Commentary

Wilkerson taking long trip to NFL draft

The Linden native is traveling across the country in hopes of hearing his named called

Updated: April 15, 2011, 12:23 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

LINDEN, N.J. -- Muhammad Wilkerson's two-month, city-to-city job interview started at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where, in a meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals, he was asked these supposedly probing questions:

Who was the U.S. president during the Civil War? How are the colors green and yellow similar?

What, did Chad Ochocinco supply his team with the material?

And so it began for Wilkerson, the former Linden High School and Temple standout -- a planes, trains and automobiles journey that would take him to all corners of the NFL. When he returns next week from a trip to the Oakland Raiders, he will have visited nine teams, covering 27,500 travel miles.

A train ride to the Baltimore Ravens. Car trips to the New York Jets and Giants. Flights to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks. And another car or train Friday to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Such is the pre-draft life of a 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive lineman who can run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds and can line up comfortably in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. The scouts call that "scheme versatility," and it makes Wilkerson an attractive commodity in the upcoming NFL draft. Barring an upset, his name will be called in the second half of the first round.

This is the best kind of local-boy-makes-good story, because Wilkerson wasn't labeled "can't-miss" at an early age. He wasn't one of those pampered, all-everything recruits out of high school. He took the prep school route to college, a late bloomer who came out of the tough neighborhoods of Linden and Elizabeth.

"I didn't want to be the guy that was good in high school and ended up the local nobody," Wilkerson said Wednesday, relaxing on a couch in his family's apartment in Linden. "I didn't want to be that person."

Actually, Wilkerson was known in high school for his basketball prowess, a key member of the Linden team that won state titles his junior and senior years. He fell in love with basketball because he was banned from Pop Warner football for exceeding the maximum weight. Ironically, his size -- not to mention an 85.25-inch wingspan -- is the reason NFL scouts are drooling.

"He has first-round ability, big enough to be a 3-4 defensive end and athletic enough to play on third down in any scheme," said one NFL personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That makes him an interesting prospect. You don't have to take him off the field."

That explains why Wilkerson is in demand. Before his pro day last month, he dined with New Orleans Saints officials. He also met with Kansas City Chiefs scouts. By all accounts, he solidified his stock at the pro day, a kick start to his Muhammad Across America Tour.

Muhammad Wilkerson
RTB MediaMuhammad Wilkerson's size -- he has an 85.25-inch wingspan -- is the reason NFL scouts are drooling.

Just this week, Wilkerson went to Florham Park, where he met with the Jets and shared a few laughs with Rex Ryan. It was a treat to meet Ryan, whom he admired in the "Hard Knocks" clips his Temple coach showed the team last season. Wilkerson's favorite is the now-famous scene in which Ryan barks in a team meeting, "Let's get a G--damn snack!"

Wilkerson also enjoyed his visit with the Giants because -- time to 'fess up -- he grew up a Big Blue fan. In fact, his older brother is a Giants season-ticket holder. His favorite player is Justin Tuck, which makes sense because they both have the versatility to play different spots on the line.

"Different teams like me for different things," said Wilkerson, who ended his three-year career at Temple with 9½ sacks in 2010. "They like that I can get after the quarterback. I can stop the run and I can run down and make plays and be an athlete."

Wilkerson bristles when people question the level of competition in the MAC. His standard response to that is, "Talent will be found" -- and he mentions Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion who played at Miami (Ohio). Wilkerson would become the first first-round pick from Temple since running back Paul Palmer in 1987.

Despite his relatively sudden celebrity, Wilkerson hasn't lost perspective -- no easy task considering the whirlwind of attention from the NFL. How has he managed to stay grounded?

Wilkerson rolls up the short sleeve on his Ralph Lauren polo shirt, revealing a 1-week-old tattoo on his thick, right bicep. It's an oversized breast-cancer ribbon, about 6 inches. It says "Kaidah." That's the Arabic version of his mother's name, Janice.

She's a breast-cancer survivor, 11 years in remission.

"It's for my mother, all the hard work she put in for me," Wilkerson said, staring at the tattoo. "I wanted to show my appreciation, my love for my mom. She's my No. 1."

Sitting nearby, Janice smiled. She's a single parent, a social-service worker at a homeless shelter in Montclair, N.J. She raised Muhammad despite formidable challenges, managing to keep him focused on education and sports while some of his friends succumbed to the lure of the streets.

At first, she was opposed to the idea of Muhammad leaving school a year early for the draft, but she relented, making him promise that he'd return for his degree. As for the football part, she didn't need a GM to tell her son had talent.

"Every time he went to make a play, I'm like, 'They have two or three guys attacking Muhammad. They must know he's going to get to the ball,'" Janice said. "That's when I thought, 'Oh, he's going somewhere.'"

He's going to the NFL, but where? New Orleans? Philadelphia? That would be tough to swallow for all the Giants fans in Wilkerson's life. Maybe he'll land with the Jets, who own the 30th overall choice. His planes, trains and automobiles journey is almost over.

And a new one will begin.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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