When Eurie Stamps was killed by police in 2011, Christian Wilkins did something to honor his grandfather: He set out to become the most destructive pass rusher in college football
By Chase Goodbread | Published Dec. 12, 2018
CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the middle of the night, five days after ringing in the New Year, Eurie Stamps was watching a basketball game on TV in his pajamas when a peaceful evening turned instantly to chaos. A SWAT team crashed through the front door of Stamps' Framingham, Mass., residence with a battering ram, and set off a flash-bang grenade in the execution of a search warrant.
When police ordered everyone in the house to get on the floor, Stamps submitted, laying face down as instructed with his arms over his head. Officer Paul Duncan came upon Stamps and attempted to secure the hands of the 68-year-old grandfather of 12. Losing his balance, Duncan stumbled, accidentally discharging his M4 carbine rifle.
A .223-caliber round struck Stamps in several parts of his body, including the head. He was killed instantly, leaving an extended family to mourn the loss of a dearly beloved one.
A retired mechanic with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Stamps was not suspected of a crime nor did he have a history of violence. Instead, police had entered his Fountain Street residence that dreadful night in 2011 targeting his stepson and his stepson's cousin in a narcotics investigation.
Among the dozen grandchildren Stamps left behind was 15-year-old Christian Wilkins, who learned of his grandfather's passing when the sun rose that morning. His mother called to deliver the devastating news about the loss of a man who was the primary male figure in young Christian's life.
Today, Clemson's star defensive lineman not only carries Stamps' memory, he strives to let his grandfather live through him. The tragedy gave him a resolve and a clarity not so much about who he was, but about who he wanted to be.
"I try to be his legacy," said Wilkins, who wears No. 42 as a tribute to his grandfather, born in 1942.
In turn, Wilkins -- a top NFL draft prospect who has started in three national championship games over four years at Clemson -- is forging quite a legacy of his own.
Charlie Cahn was afraid there wouldn't be a single soul in the bleachers. On a snowy Connecticut day in January 2015, the Suffield Academy headmaster checked in on the lowest level of his school's four boys basketball teams -- essentially a freshman B-team -- and feared the worst as he opened the gym door.
"We had other teams playing night games or away games, and we had the weather, so I knew there wouldn't be much of a crowd," he said. "And as the headmaster, I wanted to show support."
Cahn opened the door and, sure enough, no more than 10 spectators were on hand. But one stood out. Christian Wilkins, a five-star football recruit that almost every big college program wanted, was near mid-court in the front row, cheering every basket.
"Nobody asked him to be there; it was totally genuine," Cahn said. "Here's a senior who is one of the biggest football recruits in the country, and he knew every kid's name on the (freshman basketball) team."
It wasn't just Wilkins who Cahn walked in on that day; spiritually, Eurie Stamps -- killed four years earlier, almost to the day -- was there as well.
Stamps was a central figure in Wilkins' life, a beloved and sturdy rock for a large family. It was Stamps who had sat in the front row for nearly all of Christian's sporting events -- always present, always encouraging, always the loudest fan in the house.
Then, suddenly, the most influential man in Wilkins' life was gone.
As part of the family fallout from Stamps' death, Wilkins relocated after the shooting, in the middle of the ninth grade, from Framingham High to East Longmeadow in Western Massachusetts. There, Wilkins' jovial, outgoing personality was understandably vacant.
"He wasn't himself," said UConn senior defensive back Brice McAllister, one of Wilkins' football teammates in high school. "He was quiet, you didn't see him smile as much. It was like he wanted to be anywhere else."
Indeed, he did, and it wasn't just anywhere that he landed. Thanks to an arrangement made by his Godmother, Suffield Academy proved to be the ideal destination from East Longmeadow.
In 2011, Patriots coach Bill Belichick's son, Brian, graduated from the small, private boarding school in Suffield, Conn., where the legendary NFL coach delivered the commencement address. It's a place as unique and diverse as Wilkins himself, and the pairing brought out the best in him. Although there are fewer than 500 students, the enrollment includes natives of 30 different countries and 28 states.
It was a new start in every way. Wilkins wanted out of East Longmeadow badly enough he was willing to reclassify and repeat the ninth grade at Suffield. He blossomed in his new setting.
A year older than Wilkins, McAllister had moved onto Suffield himself. He remembers the day Wilkins first showed up for registration.
"I'm trying to register and I see big Christian coming up the stairs, yelling. 'What's up everyone? Yo, where do we go from here?' You would've thought he'd been there three years already. He was putting himself out there. His way of saying, 'OK, who wants to hang out with me?' "
Eventually, the answer to that question was just about everyone.
"I feel like it's always been within me to try to be a spark for whoever I come in contact with," Wilkins said. "Just be a light; let the light inside me shine. Really, just be who I am and embrace that."
As a 6-foot-2, 275-pound freshman at Suffield, Wilkins showed off his athleticism in one of his first practices, nailing the landing on a standing backflip. The two-way starter who averaged nearly a sack a game over his high school career eventually drew scholarship offers from Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford and countless others. He chose Jan. 5 as the day he would commit to the Tigers -- the four-year anniversary of his grandfather's death -- as a means of turning a tragic day on the calendar into a triumphant one.
Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables was a key figure in Wilkins' recruitment, and visited him at Suffield more than once.
"Everyone wanted to share their own little Christian story, from the people in the cafeteria to everyone else. That's when we started to realize he was the life of the party," Venables said. "I thought this guy had the unique ability to make people around him better, and would instantly improve our locker room."
Along with being Suffield's most recognizable athlete, Wilkins was its biggest cheerleader as well. Cahn's discovery in the gym was no oddity; in fact, it was the norm. Wilkins could be found at girls volleyball games, at field hockey games, even serving up the water cups at JV football games.
"If we had a charity fundraiser, he'd be right in the middle of it," said Cahn, who is certain Wilkins will one day be a school trustee.
"If not the headmaster," Wilkins adds.
That appeal traveled well. All the way from New England, he's managed to ingrain himself as a favorite player among Clemson locals. When his name comes up at Sardi's Den, a popular booth-lined eatery just a couple miles from where Wilkins spends his football hours, a random patron is quick to claim his loose connection to the star senior.
"I haul his jock strap," cracks Brownie, who chose not to share his real name.
Those within earshot erupt with laughter as Brownie explains to the one guy who doesn't get the joke that he drives the massive rig that hauls Clemson football gear to road games. He doesn't know Wilkins, but he's seen him cutting up with teammates, keeping things loose when the team and the truck are together. He's also seen him riding a bicycle to class -- backpack and all -- blending in with regular students in all ways except his 6-4, 300-pound frame.
Before Clemson's final home game in 2017, a 61-3 smashing of The Citadel, Wilkins, then a junior, was honored on Senior Day -- a treatment for underclassmen at any school that commonly signals an early exit to the NFL.
But despite having already earned a communications degree and being considered an elite draft prospect, he shocked friends, fans and scouts alike with a decision to return to Clemson for a senior season in 2018. Of all the draft prospects who opted for one more year of college seasoning, his decision was the hardest to believe.
It kept college football's most fearsome defensive tackle tandem -- he and junior Dexter Lawrence -- together for another national championship chase. Wilkins is a disruptive force as a pass rusher, with remarkable quickness for a player his size. But unlike a lot of pass rushers, Wilkins also projects to the NFL as a stonewall of a run defender.
"This is a big, powerful kid who holds up really well on the edge, and he hasn't really tapped his potential," an AFC scout said. "If you try to double team him with a tight end and a tackle, he'll kick that double-team's ass. He'll split that. You double team him with a tackle and a guard, you can contain him, but he'll get a stalemate.
"I think he's a left defensive end, and a really good one. He knows how to use his hands and get off blocks. He keeps his hands inside and blockers just can't stay with him."
Those skills have translated into a great deal of production since Wilkins arrived at Clemson in 2015. He's amassed 250 tackles for his career, a crazy-high total for an interior defensive lineman, including 41 tackles for loss. As a sophomore, he set a school record for defensive linemen with 10 pass breakups.
Another element to his game is his versatility. He proved effective at defensive end as a freshman before moving inside, and has even taken his game beyond the defense. He's played on several Clemson special teams units, and even gets an occasional snap on offense.
Even though he was just a freshman at the time, the Tigers coaching staff thought enough of Wilkins' unique skills that they chose to display it on the biggest of stages. Against Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal played at the Orange Bowl, Wilkins caught a 31-yard pass on a fake punt (see photo below) to key the Tigers' first touchdown drive. Clemson had practiced the play weekly throughout the season, and called it "UConn" because Wilkins had come to Clemson from Connecticut.
"I make the most of those (special teams) snaps. All those plays are just as important as any other play," Wilkins said. "I'm the quarterback, so to speak, on the punt team. I take pride in that as well."
When NFL clubs get the chance to put Wilkins through workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine in two weeks, he should rate as one of the most athletic big men at the event. Wilkins has broken 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and can squat 545 pounds. As for the vertical jump, just know this: As a high school basketball star who was a 1,000-point scorer for his career, he got off the floor well enough to take alley-oop dunks. On the bench press, he's put up the combine-standard 225-pound bar an impressive 32 times.
As for his pro ceiling? "He could be a 10-year All-Pro," the scout said.