Everybody thinks the highlight of Al Wilson’s career was winning the Grey Cup. Leading the BC Lions to their first sip from the 4th Earl Grey’s coveted silver chalice in 21 long years in 1985 certainly ranks up there for Wilson, but his personal highlight is an unexpected one.

“It was running out of the tunnel,” Wilson said in 2008. “I just loved running out of the tunnel to screaming crowds. That to me—running onto the field every game and competing and entertaining and just going for it—that was the highlight of my career.”

It actually makes perfect sense. For 15 years as the Leos’ heart and soul who all but bled orange, white, and black, Wilson never expected to get as far as he did in football. Every game in front of thousands was a gift, every accolade after that a bonus. The biggest of all came at the end of his career, his number 52 jersey retired by the Lions.

“That was probably the greatest honour I’d ever received that they would hang it up with the legends that were up there,” he said, his voice rife with emotion even years later. “That sort of brought it all home—that you had done something.”

He most certainly did, all the more remarkable considering where he started from.

Born and raised in Duncan, Wilson always seemed to be one of the last picked in whatever game was being played. Lacking speed and on the chubby side, he worked himself into shape until he was an early selection when teams were picked. He began playing football in high school with the Cowichan Secondary Timbermen, honing his skills as a defensive end, offensive guard, and tight end. He earned a full ride to Montana State University and played four years of college football for the Bobcats from 1968-72, serving as team captain in his senior year.

From there, he joined the BC Lions and never left, playing 233 career games with the club, third most in club history. Nicknamed ‘Dirt’, Wilson scrapped and clawed for every inch of it during fierce battles on the offensive line every snap. As the Lions rock-solid centre, Wilson was unusually durable for a lineman, suiting up for 167 consecutive games at one point. With the Lions he truly came into his own as a player.

“My career really blossomed there,” he said. “I never thought I would wind up where I did. I just kept working at the game and I loved playing the game. I think that’s what kept me going more than anything else, it wasn’t the goal to be really good or be the best, I just loved playing the game. It was my heart that was behind it more than anything else. The talent sort of caught up.”

Did it ever. Besides being named a CFL all-star on seven occasions, Wilson was also a three-time Western nominee for the CFL’s Schenley Award as most outstanding offensive lineman and won the honour in 1977.

He twice led BC to the Grey Cup, first in 1983 (falling to Toronto by a single point) and then of course in 1985, when the club won just its second championship.

After retiring, the City of Vancouver proclaimed June 28, 1987 as ‘Al Wilson Day.’ His hometown of Duncan went even farther, naming ‘Alan Wilson Boulevard’ and ‘Alan Wilson Park’ in his honour. Ten years later he earned induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. In 2003, as part of the Lions’ 50th anniversary, Wilson was named a member of the club’s All-Time Dream Team. In 2006, TSN named Wilson one of the CFL’s top-50 players of the modern era. He remains one of the most popular BC Lions of all time.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.