CLEMSON — For years, Dabo Swinney has traveled to New York for the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame festivities. And for years, each time a certain award was announced, the Clemson football coach always had the same thought.
"I've always said one of these days I hope we can have a player on that stage," Swinney said, referring to the William V. Campbell Trophy, also known has the Academic Heisman. "I'm so excited about that award — because it's not just football."
Swinney finally has his winner. His wish came true Tuesday night.
Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins was awarded the Campbell Trophy, which recognizes the college football player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance in the nation.
Wilkins — the first player in Clemson history to ever win the award — will leave Clemson after this season as one of the most beloved figures in program history. Known for his goofy sense of his humor, his contagious spirit and his jovial approach to life, he has become a viral sensation for the joy he brings every day to Swinney's program.
Living his life in honor of his grandfather, who was mistakenly shot by a police officer in 2011, Wilkins has been one of the best leaders Swinney has had and his return to the program this year has been integral in the Tigers earning their fourth straight College Football Playoff appearance.
He also has been active in the Clemson community and served as a substitute teacher in Oconee County, including one particular outing in which Wilkins specifically requested to serve a special needs boy.
Donning a black tuxedo with a black bow tie, Wilkins took to the stage for his acceptance speech — one that encouraged people to unapologetically be themselves on a day-to-day basis.
"I want to thank coach Swinney for always serving his players' hearts and not their talents," Wilkins said. "No matter your circumstance, no matter your upbringing ... football brings people together.
"Don't be afraid to be yourself ... I'm going to thrive in it and do it passionately.
"Love, care and serve others. That's the most powerful thing you can do as a person."