Gary Wilkinson: Down and Out to Utah State Star

Gary Wilkinson's life is far more compelling than most NCAA Tournament 2009 stories. Ryan Talbot/USU Athletics

Utah State plays in ESPN's Bracketbusters event on Saturday (02-21-09) at 5pm on ESPN2.

Utah State coach Stew Morrill has one explanation for the demeanor of his star forward Gary Wilkinson.

"Every stereotype you hear about redheads having passion and being fired up, he's got that," Morrill said. "That's what's made him special. Whether it's the red hair or not, those qualities have made him achieve."

Wilkinson's red 'do, along with his team-leading 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per, makes him unique. But the fact he's 26-years-old, dropped out of high school after never playing basketball there, found God, spent two years in Canada on a mission, is married and is the lone senior on the 25-2 nationally-ranked Aggies is what really separates him from every other elite college basketball player.

At Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, Wilkinson was cut from his basketball team for attitude problems. (He now says he'd make the same decision if he were the coach.) As a senior, Wilkinson decided he was fed up with the classroom. He dropped out, turning to vices in the process—alcohol and drugs.

"I wasn't really motivated," Wilkinson said. "I really didn't have any goals. I didn't have any ambition to play college basketball, didn't have any ambition to go to the university at all. I just sat around and partied with my friends."

Simply put, Wilkinson was headed to a bad place. A friend of his got there before him, though.

Eight months after Wilkinson left high school, a friend of his committed suicide. For Wilkinson, it was a wake-up call. Deep questions about his life and that of everyone else's began compiling in his head.

A friend of the suicide victim directed Wilkinson to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for answers.

Becoming a Mormon changed Wilkinson: he earned his GED, went on a two-year mission to Alberta, Canada and shared the Mormon message whenever he wasn't having a door slammed in his face. He returned to Utah motivated to attend school and play basketball again.

He enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, turnng into a 3.9 student and an honorable mention all-American hooper.

"I honestly can't tell you how I stuck with it," said Wilkinson, who now shares his life story for schools and youth groups. "Something just said, 'You got to do it.' I just tried to follow the rules and live a life opposite to what it was before. I saw great things come to my life."

Even greater things have come at Utah State. He's on path to earn his degree and eventually wants to pursue law school. On the court, he's been a dominant forward in the WAC for the past two years, averaging 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds as the Aggies have run to 49-13. Last month, he went for 33 points against Fresno State.

Wilkinson's days of drinking, drugs and feeling indifferent about life are well over, but all it takes is for him to pull out his wallet to return him to his troubled youth.

"I have my old license with my shaggy hair," Wilkinson said. " I just keep that as a reminder. I think that keeps me grounded. It wasn't too long ago. I do think about it quite a bit. It's amazing to think where I came from and to be a part of such an amazing team."

All redheaded jokes aside, Morrill said, "This is my 23rd year as a Division I head coach. I've had a ton of quality kids who have played for me. He certainly fits into the upper echelon of the quality kids. He's a great kid, great story, great future. When it's all said and done, you feel fortunate to coach guys like Gary."