When they were first-graders in Mississippi, and their older brothers refused to play football with them, David Cobb and Damien Wilson used to square off one-on-one. They’d find somebody to play quarterback and take turns clobbering each other after every completed pass.
The two cousins were attached at the hip then, as they are now, but extremely competitive. Their rivalry was on display last week in their apartment at Roy Wilkins Hall on University Avenue.
A few days earlier, Cobb and Wilson had helped the Gophers reclaim the Little Brown Jug from Michigan for the first time since 2005. They had a bye week to get ready for Saturday’s showdown against Northwestern.
So after practice, the two seniors settled onto their L-shaped couch, fastened their eyes on their 82-inch television, and waged battle in a game of “FIFA 15” on PlayStation 4.
“That’s offsides!” Wilson said, moments into the match.
“No, it’s not! No, it’s not!” Cobb said.
Soccer isn’t their sport anyway. They’ve blossomed into two of the top football players in the Big Ten, even though they took different paths to Minnesota.
Wilson is the conference’s fourth-leading tackler, and Cobb is the nation’s sixth-leading rusher. The accolades keep piling up, and both have been mentioned as potential NFL draft picks.
“We haven’t done anything important yet,” Wilson said. “We’re not even halfway through [the season].”
But they have done enough already to make coach Jerry Kill giddy. It’s hard to imagine where his team would be without these two members of the same extended family from Gloster, Miss., population 960.
A special bond
Cobb’s father and Wilson’s mother are brother and sister. Of all the male cousins in the family, Cobb and Wilson are the youngest, born just six days apart in 1993.
They were so determined to play with their older brothers, their parents signed them up for a flag football league in Gloster, years ahead of schedule. There’s a photo of Cobb and Wilson from that first-grade season with their blue sweatpants pulled almost to their armpits.
“Neither one of us got the ball back then,” Wilson said.
“My brother and his brother and our other cousins were kind of like the stars of the team,” Cobb said. “We just ran around, chasing the flag.”
Little did they know that would be the last time they’d be teammates again until college.
The cousins had to say goodbye in second grade, when Cobb’s family moved to Germany, where his father, Caesar, was stationed as an Army lieutenant.
“It was sad,” Cobb said.
“I believe he cried,” Wilson said, nodding to his roommate, only half-kidding.
When the Cobbs returned from Germany, three years later, they moved to Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood. But the two cousins got together every couple months, usually in Mississippi.
“At night, I’d go into Damien’s room, and he’d be on the phone,” his mother, Pat Wilson, said. “I’d say, ‘Who are you talking to? Go to bed.’ And he’d say, ‘I’m talking to Dave.’ ”
Taking different paths
Cobb had a standout career at Ellison High School in Killeen, rushing for nearly 3,000 yards at the top level of Texas high school football (5A). He had an offer from Stanford at one point but remained uncommitted one week after national signing day. The Gophers had just hired Kill, and they invited Cobb to campus for a visit, making him a late addition to their 2011 class.
Wilson went from Amite County High School in Mississippi to Alcorn State, where he spent his freshman year as an undersized defensive end.
“I never thought I’d be playing with Dave, to tell you the truth,” Wilson said. “When I went to Alcorn, I just gave up on playing with him.”
As a sophomore, Wilson transferred to Jones County (Miss.) Community College, where he played middle linebacker for former NFL coach Ray Perkins. More than 120 tackles later, he earned a national defensive player of the year award.
Meanwhile, Cobb was buried on the bench with the Gophers. He had 10 carries as a freshman and just one as a sophomore. One day that November, he received a random call from Kill.
“I wasn’t the happiest person that season,” Cobb said. “I remember looking at my phone going, ‘Why is Coach Kill calling me?’ ”
“You thought you were in trouble,” Wilson said, and Cobb didn’t disagree.
But Kill had called to say, “Guess where I’m sitting? I’m at your grandma’s house [in Gloster], talking about Damien.”
The Gophers signed Wilson that December, and he enrolled the following month, moving in with Cobb in the two-bedroom apartment they still share now.
“I already knew what was going to happen with [Wilson’s success],” Cobb said. “In the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t have him come up here and play better than me!”
Cobb laughed at the thought.
“Then my family would look at me, crazy,” he said. “I think him being up here kind of helped me and motivated me a little bit.”
Two late bloomers
Wilson stepped right in as Minnesota’s starting middle linebacker last year and finished second on the team with 78 tackles. Cobb opened the season third on the tailback depth chart and didn’t get his first start until Game 7, at Northwestern. He finished with 1,202 rushing yards.
This year, they could make those stats look small. After pushing each other to lose about 10 pounds apiece, they are both faster and more dynamic.
Assuming Minnesota reaches another bowl game, Wilson is on pace to make 133 tackles, the most for a Gopher since Jack Brewer had 155 tackles in 2001.
And Cobb is on pace for 1,877 rushing yards, which would shatter Laurence Maroney’s school record of 1,464 from 2005. All of this also assumes good health, of course.
Cobb and Wilson both suffered ankle injuries in the Sept. 13 loss at Texas Christian. The next day, Cobb emerged from his bedroom and told Wilson his ankle still was hurting.
“That ain’t pain,” Wilson told him. “Pain is when you’re sitting in the living room on draft day, and they ain’t calling your name.”
“That kind of stuck with me, a little bit,” Cobb said. “ ‘He’s right. My ankle’s not hurting.’ ”
Cobb said Wilson has motivated him with his classwork, too. Both are on track to graduate in December — Wilson with a degree in business and marketing education, and Cobb in sport management.
Soon after that, whether their next step is the NFL or corporate America, they’ll pack up their apartment, boxing the video games with their memories of all-day laughter, and maybe head their separate ways again.
“I don’t think that’s hit me,” Wilson said. “It probably will, but not yet.”
For now, they are focused on Northwestern, and their shared dream of a Big Ten title. These days, their on-field duties involve a little more than chasing the flag.