Muhammad Wilkerson is standing tall these days in more ways than one. Besides emerging as the guiding force on the Jets defensive line, Wilkerson is also growing in stature in the community.
And it was for his role off the field that he received this year's Jets Hometown Hero Award from United Way of New York City at Tuesday night's 21st annual Gridiron Gala in support of the city's vulnerable young people.
"I thank the board of my charity, Team96, for positioning me to do as much as possible to help as many kids as we can through our scholar-athlete scholarship program," Wilkerson told the crowd in the grand ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. "The T in Team96 stands for togetherness, the E signifies education, the A is for achievement, the M is for motivation."
The M, Wilkerson added, also stands for Mom, and his mother, Janice Wilkerson, was on hand to see her son honored this night.
"I thank you for this award," he said. "I accept it for all the kids who struggle, for all the children who need help, and most importantly for my mom, who's my inspiration. She is my hometown hero."
Wilkerson was also supported at the gala by front seven teammates Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson and Leger Douzable and cornerback Kyle Wilson, as well as Jets legends Joe Namath, Wesley Walker, Emerson Boozer and Richard Caster.
Namath was also honored with United Way's MVP Award, an honor not presented at every Gridiron Gala.
Wilkerson also had words of congratulation for WR Victor Cruz, the Giants' Hometown Hero, as did Cruz for Wilkerson. The annual event marks the only occasion at which Jets and Giants huddle together over dinner for a night of philanthropy and camaraderie.
Past Jets Hometown Heroes include Wilson, Brandon Moore, Tony Richardson, Dustin Keller, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Jerricho Cotchery.
Since 1973, United Way and the NFL have worked together to strengthen America's communities. United Way of New York City, in partnership with the New York Jets and the New York Giants, created the Gridiron Gala in 1994 to celebrate this unique partnership. Since its inception the Gridiron Gala has raised more than $24 million in support of United Way of New York City's initiatives that help high school students stay on track to graduate on time, ready for college or a career.