Former USC football star, pro wrestler Del Wilkes finds redemption following fall from grace

PAUL ZOELLER/STAFF Del Wilkes, shown with wife Cathy, still keeps memorabilia on his desk at work from his days as a football player and a professional wrestler.

Del Wilkes was certainly no stranger to fame and the adulation of adoring fans.

One of the most celebrated football players to come out of the University of South Carolina, Wilkes later carved out a niche in the professional wrestling world, capturing a slew of titles and an international reputation.

But he found himself a prisoner to addiction, and he knew his world was coming apart at the seams the day his mother confronted him with a startling statement.

"I pray to God every day that you will end up in prison ... because I'd rather see you in prison than have to go put flowers on your grave."

Her words initially floored Wilkes. How could his own mother, whom he described "as good a Christian lady as you'd ever meet," say that to her own son?

In hindsight, Wilkes now says, prison may have been the one thing that saved him.

"I was in the midst of a horrible addiction," says Wilkes, who popped up to 150 pills a day to deal with his persistent injuries. "At first, I thought, 'What a horrible thing to say.' But once I got clear-headed and got to thinking normal again, I realized that she was exactly right."

Wilkes' mother got her wish when he was arrested for the final time in 2002 and sentenced to 18 months at the Lower Savannah Prerelease Center in Aiken.

His next dose of stark reality, he says, was the first time his mom came to visit him in the minimum-security facility.

"There have been a lot of hard days, but it was one of the hardest moments I ever had in my life," says Wilkes. "She had been there for everything - my first day of school, when my children were born, my graduation, my football games. Now I've done this to her. She's got to go visit a son in prison. I just felt like I was worthless ... that I had done that to her."

Wilkes admits his life had spun out of control. He had been arrested nearly 20 times in the Columbia area, had his driver's license suspended several times and had begun writing fraudulent prescriptions for drugs.

When he had exhausted his Columbia connections, Wilkes would drive to nearby towns in a desperate attempt to forge more prescriptions. When he was busted for the final time, it was almost a relief.

"At that point when you stand before a judge and you hear him sentence you, you realize that you really truly are going to come out of this changed, or this won't be the last time you'll end up doing time. You've basically lost everything you had - your family, friends, finances - now your freedom. If this doesn't stop it, then nothing will."

His downward spiral didn't happen overnight.

Wilkes, who was heavily recruited as an offensive lineman at Columbia's Irmo High School, began taking steroids in college while playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

One of only four consensus All-American football players in program history, Wilkes added 50 pounds of bulk to his six-foot-three, 225-pound frame to bolster an offensive line that in 1984 helped set school records for touchdowns (49), points (371) and total offense (5,095 yards).

Steroids, says Wilkes, "were as much a part of the culture as a helmet in football" and were even encouraged by some coaches.

"What's the pharmacy number?" a team doctor nonchalantly asked when Wilkes inquired if he would call in a prescription for the anabolic steroid Dianabol.

"It was easy getting my hands on steroids," says Wilkes, USC's most decorated player in 1984 when the Gamecocks finished 10-2. "You could go into any gym and get them. It was like buying multi-vitamins. It was a big part of what we were doing."

Despite a stellar collegiate campaign, Wilkes failed to make the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985 and the Atlanta Falcons in 1986. And when football was over for Wilkes, he turned to a pro wrestling career that he found physically grueling but financially rewarding.

The former All-American was good at the grappling game. So good, in fact, that less than two years into the business, he was given a victory over eight-time NWA world champion Harley Race.

"We were working in Jamestown, N.D., in 1989, and when I got to the building, (booker) Greg Gagne pulled me aside and told me that I was working with Harley Race that night," recalls Wilkes. "Greg told me that Harley was going to put me over. I said, 'Wow. Evidently I do have a chance to have a career in this business if Harley Race thinks enough of me to go out there and put me over.'"

Performing at the time as The Trooper, a gimmick where he wrote out tickets for his opponents after defeating them, Wilkes took his act to Japan in 1990. The results, however, were less than heartening.

The Trooper character failed to resonate with the ringwise Japanese audience. "I probably shouldn't have been there," Wilkes admits. "I wasn't quite seasoned enough or experienced enough."

Following a stint in the Dallas-based Global Wrestling Federation, this time under a hood as The Patriot, Wilkes was invited to return to Japan in 1991 where fans marked out for his sculpted physique and colorful mask. After his third night back, he was asked by legendary promoter Giant Baba to work full-time for his All-Japan promotion.

"Within the industry it was a feather in your cap to work in Japan. It was a big deal to work for Baba or (Antonio) Inoki," says Wilkes, who would follow up with successful runs in WCW and the WWF, the biggest promotions in the United States.

By the time of his final stint in WWE, however, Wilkes was a physical wreck and heavily dependent on painkillers.

"It was a big deal to be able to come back and work in the states for Vince (McMahon). To get a win over Bret Hart on Monday night was big. But I knew at that point it was a matter of time. I was battling injuries. I couldn't stay healthy," says Wilkes, who ruptured the tendon in his right triceps twice in a two-year period.

His last last major match was in 1998 with WWE, although he worked one final bout for an independent promotion in 2000.

Few were surprised when Wilkes decided to pursue a pro wrestling career.

He had been an avid fan as a youngster, attending the weekly matches at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, as well as watching every Saturday on television.

"I had always loved wrestling," says Wilkes, "probably as much as I loved football."

Wilkes befriended a fellow wrestling fan at The Citadel while playing football at Carolina.

"He was a big wrestling fan as well, and we decided that when football was over for me - whether if was after college or an NFL career - that we were going to have a career in professional wrestling.

"After Carolina, I had a couple of free-agent contracts and tryouts in the NFL, and when that did not work out, I was ready to move on to the next stage of my life, which was to try to pursue a career in pro wrestling."

Wilkes found a wrestling school not far from his home. The Columbia facility was run by legendary women's wrestling star The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison), who had been responsible for training the majority of women wrestlers during the '60s and '70s.

"It was geared more toward women than it was guys," says Wilkes. "But we paid our money and went through the school and basically started out at the very bottom level of pro wrestling."

Wilkes got a break when he met wrestling great Wahoo McDaniel at one of Moolah's shows.

"He was booking talent up there (AWA) along with Ray Stevens and Greg Gagne. So that was my first time working for a company that was known nationwide, and they were on ESPN. From there I worked my way up to Global, had an opportunity to work in Japan, WCW and my last stop was in the WWF."

While the money was good, the toll on his body was unbearable. So much so, says Wilkes, that he turned to self-medication, scarfing down dozens of pain pills and muscle relaxants to get through the day.

"I had a very successful career, but one that was ended because of recurring injuries," says Wilkes. "And as a result of those injuries and the physical toll that those injuries take on your body, I started taking prescription pill medication just to help get through matches ... to help survive without me having to have a surgery or to prolong a surgery that you knew would take you off the road for a while."

The 6-foot-3 Wilkes bulked up to 300 pounds and had muscles that were too big for his tendons and joints to support. In all, he has had nine surgeries on knees, shoulders, triceps and elbows.

Wilkes' reliance on painkillers only grew stronger.

"A couple of pills before a match one night several months later had blown into 100 or 120 pills or tablets a day. It got completely out of control," says Wilkes.

"You get hooked on the pain medication. It comes from the same plant that heroin comes from. It has the exact same qualities that heroin does, which is the most physically addictive drug there is. When you have a drug problem with opiates or heroin, and you try to come off of it cold turkey, the sickness you have to go through is unbearable.

"I can honestly say I don't know anything in my life that's ever intimidated more than the sickness you would go through trying to get off those things. There were so many days I would say, "God, I don't want to go through this, I'm tired of living like this.' You couldn't tolerate the throwing up, the horrible muscle aches and cramps and what your body would go through. That was a tough thing to overcome and deal with."

It was no different, says Wilkes, than any street drug like heroin or crack.

"It takes over to where your every waking moment is spent trying to find a way to get more pain pills. And that led to me calling in prescriptions myself. I learned how to do that from a buddy of mine who was a doctor. That led to a bunch of arrests which eventually led to prison."

Wilkes considers himself lucky when he thinks about the scores of professional wrestlers who died from problems brought on by steroid and other drug use during that era.

"It came close to wiping out an awful lot of my generation of wrestlers," he laments.

Prison afforded Delbert Wilkes the opportunity to think about the rest of his life.

What had transpired before his sentencing, he says, was a surefire path to destruction.

Wilkes had gone through rehab four times, although each time he began drinking and using drugs again.

"I had changed that (pain pills) for other drugs - alcohol, cocaine. I was out of control. I was just wide-open out of control."

Friends, such as former USC coach Jim Carlen, attempted to intervene but to no avail.

"People kept saying the best thing to do is shoot him and forget him," Carlen said in a 2004 interview. "I just kept thinking if I stay (involved) long enough, he'll recover. Well, they were right and I was wrong. I should have let him go to jail."

Wilkes' nine months in prison turned out to be the most important of his life.

Access to drugs ended the day he entered his jail cell.

"Being in prison and not having access to drugs was tremendously helpful. You finally are able to go long enough where you won't put any of that junk in your body. You start thinking clearly again. You start taking inventory of your life and realizing what a mess you've made.

"When you're in the middle of doing all that stuff, you don't see it that way. You only exist just to get what you need to get you through the day. You don't think consequences."

Wilkes also got involved with the prison's ministry.

"There were some good people from the local Baptist church that would conduct services on Wednesday and Sundays. It was getting back to the roots of my faith and my Christianity and something that I had obviously gotten away from. I had allowed that not to be important or matter anymore."

Wilkes says his renewed faith helped get him through his time in prison. By accepting full responsibility for his plight, forgiveness could begin.

"Just through prayer and putting your faith in the Lord. Del Wilkes has made a mess of this. Del Wilkes can't straighten it out. I am totally at your mercy to get me through this and help me come out the other side."

More than a decade clean and sober, Wilkes embraces his new lease on life.

After spending nearly 10 months of an 18-month term at Lower Savannah, he got out on Valentine's Day 2003.

And he knew just what his first order of business would be.

"My first step is that my mom had an empty bedroom," he jokes.

Luckily, he says, a friend helped him get a job at a car dealership in Columbia.

"I knew a guy who had worked at a local Chevrolet dealership. I had known him before I went to jail. He had sent word through a family member that he had confidence in me and knew that I would come out different than when I went into jail, and if I wanted a job, he would go to management and put in a word for me.

"I got out that day, and the next day went for a job interview, and three or four days later I was working. And I knew that was the key - that I had to get busy and get to work and be productive."

It wasn't easy at first, he admits.

He had a job selling cars, but no license to drive one.

Wilkes lived with his mother in Newberry before eventually moving into a rental house not far from his mother's place. Since his driver's license had been taken away, she had to take him to his Columbia job each morning and pick him up every evening.

"In this state, when you're convicted of obtaining a prescription by fraud, they take your driver's license," says Wilkes, who had been convicted several times and put on probation, yet continued to drive.

"I started getting caught for driving without a license and driving under suspension. By the time I got out of prison, my license had been suspended for seven years. I was labeled an habitual offender."

After being out of jail for several years and having proven that he gotten his life back together, Wilkes wrote letters to local politicians in an effort to petition the state on his behalf to get his license back.

Since his license was suspended under the Habitual Offenders Act, there was no early termination of the suspension.

"I was going to serve the whole seven years without a license, and I did," he says.

As a result of multiple offenses and the nature of his sentence, he didn't get his license back until four years ago.

"It's amazing that when you're in the midst of an addiction, your whole life is just chaotic," says Wilkes. "The day that I was able to go get my driver's license was unbelievable. I can finally do this on my own again. It was a big day for me."

For the past nine years Wilkes has been gainfully employed at Dick Smith Nissan in Columbia.

A year and a half ago, he married an old flame he had first met at a Christian retreat in Georgia in 1977. He was 15 at the time, but when his family relocated back to South Carolina, the summer fling was over.

"We moved back to South Carolina, so obviously the relationship ended. We both went our separate ways. We both married, with children, and divorced."

The two happened to meet again last year while Wilkes was visiting a friend in Georgia. Thirty days later they were married.

"Cathy is one great woman," he says.

While Wilkes finds himself in a new comfort zone these days, he still carries the scars from his troubled past.

The consequences were severe. A marriage and relationship with his three children were among the casualties.

"Unfortunately those self-inflicted wounds sometimes take a long time to overcome," says Wilkes, whose three children range in age from 17 to 28. "There are certain things you do while you're going through that that will always be there. I still haven't been able to have that relationship with my children that I want to have. I pray about it every day and maybe eventually it will happen. But it's just one of those scars. You can change things and change your life, but sometimes there's scars that won't go away."

"My family prayed for me," he says. Sometimes, though, the wounds just wouldn't heal.

Wilkes still remembers the shame he carried after getting out of prison.

"It was tough me on me because I felt everybody was looking at me like, 'Hey, that's the guy. That's the guy I was telling you about.'"

The late Jim Carlen, Wilkes' first head football coach at South Carolina, helped ease his former player's trepidation. Carlen, who recruited Wilkes out of high school, insisted that his former player re-enter society and hold his head up high.

"Coach Carlen was like so many people in my family. He never gave up on me. Never. He just hung in there with me. When I was at my absolute worst, when I was bull-headed and not listening, he never, never gave up on me.

"He started talking to me about going to football games and getting into the Lettermen's Association. I said, 'Coach, I'm embarrassed to do that. I just feel ashamed.'"

Carlen then said something that opened Wilkes' eyes.

"'Young fellow. You're old news," the coach him told. "They're focused on the most recent thing they can talk about. They've talked about you, but that was a long time ago. They're focused on something else now. They're talking about somebody else."

Carlen, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 79, had been one of the major reasons Wilkes went to South Carolina. While the coach could be abrasive and arrogant, Wilkes liked him.

So when Carlen was fired before the '82 season, Wilkes left with him, quitting school and driving a delivery truck for a year.

"I quit for good this time, or so I thought at the time," says Wilkes.

Former USC defensive coordinator Richard Bell, who was hired as Carlen's replacement, was fired after a 4-7 season his first year.

"He was a good Christian man, but not a good major college football coach. Even though he was gone, I still didn't entertain any thoughts of going back," says Wilkes.

But a new era at South Carolina was about to unfold. Former New York Giants' All-Pro back Joe Morrison, a throwback to another era of football, was named head coach, promising change and a new direction for the Gamecock program.

Morrison called Wilkes and asked him to meet him for lunch.

"He was a different kind of coach, and I liked him the minute I met him," says Wilkes. "He was more approachable than Jim Carlen was. Coach Carlen and his staff were very straight-laced guys who didn't tolerate cussing out on the field, things like that. Joe showed up 30 minutes late. He explained that he had been out for most of the night before drinking and that he was hung over. He reeked of alcohol, his eyes were bloodshot."

"Hey kid, sorry I'm late, but I had a long night last night," the coach told Wilkes.

"When you're a 19-year-old kid, that's music to your ears. You kind of like that philosophy," says Wilkes.

It was the era of the supersized football player. And steroids would soon become a big part of Del Wilkes' life.

Along with George Rogers, Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney, Wilkes is one of only four Gamecock consensus All-Americans.

Wilkes was a leader of the 1984 team that went 10-2, a mark that up until recently, stood as the greatest South Carolina football record ever.

Still, Wilkes is not among a list of more than five dozen football players in the USC Athletic Hall of Fame.

"I've been very open about the things I've done," says Wilkes. "I feel like I'm very transparent in problems and issues that I've had. I think probably the steroid issue, more than anything, had something to do with it. "

He recently was put up for nomination, but fell short.

"That's their decision. If they feel that way I totally respect it. But I do know that I broke no laws. And I'm talking pertaining to steroid use. I broke no university, athletic department, NCAA rules at the time. I was prescribed them by a team doctor. I obtained them a legal way. There were no laws against them."

"Not being a part of that Hall of Fame in no way, shape or form affects how I feel about the university and that athletic department. I'm a Gamecock and always will be whether I'm in that Hall of Fame or not."

Wilkes is taking part in "A Night with the Stars" at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at Miles Road Baptist Church in Summerville. The free event is billed as an evening of family entertainment that will include Wilkes and other old-school wrestling stars such as Ronnie Garvin, The Barbarian and George South.

Parking is free. There will be a meet and greet following the show, along with a signed belt giveaway.

For more information, call (843) 873-7887.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at