John Battle High School senior Tony Ashe stood near the starting line and listened to instructions from coach Randy Smith prior to the final event of a dual track and field meet against rival Virginia High in the spring of 1978.
Ashe was running the third leg in the mile relay for the Trojans and glanced over to see who he’d be turning his lap against, figuring it could be Michael Hughes, possibly Richard Clark or perhaps John Austin.
Instead, he got a sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized that he’d be racing against the best athlete for the Bearcats and Bristol’s king of speed: Darryal Wilson.
“I thought ‘Oh, man, this may not end well for me.’ I knew that on my best day I was three seconds slower than Darryal’s average quarter mile,” Ashe said. “Billy Brooks gives me the baton for my third leg and I have a cushion of 30 yards or so. I take off knowing it will be difficult for me to give Darren Wagner, our anchor leg, a chance.
“We race about 300 yards and I can hear Darryal closing the gap quickly. On the backstretch he finishes making up the 30-yard deficit and we pass the baton simultaneously for our anchors to finish the race. I had ran the best 440 leg that I was capable of and Darryal Wilson embarrassed me by making up the 30 yards or so headstart that I had. Nothing was said by my peers afterwards because at some point they had been a Darryal Wilson victim too athletically.”
Wilson did indeed leave many competitors in the dust as one of Southwest Virginia’s greatest all-around athletes.
He quarterbacked Virginia High to a 9-1 record on the gridiron in 1977, averaged 19.2 points per game on the basketball court as a senior and won state championships in the 100 and 440 at the VHSL Group AA state track and field meet as a junior.
The success continued at the University of Tennessee as he captured two NCAA national titles in the 4x400 relay, played wide receiver for the Volunteers and was a second-round pick of the New England Patriots in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Wilson did it all in a blur as it was a sight to behold when he turned on the jets.
“He was the fastest athlete I saw during high school,” said Steve Wright, the leading tackler as a linebacker for the 1977 VHS football squad. “On the football field he could score from anywhere. No one was going to catch him.”
That included his teammates during practice.
“He was so fast he outran all of us backwards in the 40-yard dash,” remembered teammate Randy Stamey.
Wilson took the snaps and directed the offense for one of the best teams Virginia High ever put on the football field. The ‘77 Bearcats averaged 34.3 points per game, while giving up just 8.1 points per contest.
Wilson finished the season with 624 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground to go along with 580 yards through the air with four TD passes in spearheading a balanced and explosive attack.
“Coach [Fred] Fisher took us to scrimmage Knoxville Doyle,” Stamey said. “Everyone on their team looked like linebackers. … The first play from scrimmage he ran an 80-yard touchdown.”
A 31-12 loss to Gate City in the fourth game of the season was the only blemish on the Bearcats’ record and prevented them from claiming the Southwest District championship and the Region IV playoff bid that went along with it.
A 14-8 win over Graham was the only VHS victory not decided by double digits.
“I played against two great football teams in high school,” said Sam McKinney, a quarterback for the Abingdon Falcons at the time. “One was the 1974 Gate City team that won state and the other was that 1977 Virginia High team.”
Wilson threw a 75-yard scoring strike to Stamey in a season-opening win over Grundy, rushed for 215 yards and four touchdowns – reaching the end zone from 43, 26, 66 and 30 yards out – against Patrick Henry and piled up 170 rushing yards and 135 passing yards in a triumph over Richlands.
In the final game of his prep career, he passed for 117 yards as Virginia High trounced Tennessee High by a 50-7 count at the Stone Castle. It remains the most lopsided win for the Bearcats in the series against the Vikings.
The 6-foot-2, 172-pound Wilson showcased his superior athletic skills on the hardwood each winter as well.
“When you thought you had successfully blocked Darryal out underneath the basket he often would literally jump over you and grab the rebound cleanly and quickly get the ball to David Canter or Mark Worley to press the court with a fast break,” Ashe said. “He was a consistent double-double player in points and rebounds game after game and altered shots defensively with his cat-quick ability to get into the air.”
Wilson’s speed set him apart on the track, but he didn’t rely on just those God-given abilities.
He honed his skills by looking for an edge and never rested on his past achievements.
The speedster was once timed at 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
“I remember one Sunday morning I had to stop by school to pick something up. I lived in Piney Flats and Darryal was out on the track getting in some extra work,” said Ron Helmer, Wilson’s track coach at VHS. “This is not something we talked about, but he knew a lot of the distance runners had work to do on Sundays and I guess he figured he should do the same.
“Had I not seen him, I’m not sure he would have ever mentioned it. It wasn’t like it is today sometimes, where everyone wanted to get involved with the great athletes and hold extra sessions outside what the coach recommended. He was just out there by himself, doing extra work.”
A pulled muscle hampered Wilson during his senior year on the track and prevented him from repeating his state titles, but he was still a show-stopper on occasion.
Ashe remembered the 1978 Abingdon Relays when Wilson went outside his comfort zone and with his leg wrapped up in bandages won the 880-yard run.
“Coach Ron Helmer had Darryal participate in two events that meet as opposed to his normal five due to the injury rehabilitation,” Ashe said. “He finished second to Abingdon’s Gary Hammer in the 100-yard dash. Next up was the 880. … Needless to say everyone watched this competition as a sprinter joins a race he had never run before and never did again. Darryal won that race in 2:01 in a photo finish.
“I had never heard nor witnessed a state champion in the 100 run a half-mile competitively, especially when you consider the injury recovery aspect that Darryal pushed through on that day and the magnitude of the meet.”
Those who competed with – and against – Wilson offered varying opinions on what was his best sport in high school. Most said track, some said football and others swore he was equally gifted in all three.
Regardless, it was unanimous that he was a must-see competitor.
“When Darryal Wilson crossed the track, basketball court or football field, people watched and noticed,” Ashe said. “It went unsaid at track and field meets that when the sprints and relays were being aligned as the next event, participants, coaches, parents and fans took their place at the track to see what Darryal Wilson was going to post that day – perhaps a meet, school or state record.”
Wilson’s winning ways continued in the national spotlight after arriving at Tennessee.
In 1980, Wilson teamed with Al Horne, Lamar Preyor and Anthony Blair to win the NCAA Division I national title in the 4x400 relay at Austin, Texas, in a time of 3:03.94.
A highlight of the final moments of the exciting race can be found on YouTube as Blair came from sixth place to give the quartet a win over a group of runners from Kansas.
“It was about 94 degrees,” Horne said. “Darryal ran the second leg and I handed him the baton and he kept us in the fight.”
In 1981, Wilson was part of another national championship foursome in the 4x400 relay as this group was triumphant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They clocked in at 3:03.08.
Relays were Wilson’s specialty.
“We called him reel to reel,” Horne said. “When he ran on a relay team he was a whole different person. He stepped it up a level. He might run 47.4 in the open 400 and then run 45.4 on the relay. That’s amazing and that’s a phenomenon right there. I don’t know anybody else who could do that.”
He finished as a five-time All-American on the track, while also catching passes at Neyland Stadium against Southeastern Conference rivals.
“It was awesome to see Darryal succeed at such a high level at UT,” Helmer said. “I was his biggest fan at that point. Darryal was one of the best.”
The Vols were referred to as Wide Receiver U frequently at the time as Wilson played alongside fellow track teammates and future NFL standouts Willie Gault, Anthony Hancock and Mike Miller.
He hauled in 23 receptions for 308 yards and a TD from quarterback Alan Cockrell as a senior for the Vols. He was the 47th overall selection by the Patriots in the stacked ‘83 NFL Draft.
“I’m ecstatic about that pick,” New England coach Ron Meyer told the Boston Globe.
However, Wilson’s pro football career ended prematurely after an injury in the ninth game of his rookie season against the Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
“I was on special teams and went down on a kickoff,” Wilson told the Bristol Herald Courier’s George Stone in 1997. “I got in on the play and I took a hard lick to my right knee. But I ran off the field and kept thinking that it would be something I could shake off. This was in the second quarter and I finished the game. We flew back into Foxboro and the next morning I got out of bed and I couldn’t move. I went to the doctor and it was torn cartilage.”
Wilson was as elusive tracking down this week on the telephone as he used to be on the gridiron and could not be reached for comment for this story. He can let the accomplishments speak for themselves, something he’s been apt to do.
“Having grown up with Darryal as a childhood friend, I can honestly say that the moment never got too big,” said VHS teammate David Kirkpatrick. “He has remained a humble person his entire life.”
Now, for a look at high school basketball moments which occurred this week in history:
Dec. 15, 1955
Eddie Rhymer (22 points) and Vance Ramsey (13 points) led the way as Blountville bested the Holston Eagles, 73-55. … Preston Buchanan scored 14 points as Rich Valley recorded a 49-32 win over Glade Spring. Clark Hutton accounted for half of Glade’s points. … Howard Torbett and Benny Curd of Mary Hughes scored 20 points apiece in a 62-57 triumph over Holston Valley.
Dec. 16, 1960
Frank Hanson fired in 34 points as Lebanon crushed Chilhowie, 98-42. … James “Bones” Owens (21 points) led the way in Grundy’s 63-57 win over Saltville. … Rich Valley edged John Battle, 49-48, as Bill Neal converted the game-winning shot with three seconds left.
Dec. 15, 1972
David Price (12 points, nine rebounds), Darrell Poore (12 points), Gary Rolen (12 points), John Fandl (10 points, nine rebounds) and Steve Rutledge (10 points) all scored in double figures as Sullivan Central stomped Elizabethton, 70-47. … Behind 30 points from Ray Robinson, Pound posted an 83-64 victory over J.J. Kelly. … The trio of Steve Mellinger (21 points), Tony Edmondson (16 points) and Charlie Smith (14 points) set the pace in Patrick Henry’s 69-68 win over Richlands.
Dec. 20, 1988
Mark Belcher had a double-double (18 points, 14 rebounds) and Chad Taylor scored the go-ahead bucket with 35 seconds remaining in Garden’s 69-68 win over Gate City. … Cary Perkins pumped in 35 points as Grundy outlasted J.I. Burton for a 102-93 victory. … Abingdon’s Jonathon Jonas led the way with 25 points as the Falcons flew past Patrick Henry, 88-44.