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.”
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.”
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 2011while 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.”