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

There were great plans to write about Kentucky basketball this week. With the mighty Wildcats coming to Bud Walton Arena, why not?

Then came an email that George Wilson would be available for discussion of his summer induction in the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wilson rates in the top five of my all-time favorite Arkansas football players.

Further research revealed that Reggie Swinton, a Little Rock Central product, would also be in that class. He played for Houston Nutt at Murray State before playing for 12 pro teams — seven in the NFL — in eight years.

So on a day when the nation will zoom in on Kentucky-Arkansas basketball, a Zoom call turned the focus just briefly to Kentucky football.

Wilson played for Nutt's Razorbacks from 2000-03, was named captain as a senior and to the All-Decade team for 2000-09. He caught 144 passes for 2,151 yards. That’s seventh on both career lists.

Both Wilson and Swinton are long shots for inclusion in that unique Kentucky hall of fame created in 2003, the only state to have anything like it. Both went to college as walk-ons, given scholarships by Nutt before their sophomore seasons. 

That they are in any hall of fame is incredible. Wilson did it by switching to defense for a nine-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans that featured great special teams play. Swinton was a standout return specialist with the Dallas Cowboys for parts of three seasons.

Swinton said his only legit chance to play in college came from Nutt. He said it was either walking on at Murray State, or a job at McDonald’s. He said his ACT score was too low to attend his dream school, Arkansas.

Wilson’s dreams were just the opposite, playing for Kentucky, his older brother Kiyo’s school from 1993-96. He got to Arkansas thanks to high academic test scores.

There was a stunning revelation Thursday when Wilson said in the Zoom that Kentucky assistant coach Joker Phillips came to his home to offer a scholarship to his brother.

“I was in the sixth grade,” Wilson said. “When he got to the front door, he turned back to me and said, ‘I’m coming back for you in six years.’

“I repeated those words back to myself every day when I was going to school, when I was going to practice. I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s coming back to get me like he said he was, but if he does, I’m going to be ready and I’m going to give him a reason to come looking for me.’”

Instead, Phillips was gone when Wilson starred for Paducah Tilghman as a wide receiver in a single-wing offense that rarely passed. Hal Mumme was the Kentucky head coach with the dream offense for Wilson, the Air Raid that broke most SEC records with quarterback Tim Couch.  

Eventually, Wilson broke a record in Lexington, when he requested 77 tickets for an away game. The Hogs outlasted the Wildcats 71-63 in seven overtimes in 2003. Wilson caught nine passes for 172 yards, the top game in his career.

“It’s definitely the highlight game in my career,” Wilson said. “I came back and had the last say.”

That the Wildcats didn’t want him stunned Wilson.

“I was the top-rated wide receiver in the state, but there was a knock on my speed,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t 4.3 or 4.4 in the 40. But I always thought I could outwork anybody else, get in and out of my breaks better and be crafty with my routes. I always thought (UK) was where I’d play.”

Wilson’s break with Arkansas came deep in his high school senior year when staffer Justin Crouse, assistant recruiting coordinator to Fitz Hill, went home to see his alma mater in an open week.

“His school played Tilghman and I had 100 yards receiving by halftime,” Wilson said. “He saw my best half. I started getting letters from Arkansas the next week. That was the only SEC school to show any interest at all. I had an academic scholarship, so that’s where I went.”

Hill said the tape evaluation was stunning. It was a no-brainer to recruit Wilson, but all scholarships were gone.

“We had already committed Boo Williams, Richard Smith and Sparky Hamilton,” Hill said. “But George was right with those guys in ability. I just knew we’d have a scholarship for him by his second year. He was SEC quality. We just found him late.”

Told that in a phone interview Wednesday, Wilson said, “I didn’t know any of that, just that I was going to prove to them that I deserved a scholarship, and I did. They put me on the scout team that first fall and I went against David Barrett, an All-SEC corner. I just tried to beat him every play.”

The scholarship came in the summer.

“I will never forget this and I tell it to someone all the time,” Wilson said. “Cell phones had just gotten big and I got a call from Coach Hill that I had a scholarship. We were two weeks before camp. Jimmy Beasley, my roommate, got a call, too.

“We were in our apartment at College Park. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got my opportunity because a player who had signed that winter got picked up for shoplifting.

“That’s how things happen; you have to be ready when someone else misses their opportunity.

“So that’s my story. What you do right minute by minute, day by day is important. Your destiny is about making right decisions. It’s a shame it works that way, but you have to be ready to capitalize when someone else makes a bad choice.

“It was just the same for me in the NFL. That’s my DNA, my testimony.”

Wilson preaches it, too. He’s always been the best leader in any locker room.

“We got a call from a Buffalo scout in about George’s second year there,” Nutt said. “He told us that George was immediately their best leader in the locker room. That’s what he was for us, captain and leader. He was that before he was named captain as a senior. No one has ever led better.”

Wilson said it was easy with the leadership that came before him, especially in the wide receiver room with Hill. 

“My first day on campus — and remember I’m a walk-on — Anthony Lucas and Mike Williams came and got us all and took us to their apartment on Porter Road,” Wilson said. “They cooked for us — first day.

“That wide receiver room my first year had Lucas, Williams, Hubert Loudermilk and Emanuel Smith. They brought me, Richard, Boo and Sparky into the group immediately.” 

Hill said it was easy to see Wilson flourishing in that group.

“I knew he would fit,” Hill said. “When we brought him in for a visit, Lucas and those guys said, ‘Coach, he’s us. He’s perfect for the Jet Fraternity.’ That’s what we called our wide receiver room. 

“George had impeccable class. He always did and everyone saw it. I am not sure he was ever late for one meeting. He was perfect and you heard that everywhere he went.” 

The Bills didn’t just recognize it, they promoted Wilson’s leadership to anyone who would listen. Twice they nominated Wilson for the NFL’s top honor, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. His teammates voted him as their rep to the NFL Player’s Association. 

“What a humbling experience to be voted to anything associated to the greatest person to play football,” Wilson said. “Walter Payton was not just productive on the field, but off of the field, too.

“That’s always been my goal. When I got to Arkansas, I found out about (Arkansas Athletes Outreach) and I volunteered to everything they did. When I got to Buffalo, I went to their community outreach board and told them to put me with everything they did.

“I came from a small town. There are not a lot of success stories. Not a lot of people who look like me made it there. I never forgot that — give back, use your platform to help others. I went to schools, read to them. It was my passion. It still is my passion. 

“I remind myself daily that my work is not done. God gave me this platform and I am always mindful of the influence I can bring to young people. I don’t leave anyone hanging. I try to be consistent.”

Wilson established his S.A.F.E.T.Y. Foundation 12 years ago. It stands for Save Adolescents From Everyday Trials of Youth. There is a vast network of outreach efforts in the rural areas of Western Kentucky touched by his foundation.

“I have some business associates in Paducah,” Hill said. “George is so highly respected there. None of it surprises me.”

Nutt marveled at the impression Wilson made across campus. He wore business clothes to class, always with a tie. Faculty reported that to the coaches.

“It was a fraternity practice,” Wilson said, noting all members of Omega Phi Psi wore ties to class on Mondays and sat in the front row. 

“I think that caught the attention of Coach Nutt, but we were all doing that, not just me. He took a liking to our fraternity. My senior year he brought the entire staff to the Greek Theatre to watch our step show.”

Wilson became close to his head coach and Nutt's brother, running backs coach Danny, through weekly basketball games in the winter.

“It was Jimmy Beasley, Ken Hamlin and me against Coach Nutt, Danny Nutt and another coach," Wilson said. "We did beat them once." 


“That’s about right,” Nutt said. “I will say this, we played a lot of our players over the years and those three are the only ones who beat them. We drubbed them starting out, but by the time they were done, they were beating us.

“I think our intensity and range surprised them. Those were some great 3-on-3 games. We played best of seven. You played by ones, but three-pointers got two. A lot of times we’d make the first three shots and we’d be up 6-1." 

Wilson said the players had no idea the coaches could shoot from so far away. 

"They were not even close to the three-point line," Wilson said. "We figured them out finally. Gosh, those coaches played hard and the bond we established with them was important.

“It was like that with our team under Coach Nutt, just incredible family. That was part of why we played so hard for him, how he made it family.”

The players bonded off the field, too, and not just with coaches. Eddie Jackson, Wilson’s roommate, was a budding chef and cooked for most of the team in the offseason.

“We had great barbecue at our house and everyone came to eat,” Wilson said. “Eddie’s cooking was fantastic. It would be good food and lots of Madden (football video games). The culture was just so good and Coach Nutt established that.

“We had an incredible locker room. That tone was set for me the first day when Lucas picked me up.

“We worked together, we were grinders in the weight room and our lifting. We became men together.

“My memories are so fond of my time at Arkansas. The amazing thing is that so many of my teammates also played in the NFL and our relationships continued. Bobbie Williams was the union rep for Cincinnati, so we worked together off the field. Bobbie was a great leader at Arkansas. In fact, we had great leaders at every position.”

The Wilson way always started with hard work.

“You take a team first approach and work, good things happen,” he said. “That’s what I was taught growing up. There is no substitute for hard work. If you work hard, there is hope.”

The other central theme — and this goes back to any interview anyone has done with Wilson — is that God was first.

“I had one constant prayer growing up: Dear God, let me live out my dream to play in the NFL," he said. 

Wilson puts an asterisk on that prayer. 

“I don’t like to be selfish and I don’t think God makes that kind of a deal, but I believe He did his part," Wilson said. 

“There is great beauty in life when there is hope. But I also tell the young people I’m around that life is hard, but it’s also fair. What you get is what you earn.”

Wilson returned to Arkansas games three times last season, beginning with the Texas game.

“What a great experience,” he said. “I was honorary captain for the Texas game with Kenoy Kennedy, Jim Lindsey, Clint Stoerner, Jerry Jones, Chris Houston and Isaac Davis. I also went to the A&M game in Arlington and the Georgia game in Athens. One of my homes is in Atlanta.”

Former trainer Dean Weber, now with the Razorback Foundation, played a role in those trips.

“I reached out to Dean about coming back and he helped make it happen,” Wilson said. “I wanted to come back. When I saw him, it was one of the tightest hugs ever. I have so many great memories. 

“What I remember Dean saying in that hug, ‘If you ever need one thing, you call me.’ It made me so happy to hear that. Coming back and the reception meant the world.

“It was great to see (Arkansas tight ends coach and former player) Dowell Loggains. I got to know him at Tennessee and kept up with him around the league. I’m not surprised he’s doing well in recruiting because he’s good with people.”

Wilson put up good numbers in the NFL. He made 525 tackles. Among his 14 interceptions was a pick-six against Tony Romo on Monday Night Football.

“I’m not surprised he excelled on defense,” Nutt said. “We thought he could play a lot of different places for us — strong safety, free safety, outside linebacker, slot receiver, split receiver or tailback. He was that talented.

“He was as hard of a worker as we had. He played with strength and he was incredible going over the middle and catching in a crowd. He was not afraid and he had great hands. I do not want to minimize how great he was at blocking. Our big runs most always featured a great block by George. He gave us a boost on special teams. I can’t say enough good things about George.”

Nutt has a great memory from the 38-28 victory over Texas in Austin in 2003.

“George made a play near the sideline and Lyndy Lindsey was standing close,” Nutt said. “George got up and went straight to Lyndy and said, ‘Does it make you proud to see me wearing your number?’

“How many players would know that Lyndy also wore No. 88? George had done the research to learn who else had worn 88 at Arkansas.”

Nutt compares Swinton to Wilson favorably because he earned his NFL stripes on special teams, too. He totaled 6,230 return yards in the NFL, including four return TDs. He caught 144 passes for 2,346 yards at Murray State.

Swinton has the distinction -- amazing in my thinking -- of being cut by seven NFL teams in five years. He was also cut three times in one year by Canadian teams. The Cowboys signed him because of a recommendation by Ron Calcagni, his coach, after a wonderful season with the Arkansas Twisters.

When the Cowboys wouldn't take Calcagni's calls, he drove to Dallas to talk to management and got Swinton an August tryout. Swinton left training to become a car salesman to fly to Dallas and make the team.

Bernie Cox, who coached Nutt and Swinton at Little Rock Central, pushed hard for the Murray State staff to look at Swinton.

“His ACT was a problem, but Bernie said, ‘You've got to take him,’ and we did,” Nutt said. “We gave him a scholarship at the end of the first semester. He was that good.

“Mike Cherry was our quarterback and he loved Reggie on deep or post-corner routes. He’d look off the safety and come back to Reggie on a vertical. The safety would never make it back. Reggie was that fast.

“We also loved Reggie on reverses and reverse passes. He was a left-handed passer and pretty good.

“Reggie overcame a lot. He had asthma and had a bad stuttering problem. He lacked confidence when we got him, but man could he play, just so fast.”

Swinton mentioned his issues with stuttering during his Zoom speech Thursday. He said he avoided speaking in public in earlier times, but he looks forward to a “tearful” speech in June at the induction ceremony, his highest honor. He promised the Swinton family would make a huge appearance in Lexington.

Community outreach has always been big with Swinton. He’s coached little league football and served in top state leadership AAU roles.

“Reggie brought some peewee teams to play in tournaments at the Star, the Jerry Jones facility in Frisco,” Nutt said. “He was just great with the kids. He’s a lot like George.”

Cox, the legendary Central coach with seven state titles, lauded Swinton's character.

"Reggie continues to make everyone at Little Rock Central smile," Cox said. "He did everything you would want for us -- play wideout, cover kicks and most importantly lead us on and off the field. He helped counsel players who might be having trouble off the field and was an extension of our staff. He is a credit to our school.
"He is right; he had a stuttering issue. But if we needed him to talk to a teammate, he did it, stuttering and all.

"I didn't know such a pro hall of fame exists in Kentucky, or in any state, but surely Reggie belongs there. He was a great player and could have excelled at any level of football and did. He was never very big, but the heart was huge. He had big-time ability."

Swinton delivered the funniest line in the Zoom interview. He said he was confused when he arrived at Murray State.

“I kept looking for some blue grass,” he said. “I didn’t find any anywhere.”

It’s probably a lot like this column. Most seeing Kentucky in the lead probably thought basketball would be mentioned at least some place.


Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.