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.”
Source — WR Bryant applies for reinstatement
Bryant sent an e-mail to league officials Saturday requesting reinstatement from an indefinite suspension the league imposed in December for Bryant’s repeated violations of the league’s drug policy.
Bryant, 27, was a fourth-round pick by the Steelers in 2014 but has missed 36 of a possible 80 regular-season games since then because of suspensions.
Last season, with the help of attorney Peter Ginsburg, Bryant was able to delay his suspension with an appeal by arguing that the league had failed to properly treat him for mental health issues including ADHD — a condition with which he was diagnosed as a child. Ultimately, the league rejected Bryant’s appeal and his arguments that his mental health issues were the reason he was unable to comply with the drug program and imposed his third suspension in four years.
Since the end of last season, a source said, Bryant has worked with the NFL and the NFLPA on ways to address his mental health issues and put him in a position where he feels his application for reinstatement has a chance to succeed. He has submitted to drug testing over the past couple of months and has consulted with the league and the union to get himself set up with mental health professionals and proper medication.
In May, the NFL and the NFLPA jointly announced the establishment of a new mental health and wellness committee as well as a new regulation for 2019 that requires every team to employ a mental health professional who works in its building.
At the same time, the two entities also established a joint pain management committee to conduct research into pain management and alternative therapies. That announcement has led many inside and outside the game to believe a change is coming in the league’s policy on and attitude toward drugs such as marijuana.
49ers reach deal with K Gould before deadline
Terms were not disclosed. The contract was announced as a four-year deal, but league sources told ESPN it’s a two-year, $10.5 million fully guaranteed contract that, including an option clause, could turn into a four-year, $19 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.
Gould’s deal, which his agent, Brian Mackler, and 49ers executive Paraag Marathe have been working on for months, reached a breakthrough over the weekend. At the start of the weekend, both sides thought it would be challenging to get it done, but they reached a compromise Sunday by installing an option clause.
The 49ers have an option in which they can pick up the remaining two years on Gould’s contract by the 17th week of the 2020 season, per a source. To do that, the 49ers would have to fully guarantee Gould $2.25 million at that time, then another $2.25 million on April 1, 2021.
The deal includes a $3 million signing bonus and a $3.15 million fully guaranteed base salary this season, then a fully guaranteed $4.35 million base salary in 2020, per a source. If the option is picked up, the deal would include a $4.5 million base salary in 2021 and a $4 million base salary in 2022.
“Over the years, Robbie has established himself as one of the best at his position in the NFL, which is precisely why we were so committed to working out a new contract with him,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement. “I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this deal come to fruition. We are very happy to start off the year on the right foot with this agreement in place so that Robbie can get back with his teammates and focus on making the most out of the upcoming season.”
In April, an inability to come to terms on a long-term contract, combined with Gould’s desire to return closer to his Chicago home, prompted the kicker to shut down any further contract talks and to formally request a trade. The team said then it wouldn’t honor Gould’s request.
Gould, 36, had been living in a hotel near the Niners’ team facility in Santa Clara, California, the past two years while his wife and family remained in Chicago during the season.
In two seasons with the 49ers, Gould has been one of the league’s best kickers, making 72 of 75 field goal attempts. He led the league in field goal percentage (97.1) last season.
ESPN’s Nick Wagoner contributed to this report.
Deadline passes without new deal for Clowney
No trade is in the works for him, either, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Clowney is expected to miss most, if not all, of training camp, as he still hasn’t signed his franchise tender, which is worth $15.967 million for the 2019 season.
The Texans tagged Clowney as a linebacker ($15.443 million) rather than as a defensive end ($17.128 million). However, because players receive the higher amount between the tag value or 120% of last year’s salary, Clowney is poised to get an additional $524,000 this season. He made $13.306 million, including a $1 million bonus, while playing on his fifth-year option in 2018.
The NFL Players Association is anticipated to file a grievance against the Texans over the position the team assigned Clowney when they used the franchise tag on him, league sources told Schefter.
Despite being tagged as a linebacker, Clowney played most of his snaps at defensive end in 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He logged 729 at defensive end, 101 at defensive tackle and 33 at linebacker last season.
Clowney, who was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl last season, finished 2018 with 47 tackles, nine sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also had 16 tackles for loss, which tied for ninth in the NFL last season, and he now has 53 tackles for loss over the past three seasons, which ranks third in the league.
Clowney, 26, the first overall pick of the 2014 draft, struggled with knee injuries early in his career, missing 15 games in his first two seasons. In 2016, he played through wrist and elbow injuries, appearing in 14 games and making the Pro Bowl for the first time. Since then, he has missed just one game over two seasons.
ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.
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