A little less than a year ago, James Wilder Jr. was looking to make a return to the Canadian Football League after announcing his retirement during to COVID-19-cancelled 2020 season. The start of his career was fruitful, winning the Grey Cup in his first season with the Toronto Argonauts, but the end to his tenure was rocky. He signed with the Edmonton Elks with only one thing in mind, getting back to where he knew he could be.
“I was just ready to make it happen,” Wilder said. “There were so many people saying I had lost it, or I just had one good season, and I was ready to prove to people that I’m still performing at a high level.”
Hearing all that negativity takes a toll on anyone’s confidence, and that was the case for Wilder. He still knew he was good, but he had to prove to himself that he was still the same player he was in his rookie season.
“I did, I’m not going to lie, I did,” Wilder said. “I had to prove to myself I still had it. With the COVID year and literally having to live in a bubble, it forced you to hyper-focus because you had nothing else to do and you couldn’t go anywhere.”
If a dose of confidence was what he was looking for, Wilder found it immediately, making his first rush of the Elks’ week one game against the Ottawa Redblacks count. It was a big one with a handful of broken tackles, and it got the hometown crowd going.
“That felt good,” Wilder said. “It was just that adrenaline rush that you get when you run through somebody. You control the fans by what you do. You stiff-arm a guy and the fans cheer, you run over a guy and they cheer louder. That gives me energy.”
In 2021, Wilder enjoyed one of his best statistical seasons, but for the Elks as a whole, the season was dismal. They finished the season tied for the worst record in the league with the Redblacks at 3-11, but lost the tie-breaker. Despite the great season individually, Wilder couldn’t feel the same satisfaction as he did as a rookie in Toronto, thanks to the team’s poor record.
“I couldn’t appreciate it because we were losing our games,” Wilder said. “I remember that I had my personal goals, I wanted to lead the league in everything, and I wanted my yards per carry to be better than all the other running backs. I want to be the best.”
“I wasn’t even able to show everything that I am capable of showing,” Wilder said. “We couldn’t run the ball last year because we were always losing by a huge margin. We were always forced to throw the ball, and all my runs were in the first quarter, and then by the second quarter, we were down by 20.”
With the chance to leave Edmonton for potentially greener pastures in the offseason, Wilder decided to stay. There was one big reason, and his name is Chris Jones.
“Chris Jones coming in, honestly,” said Wilder. “I love his style, I love what he brings to the table, the standards he expects, I love everything about him. I didn’t want to have the kind of career where I’m bouncing from team to team.”
Where Jones goes, winning seems to follow. Wilder says that there has already been a dramatic shift in the feeling in the locker room compared to last season, and it has been largely spearheaded by Jones’s cavalier attitude.
“You can sense it,” Wilder said. “You could sense it from day one, the energy was different. The standard was different, the standard of our food was different, everything was different. Jones is just me versus everybody, and there’s a lot of people ready to run through a wall for him.”
“It’s a championship team. I’ve been on championship teams at every level, and that’s what it is. When you get a whole bunch of guys on a team that allows you to be yourself, a team that’s close, is family-oriented [it makes a championship team].”
“When I was in Toronto, everyone was counting S.J. Green out because of his age,” Wilder continued. “They were counting Ricky Ray out, and DeVier Posey. I’m getting those vibes again, and I think what really carried us through in Toronto was those veterans.”
Wilder is no longer learning from those veteran names, however. He is now one of those players, and he’s taking his new role in stride.
“I’ve got guys calling me ‘Unc’ and ‘OG’ in the locker room,” Wilder said. “At first I was like ‘damn, I’m getting old,’ but I’m embracing it. “It’s a blessing to still be able to play the position that I play after being in it for this long at a high level.”
One of the driving factors Wilder and the Elks are the fans in Edmonton. Last season, they made it clear that the amount of losing wasn’t acceptable, and the players are taking it personally to turn everything around.
“This is extremely personal,” Wilder said. “As soon as the season ended, the vets talked as said we’ve gotta come back because that wasn’t it. We’ve gotta do this for the city. Derel Walker told us this is the city of champions, and they will get behind you and this will be the best place in the whole world to play when you’re winning.”
Wilder is also pushing to reach his own personal goals this season. He’s never been able to reach to 1,000 yards rushing mark, and he wants to not only get there in 2022, but blow right by it.
“I want to get there,” Wilder said. “The goal is to get 2,000 all-purpose yards, 1,500 rushing yards, and an average yards per carry of 6.5. You’ve gotta hit those personal goals. I don’t care what anyone says, your goal should be to be the best. I also need to start every game if I want to hit these goals. The only reason I’ve never hit 1,000 yards is I wasn’t keeping myself durable, except for last season.”
“I’ve never been afraid to put my goals out there, that’s what I’m going for,” Wilder said. “It’s not to offend anybody else, but if another running back out there kills it, I’m rooting for them. That drives me more.”
With week one in BC set to be a near-capacity crowd, Wilder is excited to play in a building featuring a playoff-like atmosphere.
“I can not wait, I’m so excited,” Wilder said. “This is how you start the season! This is what it’s about. These are the games that feel like you are in the playoffs.”
As for what would make their Vancouver road trip successful, Wilder only has two things in mind.
“Going out there and getting the team win,” Wilder said. “After the win, I want to go out there and lead the league is rushing yards and touchdowns. Let’s get this thing started, I got goals to hit. I want to lead the league and have some fun.”
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