Friday, April 29, 2011
Updated: April 30, 10:24 AM ET
Wilkerson's selection a family affair
By Rich Cimini
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The Wilkerson family history at the Meadowlands dates to 1977.
Alvin Wilkerson, a defensive tackle for Elizabeth (N.J.) High School, faced Plainfield in a championship game -- the first high school football game at Giants Stadium.
A generation later, Wilkerson, a loser that day, goes back a winner, the proud father of a first-round NFL draft pick -- Muhammad Wilkerson, chosen by the New York Jets.
There's a new stadium at the Meadowlands, but this is a Jersey story that will resonate for years. Not only did the Jets add a defensive lineman, but they stole a few Giants fans in the process. Asked if he's a Giants fan, the elder Wilkerson smiled and said, "I was."
Truth is, the entire family roots -- rooted? -- for the Giants, but all that changed late Thursday night, when Muhammad was selected with the 30th pick. He cried, hugged his parents and started thinking green.
Wilkerson was introduced Friday at the Jets' facility, where -- accompanied by his family -- he toured the locker room, met team officials and conducted his first news conference. He described himself as humble, yet there was an unmistakable air of confidence. It came out when asked if he believes his local ties made him more attractive to the Jets.
"I think they took me because I fit in well with this organization, I'm a [high] character guy, I love football and I'm a dominant guy on the field," said Wilkerson, who attended Linden High.
Wilkerson, who left Temple after his junior year, was the best player on his team. But the Owls aren't a traditional power and they don't play in the SEC or the Big Ten. They play in the MAC, where he racked up 16½ sacks the past two seasons against the likes of Kent State and Buffalo. In fact, he had no career sacks against BCS teams.
Coach Rex Ryan claimed he's not worried about that, saying Wilkerson's performance last season against Penn State convinced him the 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman has the goods to play in the NFL. Temple lost a competitive game 22-13, but Wilkerson recorded nine tackles and one forced fumble.
Wilkerson played it like his personal Super Bowl.
"I felt I needed to play well that game because you guys always talk about how, coming from the MAC, the talent level isn't the greatest," Wilkerson said. "So I thought, 'Why not go against Penn State -- Big Ten -- and dominate them?'"
That performance, coupled with his size, athleticism and versatility, made Wilkerson a hot commodity leading into the draft. He went lower than projected, perhaps because of the small-school stigma, but he likes where he landed. A personnel executive from another team said he was prepared to trade up in the second round if Wilkerson had slipped that far.
"He's a huge, inside, run-stopping son of a gun -- and he can get a little push on the passer," said the executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Wilkerson is a bit unpolished, according to scouts, but he just turned 21 last October. He's a late bloomer that's still blooming, a former high school basketball star that needed time to grow into his body. He was always big for his age -- he was banned from Pop Warner because he exceeded the weight requirement -- but the strength and bulk came later.
One of his older brothers, LaQuan, always had a hunch that Muhammad would go places in football.
"I came home twice a year [from the Navy], and every time I came home, I'd see more and more trophies in the house," he said.
Muhammad's mother, Janice, a breast-cancer survivor, became emotional as she talked about her son and the fulfillment of his dream. Initially, she didn't want him to leave school a year early, but she didn't need Mel Kiper Jr. to tell her Muhammad had talent. She figured it out against Penn State, when she saw two or three players blocking him on every play.
After his sophomore year, Wilkerson's goal was to be drafted someday in the first or second round. Done. That he landed with one of his hometown teams is the cherry on top. Now the colors are changing. Blue out, green in.
"We all came up Giants fans," said LaQuan, who has a brother that owns Giants season tickets. "But that changed [Thursday] night."