For two months, the Bengals have wondered when their first-round draft choice was going to make his presence felt in pro football. Sunday, at last, was a start.
After eight weeks of relative invisibility, Wilson resurfaced on an inspired rampage in the Bengals' 38-31 victory over San Diego. The rookie linebacker recorded his first two sacks as a professional, thought he deserved a third, and sent San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries to Christ Hospital with a hit that was both penalized and propitious.
All in all, it was a full day's work, and yet Wilson would leave Cinergy Field with some of his business still unfinished.
He had some telephone calls to attend to; some abuse to repay. Mainly, Wilson wanted to reach out and taunt Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks, an old friend from Florida State, who had called recently to tease him about his sack total.
''This is a big relief,'' Wilson said. ''It feels like a new start. When they bring you here to get sacks and you don't get any in eight games, there's a lot of pressure. I just needed to start out fresh.''
It is a fact of football life that rookies are rarely up to speed before their first season is finished, and it is a fact of football economics that they are grossly overpaid. Because Wilson has been a little slower on the uptake, the smiles he had prompted on Draft Day had started to turn to scowls.
Finally, a sack
''You could see it was bothering him,'' said Bengals cornerback Corey Sawyer. ''He was doing things that weren't Reinard. He wanted to get the sack so bad that he wasn't doing what he was supposed to do in the defense. He wanted to bullrush when he was in coverage.''
In eight weeks, he made only 17 tackles, and twice lost his starting position at right outside linebacker to journeyman Gerald Dixon.
Last season, Florida coach Steve Spurrier accused the Florida State defense of treating his quarterback like a ''tackling dummy.'' This season, Wilson had kept so much distance between himself and opposing quarterbacks that one wondered if he were operating under a restraining order.
Officially, Wilson recorded his first pro sack late in Sunday's third quarter, tackling Chargers' backup Craig Whelihan for a nine-yard loss that necessitated a punt. Personally, Wilson was perturbed that he had been deprived of a sack earlier in the period, when officials ruled an incomplete pass on what he considered a forced fumble.
Sends QB to hospital
Yet harsh as it might sound, Wilson's biggest contribution to the Cincinnati cause Sunday was a personal foul. He put Humphries on a stretcher with a late hit with 4:44 remaining in the third period. The infraction cost the Bengals 15 yards, but it cost the Chargers a quarterback with Super Bowl credentials.
''I don't think it was anything intentional,'' said Bengals coach Bruce Coslet. ''I don't think he threw him down, or tried to rough him or anything like that. I think it just happened.''
''Looking at it on the (scoreboard) screen, it looked like a legal hit,'' said Dick LeBeau, the defensive coordinator.
For 10 minutes or more, as Humphries lay on the turf surrounded by doctors, Wilson wandered the Bengals sideline with his eyes fixed on the accident scene. It was easy to imagine him concerned for Humphries' condition, but also incorrect.
Earning his keep
''People get hurt every game,'' Wilson said. ''They pay more attention when it's a quarterback. I hope he's not hurt, but I don't really feel bad or nothing . . . We probably had a better chance with him out.''
Pro football can be a brutal business, and Wilson did not make it by being squeamish. The Bengals picked him, in fact, for his ability to inflict punishment, and they rejoiced Sunday that he had begun to deliver.
''He was an impact player today,'' Coslet said. ''It's one of the reasons we drafted him.''