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His Hugeness : Ohio State’s Dan Wilkinson, All 308 Pounds of Him, Is Fulfilling Family Responsibility as NFL’s Top Draft Prospect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As you read this, some members of the Wilkinson family of Dayton, Ohio, are already in the air, flying toward California and riches they still don’t comprehend.

Only three of the seven Wilkinsons who will descend upon Newport Beach on Sunday had ever stepped inside an airplane. Only two had ever been to California.

Together, they will take a boat ride for the first time. They will eat fresh seafood for the first time.

Then Sunday afternoon, crowded in front of a television set in a hotel suite, they will hug and laugh and shed tears of joy for the first time in a long time.

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The second-youngest of 11 Wilkinson children, Dan, is expected to be the first overall pick in the 59th annual NFL draft.

He is an Ohio State defensive lineman, 6 feet 4 and 308 pounds, nicknamed “Big Daddy.” He is so large that agent Leigh Steinberg hesitates to take him to Disneyland this weekend.

“I don’t want anybody mistaking him for a ride,” Steinberg said.

But what scouts like most about Wilkinson is his strength.

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Since the sudden death of his father after a heart attack six years ago, it has been Wilkinson’s mandate to lift the family from the struggles of a west Dayton neighborhood to a life that always belonged to somebody else.

It was his duty to make sure that his mother, Veronda, was rewarded for rearing 11 children while finding time to get a college degree.

It was his mission to make sure the memory of his father, a foundry worker who stayed overtime nearly every day to pay grocery bills, would not be buried with him.

At the time of his father’s death, Dan Wilkinson was a 14-year-old boy who weighed nearly 300 pounds and exercised only when he was made to.

He would run, but only on those days his mother would come home with a new pair of shoes. He would fight, but only with his brothers, and only in the kitchen.

Then one day the Wilkinson family’s rock disappeared.

Dan’s older brother, Oliver Jr., took him aside.

“I said, ‘Dan, do you know how big you are? Do you know what you can do in this world?’ ” Oliver Jr. recalled. “I said, ‘Dan, you can be the one to take care of Mama. You can be the one to take care of this family.’ ”

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Sunday, when representatives of the Cincinnati Bengals read his name, the entire sports world will know that he has become that one.

His mother keeps waiting for the punch line.

“I am flabbergasted,” she said.

*

Relatives say Dan’s nickname comes from a junior high school coach who looked over at several fathers watching the end of a practice.

“Look at all those daddies standing over there,” the coach said.

He then realized that one of those “daddies” was actually Dan Wilkinson.

A seventh grader.

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Wilkinson heard other nicknames while growing up. The most popular was “Fat Butt.”

“I heard fat jokes,” Wilkinson said. “I always just said, ‘The hell with it.’ ”

Today he answers to different descriptions. Such as “dominating.” Or “The next Cortez Kennedy.”

After three years and two seasons at Ohio State, he was already considered a top-five pick before the annual scouting combine in February. There, he vaulted to No. 1 status without ever setting foot on a field.

He could bench press 225 pounds 34 consecutive times, several repetitions beyond his nearest competitor.

A month later, as if pro personnel really needed to see anymore, 150 guys with stopwatches congregated in Columbus to watch Wilkinson work out.

He ran a 40-yard dash like a sprinter--4.7 seconds on some charts. The league was sold.

“Dan is a guy that has rare abilities,” said Dave Shula, Bengal coach. “There haven’t been a whole lot of guys like him. His size, strength, quickness and speed put him in a special category.”

Bobby Beathard, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, said, “Players like him only come along once in a while.”

The only question is whether the thrifty Bengals can pay him the several million dollars standard for a No. 1 pick, or whether they will have to trade the pick to one of several suitors.

The Arizona Cardinals covet Wilkinson and have already made a lucrative offer, including one of the stars of last year’s draft, running back Garrison Hearst.

The New England Patriots covet him, and have made their own draft-pick-laden offer.

The only thing Wilkinson knows is reputations.

“Everything I hear about Cincinnati is that they have been in the dumps,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t want to go there, but I don’t want to be in a bad situation where I don’t sign until late.”

But Wilkinson also understands about reputations. He has spent all of his 21 years sparring with them.

“Lot of people still think I’m too heavy, that I can’t really run like I can run,” he said. “But I consider myself a big player, an impact player. And I will show everybody that.”

Wilkinson showed that to his family during those early kitchen fights.

“We would stand toe to toe and box until we finally couldn’t punch anymore,” recalled Oliver Jr. “Dan and I were equal.”

Oliver Jr. was 11 at the time. Dan was 7.

Soon Dan was fighting siblings over food. They would buy chicken or pizza with their own money, then try to hide it from him in the back of the refrigerator.

“But Dan would always find it,” Oliver Jr. said. “We’d come home the next day and it would be gone. And he would owe us.”

Wilkinson said that as he ate his way toward 350 pounds by his senior year in high school, he was snacking at all hours.

“Even 3 a.m.” he said. “Wake up in the middle of the night, go out to the refrigerator, get some pizza.”

In some large families, they fight across the dinner table. Wilkinson said his family fought just to get to the table .

Once there, they would tear into his mother’s homemade bread.

“I think that bread had a lot to do with his weight,” said Veronda, who bought two gallons of milk every day so there would be something to wash down that bread with.

Wilkinson never thought much about the potential in his size, never played much street football with the other children and quit the junior high team when his father died.

After being coaxed by relatives and coaches to return, his career continued without a rudder until his senior year in high school, when he was recruited by nearby Ohio State.

It was the chance of a lifetime. But that chance was put on hold because of poor test scores.

Once again, his family and friends reminded him of his calling.

“I never cared if my children were great. . . . I just wanted them to be active, decent human beings,” said Veronda, a computer programmer. “Daniel has always been the type of child that, whatever he had to do, he did it.

“So you help him all you can . . . and then you pray. You pray all the time.”

Wilkinson responded by attending classes in early summer until he could qualify academically. He was accepted at Ohio State one month before the start of the 1991 school year--the latest that Coach John Cooper has ever signed a player.

Then, more obstacles. All that studying had made him hungry, and he was about 60 pounds overweight. He had to sit out his first year because of flab.

“I knew I had to change,” Wilkinson said. “I knew I owed it to myself to change. So I did.”

No more food after 10 p.m. No more gorging on fast food unless the words grilled chicken appeared on the wrapper.

And no more nights drinking 10 or 15 beers. Wilkinson knew he was in trouble when all that brew never even made him dizzy.

“Pretty soon, Daniel was coming home and educating us how to eat,” Veronda said.

His impact on the family’s life is just beginning. Even though his siblings don’t want to leave their modest brick home because of memories, Wilkinson is going to buy a new home for his mother.

She can finally experience what it is like to talk on a phone, knowing that the only voice in the house is hers.

“There is a level at which Dan feels the burden of achievement on his shoulders,” Steinberg said. “But he doesn’t look at it like a burden, but an excitement. His family is the most special part of the whole thing.”

Especially his late father, who also was a big man, but a man who never had the time or energy keep himself healthy.

To see his 10th child drag himself from a similar rut to become the country’s most sought-after college football player is something that all agree would have made Oliver Wilkinson Sr. proud.

“I always thought first round, but No. 1 overall?” Wilkinson asked. “I don’t know how to explain that.”

He is the only Wilkinson who doesn’t.


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