The first time I met Muhammad Wilkerson was April, 2011, a couple of weeks before he was drafted. We did an interview at his home in Linden, New Jersey, where he grew up a basketball standout but developed at Temple into an NFL prodigy. I had no idea he'd be picked by the New York Jets, but it seemed like a good idea for a story. Local kid makes good, ready to strike it rich.
His family lived in a modest apartment, and we spoke there for about 20 minutes before walking across the street to a small park that included a dilapidated basketball court. We did a video interview on the court, and he talked about how it would be a dream come true for a Jersey kid to play for one of the local teams. He struck me as quiet, humble and hungry.
Wilkerson's wish came true -- first round, 30th overall -- and I thought to myself, "This guy's got it made."
His career arc climbed steadily for five years, resulting in a massive pay day. That's when it all turned. Now he's in the midst of a second straight disappointing season, coming off a game in which he was benched in the first quarter for showing up late to a meeting. Call it a tardy tradition; he's done it three years in a row.
So now when I think about Wilkerson, my thoughts are, "This guy's blowing his career."
He's ruining his Jersey story because he'll probably will be playing elsewhere next season. He's signed through 2020, but you don't need 20/20 vision to recognize he's no longer worth the contract. His salary next year is $16.75 million, which becomes guaranteed in early March (third day of the league year), but there's no chance he will be on the roster at that point -- unless he agrees to a pay cut. No team would pay that much for a 3-4 defensive end with only seven sacks in his last 27 games.
With Wilkerson, it's not just the lack of production, it's the disciplinary issues. We're not talking about criminal stuff, but his chronic tardiness is troubling, especially this year because he's been trying to take a leadership role on the young defense. Leaders don't show up late for meetings. It's a poor example for the many rookies on the team.
What Darron Lee did is worse -- late for a practice -- but he's a second-year player and a first-time offender. Wilkerson should know better, especially with his history.
The organization, which had concerns about Wilkerson before it signed him to a five-year, $86 million contract in July, 2016, is tired of his act. Coach Todd Bowles rarely criticizes his players publicly, so he gave a predictable defense of Wilkerson on Monday, saying he still considers him a leader.
"Yes, he is," Bowles said.
Asked if he's cool with leaders showing up late for meetings, Bowles said, "I'm not OK with a lot of things, but I'm not going to sit here and give you a 10-page article on it."
Make no mistake, Bowles isn't cool with it. He doesn't want players who challenge the team concept by doing selfish things. Mind you, Wilkerson vowed last year this wouldn't happen again. How many apologies is one player allowed?
"The biggest thing is, we're family here, and sometimes families do different things," Bowles said. "At the end of the day, you love them up. You may be pissed off for a minute, (but) you get over it and move on."
The Jets will move on, all right. Wilkerson probably is playing his final four games in a Jets uniform, and that's sad because he arrived with unlimited potential. He was on his way to putting his name in the rafters with the franchise greats, but something happened to change that -- injuries, lack of motivation, etc. Who knows?
Wilkerson has a huge bank account ($50 million-plus in career earnings) and a Pro Bowl on his résumé, so it turned out to be a local-kid-makes-good story.
But it should've been better than good.