Dan Wilkinson: A Life on Track
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #12

Tailback Kevin Jones shows up at Virginia Tech and is part of the playing mix pretty much before his bags are unpacked.

Free safety Vincent Fuller takes a redshirt season and then becomes part of the two-deep. Heís a player with a terrific future, Tech coaches say.

The dream of every player heading off to play Division I football is to have things work out like that. Play right away, or play pretty darn quick. By the time your collegiate career is over, youíve played a whole lot.

It doesnít work out that way for all of them. As a matter of fact, it doesnít work out that way for very many of them at all. For every Jones, for every Fuller, there are probably two guys who labor in the shadows their entire career. They come and they go and hardly anyone notices.

The Hokiesí Dan Wilkinson could have been one of those guys, but thanks to an excellent work ethic and a championís attitude, Wilkinson wonít go away quietly.

He wonít go away as a star. Heís not a threat to have his jersey retired. But heís taking advantage of a small, late chance to make his presence felt. A fifth-year senior, Wilkinson is a backup defensive tackle. Heíll have fewer tackles for his career than some guys post in half a season. Is it the role he wanted? Nope. Is he complaining? Nope.

When he leaves, Wilkinson will have a masterís degree. And just enough dirt on his uniform to make all those two-a-day practices with no playing time in sight worthwhile.

"The plays I get, Iím grateful for," Wilkinson said. "Iíve been there, where you get no plays.

"Life doesnít always go the way you want it to go. I came here wanting to be the man, to be the starter. Iíve had to overcome a lot just to get to this point and it makes me feel good to have been able to do that."

To understand Wilkinsonís perspective, itís important to take a quick look at his past.

From West Palm Beach, Fla., Wilkinson had a glittering resume at Palm Beach Lakes High. That doesnít make him special at Virginia Tech. You have to stand out at the prep level to earn a chance in a high-powered program like Tech.

He was a defensive end, a linebacker and a fullback. He was his teamís Most Valuable Player as a senior. He had 14 sacks. He rushed for four touchdowns. He got to play in the Outback Steakhouse All-Star game.

Wilkinson headed to Tech and, like the overwhelming majority of new players, sat out his first season as a redshirt. Even with the raves the 2001 recruiting class at Tech received, only four members have played as true freshmen.

Wilkinson did what a non-playing freshman is supposed to do. He worked like crazy. He got stronger. He showed his stuff in spring practice, with two sacks in scrimmages and another in the spring game.

He was ready.

Then disaster struck in the 1998 preseason before his redshirt freshman year. Wilkinson tore up a knee and required reconstructive surgery. There went the season. He learned the painful lesson all injured players learn: the football world spins away while yours is stuck on hold.

"I never had a sense of giving up, never wanted to give up," Wilkinson said. "That wasnít in my character. I think itís fair to say that before the injury I was in position to really contribute and become an integral part of the team. I was fighting for the No. 2 spot. Things were looking good. The injury set me back. It also caused a position change (from end to tackle).

"Most of what kept me going was my spiritual belief. God got me through it. When youíre hurt, you feel so alone. Youíre not around the guys as much, you feel a little isolated. The coaches are just figuring out what you can do, and then you get hurt. They have to move on. I know youíre not forgotten. But that is the feeling you get."

Injuries are as hard sometimes on the mind as they are on the body. They can devastate a player. Some donít handle it well.

Camm Jackson, a highly-touted prospect featured in last monthís TSLX, is an example. He admitted as much. He never got back on the field and his life was derailed by legal troubles. Heís just now pulling himself together, though his football days are long past.

Wilkinson is on the other side of the spectrum from Jackson.

Sure, he was hurt mentally as well as physically, but he didnít see his injury as the end of things. He attacked his rehabilitation. More important, he attacked his books. Wilkinson has a degree already, in Urban and Regional Planning. Heís working toward a masterís degree and plans to have it completed in another year.

"My degree is so important to me," Wilkinson said. "That should be the No. 1 reason anyone goes to college. Unfortunately, some guys come just for football.

"When I got hurt, I realized it was a great time to concentrate on my classes even more. I wasnít practicing, so I was able to direct all that extra energy to the classroom. My body might have been hampered. My brain was fine."

Wilkinson wasnít completely forgotten upon his return to the playing field, but others had passed him by on the depth chart, and he became sort of a backup to the backups. As a sophomore in 1999, he played in seven games and recorded 12 tackles. One was a sack.

As a junior in 2000, Wilkinson played in all 11 games and had 23 tackles. He was credited with 2.5 sacks. He started against Virginia and had a sack in that game. He added another three tackles in the Gator Bowl.

Competition remained intense at tackle during the 2001 preseason. David Pugh and Chad Beasley were entrenched as starters. Fellow senior Channing Reed, sophomore Kevin Lewis and up-and-comer Mark Costen were vying for playing time.

Wilkinsonís continued development made Techís coaches feel comfortable about having Lewis redshirt this season. Wilkinson was able to slide into a backup role, one that isnít like most second string jobs. At Tech, the second string defensive line plays a lot.

Through six games of the 2001 season, Wilkinson has 19 tackles and a sack.

"Iíve been very pleased with the way Dan has worked and developed," said Charley Wiles, Techís defensive line coach.

A starterís job would be ideal, but at least Wilkinson is getting onto the dance floor before the music stops playing.

"One thing Iíve learned is never, ever take a single snap for granted," Wilkinson said. "Nothing is guaranteed. Our defensive line is so talented. Everybody can really play. Iím so happy just to be a part of that."

Take a tour through Techís media guide and youíll find others like Wilkinson. Wayne Briggs is a senior fullback who keeps chugging along despite limited playing time. He caught four passes through the first six games.

Chris Krebs, a senior rover, has been primarily a special teams guy. Wayne Ward is a tailback by trade who is getting more carries this season but remains known as another special teams player.

All have been buried deeper than deep on the depth chart, yet theyíve kept plugging away. Their contributions may be smaller than those of the stars. That doesnít mean their contributions arenít important.

"We love the game," Wilkinson said. "Everybody is a piece of the puzzle."

When his playing days are over and his masterís degree is in hand, Wilkinson plans to put his degrees to work. His daughter Danielle turns two on November 12, and heís proud that his degrees will allow him to be a better provider for her.

His career goal is to work with groups that provide low-income housing for poor families. He wants to act as something of a liaison and make sure the housing goes to people who truly qualify.

"People who work hard, people who need help. Not everybody strikes it rich," Wilkinson said. "I know people, have friends, who donít have much to eat besides bread and water. Those are the people I want to help."



Copyright © 2001 Maroon Pride, LLC