CINCINNATI – All week, emotions ran high for Emanuel Wilson.
Since signing with the Packers in May, the rookie running back knew his NFL debut would come on the same day Wilson's father, Manuel, was killed (Aug. 11, 2009) in Roanoke, Va., at just 31 years old.
Emanuel was 10 at the time. He still remembers playing football with his brother in Charlotte when his mother came in the backyard to tell the children what had happened.
Fourteen years later, that memory still sticks with him.
"I really didn't look at the date until (my brother and my cousin) told me my first preseason game was going to be on the 11th," said Wilson, who published a tweet Friday on the personal significance of the date.
"Throughout the whole week, I was really like, 'Dang, I'm really playing on the day my dad died.' It's also a blessing to go out there and do what I need to do."
Wilson played inspired football Friday evening, helping propel the Packers to a 36-19 victory over the Bengals with 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just six carries. Wilson's 80-yard TD in the fourth quarter, in particular, put an emphatic end to the win.
The Packers needed him, too. Already without rookie seventh-round pick Lew Nichols (shoulder), Green Bay lost Tyler Goodson to a shoulder injury at halftime. That left Wilson, third-year veteran Patrick Taylor, and recently signed Nate McCrary to carry the load.
Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, who lost his own father in 2021, knew what this week represented for Wilson and the feelings he was dealing with leading into the game.
After Wilson punched in his first touchdown on an 11-yard carry with 2 minutes, 14 seconds left in the third quarter, Jones took it upon himself to congratulate Wilson and let him know his father is looking down on him.
"I told him right after his first touchdown, that's for your pops," Jones said. "He's right out here with you and he has the best seat in the house. … He lost his at such a younger age, which is much harder but I'm very proud of him. I told him to keep doing it for him. He's watching and he kept having a night."
Professionally, it was a big moment for the 24-year-old running back out of Division II Fort Valley State (Ga.) University. Wilson said he felt some nerves going into the game but performed the deep breathing exercises he'd previously discussed with Dr. Chris Carr, the Packers' director of performance psychology.
Also, Wilson knew his father was with him. He remembers spending time with him in Virginia the summer before Manuel's passing and his dad telling him, "Smurf, you're a dog. You're going to probably play at the next level someday."
Dad couldn't have been more right.
"I can't really explain the emotions, but I just know that he's proud of me, reaching my goals and everything in life," Wilson said.
"He's always been with me since the day he died. I can't even explain it. I just know that he was always here for me."
Valentine's Day: With many family and friends in attendance at Paycor Stadium, rookie cornerback Carrington Valentine continued making plays in his hometown of Cincinnati.
Starting in place of Jaire Alexander, who sat out on a precautionary basis with a groin injury, Valentine recorded a team-high four tackles, with three pass breakups and a second-quarter interception of Bengals QB Jake Browning that led to Green Bay's go-ahead score.
"I just held my leverage and saw the ball was sailing a little far. I just adjusted and played ball," said Valentine, who played the entire first half. "I felt good. Just going out there and competing, being on the turf and being back in your hometown in front of your family and friends."
The Packers' defense had 12 passes defensed against the Bengals. Safety Dallin Leavitt also picked off Trevor Siemian in the third quarter after Brenton Cox Jr. tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage.
Clifford's night: Rookie fifth-round pick Sean Clifford got a little taste of everything during his time leading the Packers' offense.
He led an eight-play, 79-yard scoring drive on his first series, then had a pick-six after being hit as he threw the ball, and then another interception on a pass across the middle.
Always a gamer, Clifford battled back and made a pinpoint throw to Dontayvion Wicks on a 47-yard catch-and-run on the play after Valentine's interception.
After scrambling for 14 yards off a read-option behind receiver Malik Heath's block, Clifford delivered a bullet to tight end Tyler Davis on the goal line for a 6-yard TD that put Green Bay up for good.
It made for a pretty good debut for Clifford, who also hails from Cincinnati. The former Penn State quarterback went 20-of-26 for 208 yards with the TD and two INTs (80.4 passer rating).
"We had a touchdown. We had a pick-six. We had another pick. It was a little bit of everything," Clifford said. "Lots to learn from. A lot of good, a lot of bad. To be able to take this and really run with it and say, 'All right, how can I improve? How can I continue to grow?' They make those plays fast. The NFL is a quick league especially on defense."
Oh snap: While Josh Myers handled the first-team snapping responsibilities, starting right guard Jon Runyan and second-year offensive lineman Zach Tom alternated as Clifford's center in the second quarter.
To date, Runyan had only snapped to Clifford once in practice.
"The first under center, I think I missed it," Clifford said. "I kind of bobbled it and then I shoved it over to P.T. (Patrick Taylor). But those are growing pains and things. I think I've taken maybe one snap with him before and that's something that we'll go back to the lab and say, 'All right, let's get some more just in case.'"