Bucs' Mazzi Wilkins eager to forge new identity beyond devastating hit

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Mazzi Wilkins didn’t want to be remembered as the South Florida cornerback who delivered the hit that potentially ended Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton’s football career and nearly cost him his leg.

He didn’t want to be known as a failure either, after he didn’t hear his name called in the 2019 NFL draft and didn’t get a call back after rookie minicamp -- although he said he felt like one.

“When you fail, you’ve gotta look deeper in yourself and realize why you failed," said Wilkins, who, while continuing to train, devoted more time to reading, self-discovery and working on his relationships with others.

His quest for a new identity led him to digging trenches for a Tampa Bay-area landscaping company, making $10 an hour.

“I actually started getting scars right here,” Wilkins said, pointing to the side of his hand below his thumb. “I was debating on getting a regular job and I’m like, ‘I don’t wanna do that because I’m still chasing football and as soon as I get the job, something could happen, so landscaping seemed like the best option. ... I could have some quick money, I could pick the schedule, I get paid the same day, so it was like, 'Whatever, I’ve just gotta eat, now I’ve gotta survive until I get my phone call.'"

The call came from Bucs director of football operations Shelton Quarles, asking him how quickly Wilkins could get to the facility for a tryout. He left the job site -- a new hotel in nearby Treasure Island roughly 30 miles away -- and worked out after 7 1/2 hours already spent in 90-degree heat.

“We [were] planting palm trees,” Wilkins said. “[The landscaping company] knew I was chasing my dream so it was OK. They were OK with it.”

Two days later, on the first day of training camp, he intercepted quarterback Jameis Winston and returned it for a touchdown. Then in last week’s preseason opener at the Pittsburgh Steelers, he earned a game ball for forcing a fumble in the fourth quarter.

“It showed me that I’m able to compete. I’m meant to be out here. I can do it. I’ve just got to keep stacking on top of that,” Wilkins said.

“The one thing about him -- he plays full tilt every time he’s out there,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He continues to show up. He’s making the best of his opportunity.”

When cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross was asked to describe Wilkins, he said, "Courage, execution, toughness. Little guy. Reminds me of myself a little bit. No fear. He’s doing well."

That full-tilt style led to the unfortunate play in college involving Milton last Nov. 23. when the UCF quarterback suffered a knee dislocation, torn ligaments and artery damage that required several surgeries after Wilkins tackled him.

Wilkins received death threats on social media after the hit.

Former NFL safety Will Allen -- who spent 12 seasons playing for the Bucs, Steelers and Dallas Cowboys -- knows what that’s like. When he played for Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, he delivered a gruesome hit on Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee. (McGahee, who tore his ACL, MCL and PCL, was still drafted in the first round but missed his entire rookie season.)

Like Wilkins, Allen’s intent wasn’t to injure McGahee, but he too received death threats in the form of letters and phone calls. He was even warned not to leave his house.

“I never felt guilty. I only felt bad for McGahee,” Allen said. “You hate to see people injured no matter how it happens. You know the effort, energy and commitment men put into it. I respect that. It’s tough to see players get injured but it’s the game.”

Wilkins feels the same about his hit on Milton, which did not draw a penalty.

“It’s football at the end of the day. I’m a baller. He’s a baller. We go out here, we lay it on the line,” Wilkins said. “It was a blessing in disguise because now me and McKenzie are real cool. We’re cool. We talk to each other every once in a while.”

Wilkins attended a Better Man Event (BME) on UCF’s campus, and on a stage in front of 7,500 he hugged Milton. They'd exchanged messages on social media, but this was their first time face-to-face.

“He text me telling my father ‘Happy Fathers Day’ because he met my dad when we met at the event. I told him the same thing. So we’ve got a cool little relationship going on,” Wilkins said.

Allen hopes Wilkins doesn’t allow the hit or how he got into the league define him, and offered this advice:

"I would tell him don’t accept an ONLY mentality -- that he’s only defined by being undrafted, by the hit and what people say or label -- he has the opportunity to be a great NFL player, have a flourishing career, impact people’s lives in a positive way," Allen said.

"Think bigger and more expansive than the hit. The hit and not getting your named called [in the draft] are just steps on the journey. Create your path by being highly confident, respectfully humble, gracious and trusting God.”

Wilkins has remained rooted in his faith, believing he needed that time following the draft to focus on bettering himself.

"God works in mysterious ways," Wilkins said. "He needed that from me. I needed that from myself."

As for making the 53-man roster, Wilkins faces a tall order given the Bucs' newfound depth at the position with Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Ryan Smith -- all draft picks -- although Smith faces a four-game suspension to open the season. That could create an opportunity, and there is also the possibility of the practice squad.

“It’s really tough. Keep playing like you’re playing, then you’re going to have a chance," Arians said. "He’s playing smart right now. He did get a couple of penalties today. That’s the stuff that’ll kill us, especially on third down. I love his aggressiveness, but let go of his shirt. Things like that. He’s a good, young, aggressive player. He’s going to have a good future.”