MIAMI — Christian Wilkins has a not-so-secret undercover identity: He’s a White Tiger Power Ranger. On the field, he morphs into his alter ego aiming to defend his team from evil.
Wilkins nicknamed his Clemson teammates — the defensive line — after his favorite superheroes, the Power Rangers. Several of his teammates morphed into their own characters, such as Clelin Ferrell, the green ranger, and Dexter Lawrence, the pink ranger. They had Power Rangers handshakes off the field and sack celebrations on it. The group, dressed as Power Rangers, even surprised Clemson coach Dabo Swinney at his house on Halloween 2016.
This is just a glimpse into the Miami Dolphins rookie who is a kind-hearted athlete trying to break the mold of a stereotypical football player.
“Christian is always having fun. He’s a rare breed. He’s a one-in-a-million person who just happens to be good at football,” Swinney said. “He uses the game. He doesn’t let the game use him. Miami will love him.”
— Sawyer Jordan (@CoachSJordan) November 1, 2016
The Dolphins selected Wilkins, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive tackle, with the No. 13 pick in April’s NFL draft with eyes on him being a cornerstone of their rebuild. Miami hopes Wilkins will make an on-field impact comparable to that of the Tennessee Titans’ Jurrell Casey. But what makes Wilkins unique is the package that comes with the player.
Wilkins, 23, dances, sings, cooks, jokes, backflips and moonlights as a substitute teacher.
He did a smooth split and gave Swinney a wet willy on national TV after Clemson won its national titles.
Wilkins gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a flying shoulder bump on stage after he was drafted.
He’s a natural leader and a team captain. His personality lights up every room, and he’s unapologetically frolicsome.
“I’m completely happy being myself. A lot of people spend their lives trying to be something else. With all the social media, everybody wants instant gratification,” Wilkins said. “Everybody wants to be like this person or that person. Everybody wants to have a certain amount of followers or likes. I’d rather have 10 followers being myself than a million putting on a persona.”
Wilkins arrives just in time for Miami — a city full of fun with a dearth of sports stars and personalities to represent it.
“You all just lost D-Wade, so Miami is going to need somebody to help fill that void,” Wilkins said. “Hopefully I can work into that role and Miami will love me like they love D-Wade.”
Kindergarten cop to the rescue
Wilkins is comfortable in just about every room he enters, but on this day in the spring of 2018, he’s anxious. His responsibility is more unpredictable than wreaking havoc on Alabama’s left tackle. Wilkins has to care for a few dozen 4- and 5-year-olds.
At James M. Brown Elementary in Walhalla, South Carolina, he’s known simply as Mr. Wilkins — the king-size substitute teacher trying to be inconspicuous with other teachers and accepted by his kids.
“I took him to his kindergarten class in the second half of the day. And one of my kiddos said, in the countriest accent you can imagine, ‘That is one big mister right there,'” principal Ashley Robertson said. “The kid was in pure awe seeing him. It made us all laugh.”
Robertson’s “heartwarming” moment of the day was watching Wilkins hold hands with a little girl he walked back to class from P.E.
In the classroom, Wilkins plays popcorn bingo, hands out snacks, helps with math problems and even attempts to sit in the smaller kindergarten chairs.
“I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Kindergarten Cop.’ They were falling all over me. They were running to me like, ‘Mr. Wilkins, Mr. Wilkins,'” he said. “I was like, ‘Dude, my name is Christian.’ They warm up to you pretty quick and you warm up to them and it’s awesome.
“I bond with kids so much because I feel like it takes a kid to know a kid. I’m a big kid.”
Education has always been important to Wilkins, who earned his bachelor’s degree in communications in 2½ years and his master’s in athletic leadership in just one more year — all at Clemson. He also won the William V. Campbell Trophy in 2018, known as the “academic Heisman.” It was the first time Swinney had a finalist for the award.
“I’m 23 with a master’s degree,” Wilkins said. “That sounds like a Drake line.”
Wilkins was certified to be a substitute teacher toward the end of his Clemson career. His brothers are teachers, and they gave him a step-by-step guideline of how to get involved. It was a perfect opportunity for Wilkins to make $80 a day and share some love with kids. He worked several days at James M. Brown and also taught a few times at Walhalla High School in South Carolina.
“I love empowering young people. I always looked for role models growing up. You don’t see many African American male teachers,” Wilkins said. “I came in expecting to have an impact on the kids, and they ended up teaching me things.”
It’s draft weekend, and Drew Gamere, who coached Wilkins in high school at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, is listening to the future top-15 pick rattle off NFL cities with the highest tax rates that he would rather avoid — if he had a choice. He lists the California teams, New York/New Jersey teams and the Vikings.
Gamere was about to laugh it off before realizing just how serious it was to Wilkins, who valued this more than other typical priorities such as weather, city size or proximity to home. When the Dolphins selected him, Wilkins was pumped — for more than just the traditional reasons.
“I know I have no state income taxes, so I’m excited about that,” he said.
The stories of Wilkins’ frugality are plentiful to the point that The Wall Street Journal called him the “most frugal player in the draft.” It’s an honor Wilkins holds dear.
He often showered, ate and hung out at the facility until late at night to avoid high utility bills. He didn’t own a car during college. He lived in campus housing for most of his college career to avoid paying rent before finally getting an apartment for $300 per month.
“He’s so cheap,” Swinney said. “He wouldn’t turn his air conditioning on. Guys would go over there, and it was hot. But that’s Christian, he’s a frugal guy.”
In May, Wilkins signed a four-year, $15.44 million fully guaranteed contract with almost $10 million due to him in 2019. But don’t expect any splurging from Wilkins, who, as the youngest of eight kids growing up in a lower-income household, said he has been a minimalist since he was an adolescent.
His biggest spending vice is food, so he learned how to cook. He would invite Clemson teammates for dinner on Sundays because he loved to host and show off his cooking skills. (His teammates were clearly willing to put up with the heat in the house to eat what he made.)
Word got back to Wilkins that some Suffield players were acting up on social media and causing disciplinary problems. The proud alum called Gamere and requested to speak to the team.
Gamere connected Wilkins via FaceTime with the entire team, then left the meeting room. Wilkins professed what it means to be a Suffield athlete, and Gamere said the players took the message to heart and began to change their actions. Wilkins, even years later, maintains that leadership quality and connection to the school.
He says that Suffield Academy — a boarding school 20 minutes from his childhood home in Springfield, Massachusetts — is an oyster that changed his life and that he’ll always make it a part of himself going forward.
Gamere called Wilkins “a culture-changer” as he told myriad stories about Wilkins’ effect on his program. Swinney raved about how veteran players follow Wilkins’ lead, and his teammates describe him as a fierce, loyal companion you can’t help but love.
“He’s like a Saint Bernard,” Ferrell said last year. “Maybe you’re mad and you go in the house to sit on the couch. He just runs and jumps on your lap. And you’re like, ‘No, no get off me.’ He licks your face, and you’re just like, ‘All right, I love you, doggie.'”
Despite all of Wilkins’ warm and fuzzy intangibles, there’s no doubt the Dolphins are getting a warrior on the field.
“It might surprise you because he’s a jokester and a teddy bear off the field, but I’ve never had a guy more in love with the grind of what it takes to be great than Christian,” Swinney said. “He loves to practice and train, especially when nobody wants to.”
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) May 6, 2019
Wilkins says all of these traits — hard work, colorful personality, leadership, humility, refusal to care what anybody thinks — came from his grandfather Eurie Stamps Sr.
Stamps, a father figure for Wilkins, was killed by a SWAT team officer in 2011 while watching a basketball game in his apartment. A SWAT team raided Stamps’ apartment looking for his stepson and two others suspected of selling drugs. An officer’s rifle discharged and killed Stamps, 68, while Stamps was lying on the ground.
Somehow, Wilkins has avoided anger or bitterness, deciding to turn that pain into inspiration. He says his top goal is to “allow my grandfather’s legacy to live through me and my actions.” He wore No. 42 at Clemson to honor the year Stamps was born.
Good energy for 2019
In Miami, Wilkins will reunite with Dolphins defensive line coach Marion Hobby, who also coached him at Clemson. They have a great relationship, and Swinney predicted they will be like “two pigs in the mud” once the pads come on in training camp.
“I have to smile when I say Christian Wilkins,” Hobby said. “I just naturally smile, because I remember even in the toughest moments — in meeting rooms early in the morning after a loss — and his personality is good. He’s coming in like he’s been up for four hours saying ‘Hey, what’s going on, guys?'”
Hobby is still amazed that Wilkins earned All-American honors at defensive tackle and defensive end with Clemson, and Wilkins is expected to play both roles for the Dolphins.
General manager Chris Grier said he had to smile when Wilkins confidently stated that drafting him was the best decision Grier has ever made. He sure hopes that Wilkins is right and that the Dolphins are ready to harness the rookie’s energy.
Said Dolphins coach Brian Flores: “He’s a fun-loving guy. For me, someone who is straight-edged, he brings good energy in a good way.”
Wilkins’ career in Miami is just beginning, but it seems the possibilities of what he can become on and off the field are limitless.
“Christian got every ounce out of his college experience. He’ll get everything he can out of his NFL experience and then he’ll move on to the next thing,” Swinney said. “If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of most impactful people that the Dolphins have ever had.”
Must-see sports photos of the week
The most interesting sports shots from around the globe this week include a 120-kilometer race through the Peruvian desert, NASCAR stock cars spinning donuts in Nashville, Tenn., and a gold-medal-winning takedown in the Philippines.
After 57 days and one win, Bengals superfan comes down from roof
MILAN, Ind. — Chrissy Lanham stood next to a cardboard cutout of her husband as the final seconds ticked off the clock inside Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.
The flesh-and-bone version of Jeff Lanham was watching roughly 45 miles west in the makeshift tent atop the couple’s restaurant and bar in Milan, Indiana. After two months, he was ready to get off the roof.
An offhand comment about living above the Lanhams’ Hog Rock Cafe until the Cincinnati Bengals won a game turned into a 57-day period that unexpectedly transformed Lanham into his town’s biggest celebrity since the basketball team that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”
When the Bengals finally picked up a win by beating the New York Jets in Week 13 to improve to 1-11, everyone around Chrissy celebrated with “Cardboard Jeff” while the real person was surrounded by screams and flying beer at the bar in southeastern Indiana.
A few drinks, a tree-trimming truck and belief in one of the worst teams in the NFL put Lanham on the roof of his own restaurant. Resolve kept him there.
“I didn’t do it, really, for anything,” said Lanham, 42. “I just made a comment and owned up to a comment and did it.”
Back in 1991, Dennis “Wildman” Walker spent 61 days on a Cincinnati billboard under similar circumstances, a feat that inspired Lanham’s comments.
Cincinnati was 0-4 when Lanham said he would live on the roof until the Bengals won. It was hours before the Bengals hosted the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL’s worst team last season. Jeff and Chrissy watched from the usual spot in the stadium as Arizona won 26-23 on a last-second field goal. Cincinnati started its course toward the NFL cellar, with six consecutive losses to come.
When they drove back to the Hog Rock in their black and orange party bus, Lanham knew where he had to go. A friend grabbed a tent; someone else fetched their tree-trimming truck; and Lanham headed to the roof on a rainy night. Once he woke up the next morning, he realized he might be stuck up there for a while. He moved down a story to the lower portion of the roof so he wouldn’t have to use an extension ladder to climb down to the bathroom and shower.
Decades earlier, people actually paid to live in the building. Back then, it was called the Railroad Inn, a reference to the train tracks that are less than 100 feet from the entrance. But when he and Chrissy started the restaurant, Milan (pronounced MY-lan) was vastly different.
Phyllis Coe, 72, said she bought the building at a sheriff’s auction after the previous owner let the building rot. She charged the Lanhams $500 rent. Lanham, who hadn’t worked for a year after a leg injury forced him to stop working in a mill, poured all of his money into fixing the place up.
“You can’t discount the kid,” Coe said.
When Lanham received international media attention for his stay on the roof, it was the biggest thing to happen to Milan since the high school’s boys basketball team won the Indiana state title in 1954 against Muncie Central, which inspired the 1986 film “Hoosiers.”
Lanham said he used his growing media exposure to remind people about the ’54 champions. He also used his brief window of stardom to raise money for the medical costs of a friend’s daughter who was born with spina bifida. He came down for roughly 12 hours during a benefit event.
During his time on the roof, he held 50/50 raffles during Bengals games and sold $5 raffle tickets for people to eat in a tent that was donated by a friend’s company. He donated most of the things he received, including a pallet of soup from Campbell’s.
He had heaters and plenty of people to keep him company, but it was still tough.
Jeff and Chrissy watched Netflix simultaneously in different places, calling to start shows at the same time and see whether they liked them. She, along with others, brought laundry and food up to his tent, including meals from Skyline Chili topped with habanero cheese. They put up another tent and had Thanksgiving up there.
After nearly two months, he came home. The Bengals easily trounced the Jets, 22-6 on Sunday, for their first win of the season. People near Chrissy at the stadium gave Jeff’s cardboard cutout high-fives, while the watch party back in Milan erupted when the game ended. By the time Chrissy arrived home, Jeff was celebrating with everyone at Hog Rock. They stayed until 11:30 that night.
“Jeff was ready to come home,” Chrissy said.
After the victory, Bengals running back Joe Mixon said he’d like to give Lanham something for staying up there that long. Lanham said that’s not necessary.
“I can’t say I want something from somebody because I didn’t do it for that,” he said.
When the Hog Rock opened at 4 p.m. Monday, the tent was still up behind the restaurant as a few regulars came in for drinks. Eventually, the tent will be donated to the local Boy Scouts chapter. Lanham plans to go to the Bengals game against the New England Patriots on Thursday. The next week, he might follow the team to Miami and take his wife as a way to say thanks for the past couple of months.
“I’m happy that he’s a loyal fan,” Bengals safety Jessie Bates said. “Hopefully next time he can stay on the roof until we lose or something like that.”
That’s not going to happen, Lanham said. Fifty-six nights was more than enough. He won’t be making any more bold predictions any time soon. But that doesn’t mean he won’t have the same belief that led him to the roof or that he doesn’t hope the franchise will be a winner again someday.
“Maybe it won’t change,” Lanham said. “Maybe it will. But I’ll still be a Cincinnati fan.”
Source — Patriots re-signing veteran kicker Nick Folk
The move, which was first reported by NFL Network, was expected after the Patriots waived Kai Forbath on Monday and were left with no kickers on the roster.
Forbath was signed to replace Folk, who had an appendectomy last week. In Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans, Forbath went 1-for-2 on extra points and made a 23-yarder on his only field goal attempt.
Folk, who was released after having the procedure, still had a locker set up in the Patriots’ facility, and the expectation was that he could return to the team later in the season. The 12th-year player has made 7 of 9 field goals (77.8%) in three games for the Patriots this season and is 3-for-3 on extra point attempts.
Forbath was New England’s fourth kicker of the season. Stephen Gostkowski, who was in his 14th season with the Patriots, was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Oct. 2 and had surgery for a left hip injury.
The Patriots first signed Mike Nugent to take Gostkowski’s place, but he was ineffective, missing 3 of 8 field goal attempts and one PAT in four games. Nugent was released Oct. 29, and the Patriots brought in Folk.
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