The moment that changed Christian Wilkins' life

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney envisions two paths for Christian Wilkins, ones few can navigate because they lead to the loftiest platforms of American society.

The Clemson coach, like anyone who watches Wilkins play defensive line, expects the sophomore to first enjoy a long and successful NFL career. It's after football that the man Swinney calls "big-time special" will reach the big time and do special things.

"He's either going to be Michael Strahan," Swinney said of the former NFL standout-turned-media superstar, "hosting his own TV show and doing ESPN-type stuff on 'Monday Night Football.' Or, he's going to be the President.

"Really not much in between."

Strahan or the Commander in Chief. Those are the models for Wilkins, who is flattered by the comparisons.

The truth: If Wilkins can live the rest of his life like Eurie Stamps Sr., he will be fulfilled in his heart and his soul.

You're just like your grandfather. You remind me so much of your grandfather.

"That's the biggest compliment I could receive," Wilkins said. "They say I'm exactly how he was: big personality, larger than life. He was so inviting and personable. He impacted everyone he met."

Stamps was a beloved father, grandfather and community leader. On Jan. 5, 2011, he was killed when the rifle of a SWAT team officer accidentally discharged during a raid at Stamps' apartment in Framingham, Massachusetts. The SWAT team was searching for Stamps' stepson and two associates suspected of selling drugs from the apartment. Stamps, a retired 68-year-old grandfather of 12 with no criminal history, was lying face down in the hallway when he was shot.

Stamps never saw his youngest grandson blossom into a national awards candidate for a national championship contender. But Wilkins honors his grandfather every time he puts on a jersey, helps a friend in need or brightens up a room.

"He carries my father's spirit," said Robin Stamps Jones, Wilkins' mother. "It's so encouraging. It's so right."

The family embrace

Wilkins' affability can be chalked up to both nature and nurture. He entered the world on Dec. 20, 1995, at nearly 10 pounds, the last and largest of Stamps Jones' eight children.

The family home on Orlando Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, buzzed with bodies and activity. "A madhouse at times," Wilkins said, "but I loved it." Stamps Jones worked long hours as a real estate agent to provide for the family -- Wilkins' father wasn't around much -- and her older children helped raise the youngest.

While Wilkins' brothers introduced him to sports, he spent much of his time with his four sisters, who are closest in age.

"They always had me doing the little dances with them," Wilkins said. "They had little cheerleading shows. I'd always be their dummy. That's where I got a lot of my personality."

Wilkins was the in-house comedian, doing impromptu routines while wearing wild outfits. He says he was "much cornier back then," but, according to his mother, Wilkins always got laughs. When his stepfather bought a camcorder, the kids put it to use.

"Oh my gosh, we used that thing up," Wilkins recalled. "We'd make little talent shows, invite friends over from the neighborhood, American Idol. That's why I'm not afraid to be in front of the camera, have a little personality, have fun."

Midway through the eighth grade, Wilkins moved with his mother and two youngest sisters to Framingham. Stamps Jones and her two daughters soon returned to Springfield, but Wilkins remained, splitting time between his grandfather's place on Fountain Street and his stepfather's. Wilkins also started high school in town.

Eurie Stamps Sr. was a veteran who, before retiring, worked as a bus mechanic for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. He raised his family in Cambridge, just outside Boston, and was deeply involved in community activities through neighborhood houses, which facilitated camps, work opportunities and mentoring programs.

"He would literally give his last dollar to people," said Andrew Wilkins, Christian's brother. "He was so well known, he was such a big guy, had this big laugh, great smile, everything.

"He was just a very charming individual, and people loved him."

Stamps regularly attended games for Wilkins' brothers Aaron and Andrew, both of whom played football at New England colleges. The night before he died, Stamps watched one of Christian's basketball games.

"My grandfather was in the stands as per usual, cheering me on, doing his thing, loudest one in the crowd," Christian said. "I always loved looking up and seeing him. He was there, like he's been for me my whole life."

He paused.

"Everything happened around midnight."

Christian was staying at his stepfather's when the raid took place. According to court documents, after storming into the apartment, two SWAT team officers ordered Stamps to get on the floor, and he obliged. Officer Paul Duncan pointed a gun at Stamps' head. According to Duncan, he lost his balance while stepping over Stamps and his rifle went off.

In the morning, Wilkins' mother called with the news.

"The pain I felt, I didn't even know really what to think or what to say at that time," said Wilkins, who had turned 15 just two weeks earlier. "I was so young. That was the most influential person in my life. He was really like a father figure to me with my dad not really being around."

The family rallied around its youngest member. Christian returned to Springfield for the end of his freshman year but didn't like the schools or what happened to many kids in the system. His grades slipped. He needed "an alternative," another community in which to immerse himself, just like his grandfather always did.

His path took him just 10 miles from his hometown, but a world away.

Big Man on Campus, Part I

Suffield Academy has all the New England prep school markings. It's old (founded in 1833). It's small (413 students). It's insulated (most students are boarders). It's competitive (less than 14 percent of applicants were admitted this year). It's buttoned-up (boys wear dress shirts and ties every day). It has a fancy-looking crest with a Latin motto -- Esse Quam Videri, which means "To be, rather than to seem [to be]."

The school seemed like an odd fit for a kid who had lived his entire life in houses packed with family members. When Wilkins' godmother, Lynne Krushell, brought Christian to Suffield for a tour, he learned there would be adjustments: dress code, dorm living, no more sleeping in class, constant structure.

But he also saw opportunity. And Suffield quickly saw something in Wilkins.

"You tour, you interview and you've got to impress some people," Suffield football coach Drew Gamere said. "In terms of his presentation, you just knew there was something special there."

As expected, Wilkins, then 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, excelled athletically at Suffield. He recorded 28.5 sacks and 69.5 tackles for loss in 35 games, leading the team to the New England prep school Super Bowl in each of his four seasons. He also averaged a double-double in basketball (19.9 points, 11.8 rebounds) and flourished in track as a thrower (shot put, discus and javelin).

But he ingrained himself in academy life. He made friends from China and Russia, and parts in between. He led a multicultural association. The only reason he didn't perform in a school production -- a regret to this day -- is that he loved watching them so much.

Charlie Cahn, Suffield's headmaster, can't think of an activity in which Wilkins didn't participate in some way.

"I just really embraced the culture there," Wilkins said, "the sense of community and the love. As a black kid from Springfield, Massachusetts, to have a friend from China that you would have never met, friends from Florida or Russia or Bermuda.

"It was really great for my development."

Wilkins often visited Cahn's office and quizzed him about operations, growth strategies, student recruitment and new projects, offering to help in any way he could.

"You were talking to somebody who was mature beyond his years," Cahn said. "There's real substance to him."

Cahn remembers entering the school gym for a freshman basketball game in the dead of winter. The stands were nearly empty except for the 300-pound football star cheering wildly at midcourt.

On fall Wednesdays, when Suffield's junior varsity football team played its games, Wilkins served as the water guy.

"I took a lot of pride in that, too," Wilkins said, smiling. "All those boys were well hydrated."

Wilkins' football stardom brought top coaches to Suffield, but he downplayed his recruitment as much as he could. There were no manic Twitter updates. Robin Stamps Jones had taught her children to be humble, and Wilkins saw Suffield, despite the prep school rep, as a place of humility.

According to Cahn, Wilkins took more pride in winning the Appleton Seaverns Award, given to the senior who best shows pride and loyalty toward Suffield, than Best Male Athlete.

"He took the most pride," Gamere said, "in just being a normal student here."

Cahn is certain Wilkins will eventually serve on Suffield's board of trustees. Wilkins' absence is felt at Suffield, but he still frequently texts Cahn for updates and visits whenever he can.

"What he did that I'm so grateful for, because it made the school better, is he brought everybody in," Cahn said. "There wasn't anybody in who doesn't feel really close to Christian Wilkins. It's not unusual for really successful athletes to be popular. What's unusual is for them to go out of their way to befriend everybody.

"It's really remarkable that he's able to do that, and I'd imagine he's doing the same thing at Clemson."

Big Man on Campus, Part II

The words still live in the notepad of Wilkins' smartphone: Clemson. No matter what.

He wrote the message after his first visit to Clemson, as a high school junior. While touring campus, he felt the same as he did touring Suffield with his godmother. He hit it off with Kendall Joseph, then a high school senior committed to the Tigers, and remembered what his mother and siblings had taught him: Be independent. Make your own decisions.

Wilkins took other visits and narrowed his list to five: Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford and Boston College. He told no one until Jan. 4, 2015, when the family gathered at Andrew's house in Springfield. Christian had them guess where he was going. His mother and brothers picked Ohio State.

Christian then took off his hoodie to reveal a Clemson T-shirt, three sizes too small, given to him by his godbrother, Steve Krushell.

The comedian kept Clemson's coach in suspense, too.

"He's telling me, 'Coach, I loved Clemson. I can't thank you enough for recruiting me. You guys were great,'" Swinney recalled. "And I'm waiting on the, 'But.' Sure enough, he goes, 'But ...' and I'm like, 'Aw.' I'm going to thank him for letting me recruit him and tell him he's a class act and wish him nothing but the best. He goes, 'But, coach, that's why want to be a Tiger.'

"He totally set me up. But that's him."

Wilkins announced his commitment to Clemson on Jan. 5, the four-year anniversary of his grandfather's death. He selected the No. 42 jersey because Stamps was born in 1942.

"When things get tough, when I don't think I can give my all, I look down and see that 42," Wilkins said. "I'm like, 'You represent your family, you represent your grandfather. You keep pushing, because this is what he'd want.'"

Wilkins has thrown himself into campus life, just like he did at Suffield. Although football requires even more of his time, he does community service and other altruistic activities. He's on a first-name basis with university president James Clements, whom Wilkins contacted during his recruitment to ask about Clemson's environment and mission ("President Clements takes all the credit for Christian Wilkins," Swinney said).

Like any football team, Clemson has cliques, but Wilkins spends as much time with the kickers as the defensive linemen.

"He's just a great person to have in your locker room," Joseph said. "He's just so goofy, so happy, always cracking jokes. He's never too busy to not talk with you.

"He appreciates life."

In May, Swinney met with Wilkins to review the year and plot out what's next. Swinney asked about Wilkins' summer living situation.

As a rising sophomore, Wilkins could move off campus, but he told Swinney he would remain in the dorms. That wasn't the big surprise. Wilkins added that he would be living with wide receiver Deon Cain, who was sent home from Miami a day before Clemson played in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl. Swinney suspended Cain for an unspecified violation of team rules, and Cain missed the Orange Bowl, the national title game and spring practice before being reinstated in May.

"I went, 'Excuse me?'" Swinney said. "He said, 'Yeah, we need Deon and Deon needs me, and I can help him. I'm going to live with Deon Cain.' That was something nobody asked or instigated. He just did that on his own. So he moved in with Deon this summer to help him stay on track.

"That's just who he is. He looks for ways to serve other people."

Mr. Versatility

The backflips. They're part of the Christian Wilkins legend.

Swinney wasn't sure how quickly Wilkins would adjust to the college game after dominating lesser competition at Suffield. But during a freshman get-together at Swinney's club before the 2015 season, the coach saw Wilkins do a backflip, flat-footed, off the dock into Lake Keowee.

In July, a video appeared of Wilkins catching a pass while riding a bike in Clemson's indoor facility. Wilkins' first career reception, a 31-yarder, came on a fake punt in the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. In September, he became the first Clemson defensive lineman to catch a touchdown out of an offensive formation when he hauled in a 1-yard pass against Troy.

The guy who gets along with everyone off the field seems to love every role he can fill between the lines. Wilkins starts on three special-teams units. He started at defensive tackle as a true freshman for the national runner-up. This season, he has started at defensive end for a Tigers team that plays for the ACC championship and a playoff spot on Saturday. Wilkins is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurksi Award, given to the nation's top defender, after recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback pressures.

"It's like a switch-hitter in baseball, a guy that can hit 25 home runs right-handed and left-handed," Swinney said. "There's nobody else that can go and play 3-technique, shade and end, and not miss a beat. Plus, you've got to have the mentality for it. I've been around some ends who could go play D-tackle, but they didn't really have the mentality for it. I've been around a lot of really good D-tackles but maybe not quite athletic enough to go play D-end.

"He is a rare guy."

A living legacy

Wilkins has followed the high-profile police shootings in recent years and the ensuing protests and violence that followed. He sees Colin Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling during the national anthem or conducting other protests in games.

"It's just sad to always see everything that goes on in the country," he said. "That type of stuff has affected my life directly. Obviously you see that stuff, you take note of it. But I never really felt the need to protest or anything.

"I just honor my grandfather every day."

He does it with a big laugh, a big smile and even big hair. He does it by going beyond the athlete bubble at Clemson and engaging with his campus and his community. He does it by having what Swinney calls a "dynamic mind," which enables him to discuss any topic with pretty much anyone. He does it by serving people in need, such as Cain, who has had no slipups this season.

"I just really want to be able to use my personality, my voice, my influence and impact others' lives," Wilkins said. "That's where I'll find the most joy."

Eurie Stamps Sr. would have been in the stands for Saturday's ACC championship, just like he was for Christian's basketball game the night before he died. He would have been there for the national championship and other Clemson games, loud and proud.

"He'd definitely be proud," Andrew Wilkins said, "very, very proud, of Christian's accomplishments."

Christian would love to follow Strahan, one of his childhood favorites, to NFL glory and media stardom. Perhaps the White House is in his future, too.

But there is a third path for Christian Wilkins.

Eurie Stamps Sr. is still showing his grandson the way.

"My motivation is to be his legacy and have him live through me and live life as best as I can for him," Wilkins said. "Unfortunately, he can't be here to see it, but I know he's watching me, and he's happy."