IRVING, Texas – From on-field pains to off-field tragedies, J.J. Wilcox felt like his rookie season was almost a lost year.
It's hard to blame the safety, who suffered a knee injury and, most excruciatingly, lost his mother during his rookie year. Combining that with learning a position he'd only played for a year in college, and the year didn't go exactly as he'd expected.
"I had to get myself together," Wilcox said. "I had to be physically and mentally tough, and it taught me a lesson that she's not here physically, but she's here mentally. That helped me be a stronger man."
It's impossible to lose a close family member and not expect those emotions to carry over to the field, and Wilcox admitted it affected his on-field performance last year. Before the season starts this year, it'll have been a year since Wilcox lost his mother and went through that grueling experience.
She will always remain a part of Wilcox, though, even if not physically.
"It's tough losing someone you grew up with, and I was a mama's boy," Wilcox said. "The reason I got here and grinded my tail off to get here was for her and to see her in a better place and see her happy. But she's still there for me and she saw me where I wanted to be and she had seen I was happy, so, you know, God needed an angel."
Unlike last season, Wilcox enters this year as the favorite during Organized Team Activities to start the season alongside Barry Church. The Cowboys' brass have made no mistake that they'd like to see Wilcox roaming the secondary to start the year, and Wilcox said it helps to know that they want him to be the guy.
It also tells the former third-round pick he has to be on his game immediately, and with his knee fully healthy and last season behind him, he feels prepared to do that.
"I think I grew a whole lot from year one," Wilcox said. "To know they got the respect for me to put me in with the ones, I want to show them that it's going to pay off."
Growing pains are still likely to ensue, and Wilcox said he's still learning the defense and where the offense will attack, but he believes the year of experience he had will allow him to play faster. The safety immediately stood out during camp last year as a playmaker, and he thinks he can build on that.
"The game's slowed down a little bit for me, and my teammates are helping me progress," Wilcox said. "They pushed me all this offseason to get better and to understand the game, and I think as a rookie until your second year, that's the thing you have to understand – the game and the speed of it."
He also understands he's the frontrunner to earn a starting safety spot with a strong start to camp, and he thinks of himself as a starter and a leader entering 2014.
"Oh yeah, you've got to have confidence coming in this league, and I definitely think I'm capable of doing it," Wilcox said.