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Clemson DL Christian Wilkins turns tragedy into triumph

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CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the middle of the night, five days after ringing in the New Year, Eurie Stamps was watching a basketball game on TV in his pajamas when the quietness vanished.

Executing a search warrant, a SWAT team crashed through the front door of Stamps' Framingham, Mass., residence with a battering ram, and set off a flash-bang grenade. Chaos ensued.

When police ordered everyone in the house to get on the floor, Stamps submitted. As instructed, he laid face down with his arms over his head. Officer Paul Duncan came upon Stamps and attempted to secure the hands of the 68-year-old grandfather of 12. Losing his balance, Duncan stumbled, accidently discharging his M4 carbine rifle.

A .223-caliber round struck Stamps in several parts of his body, including the head. He was killed instantly, leaving an extended family to mourn the loss of a dearly beloved one.

A retired mechanic with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Stamps was not suspected of a crime nor did he have a history of violence. Instead, police had entered his Fountain Street residence that dreadful night in 2011 targeting his stepson and his stepson's cousin in a narcotics investigation.

Among the dozen grandchildren Stamps left behind was 15-year-old Christian Wilkins, who learned of his grandfather's passing when the sun rose that morning. His mother called to deliver the devastating news about the loss of a man who was the primary male figure in young Christian's life.

Today, Clemson's star defensive lineman not only carries Stamps' memory, he strives to let his grandfather live through him. The tragedy gave him a resolve and a clarity not so much about who he was, but about who he wanted to be.

"I try to be his legacy," said Wilkins, who wears No. 42 as a tribute to his grandfather, born in 1942.

In turn, Wilkins -- a top NFL prospect with two national title game appearances and a possible third on the way -- is forging quite a legacy of his own.

CHARLIE CAHN WAS AFRAID there wouldn't be a single soul in the bleachers. On a snowy Connecticut day in January 2015, the Suffield Academy headmaster checked in on the lowest level of his school's four boys basketball teams -- essentially a freshman B-team -- and feared the worst as he opened the gym door.

"We had other teams playing night games or away games, and we had the weather, so I knew there wouldn't be much of a crowd," he said. "And as the headmaster, I wanted to show support."

Cahn opened the door and, sure enough, no more than 10 spectators were on hand. But one stood out. Christian Wilkins, a five-star football recruit that almost every big college program wanted, was near mid-court in the front row, cheering every basket.

"Nobody asked him to be there; it was totally genuine," Cahn said. "Here's a senior who is one of the biggest football recruits in the country, and he knew every kid's name on the (freshman basketball) team." Eurie Stamps was always present at Christian's games and continues -- even after his death -- to be an influence is his grandson's life. (Wilkins family photo) It wasn't just Wilkins who Cahn walked in on that day; spiritually, Eurie Stamps - killed four years earlier, almost to the day -- was there as well.

Stamps was a central figure in Wilkins' life, a beloved and sturdy rock for a large family. It was Stamps who had sat in the front row for nearly all of Christian's sporting events -- always present, always encouraging, always the loudest fan in the house.

Then, suddenly, one of the most influential people in young Christian's life was gone.

As part of the family fallout from Stamps' death, Wilkins relocated after the shooting, in the middle of the ninth grade, from Framingham High to East Longmeadow in Western Massachusetts. There, his jovial, outgoing personality was understandably vacant.

"He wasn't himself," said UConn senior defensive back Brice McAllister, one of Wilkins' football teammates in high school. "He was quiet, you didn't see him smile as much. It was like he wanted to be anywhere else."

Indeed, he did, and it wasn't just anywhere that he landed. Thanks to an arrangement made by his Godmother, Suffield Academy proved to be the ideal destination from East Longmeadow.

In 2011, Patriots coach Bill Belichick's son, Brian, graduated from the small, private boarding school in Suffield, Conn., where the legendary NFL coach delivered the commencement address. It's a place as unique and diverse as Wilkins himself, and the pairing brought out the best in him. Although there are fewer than 500 students, the enrollment includes natives of 30 different countries and 28 states.

It was a new start in every way. Wilkins wanted out of East Longmeadow badly enough he was willing to reclassify and repeat the ninth grade at Suffield. He blossomed in his new setting.

A year older than Wilkins, McAllister had moved onto Suffield himself. He remembers the day Wilkins first showed up for registration.

"I'm trying to register and I see big Christian coming up the stairs, yelling. 'What's up everyone? Yo, where do we go from here?' You would've thought he'd been there three years already. He was putting himself out there. His way of saying, 'OK, who wants to hang out with me?' "

Eventually, the answer to that question was just about everyone.

"I feel like it's always been within me to try to be a spark for whoever I come in contact with," Wilkins said. "Just be a light; let the light inside me shine. Really, just be who I am and embrace that."

AS A 6-FOOT-2, 275-POUND FRESHMAN at Suffield, Wilkins showed off his athleticism in one of his first practices, nailing the landing on a standing backflip. The two-way starter who averaged nearly a sack a game over his high school career eventually drew scholarship offers from Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford and countless others. When he eventually committed to Clemson, he chose Jan. 5 -- the four-year anniversary of his grandfather's death. He found a way to turn a day of tragedy into triumph.

Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables was a key figure in Wilkins' recruitment, and visited him at Suffield more than once.

"Everyone wanted to share their own little Christian story, from the people in the cafeteria to everyone else. That's when we started to realize he was the life of the party," Venables said. "I thought this guy had the unique ability to make people around him better, and would instantly improve our locker room."

Along with being Suffield's most recognizable athlete, Wilkins was its biggest cheerleader as well. Cahn's discovery in the gym was no oddity; in fact, it was the norm. Wilkins could be found at girls volleyball games, at field hockey games, even serving up the water cups at JV football games.

"If we had a charity fundraiser, he'd be right in the middle of it," said Cahn, who is certain Wilkins will one day be a school trustee.

"If not the headmaster," Wilkins adds.

That appeal traveled well. All the way from New England, he's managed to ingrain himself as a favorite player among Clemson locals. When his name comes up at Sardi's Den, a popular booth-lined eatery just a couple miles from where Wilkins spends his football hours, a random patron is quick to claim his loose connection to the star junior.

"I haul his jock strap," cracks Brownie, who chose not to share his real name.

Those within earshot erupt with laughter as Brownie explains to the one guy who doesn't get the joke that he drives the massive rig that hauls Clemson football gear to road games. He doesn't know Wilkins, but he's seen him cutting up with teammates, keeping things loose when the team and the truck are together. He's also seen him riding a bicycle to class -- backpack and all -- blending in with regular students in all ways except his 6-4, 300-pound frame.

And, of course, Brownie knows Wilkins' game.

"You just kind of know it when (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney) gets a guy who's only going to be around for three years," he said. "He's one of them."

* * *

BEFORE CLEMSON'S FINAL HOME GAME, a 61-3 smashing of The Citadel, Wilkins, a junior, was honored on Senior Day -- a treatment for underclassmen at any school that commonly signals an early exit to the NFL. But Wilkins wants two things known about his circumstance:

One, he's earned Senior Day honors off the field, not on it, by completing an undergraduate degree in communications in only two and a half years. And two, his decision on early draft entry won't come one minute before the close of his playing career for the Tigers. Asked why, he answers in words that could only be his own; public relations flash cards don't read like this:

"I want to exhaust every moment I have at Clemson. It would cheapen my experience here to think about the next level while we're trying to win a championship. And if I'm not fully invested, I could ruin someone else's experience."

The only experiences Wilkins ruins these days are those of opposing offensive lines. He's half of college football's most fearsome DT tandem, along with Clemson sophomore Dexter Lawrence. He is a disruptive force as a pass rusher, with remarkable quickness for a player his size. But unlike a lot of pass rushers, Wilkins also projects to the NFL as a stonewall of a run defender.

"This is a big, powerful kid who holds up really well on the edge, and he hasn't really tapped his potential," an AFC scout said. "If you try to double team him with a tight end and a tackle, he'll kick that double-team's ass. He'll split that. You double team him with a tackle and a guard, you can contain him, but he'll get a stalemate.

"I think he's a left defensive end, and a really good one. He knows how to use his hands and get off blocks. He keeps his hands inside and blockers just can't stay with him."

Those skills have translated into a great deal of production since Wilkins arrived at Clemson in 2015. In three seasons he has 24.5 tackles for loss, 126 tackles, and last year he set a school record for defensive linemen with 10 pass breakups.

Another element to his game is his versatility. He's proven effective at both end and tackle, and even in other phases of the game. He's a member of three Clemson special teams units -- punt, field goal and field goal-block -- and even gets an occasional snap on offense.

Even though he was just a freshman at the time, the Tigers coaching staff thought enough of Wilkins' unique skills that they chose to display it on the biggest of stages. Against Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal played at the Orange Bowl, Wilkins caught a 31-yard pass on a fake punt (see photo below) to key the Tigers' first touchdown drive. Clemson had practiced the play weekly throughout the season, and called it "UConn" because Wilkins had come to Clemson from Connecticut.

"I make the most of those (special teams) snaps. All those plays are just as important as any other play," Wilkins said. "I'm the quarterback, so to speak, on the punt team. I take pride in that as well."

When NFL clubs get the chance to put Wilkins through workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, he should rate as one of the most athletic big men at the event. Wilkins has broken 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and can squat 545 pounds. As for the vertical jump, just know this: As a high school basketball star who was a 1,000-point scorer for his career, he got off the floor well enough to take alley-oop dunks. On the bench press, he's put up the combine-standard 225-pound bar an impressive 32 times. A scary thought for future opposing NFL offensive linemen: Swinney believes Wilkins is still developing from a strength standpoint and has yet to reach his ceiling in the weight room.

As for his pro ceiling? "He could be a 10-year All-Pro," the scout said.

* * *

Wilkins can cook, and will put his fried chicken up against anyone's. He can do the splits at 300 pounds, and calls himself the best singer he's ever heard. As the youngest of nine children, he took on interests and traits from each of his four brothers and four sisters.

Swinney uses two hands to illustrate the role football plays in Wilkins' life. He holds them just a couple inches apart, and peers through the gap.

"He's interested in a million things. Football is right here, a small part of who he is," Swinney said, moving his hands to illustrate Wilkins' other interests. "It's important to him, and nobody works harder, but he's a very diverse person. He's either going to be the President, or he's going to know him. One of the two. He's going to do unbelievable things in life."

Dabo Swinney predicts big things for Wilkins: "He's either going to be the President, or he's going to know him," says the Clemson coach. (Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports) As laudable as that might be in a general sense, it's not necessarily what NFL scouts want to hear. Their reputations and livelihoods are tied to their evaluations of draft prospects, and they understandably prefer to endorse players who eat, sleep and breathe football.

"That is not a concern with me at all. I try to be a person of excellence in everything I do, but I wouldn't be playing the game if I didn't absolutely love it," Wilkins said. "Every time I step on a field, I still have an 8-year-old's innocence about it. I love putting thigh pads in my pants and pulling them on. This game has been a ticket for me, and I'm truly in love with it. Yeah, I care about a lot of things but I realize football is going to end for me one day. That's why I try to be diverse in other areas."

Another question scouts will have about Wilkins concerns the Curtis Samuel incident. During the Tigers' CFP semifinal win over Samuel's Ohio State Buckeyes last year, Wilkins stuck his hand between Samuel's legs at the end of a play in a way that was clearly no accident. Wilkins later apologized, and Swinney brushed it off as just another example of his star player being "goofy" and "silly." A week later, Wilkins proved his coach's point; after winning the title game he took off his shirt and performed a belly dance on the trophy-presentation stage.

Others, including Samuel himself, were not as forgiving. Wilkins said he'll be up front with scouts in acknowledging an error in judgment.

"That was foolish, but it was a small hiccup, something I shouldn't have done that I did do. I did not mean it as a sexual gesture," he said. "Sometimes I act silly, even in the midst of a playoff game, and I can try to bring a silliness just to break up the seriousness of the game. Keep things loose and fun. But that time, I got carried away and shouldn't have done that."

The AFC scout points to Deon Cain, not Samuel, as the stronger reflection of Wilkins' character. The Clemson wide receiver, himself an NFL prospect, was suspended for the College Football Playoff two years ago, reportedly for a failed drug test. A few months later, Wilkins told Swinney he wanted to room with Cain to help steer him straight as the following season approached.

"He took Deon Cain in, and Deon was supposedly not the most likeable guy," the scout said. "Christian showed leadership there. To me, it distinguishes him."

The outcome couldn't have worked out better for Clemson or Cain, who caught nine touchdown passes and averaged 19.1 yards per catch in helping the Tigers win the national title last year.

That, too, was the Eurie Stamps coming out in Wilkins.

Stamps would often make the drive from Boston to Springfield, where Wilkins spent part of his childhood, and the excitement for his arrival was always a highpoint for Christian and his siblings. When Stamps arrived, he'd even let Wilkins' sisters braid his hair.

Whatever it took.

The NFL club that eventually taps Wilkins in the draft will get more than just a talented defensive lineman. It'll get a gregarious locker room presence, a jokester, a fierce competitor and a genuine article.

And it'll be drafting a piece of Eurie Stamps, as well.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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