Wilkinson, a fifth-year senior linebacker and captain, was about to begin his final summer camp in preparation for Georgia Tech's 2005 season. His mother, Denise Bowers, his stepfather, and younger brother, Marcus, and some cousins traveled East from their home in Oakland, Calif. to visit relatives in the area.
Family trips were always important to Denise Bowers, who took her family camping in the summer when her children were young.
"We stayed with some family in Jersey and went back and forth to the city," Wilkinson said. "We went to the Empire State Building and Ground Zero. We visited Harlem and Times Square. It was an emotional time."
It would also be the final time the family, as Gerris Wilkinson will remember it, would be together.
"It was right at the time she [his mother] found out her cancer was back," Wilkinson said. "She didn't really tell me how serious it was. I'm sure she realized it. But she said she'd try some different treatment options. I wasn't really focused in at the time into what was going on, but thinking back on it now it all kind of makes sense."
Four months later, Denise Bowers, only 49 years old, an occupation therapist who devoted her life trying to improve the motor skills of children born with disabilities, lost her battle with intestinal cancer, the disease that had haunted her for eight years
"Her death was tough for me. I had things going on in Atlanta [at school] and they [his family] were so far away," Wilkinson said. "I felt torn. I knew she wanted me to finish my senior year, but I wanted to be with my family. I had only two chances to go home and see her during the season. I felt bad for Marcus, too, because I'd be coming up just for the weekend, but he had to deal with it all the time, seeing my mom get worse and worse."
Somehow Wilkinson, playing with his mother's name on his wristbands, summoned the strength to persevere after her death in mid-November.
In fact, four days after she died he made six tackles to spearhead the defensive effort that led Tech to a 14-10 road victory over Miami. He followed that by making two sacks in his final home game against Georgia, a game, ironically, preceded by Senior Day festivities that refocused his grief. Then he went home to bury his mother.
The Giants' search for character and versatility is what led them to Wilkinson, Tech's leading tackler for two straight seasons.
"He was a four-year starter at four different positions [strong, weak and middle linebacker and defensive end] and a captain of his team. And he can run," Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said. "I think the coaches are probably more excited about this pick than any we made. He is just a good solid, sound football player at a need position. Tim Lewis [the defensive coordinator] and Bill Sheridan [linebackers coach] both think he can play all three positions at our level."
The Giants got their first good glimpse of Wilkinson's personality at their player interview at the Combines in Indianapolis.
"The interview with the Giants was held the second night I was there. I had three that night, which wasn't bad," Wilkinson said. "The following night I had seven. Each meeting was about 15 minutes. My head was really spinning. You're on edge the whole week. The idea is to stay focused and put your best foot forward. But all the teams basically ask the same question, which helped a lot. After a while it's like you're reading from a script.
"After they get through all of the personal stuff they get to the football. They want to know what your role was in leadership, play-calling and running checks, then they ask you to draw up certain plays for certain situations."
What the Giants discovered was a young man who has spent his entire life adjusting to situations, both on and off the field.
"My parents separated when I was three or four years old and my mom remarried when I was eight or nine," Wilkinson said. "It was tough. You want both or your parents around and it was difficult to adjust to having two father figures, but it wasn't bad. I was always in contact with my biological dad [Gregory Wilkinson, an Atlanta firefighter]. It was just a matter of being on opposite coasts. I couldn't really see him as much as I wanted, although I'd spend my summers with him in Atlanta until school sports began to interfere."
Gregg Wilkinson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his son has always been able to compartmentalize things and handle pressure.
"The resilience, the commitment, wanting to give it all," Gregg Wilkinson said. "That's the type of person his mother was and I see a lot of that in him. He's everything a parent could want. He's always handled his business. That's one of the things she was really proud of."
Gerris Wilkinson thought he wanted to play football at Miami, but it was his mother who pushed him to contact Georgia Tech. She knew the combination of being close to his father and the education he would receive – he's working on a second degree in international affairs – would prove invaluable.
"My mom reminded me that if I had any intention of going to Tech I should put myself out there for them," Wilkinson said. "So that's what I did."
As fate would have it, Wilkinson's final game for Tech was in the Emerald Bowl against Utah in San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge from his hometown. It was a major disappointment for him, a 38-10 loss.
But it gave him a chance to see his family and reflect one last time on what was. Now Wilkinson is ready for the next step, one which will begin over Mothers' Day weekend at the Giants rookie mini-camp.
"It's all I've been thinking about every since I heard [they drafted him]," Wilkinson said. "I'm just ready to get started."
"He was attractive to us because he is very smart, he has size and speed and can actually play four positions," said Jerry Reese, the Giants director of pro personnel. "We feel he is a very valuable pick for us, because he is versatile and he can play on special teams. We are delighted to have him."
Mom never far from Wilkinson's thoughts.
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