Hours before the Dolphins’ “Sunday Night Football” game against the New England Patriots, defensive lineman Christian Wilkins will arrive at Gillette Stadium feeling nostalgic.
The mode of transportation, Wilkins hopes, is a Peter Pan bus, a motorcoach service that operates in the northeast part of the country. He’ll take in the brisk weather, an appreciated switch up from South Florida’s year-long humidity.
And as he prepares for the specter of 65,000 raucous fans, Wilkins, who was raised about 90 minutes from Gillette, will feel settled.
“It’s always a little something extra special because I grew up the biggest die-hard Patriots fan in the world,” Wilkins told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “But that quickly changed on April 25 of 2019.”
‘An animated character’
There is a reason why, in the midst of Wilkins’ weeks-long hold-in for a new contract during training camp, many emphasized his importance to the Dolphins’ Super Bowl aspirations.
He’s not just one of the team’s best players. He’s a leader who earned respect through a deliberate approach.
On the field, he’s a proud antagonist who draws the ire of opponents. But he’s a tone-setter for his teammates with an energy that can’t be replicated.
“The dude is like an animated character,” linebacker Jerome Baker told the Miami Herald.
As a kid, Wilkins revered Boston sports icons such as Tom Brady, Paul Pierce and David Ortiz, not only for their accolades but their leadership and involvement in the community. Wilkins told himself if he ever reached similar heights, he’d do the same with his platform.
Years later, those aspirations are playing out in Miami.
Tragedy and a change of scenery
The youngest of nine, Wilkins grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, home of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. While he was raised by his mother, Robin Stamps Jones, and older siblings, one of his biggest influences was also his grandfather, Eurie Stamps Sr., a veteran who worked as a bus mechanic before retiring.
In eighth grade, Wilkins moved to Framingham, about an hour east of Springfield, splitting time with his grandfather and stepfather.
But tragedy struck in 2011. Stamps was fatally shot when the rifle of a SWAT team officer accidentally discharged during a raid of his apartment. Cops were looking for Stamps’ stepson and two friends accused of selling drugs. Wilkins was staying with his stepfather during the night of the raid.
“My grandfather, Eurie Stamps Sr., was the man,” Wilkins said. “Was really beloved in Massachusetts, especially in the Cambridge and in the Boston areas. Just a great figure in the community and all that stuff.”
Wilkins returned to Springfield but needed a change of scenery. He found it about 20 minutes away at Suffield Academy, an elite boarding school home to 400-plus students who represent more than 20 states and 20 countries.
Suffield was “big for me,” Wilkins said, as he took his academics seriously and was introduced to different cultures.
Wilkins came into his own as a standout football and basketball player. Former Suffield football coach Drew Gamere recalls Wilkins as a 6-2, 250-pound freshman with “baby fat” still on his frame hitting a standing backflip during one of their first workouts.
But it was everything Wilkins did off the field that defined his time at Suffield, just as much as his athletic feats.
He was a member of the student government. The avid Hamilton fan participated in school performances. When the junior varsity team was playing on a particularly hot day and had no managers, Gamere looked around and there was Wilkins, a member of the varsity team, filling up water bottles.
“He really made an effort to meet and build relationships with all different types of people,” Gamere told the Herald.
Wilkins committed to Clemson — on Jan. 5, 2011, the four-year anniversary of his grandfather’s death — and wore No. 42 in honor of Stamps, who was born in 1942.
A three-time All-American, Wilkins was awarded the “Academic Heisman” for his success in the classroom and community work. And he was a player coaches knew they could lean on to elevate everyone. When Clemson’s defense was having a lackadaisical practice one day, former coordinator Brent Venables, acting as scout-team quarterback, directed his anger to Wilkins.
“I dropped back and he comes around the edge ... Christian hit me in the back of the head, really put two forearms right in my back. Clelin [Ferrell] hit me low in my knees and just flipped me right over and I had a full-body stinger. ... I paid the price momentarily, but was an easy sacrifice,” Venables, head coach at the University of Oklahoma, told the Herald.
The face of a rebuild
The 13th pick in the 2019 draft, Wilkins instantly became one of the faces of the Dolphins’ rebuild. Miami’s NFLPA rep since his rookie year, Wilkins joked he was “forced” into the position by former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In a season defined by constant roster movement, Fitzpatrick looked at Wilkins, a promising first-year player who was under contract for the next few years, as the perfect man for the role.
“[I] didn’t really know what I was getting into,” he said. “But I was definitely glad he involved me with that right there just because it’s another leadership role. It’s another responsibility. I feel like I’m a good man for the job, being a voice of the players.”
Wilkins, who set a career-high in tackles last season, has credited an unwavering routine for his success.
“I know what time I’m waking up, I know what time I’m eating breakfast, I know what time I’m getting to the facility, I know what time I’m doing everything at the facility,” he said last month.
At 27, Wilkins is the fifth-longest-tenured player on the team and a two-time captain. Years removed from watching those Boston sports icons, Wilkins’ aspirations to emulate them have taken shape in different ways, from organizing weekly defensive line dinners to working as a substitute teacher during the offseason, which he started at Clemson and still does in South Florida.
“A lot of guys want to be a leader because they’re good. A lot of guys don’t want to be a leader because they do the same thing every day and he’s one of those leaders,” Baker said.
‘A testament to his character’
On Aug. 29, Wilkins walked into the Dolphins’ news conference room. It was a bit of a surprise, as his contract situation was still unresolved and he hadn’t spoken in over three weeks.
But just days before, Zach Sieler agreed to a three-year contract extension. Wilkins, who was one of the first people Sieler called to deliver the news, wanted to publicly congratulate one of his best friends on the team.
“I couldn’t be more happy for someone, in a lot of ways more happy than myself,” he said at the time.
As Sieler entered the room to address the media next, a wide smile appeared on Wilkins’ face as they embraced.
“I think it’s just a testament to his character, and who he is as a person, how he truly cares about every player no matter what the situation is,” Sieler told the Herald.