Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson could’ve been one of the best defensive players in Cincinnati Bengals history.
Wilkinson, whom the Bengals drafted first overall in 1994, could’ve joined the ranks of Eddie Edwards, Justin Smith, Geno Atkins, Takeo Spikes, David Fulcher, and Ken Riley.
Instead, he didn’t meet many fans’ expectations.
While some of them consider him a bust, he still recorded 25 sacks during his four-year tenure in Cincy.
Nonetheless, Big Daddy Wilkinson will be remembered more for playing decently for mediocre and terrible teams during his thirteen-year NFL career.
Daniel Raymon “Dan” Wilkinson was born to parents Oliver and Veronda in Dayton, OH on March 13, 1973.
Dan was the tenth of eleven children. His mother, Veronda, worked as a computer programmer and analyst at Miami Valley Hospital.
She was the epitome of a super woman.
Veronda Wilkinson held a full-time job, attended night classes, and raised her eleven children.
She did this remarkable balancing act for seven years.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, Veronda typically baked bread and roasted four chickens for dinner. She served homemade ice cream for dessert.
Dan and his siblings drank two gallons of milk daily.
“There are pictures of me in second or third grade where I’m skinny,” he told Farber during the lead-up to the 1994 NFL Draft. “But I don’t think anyone’s seen my bones since.”
The Wilkinson household wasn’t just teeming with food, it was also the center of activity.
Veronda Wilkinson told Sports Illustrated her children’s friends were always present in their house. That made for a very rowdy environment.
Wilkinson’s coach at Stivers Intermediate School, Albert Powell, nicknamed him “Big Daddy” after drawing comparisons to Cleveland Browns defensive end Carl “Big Daddy” Hairston.
It was also Powell who convinced Wilkinson to make the transition from fullback to defensive tackle.
Powell narrated the story to Farber in 1994:
“Dan was quite a player right away. Dan was thirteen then, but he was six feet tall and 228 pounds.”
“He wanted to be a fullback, but I convinced him that the line was where the real men played.”
“Carl Hairston was in Cleveland at the time, so I told Dan, ‘You’re our Big Daddy.’ He liked it.”
As soon as Powell re-christened Wilkinson with the new nickname, the latter didn’t miss the fullback position anymore.
He also told his coach, “I like falling on people.”
Wilkinson attended Dunbar High School in Dayton.
He was already a massive defensive tackle during his high school football career with the Dunbar Wolverines: he stood 6’4″ and weighed 350 pounds.
Despite Wilkinson’s enormous frame, he possessed the explosiveness that kept offensive linemen at bay and scared quarterbacks to no end.
Oliver Wilkinson passed away due to a heart attack during Dan’s freshman year of high school in 1987.
Dan was so distraught he quit football that day.
Powell told The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke in 1998 it was at that point in time when Wilkinson realized life “was a little unfair.”
Wilkinson, who was already soft-spoken, shy, and mild-mannered, became even more reclusive.
The Wolverines coaches had to show up at his doorstep and drag him to practice.
After two missed games, Wilkinson realized his absence on the gridiron wouldn’t bring his dad back, per Farber.
Ohio State’s Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson graced the cover of Sports Illustrated 25 years ago this week. Things didn’t work out as well in Cincinnati as they did in Columbus. pic.twitter.com/ycMk3hFXTC
— Matt Edwards (@MattEdwards) April 25, 2019
For her part, Veronda Wilkinson sat down with her children and discussed their situation. She told them they had to keep going despite their circumstances.
It was a tumultuous time for the Wilkinson family.
Dan’s brother Ali committed suicide two years after his dad’s death, per Sports Illustrated.
To make matters worse, Dan Wilkinson struggled in the classroom.
His below-average test scores gave recruiters plenty of second thoughts.
Nevertheless, Ohio State Buckeyes head football coach John Cooper was willing to take a chance on the big man.
According to The Washington Post, Cooper had a scholarship waiting for Wilkinson provided he met the qualifying test score.
Wilkinson finally broke through in July 1991.
He signed his letter of intent with the Buckeyes that month.
Dan Wilkinson would remain in his home state of Ohio for his college football career.
For Cooper, it was well worth the wait.
He told The Washington Post Wilkinon’s intangibles – his 30-inch vertical jump, speed, and size – were too good to pass up.
Cooper’s instincts were spot on: Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson would become a menacing force in the Ohio State Buckeyes’ defensive line in the next two years.
College Days With The Ohio State Buckeyes
It seemed Dan Wilkinson bulked up in time for his college football career with the Ohio State Buckeyes.
When he stepped on a scale in Columbus, OH in the fall of 1991, he weighed 348 pounds.
Wilkinson was befuddled considering he remembered weighing just 310 pounds – almost a forty-pound difference – when he left Dayton, per Farber.
The weight difference would eventually play out in Wilkinson’s favor.
Wilkinson, who redshirted his freshman season in 1991, started out as an offensive tackle at Ohio State.
He impressed Buckeyes head football coach John Cooper with his work ethic when he redshirted.
Wilkinson eventually implored Cooper to make him a defensive lineman once again.
Cooper agreed. However, there was a catch: Wilkinson had to weigh less than 310 pounds, per Farber.
Otherwise, Wilkinson would remain an offensive lineman.
Wilkinson kept the weight off. He tipped the scales at 295 pounds in time for the season opener against the Louisville Cardinals in his sophomore season in 1992.
Wilkinson showed Buckeyes fans he was well worth the hype in this game.
He harrassed Cardinals quarterback Jeff Brohm into misfiring a two-point conversion pass with thirty-three seconds left to play.
The defensive gem helped preserve Ohio State’s 20-19 win.
Wilkinson amassed 46 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks at the end of the 1992 NCAA season.
The Buckeyes finished with an 8-3-1 record that year.
Seventeenth-ranked Ohio State lost to the 21st-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the 1993 Citrus Bowl, 21-14.
Wilkinson earned First Team All-Big Ten honors at the conclusion of his sophomore season in Columbus.
72 Days away!
DT Dan 'Big Daddy' Wilkinson.
93' All American
94' #1 Overall pick pic.twitter.com/aHP65aN02h
— 》 (@Zona_Buckeye) June 27, 2015
The new year would usher in another of Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson’s monster year with the Buckeyes.
Two games stood out in the Buckeyes’ 1993 NCAA campaign.
Third-ranked Ohio State visited the 15th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on November 6, 1993.
Wilkinson told ElevenWarriors.com’s Ramzy Nasrallah twenty years later the Badgers fans pelted the Buckeyes with snowballs and unopened beer cans before they took the field.
Cooper and his assistants pleaded with the players to keep their helmets on.
The game ended in a 14-14 tie that Buckeyes cornerback Marlon Kerner preserved by blocking a field goal attempt.
Wilkinson gave credit to Wisconsin for throwing Ohio State off all game long. The Buckeyes never got in any rhythm from the opening kickoff.
Wilkinson’s college football journey wouldn’t be complete without discussing the Buckeyes’ hated rivals, the Michigan Wolverines.
To this day, Big Daddy couldn’t get over the 28-0 shutout road loss to Michigan on November 20, 1993.
Wilkinson had a bad feeling about this game from the opening kickoff. He felt his teammates didn’t have the mojo to beat the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium.
He was right. The Buckeyes were lethargic from start to finish. Michigan blew them out easily.
Wilkinson told Nasrallah Ohio State’s inability to beat Michigan during his time left him emotionally scarred for life:
“When you go to Ohio State, it becomes your soulmate forever. I’m in a room with Michigan guys and I have to sit in a corner and be quiet.”
“We’ve been successful since (against Michigan) but in my era I wasn’t. That’s an emotional scar I’ll carry forever. I still feel the pain in my gut whenever Michigan comes up.”
Wilkinson finished his junior season with 44 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks.
Ohio State’s 6-1-1 conference record and 10-1-1 overall record allowed the program to win a share of the Big Ten championship.
Had the Buckeyes beaten the Wolverines, they would’ve received an invitation to the Rose Bowl and played for a national title.
Regrettably, they didn’t.
Ohio State’s consolation prize was a trip to the 1993 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, CA.
The 11th-ranked Buckeyes beat the BYU Cougars, 28-21.
It was Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson’s last game in the collegiate ranks.
Young fella looks like "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson former #1 overall pick in NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/fhws3qlRMo
— Robert Ray (@RobRay76) June 15, 2018
He decided to skip his final year at Ohio State and declare for the 1994 NFL Draft.
Wilkinson finished his college football career at Ohio State with 90 tackles, 53 solo tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, and three passes defensed.
During his two-year stint in Columbus, offensive linemen considered Wilkinson a load to handle: nobody could block him one-on-one.
He also piled up on the accolades at the conclusion of his junior season at Ohio State.
Wilkinson earned First Team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive year.
He also became a Consensus All-American, earned Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, and won the Bill Willis Trophy in 1993.
Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, the one-man wrecking crew of the Ohio State Buckeyes defensive line, was on his way to the National Football League.
Pro Football Career
According to The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke, Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson had dreams of playing for the then-Oakland Raiders or the then-Washington Redskins.
It turned out Wilkinson would spend the first four years of his National Football League career in his home state of Ohio.
That’s because the Cincinnati Bengals made Dan Wilkinson the first overall selection of the 1994 NFL Draft.
— BuckeyeThrowbacks (@OSUThrowbacks) April 28, 2016
Wilkinson was drafted ahead of running back Marshall Faulk (second overall to the Indianapolis Colts), linebacker Willie McGinest (fourth overall to the New England Patriots), and quarterback Trent Dilfer (sixth overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Prior to the draft, Wilkinson rented a condo in Knoxville, TN and bought a $35,000 Toyota Land Cruiser, per Sports Illustrated.
Wilkinson wouldn’t have any problems affording future luxuries.
He signed a six-year, $14.4 million contract with the Bengals after an eleven-day holdout.
That made him Cincinnati’s highest-paid player in the 1994 NFL season, per ElevenWarriors.com.
Wilkinson bought his mother Veronda a house and convinced her to retire.
“I wanted to get my mother secured,” he told Clarke. “I wanted to give her things she’d never been able to get as soon as I could.”
The Cincinnati Bengals had fallen on some hard times.
Prior to drafting Wilkinson, they won a combined eleven games in three seasons.
One of Cincinnati’s Achilles’ heels was its porous run defense: the Bengals surrendered 2,220 yards on the ground in the 1993 NFL season.
Cincinnati finished twenty-seventh in the NFL’s twenty-eight team field in that department.
Only the Indianapolis Colts (2,521 rushing yards allowed) fared worse.
Could Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson plug some holes in the Bengals’ leaky run defense?
He sure didn’t look that way in the early goings of his pro football career.
It took Wilkinson eight weeks to register his first sack in the professional ranks.
The Bengals were still a laughingstock on defense. They remained winless in their first eight games.
Wilkinson blamed Cincinnati’s inexperienced defensive line coaches as the reason why they stumbled out of the gates in 1994.
He also admitted he fell into a sense of complacency during his rookie year in Southwest Ohio.
Wilkinson told Clarke it was an attitude that permeated the four walls of the Bengals’ locker room:
“Guys in there fighting and fussing every day. I fell into getting lazy, complacent, taking things for granted.”
“Everybody was doing it. There were so many bad attitudes, and I admit I was one of those bad attitudes. Something about Cincinnati made it rough for the whole team.”
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Bengals’ putrid 3-13 win-loss mark in the 1994 NFL campaign.
Wilkinson didn’t see eye-to-eye with Bengals head coach David Shula during his first three years on the squad.
In fact, The Washington Post dubbed Wilkinson “an outspoken” critic of Shula.
Wilkinson averaged a shade fewer than 7.0 sacks a year during his first three seasons in Cincinnati.
During that stretch, he also recorded 128 combined tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
The Bengals improved in Wilkinson’s second and third years in the NFL.
They won seven and eight games in the 1995 and 1996 NFL seasons, respectively.
Unfortunately, their playoff drought reached six years.
Wilkinson’s career-high 8.0 sacks in his second pro campaign was the most among AFC interior linemen in 1995.
It was also the most by a Bengals defensive linemen since Mike Reid recorded 12.0 sacks twenty-three years earlier.
For his part, Wilkinson was elated when Bruce Coslet took over the Bengals’ coaching reins in 1997.
However, Wilkinson struggled when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau moved him from left tackle to right end in his revamped 3-4 defense.
“I absolutely hated that defense,” he told The Washington Post.
Despite Wilkinson’s aversion for LeBeau’s three-man front, he recorded 5.0 sacks in his fourth year in the NFL.
Cincinnati went 7-9 in Coslet’s first year at the helm.
Not only did the Bengals miss the postseason for the seventh straight year, but they also saw the last of Wilkinson in a Cincinnati uniform.
Feb 26, 1998 – "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson gets traded to Washington for the 17th and 78th draft picks.
This Day In Bengals History, Geoff Hobson pic.twitter.com/ZW3zstaIua
— 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘨𝘢𝘭𝘴𝘊𝘢𝘱𝘵𝘢𝘪𝘯⚓ (@BengalsCaptain) February 27, 2020
The Bengals traded Wilkinson to the then-Washington Redskins for the latter’s first- and third-round selections in the 1998 NFL Draft.
The turn of events that led to the trade wasn’t pretty.
Wilkinson fumed when the Bengals designated him as their franchise player in December 1997.
He wanted a multi-year contract from Cincinnati. Instead, he had to stay with the Bengals for another year at a lower price.
As a Bengal, Wilkinson was durable: he missed just three games prior to the trade with the Redskins.
However, his stay in Cincinnati wasn’t without controversy.
At one point, Wilkinson called the city “racist.” Police also arrested him for domestic violence, per The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jim Owczarski.
Wilkinson, who signed a five-year, $21.4 million deal with the Redskins, got a fresh start in the nation’s capital.
Wilkinson returned to his more familiar left defensive tackle spot for the entirety of his five-year tenure with the Redskins.
The next two seasons were the most productive in Wilkinson’s pro career.
He led the Redskins with 7.5 sacks in the 1998 NFL season.
Unfortunately, Washington won just six games and missed postseason contention for the sixth straight year.
Wilkinson continued wreaking havoc defensively in 1999.
That year, he matched his career-high of 8.0 sacks which he registered during his second season with the Bengals.
Wilkinson also scored the only defensive touchdown of his thirteen-year NFL career.
In the Redskins’ Week 7 matchup against the Chicago Bears, quarterback Shane Matthews fumbled the football.
The ball went to Wilkinson’s hands and returned it eighty-eight yards the other way for a pick-six.
The 10-6 Redskins broke their playoff drought but lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional Round, 14-13.
Wilkinson recorded five tackles and three tackles for loss in his first postseason game.
He had reached the pinnacle of his NFL career. Wilkinson’s performance on the gridiron slipped considerably in the ensuing years.
Wilkinson averaged 3.75 sacks in the next two years.
A strained right calf injury forced the Redskins to place him on injured reserve in December 2002.
In twelve games with Washington that year, Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson failed to register a single sack for the first time in his NFL career.
He also ended his tenure with the Redskins on a sour note.
Wilkinson wanted to stay in Washington. However, the Redskins felt his team-high $3.5 million salary wasn’t fitting for a defensive lineman who finished the year with just 17 tackles and zero sacks.
The Redskins eventually released Wilkinson on July 29, 2003.
In Wilkinson’s last three years in Washington, the Redskins were a middle-of-the-pack team that never won more than eight games in a season.
Wilkinson’s hopes of spending his twilight years with a postseason contender never materialized.
He signed with the Detroit Lions, a team that won a combined five games in the previous two seasons, on August 17, 2003.
While Wilkinson averaged around 25 tackles in his three-year stay in the Motor City, his sack total continued to plummet.
He registered a combined total of just 6.5 sacks with the Lions from 2003 to 2005.
Detroit won an average of five games during that span.
The Lions failed to trade Wilkinson during the 2006 offseason.
Instead, they released him on May 22, 2006.
Two months before Wilkinson’s release from the Lions, Capital Centre LLC slapped him with a lawsuit pertaining to a breach of contract concerning a lease both parties agreed to.
Wilkinson, who was entering his thirteenth NFL season, signed a three-year, $6.31 million deal with the Miami Dolphins on August 14, 2006.
In ten games with the Dolphins that year, Dan Wilkinson registered zero sacks for the second time in his career.
His 14 combined tackles were also a career-low.
The Dolphins won just six games and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year.
The losing trend was a recurring theme in Wilkinson’s NFL career.
Miami released Wilkinson on June 18, 2007.
Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson had played his last down in the National Football League.
He recorded 54.5 sacks, 390 combined tackles, 39 passes defensed, five interceptions, one defensive touchdown, six forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries in his thirteen-year NFL career.
Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson has four kids with his ex-wife Shawnda: Brooklyn, Daniel Ramon, Jr., Taylor, and Sydne.
He has two more children – Kennedy and Klarke – with his current wife.
Wilkinson told The Washington Post in 1998 he didn’t like to talk about football away from the gridiron.
He pursues several hobbies: deep-sea fishing, playing cards, and shooting at gun ranges.
Former Buckeye & Bengal great "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson looks like he could still play hanging out in Russia yesterday pic.twitter.com/ykKqvaylqK
— Fish Report® (@Fish_Report) March 23, 2017
Wilkinson has also been passionate about cars since he was a teenager in Dayton, OH.
In fact, he restored a 1970 Cadillac during his high school football playing days with the Dunbar Wolverines.
Wilkinson has carried that passion with him into his post-gridiron life.
He set up several AAMCO service centers in Southern Ohio in 2008, per The Columbus Dispatch (via Ohio Cards Blog).