Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson threw a private party last month for 50 or so friends. BYOS. Bring Your Own Stopwatch. On the indoor practice field at Ohio State, Wilkinson jumped and juked and sprinted, drawing gasps from the NFL personnel men, coaches and front-office folks who witnessed the invitation-only, one-man workout. When stopwatches caught this man-mountain in 4.79 seconds for the 40-yard dash, no one could be certain if the blur had been Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson or Big Daddy Don Garlits of drag racing fame.
Wilkinson, a 21-year-old Ohio State defensive tackle who has made himself available in Sunday's NFL draft after having played only two seasons of college football, is not the first of the Big Daddies, but he is an original. He is 6'3‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄ" and 313 pounds, and can bench-press 500 pounds. But he can also jump 30 inches off the ground and could just about keep up with some NFL defensive backs in a footrace. "The size, the speed, the strength, the power—it's scary," marvels John Wooten, the vice president for player personnel of the Philadelphia Eagles. "The good Lord said, 'I'm going to do this once, then I'm not going to do it anymore.' "
Defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb of the Baltimore Colts of the late 1950s stood 6'6" but weighed a mere 288, while Big Daddy Hairston, the defensive end of the Eagles, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals, was just 6'4", 260. There have been other Big Daddies—Big Daddy Kane, blues guitarist Big Daddy Kinsey, Florida spring-break toastmaster Big Daddy Flanigan and Negro-leagues star Big Daddy Herron—but not one of them had Jimmy Johnson, before he left the Dallas Cowboys last month, musing about trading his entire draft to get him. "Wilkinson could be a once-in-10-years player," says Billy Devaney, the San Diego Chargers' director of player personnel.
If Wilkinson does realize that potential, he could be the most memorable Big Daddy since the one created by Tennessee Williams, who is not to be confused with Tennessee Heath Shuler, the marquee quarterback in this draft.
The cats on the hot tin roof in this case are the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the first pick in the draft (box, page 36), and are planning to stick with quarterback David Klingler, their top choice in the '92 draft, for at least another season. Having decided to pass on Shuler, the Bengals can 1) take Wilkinson; 2) trade down to the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks or the Cardinals—teams that have expressed interest in Wilkinson; 3) trade down to the Indianapolis Colts or the Washington Redskins, and hope they still can get Wilkinson; or 4) use the lure of Big Daddy to get rich off a late-pick team that decides it simply must have him. Cincinnati's draft-day options are plentiful, a kind of make-your-own Sunday.
Wilkinson says he will go anywhere—for the right price. But he is not floored by the thought of wearing Bengal stripes. "I don't want to go to a team that isn't dedicated to winning," says Wilkinson. "If Cincinnati shows they want to get the top-notch players and move to the next level, O.K. If they continue to be cheap and go after secondhand players, then I don't want to be part of that organization."
If Wilkinson goes to Cincinnati, his entire family can drive to watch him play. Of course, if he winds up anyplace else, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, will get him enough money to charter a jet to airlift the Wilkinson brood in.
The 10th of 11 children, Wilkinson grew up in Dayton, an hour from Cincinnati. His mother, Veronda, still lives in the five-bedroom house where the laws of nature were defied as surely as they are in Big Daddy's vertical leaps: There would seem to be no way that 13 people could have lived in this house with its sharp angles, compact living room and single-file kitchen. But if you cram a place with bunk beds and love, anything is possible.
"Their friends were always coming over," Veronda says. "There always seems to be one house in a neighborhood where everyone goes, and this was it. This house was rockin'."
If her son Daniel is Big Daddy, Veronda is Super Mommy. She is a handsome woman of 52 who works as a computer programmer and analyst at Miami Valley Hospital. She earned a degree in business administration and computer information from Central State University in 1986, having attended classes at night for seven years while holding down a job and managing the household. Veronda would bake bread and roast four chickens for supper. Dessert would be homemade ice cream. The children would drink two gallons of milk a day. "There are pictures of me in second or third grade where I'm skinny," says Big Daddy. "But I don't think anyone's seen my bones since."
A year ago Veronda announced that she was hanging up the apron—except for Sundays and holidays—although on this day there are huge pots on the stove filled with ribs, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens, and a tray of corn bread. Her son Oliver baked the corn bread. Help yourself. Plates are over there. The Wilkinson family doesn't stand on ceremony.
Veronda's husband, Oliver Sr., died in 1987 of a heart attack. He was a big man, 6'1", 240 pounds, whose nickname in high school was Doom Daddy. Oliver went to the hospital for a simple back X-ray one fall morning, and hours later Veronda was a widow. "I wondered why the Lord took him and left me," says Veronda, who would also lose a son, Ali, to suicide two years later. "How was I going to put the kids through school and do what needed to be done? We sat down as a family and talked about it. We had to keep going. I knew if I stopped, they'd stop—because some already had."
Young Dan had. Then a freshman at Dunbar High School, he quit football the day his father died. The coaches started picking him up at the house and dragging him to practice. After missing two games, Dan slowly began to realize that not playing wouldn't bring his father back.
"Dan was quite a player right away," says Albert Powell, one of his first coaches at Stivers Intermediate School. "Dan was 13 then, but he was six feet tall and 228 pounds. He wanted to be a fullback, but I convinced him that the line was where the real men played. Carl Hairston was in Cleveland at the time, so I told Dan, 'You're our Big Daddy.' He liked it. He also didn't miss playing fullback. He told me, 'I like falling on people.' "
Wilkinson fell on people on both sides of the ball in high school. And though he was heavily recruited, when he arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 1991, no one was sure what he was. Except very, very large.
When Wilkinson stepped on the scale, it stopped with a groan at 348 pounds. "This can't be right," he said. "When I left Dayton, I was 310." Dayton is 90 minutes from Columbus, which meant that Wilkinson had gained more than 10 pounds every half hour. With Big Daddy, the laws of nature truly have been repealed.
Buckeye coach John Cooper and Wilkinson reached an understanding: If the young man could get down to 310, he could play defense; above 310, he would have to line up on the other side of the ball. This was more of a carrot than a stick, and Big Daddy was encouraged to eat as many carrots as he liked.
The weight poured off, and Wilkinson was 295 for his first college game, the 1992 season opener against Louisville, a one-point Ohio State win that Wilkinson preserved by chasing the Cardinal quarterback to the sideline and forcing him to misfire on a two-point conversion pass with 33 seconds left in the game. As the season progressed, offenses were forced to develop blocking schemes to neutralize Wilkinson. In 1993, when he played the second half of the season on a severely sprained left ankle, Wilkinson did enough damage to be an All-America.
Wilkinson's decision three months ago to declare for the draft was a no-brainer. In February, at the NFL scouting combine, he was off the scale. The number that made tongues loll out of wise NFL heads was not his 327 pounds but his 32 repetitions bench-pressing 225 pounds. He only enhanced his value with his private workout a month later.
Says Devaney, "Wilkinson is a guy who could dominate a game, but on certain plays you couldn't find him. Some of that probably was a function of his ankle. And there is some question about his weight, whether he'll be able to keep it off. But these are small risks for a guy with such potential. I expect a frenzy of teams trying to trade up to get a chance at him."
As he awaits the draft, it has been Fat City for Wilkinson. He is soon to be extraordinarily rich, and there won't be a defensive-line coach in his face for a couple of months. Wilkinson sleeps in, works out and ponders which number looks best on various NFL uniforms. Ninety-one, he thinks, if somehow the Los Angeles Raiders get him, maybe 95 if New England trades up. With a line of credit from a bank, he leased a condo in Knoxville, Tenn., a city he has taken a fancy to, and joined a golf club. He also bought himself a $35,000 Toyota Land Cruiser—"the dealer knows I'm good for the money," he says—and leased a Lexus for his mother.
"The nickname Big Daddy fits him because his is a generous nature," Veronda says. "In that sense, he is a big daddy. I think he thinks he's my daddy sometimes. He tells me what I should and shouldn't do. Daniel told me a couple of weeks ago my job was to exercise and eat right so I would stay healthy and stay around."