The Wilkerson family has always had strong sports opinions. LaQuan Brown always preferred his Elizabeth High School in the rivalry against Linden. Mom Janice preferred basketball until recently. The family had a tradition of being Giants fans.
The common denominator in changing all those opinions over time is Muhammad Wilkerson.
The Jets drove their first-round draft choice from Thursday night the 40 minutes from Linden to the Atlantic Health Training Center in Florham Park this morning for his first visit to his NFL team. He made the tour of the facility and then took the podium in the media room, first with head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum for photos, then alone to handle questions from reporters.
In the reserved seats, his father, Alvin, his mother and members of his family watched proudly and occasionally misty-eyed.
"This is just pretty much a dream come true," Muhammad said about being the Jets' latest No. 1 pick. "One of my goals my sophomore year at Temple was to become a first- or second-round draft pick and when my name was called last night it was just a sense of joy."
Wilkerson looks the part. His blue suit with light violet dress shirt drapes what the Jets are calling his 6'4", 315-pound frame. His arms are especially impressive.
"Muhammad has a huge wingspan," Ryan said. "I think his arms are 35¼ inches long. That's up there. That's D'Brickashaw type arms. We're excited about that."
He also has an athlete's repose. He doesn't believe in the loud voice, the scowling visage or the crushing handshake. But when the whistle blows ...
"I'm just a humble guy," he said. "But I'm a totally different person on the field. I just like to get physical with guys and to dominate."
The domination came gradually. Janice recalls when Muhammad played Pop Warner ball in town, which was infrequently because he weighed too much. "When his team played a team with another big guy, he could play," she said. "But he really didn't play regularly until he got to high school."
That was with Bucky McDonald's solid Linden High program. And as Wilkerson grew up there, LaQuan, 14 years his senior, noticed something.
"I was eight years in the Navy," he said. "I'd usually come home twice a year, and every time I came home I'd see more trophies, more trophies."
Some were for basketball, some for football. He wasn't highly recruited out of Linden, but after spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia to improve his academic standing, he went to Temple, which had stood with him through the year after high school.
And in three seasons with the Owls, Wilkerson really came on. He started his last 25 games with the Mid-American Conference program, during which he had 16.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. His wingspan came in handy as he deflected 11 passes in his career. After his sophomore season he turned in his uniform No. 96 for No. 9 — "the single digit," Tannenbaum said, "means he had a very successful offseason."
His junior season last year was filled with distinctions. He was an Owls captain, their defensive MVP, and received All-America recognition. His 9.5 sacks placed 15th in the nation, his 70 tackles led all MAC down linemen. His Penn State game (nine tackles, forced fumble) provided him a showcase in the then-top-25 Nittany Lions' come-from-behind 22-13 win at Beaver Stadium.
"I think I played well and helped my team out and made a lot of plays," he said humbly about that outing.
The Jets, who knew they needed to improve their depth and youth on the D-line, did their homework. When the rest of the NFL cooperated by pushing Wilkerson down into their neck of the woods at No. 30, Ryan began to get very interested.
"He was an excellent player in college and I think he has more to give. I'm just excited to see this guy," Ryan said. "We're going to push him and coach him to play the way we play — to play like a Jet."
That, of course, is one of the Jets coach's phrases. Wilkerson has a catchword of his own that he likes to use, one that captures at once his love of his dear ones, his confidence and his eagerness to get up to speed for his debut at his new home office, New Meadowlands Stadium, 20 minutes up the road from home.
"I can't wait," he said, "to be destructive in front of my family and friends."