Note: The following appears in the UConn football gameday program.
There aren’t a lot of connections between Clemson and state of Connecticut when it comes to athletics, but there are more than you would think. Those connections are truly historic when it comes to the heritage of both school’s programs.
When UConn fans review their most important victories in the sports of men’s basketball and baseball, wins over Clemson are on their list. They will never forget beating Clemson 71-70 in a Sweet 16 men’s basketball game in New Jersey in the 1990 NCAA Tournament on a buzzer-beater by Tate George. UConn had to throw the ball the length of the court with one second left. I always wonder if it would have counted had video replay been with us in those days.
Twenty-one years later, UConn’s baseball team came to Clemson for the NCAA Tournament to face the Tigers at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Huskies won the Clemson Regional in what many thought was a major upset.
A review of that 2011 UConn roster shows that six future major league players, including three-time MLB All-Star and 2017 World Series MVP George Springer and John Andreoli, whose sister, Kathryn, was a Clemson student who worked for me in the sports information office, were on the roster.
Without a doubt, Clemson’s most positive connection from the state of Connecticut has been the contributions of a football student-athlete who enrolled in 2015.
I still recall a phone call from Head Coach Dabo Swinney, who was in a hotel restaurant in Hartford, Conn. in December 2014. The hotel was located just 10 minutes from where I grew up in West Hartford, and he was in the same hotel Clemson stayed for the 1990 NCAA Tournament when the Tigers beat Brigham Young and La Salle to advance to the Sweet 16.
Swinney was enjoying a late meal with Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables after they spent a good deal of time that day with Christian Wilkins.
The phone call started with Swinney saying, “It is snowing like crazy right now. How did you live up here?”
Wilkins played his high school football at Suffield Academy, a private prep school with whom I was very familiar. My uncle had been on the school’s Board of Trustees when I was a youth. In fact, I had been to a few Suffield football games when I was in grade school.
Founded in 1833, the school boasts some famous alumni, including former NC State and NBA star player and coach Vinny Del Negro and Brian Belichick, now an assistant coach with the New England Patriots and son of six-time Super Bowl champion Head Coach Bill Belichick.
So when Swinney told me he was recruiting Wilkins, I followed the process closely. While he did not commit while Swinney and Venables were on this trip, he would soon. However, Swinney was calling me to tell me everything was going well.
“Wait until you meet this kid,” Swinney told me that night. “What an athlete. He can do it all. And his personality is going to make your job easy.”
Swinney was right…Wilkins made my job easy. With our connections to the Nutmeg State and Suffield Academy, we hit it off from the time he first came to campus.
Of course, Wilkins’ career at Clemson helped Swinney’s program start a run of six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, including national championships in 2016 and 2018. He became a three-time All-American, including a unanimous selection as a senior in 2018, and the winner of the ACC’s Jim Tatum Award, which is presented to the league’s top student-athlete football player.
But the honor Wilkins will always be remembered for was winning the Campbell Trophy, also known as the “Academic Heisman Trophy,” as the top all-around student-athlete in college football. He is the only Clemson player to win the honor. One day, he will be in the Clemson Ring of Honor.
In the spring of 2019, Wilkins became a first-round draft pick and is now enjoying a stellar NFL career with the Miami Dolphins.
I watch with pride for the Tiger program and the state of Connecticut every time I watch him in an NFL game.