CLEMSON, S.C. — Around here, they call him Mr. Wilkins. Not Christian Wilkins, All-American defensive lineman. Or Christian Wilkins, national champion and heartbeat of Clemson football.
Where here will be depends on his schedule. One day, it might be at Walhalla High School—a gorgeous stone building off Highway 11, 30 minutes from Clemson's campus. The next, it might be James M. Brown Elementary—a brick structure with green roofing in Walhalla, South Carolina.
At these schools and others across Oconee County, Wilkins is not one of the nation's best defensive linemen. He is, instead, a fill-in. A backup. Rather than be paid millions of dollars to play professional football, an opportunity he decided to postpone for a year, Wilkins makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 per day as a substitute teacher.
Wilkins remembers how delighted he was as a student when a substitute teacher arrived. "You knew it was about to be a great day," Wilkins says, flashing his trademark smile. "But I don't think anyone thinks that when you have a 6'4", 300-something-pound teacher walk through the door."
Wilkins, who has one more year of football eligibility, already has his communications degree. He accomplished that in two-and-a-half years, something no scholarship Clemson football player has ever done.
So when the season ended, it felt like a foregone conclusion he would leave for the NFL. But instead, Wilkins returned. Not just to bolster his draft stock, which was lower than he and his coaches anticipated, but to add to his legacy and give a Clemson defense stockpiled with potential first-round draft picks another crack at a national title.
"I was surprised that he came back because it goes against the grain of the culture and where we are in society," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says. "At the same time, it didn't surprise me at all because that's Christian. He beats to his own drum."
In his three years, Wilkins has won a national championship and twice been named an All-American. He's totaled 193 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks—superb production from a player who has played every position along the defensive line.
Along the way, he's blossomed into one of college football's most unique personalities. In the moments following Clemson's national championship victory in January 2017, Wilkins broke into a dance before doing the splits—a moment that quickly went viral.
He can be goofy and, at times, gives off the impression he's having almost too much fun. But part of his charm is his ability to turn that on and off.
On the field, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables says Wilkins sets a great example. "He led our team in extra-effort plays last year. Whether it's through his play or his effort or his words, he's as hard of a worker as we have on this team."
After the Tigers season ended following a loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Wilkins weighed his options, quietly taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) to leave the door open for a return for another year.
Just because he already had his undergraduate degree didn't mean he'd automatically declare for the draft. He was genuinely undecided. "I was back-and-forth," he says, "and it really came down to the last day."
Wilkins spoke to fellow defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence and other teammates. He discussed the decision with his family and friends. He leaned on his coaches to gather intel on where he might be selected.
"At a time when you have every mockdraft.com galore out there," Swinney says, "I wanted him to have the right information. It's easy to get caught up in that stuff."
The feedback from the NFL wasn't what the coaches or Wilkins expected. Despite his resume, accolades and physical gifts, Wilkins received a second-round grade. NFL personnel told Swinney they wanted to see Wilkins increase his upper-body strength and be more physical with his hands.
"I was a little surprised by that, and I think he certainly was as well," Swinney says. "If he had a sure first-round grade, I think he would have gone. But Christian feels like he's a top-15 pick and so do I."
Even still, being a second-round selection in the NFL draft means instant fortune. It's financial security. For example, former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon was selected with pick No. 48 in the 2017 draft—the middle of the second round—and received a signing bonus of more than $2 million.
"Everyone is in such a rush to get there," Wilkins says of the NFL. "But I want to continue to grow and build here so I can stay there as long as I can."
So rather than join the record 106 underclassmen who declared, Wilkins returned to Clemson.
He plans to finish his master's degree in athletic leadership. But Wilkins said he also needed something else—"a side hustle."
He found it and then some with his new job.
The substitute teacher, unlike any substitute you've seen before, looks something like this: He is tall and thickly muscled. His thick, bushy beard has been trimmed since the last time we saw him in the College Football Playoff, but he remains a physically imposing presence.
Today, Wilkins isn't wearing a button-down and slacks—his normal teaching attire. Just a gray Clemson shirt and gym shorts. Behind him, on a purple wall inside Clemson's cafeteria, an appropriate quote lingers overhead.
"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world." — George Washington Carver
His idea to teach began, as many good ideas do, with the desire to make more money.
Wilkins peppered his older brothers with questions on the possibility of teaching, knowing each had spent time in classrooms. They encouraged him to take the necessary steps to become a sub, which was more intensive than Wilkins expected.
"It just wasn't handed to me," he says.
Rather than meet with teams in Indianapolis at the NFL combine, Wilkins interviewed with local schools. Rather than take the Wonderlic, he took a test to earn his certification.
"Working with kids is what I'm good at, and it gives me a great opportunity to empower the youth," Wilkins says. "And being a male teacher, let alone an African American male teacher, it's just not something you see every day."
In becoming a substitute for Oconee County, Wilkins has been given the opportunity to work at a variety of schools across a variety of age groups. With spring practice taking place every other day, he could manage his own schedule and set up teaching opportunities weeks in advance.
Although his degree is in communications, the first class Wilkins subbed in was agriculture. He also handled science and other subjects that required him to be a quick study.
In one instance, Wilkins filled in for the PE teacher, which was more in his comfort zone. For the better part of the class, the defensive tackle morphed into an all-world power forward. Playing against children less than half his size, he gleefully rejected shot after shot.
Regardless of what the task has been, Wilkins has willingly taken it on.
"It's easy, just follow the three Rs—reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic," Wilkins says with a smile. "But really, I'll fake it till I make it. And the teachers do a great job. They make it pretty easy for the subs."
The boy may never know the kind of impact he had on his teacher, but the teacher will always remember. And for all the experiences Wilkins has enjoyed as a substitute, serving as a companion aide for the special education department is something that stands alone.
"When you're a young kid, it's almost like kids with special needs get a bad rap," he says. "You never went down that hallway or walked by their classrooms. Seeing this side of it, they're just as normal as anyone. They're great people who happen to have a disability."
Wilkins was assigned a child to follow and monitor for the entire day. This child has autism and is nonverbal, meaning he can't directly communicate. At least not with words. For Wilkins, this was a completely new world.
For the entire day, Wilkins followed the boy around. He helped him to class and with his tasks. Throughout the day, Wilkins could feel he was making a connection.
Then, as the boy was getting ready to leave, the two hugged.
"This really touched my heart and was the best possible thing I could've gone through as a teacher," Wilkins says. "I wouldn't have had this experience if I didn't come back."
Steve Garrett grew up a Clemson fan. Not a fanatic, he's quick to note, but a fan. Still, the day Wilkins showed up at Walhalla High School, Garrett, who is the principal, could feel the anticipation from his students and staff.
"He didn't want to be treated any differently than anyone else," Garrett says. "He was very clear on that. There are a lot of Clemson fans in this area, and we wanted to make sure he was treated as a sub. He was here to help kids."
If you didn't know who he was, Garrett says "you would have never known he was a superstar athlete on a national championship team. You wouldn't know he was a future NFL player, because he carried himself like a regular guy."
Staying incognito was far easier at James M. Brown Elementary in Walhalla, where the children were mostly unfamiliar with Wilkins' work on the field. The teachers, however, were a different story.
Ashley Robertson, the principal, earned all of her degrees at Clemson. She is also an unabashed "superfan" of the football team. When she first learned that Wilkins would be subbing at her school, she was overjoyed. But she also wanted to ensure he'd be comfortable. Knowing that many of her teachers would likely approach Wilkins for a photograph or autograph, she asked him how he wanted to handle these requests.
Wilkins asked that they try to keep things as professional as possible, something Robertson was happy to do. She sent an email to the faculty, asking them to give Wilkins his space and allow him to do what he came here to do.
"There were still so many teachers that were going down his hallway that hadn't been down that hallway in a long, long time," Robertson says.
In checking on Wilkins during the day, she walked by his kindergarten class. When she peeked inside, she saw him somehow sitting on a chair meant for a five-year-old, eating popcorn with the class and building block towers.
When his football career ends, whenever that might be, Wilkins wants to continue to work with children one way or another. Whether it's in the classroom or on the football field is unknown, but his future doesn't figure to be too far removed from how he's spent his time this spring.
For Wilkins, this is his sweet spot. In these classrooms, he says he feels more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop than he does a star football player. "I really like working with the younger kids," Wilkins says. "They're so innocent and have no idea who you are. They're hanging all over you."
For the students in her elementary school, 88 percent of whom Robertson says come from families living below the poverty line, "They don't see something like this often. For them to have that opportunity is more touching than he'll realize—for them and for me."