Sapakoff: Del Wilkes, troubled past mended, belongs in USC’s Athletic Hall of Fame
LEXINGTON — Del Wilkes looks like he can still block as well as the rugged college student shaking hands with Bob Hope in a framed 8-by-10 black and white glossy.
The 51-year-old former offensive lineman once carried 333 pounds on his 6-3 frame. But Wilkes is back down to 250, his Irmo High School playing weight before he became the best player on South Carolina’s 1984 “Black Magic” football team.
A replica of Williams-Brice Stadium sits on Wilkes’ desk at the car dealership he’s worked for since 2005. There are photos: Wilkes posing as The Patriot from his professional wrestling days; the upstart wrestler hanging out with the ultimate boxer, Muhammad Ali.
But Bob Hope stands out on the desk, as Wilkes does in Gamecock football history. Hope, the iconic late comedian annually introduced college All-Americans during holiday television specials. Wilkes was so honored — live from Burbank. He is one of only four Gamecock consensus All-Americans. The only others are George Rogers (1980), Melvin Ingram (2011) and Jadeveon Clowney (2012).
“Obviously, South Carolina’s last two 11-2 seasons have surpassed the 1984 team,” said Mike Hold, a quarterback on that 10-2 team that reached No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. “But at that time, and for a long time after that, the ’84 team was the team. Del was a vital part as both a player and a leader.”
Obviously, Del Wilkes belongs in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. One of four consensus All-Americans in a football program hatched in 1892, enough said.
“To me,” Hold said, “it’s a no-brainer.”
But “Black Magic” was 29 seasons ago, 66 former Gamecock football players or coaches are in the Hall of Fame and Wilkes isn’t one of them.
There are two reasons:
1. Offensive linemen lack the statistics necessary for a good argument.
2. A troubled past, including lots of drug charges and a domestic violence conviction.
The first reason makes no sense, the second is more understandable.
Drug depths and recovery
Wilkes remembers the day his mom came to visit him in prison.
“It’s not anyone’s dream to have a parent see you in that condition,” said Wilkes, who served nine months in an Aiken facility in 2002-2003 after charges of fraudulently obtaining prescription painkillers piled up.
He was arrested 20 times in and around Columbia from 1998 to 2007 while trying to support what became a 150 pills-a-day habit. Wilkes said he got hooked during his 1988-1997 professional wrestling career.
Wilkes made a living as a self-described “cartoon character.”
As The Trooper, he wrestled foes to submission and then flamboyantly issued them tickets.
As The Patriot, he wore red, white and blue outfits and masks.
As a star attraction, Wilkes took drugs to build muscles, took drugs to relax muscles, took sleeping pills and dabbled in cocaine.
As a wrestler, he traveled the world for as many as 200 shows per year.
Wilkes speaks out against the dangers of drug abuse in professional wrestling whenever he gets a chance. He says “over 50” wrestling friends have died from drug overdoses or suicides.
“When you make your living without your shirt on, the physique is important and you’re probably going to do things to enhance that physique,” Wilkes said.
Steroids led to craziness, Wilkes said.
The low point was a domestic assault charge in 1999. Wilkes pleaded guilty.
No excuses for that, ever.
“I feel terribly about it,” Wilkes said. “That’s not me. Under the influence (of drugs).”
Wilkes says he has changed, that the drug addiction that messed with his mind, emotions and relationships are in the rearview. He says the prison term “saved my life.”
“I’m in a much better place, and I have been for several years now,” Wilkes said. “I think I have my life back together and that I’ve proven that at home and at work. I have so many friends in South Carolina, some that I’d lost touch with but many I still see.”
Wilkes works at Dick Smith Nissan, selling vehicles to former high school and Gamecock teammates, and their kids.
Just down the hallway from his desk, Del and Cathy Wilkes were married last summer by a fellow employee who doubles as a notary public.
“We’ve known each other since we met at a Christian camp when we were 15,” Del said of Cathy. “We reconnected last March, and we hit it off right away.”
Del and Cathy Wilkes enjoy taking long walks together. They work out at the YMCA. Though Del often works weekends, he got a recent Saturday off to attend the Kentucky-South Carolina football game.
Del Wilkes isn’t campaigning for the USC Athletic Hall of Fame. But Pete Stokes is pushing hard.
Stokes, 78, is a former Gamecocks baseball player and retired agent with the State Law Enforcement Division. He has been on and off the Hall of Fame committee as a well-connected alum.
“Going over the stats of some of the other people that had been nominated, I knew that Del was a lineman during some of our best years,” Stokes said. “I figured that since he was a consensus All-American, I thought he was deserving of the honor.”
Stokes will officially nominate Wilkes for the Class of 2014. Selections are made in July. Athletic Director Ray Tanner, though not familiar with details of Wilkes’ life on or off the field, said he is “very receptive” to Wilkes’ nomination.
“I think he’ll get in,” Stokes said. “Look at how good he was.”
The “Black Magic” Gamecocks of 1984 were exciting on both sides of the ball. Hold and the late Allen Mitchell alternated at quarterback, leading a high-scoring team that climbed to No. 2 in the AP poll with a 9-0 record. Then the thud, a 38-21 loss in Annapolis to an injury-riddled Navy team that entered with a 3-5-1 record.
South Carolina bounced back to win at Clemson (22-21) before losing to Oklahoma State (21-14) in the Gator Bowl.
Wilkes knew the Gamecocks would do something special when he met first-year head coach Joe Morrison before the 1983 season. Wilkes had quit the team before Morrison was hired but agreed to meet the new coach and former NFL running back at a Columbia restaurant.
“The coaches had just come to town and their wives weren’t here yet,” Wilkes said. “Coach Morrison told me to be there at 12, but I kept waiting and waiting. Finally, he comes in and says, ‘Sorry, Del, I really tied one on last night.’ I knew right then that this was a different kind of coach, a real player’s coach.”
Stokes said Wilkes has come up before the Hall of Fame committee before but was turned down because of a lack of statistical support, not his arrest record.
“It’s one of those things where offensive linemen are overlooked,” Stokes said. “They don’t get recognized, generally. You have to have an awful lot to go with the nomination before an offensive lineman can even get looked at. When I bring his name up, people say, ‘I hadn’t thought about him.’ ”
Here are some statistics, mighty impressive in the context of the time: The 1984 Gamecocks set school records for touchdowns (49), points (371) and total offense (5,095 yards). Surely, the lone All-American on that offense had a lot to do with the superlatives.
“Del was tough, hard-nosed, all about hard work,” said Hold, an associate athletic director at Newberry College. “One of the things about that team that made us so good was the senior leadership. If you looked at us on paper and compared us to the Notre Dames and the Pittsburghs and Florida States and teams like that, we didn’t match up. But we had a unique ingredient that year, and that was a bunch of guys that had been in that program that had never been successful but were really hungry. Del epitomized that extra work that would take us over the top.”
Three of Wilkes’ 1984 teammates are in the USC Athletic Hall of Fame: running back Thomas Dendy, linebacker James Seawright and safety Brad Edwards (Sterling Sharpe was redshirting in 1984).
“It’s not my job to lobby for it, but it would be a great honor,” Wilkes said. “For anybody that participates in athletics at the University of South Carolina, it would be the ultimate honor. But I have a good life without it, too.”
Wilkes admits that he used steroids while at South Carolina but insists that it was only after his final game, the Gamecocks’ loss in the 1984 Gator Bowl.
“I was trying to prepare for the NFL,” Wilkes said. “I thought I needed an edge with all the competition.”
Wilkes signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a non-drafted free agent but didn’t make the regular season roster. Later, he was cut by the Atlanta Falcons.
Stokes stresses that the school’s Hall of Fame criteria calls for a five-year waiting period between the end of a player’s career and selection with emphasis strictly on college accomplishments.
“Whatever Del did was after his tenure here at the university,” Stokes said. “We consider what they did here at South Carolina. For instance, we do not consider what someone did in pro football or after they left here.”
What if Del Wilkes had been nominated in the early 1990s — as he should have been — well before his rash of arrests? He would be in the USC Athletic Hall of Fame, that’s what.
Kudos to National Baseball Hall of Fame voters for keeping confirmed steroid cheaters out. Heisman Trophy voters should strongly consider “integrity” — a word repeated twice in the Heisman Trust Mission Statement.
But Wilkes evidently followed the rules and certainly contributed immensely while playing football for the Gamecocks.
It’s understandable if the rap sheet blocked Wilkes’ candidacy over the past 15 years. But it’s about time to let him receive a deserved honor and an official welcome back into a Gamecock family that hopefully will help him continue to make progress.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.