By: Bruce Feldman, The Atlantic
REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — The starting quarterback at Arizona State is in law school, which in itself is remarkable given the hours that college QBs devote to trying to run their teams and dissect each week’s opponent. He’s also on his fourth offensive coordinator, and that number feels noteworthy, too. Before he arrived in Tempe, he lived in Minnesota, Las Vegas, Colorado, Texas and a bunch of places in California.
Stability is relative.
Actually, everything is relative.
Among the eight college counselors working the Elite 11 Finals this month in Southern California, two were seniors being touted as future NFL first-round picks — Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Missouri’s Drew Lock. Five others are the front men of teams with top 10 promise — Alabama's Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, West Virginia’s Will Grier and UCF’s McKenzie Milton.
The other was a guy who’s battled through a bunch of injuries and been on teams the past three seasons that are a combined two games under .500. But when Manny Wilkins Jr. tells his story of how he got here, what it all means to him and why it matters, it is clear he matters and belongs as much as any of his peers here.
Let’s start with the toughest thing he’s had to overcome. Wilkins’ father died from a drug overdose when Manny was 10. Manny Wilkins Sr. had a heart attack at age 35 and froze in the snow, the quarterback says.
"When I was born, he was in prison for the first five years of my life,” Wilkins says. "Then he got out and was on the straight and narrow. Was a great dad. Always there for me. But then the demons caught back up with him, and all it takes is one time for it all to go wrong and ruin your life, and it ended up taking his life.”
Manny Sr. was supposed to pick up his son that Friday afternoon. "We had those ‘Where you at?’ Nextels,” Wilkins says. "He wasn’t responding and then we got a call from my grandma at like 1 a.m. She told me some story that wasn’t true so that I didn’t know that my dad overdosed.”
Wilkins says he didn’t learn the real cause of his father’s death until three or four years later.
"Once I found out, for the longest time, probably for like a few years, I hated him for it,” he says. "I used it as an excuse. But then I just had a moment with myself and God where something spoke to me. That’s where I started using it as motivation instead of using that as a burden on my life and always an excuse for everything when I get in trouble — ‘Man, ’cause my dad died’ — It was an easy escape for you when things go wrong. I just had that turn in my life to use it to motivate me to be better than he was."
The angst wasn’t so easy to manage back then. Wilkins was expelled in his freshman year of high school in Texas while living with his mother.
"I started off there really good,” he says. "I made varsity as a freshman, which was kind of unheard of at that school. So I got a little juice from people. My ego went up. I was hanging out with all of the older kids. Then I broke my collarbone. My first real injury. I thought it was over for me.I’m never gonna play football again.I went into this slump and starting drinking and all of that stuff. I was just out and doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing, hanging out with the wrong people. After I left, my uncle asked me if I wanted to move in with them in the Bay Area for my sophomore year.”
Once there, Wilkins blossomed into a four-star quarterback prospect. He hoped to go to Oregon, and the Ducks were scheduled to watch him throw, but they saw a different Bay Area quarterback — Morgan Mahalak — throw first. The Ducks offered Mahalak, and he committed on the spot. They never made it to Wilkins’ school. Wilkins shrugs his shoulders recounting this 43rd fork in the path of his story. "Everything happens for a reason."
When he arrived at ASU, he made a pretty memorable first impression.
“He came in on a longboard skateboard, backpack, music blasting to level like 100,” says former Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici, who was an ASU captain. “It was like, ‘C’mon, man, what the heck?’ He was a real jokester kid. He was always looking to impress, but there was something about Manny. When you told him what to do, he just listened. You could tell he really wanted to learn."
But Wilkins’ talent, and his toughness, turned heads. He redshirted his freshman season but wowed teammates during a scrimmage in practice leading up to the 2014 Sun Bowl. The quarterbacks were live and Wilkins’ O-line wasn’t exactly in sync. “Manny showed this unwavering focus and ability to get off the ground,” Bercovici says. "It was a no-joke bloodbath scrimmage, and he just had so much raw talent and passion and resilience. You could tell he had a lot of room to grow."
In 2016, Wilkins’ first year as a starter, he displayed all of that grit. He was sacked 34 times, more than any other Pac-12 quarterback, but it would’ve been significantly more if not for his uncanny ability to extend plays. He suffered torn ligaments in his ankle, broke both of his big toes and separated his AC joint, but he kept getting back up.
"He’s handled it all really well,” says former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who also coached with the Sun Devils as a graduate assistant in 2015. "That’s how he was brought up. He was always in survival mode.”
The starting quarterback at Arizona State is 22, and he says he feels like it’s an old 22. When Wilkins was the kid brother quarterback to Bercovici and Kelly, he was never shy when roughhousing, taking on teammates 100 pounds heavier. One day after a summer get-together, Bercovici asked him where that no-fear mentality came from.
Turns out, the answer comes from another dark chapter in Wilkins’ childhood. He’d witnessed his mom being abused by men in her life. Little Manny, weighing less than half those guys, stepped in.
"I’ve been choked up by guys in the house,” he tells The Athletic. "I’ve been pinned up against the wall. I’m like 10 years old, weighing like a buck-oh-five trying to defend my mom. That’s definitely hard.”
Bercovici says, with more than a hint of awe, “He put his neck out there as if he was the strongest person in the world. He was always going to stick up for you. That is a skill that you can’t teach. That’s in his past. It’s in him, and that’s made him the type of player that he is.”
Former ASU quarterback Brady White, now a graduate transfer at Memphis, is one of Wilkins’ best friends despite their battles for the Sun Devils’ starting job. "For any other normal human being, one of those events or those situations of adversity could be enough to affect him to the point where he gives up on a dream,” White says. "I think Manny’s handled every situation that’s been thrown at him in a fantastic manner.
"God, just thinking about it takes a toll on me, but to see someone like him respond from that, it’s even more impressive to me to see at first how he handled it in a way that probably wasn’t great — but then again, who wouldn’t? But then to have the self-recognition to know that I can’t use that as an excuse and the championship mindset of embracing his story. That’s who he is, and now it’s a benefit, and it makes him stronger. It’s really cool to look back at the person that he is. That’s why he’s such an inspiration to myself and so many kids. Kids in the Bay Area, they look up to him, and they should."
In hopes of leveraging his growing platform and turning his childhood horrors into a positive, Wilkins has taken a leadership role at ASU in combating issues of sexual violence. He got involved in Arizona State’s branch of I Am That Girl, a nonprofit with more than 200 chapters in 24 countries that is focused on empowering women. He started attending meetings and inspired teammates to show up, says Alexis Jones, the organization’s founder, who was thrilled when the ASU chapter leader called to say that the team’s quarterback had been attending its meetings.
"He was able to articulate why because he said it’s in my best interest 1) to better understand the women in my life, and 2) to be a good human, and this is part of that,” Jones says.
"He is setting an entirely new expectation and standard on what it means to be a leader. He says, ‘I’m showing up on behalf of not just my girlfriend and not just my mom, but I’m showing up on behalf of women because it’s time that men did.’ So leveraging that platform and influence of the guys in his locker room on that campus — and to also show those girls that it should matter and men should participate, that it’s not just a women’s movement, it’s a human movement — he’s really leading the charge on that.”
he cycle of abuse can be vicious. Children who grow up with such harrowing scenes and images not only can become numb to the violence, they also can get caught up in it. In Wilkins’ case, it had the opposite effect.
"It’s just a place in my heart that no matter what, whenever I saw it, I felt a pit to see someone hurt, especially the woman that birthed me, to see her cry and go through what she went through,” he says. "It touched me the right way for me to do my best to bring awareness about it.”
Wilkins is versed in many of the disturbing statistics, including that one in four women are sexually assaulted in college. “That’s mind-blowing,” he says, "and whether that’s some guy grabbing a girl the wrong way or the guy actually raping her, it’s just disgusting to me. I don’t stand for it. I’ve almost been in fights out, which is why I don’t go out anymore, because I see how sick some guys are, and they just grope girls and are obviously out of control.”
Wilkins is featured in “ProtectHer,” a documentary about sexual violence prevention. In one scene, he’s discussing with teammates degrading language and questions people around him using the word bitch — “Every time I hear that, I say, ‘Why she gotta be a bitch, bro?’ ”
"He was able to find a tiny, little thing that he could hold other guys accountable to,” Jones says. "Rather than take this aggressive stance, like, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that.’ Instead, he would just smile and say, ‘Why’s she gotta be a bitch, bro?’ It’s like this tiny ripple effect.”
Brenda Tracy, another activist for sexual assault awareness and prevention who speaks to college athletic programs nationwide, says she holds up Wilkins as a great example of the important conversations men can have with one another.
"He’s doing amazing things, and he’s going to keep doing amazing things,” Tracy says. “He has this magnetic personality and is using his experiences to change others. He’s showing that it’s OK to be respectful and to align yourself with women on this issue. It’s doesn’t make a guy weak, a punk."
The quarterback at Arizona State hopes his third year as a starter will be a springboard to an NFL career. He’s coming off a season in which he threw for 3,270 yards and 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also ran for seven touchdowns. His new coach, Herm Edwards, has become one of his biggest fans.
"It’s the way he’s gone about doing it,” Edwards says. "People appreciate his story. When you’ve achieved what Manny has achieved so far and with the situation he was in when he was young, he’s overcome all of those things. That is a wonderful story. That's America. That’s what makes America so unique. You look at that story if you’re a young guy, and that gives you hope, and that’s probably the most powerful word we can use — hope. Hope provides you energy. It provides you vision.”
When Wilkins was a younger player, the older ASU quarterbacks talked to him about channeling his background into his play. “We always used to say, ‘The way he plays football, you want to make them feel your story,’ ” Bercovici says. “He loved hearing that. That’s the type of person Manny is. When you meet him, he’s not a regular kid. He has a story. You can see that. He has layers to him.
"The more you get to know and the longer you spend with him, you see all this different stuff come out of him. It’s really cool. He’s an open book. He’s a special person. He is an underdog and he loves that and has been his entire life. That’s why I think he’s gonna have an incredible year. He’s been working so hard. Most guys in that situation are worried about the NFL and worried about what agent they’re gonna pick. He’s 100 percent focused on the process, being there for his team and literally letting the rest happen.”
Wilkins isn’t sure exactly what he’ll do after football, but he knows he wants to work with kids in some capacity.
"I definitely feel like empowering the youth at a young age is something that is very important to me,” he says, adding that he’s aware that his perspective resonates with people. “My story is real. Now that I’m in college, I’ve had the opportunity to go speak at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, go to children’s hospitals.
"For me to have somebody see my face and get joy from it, that’s what I get happiness from. Not self-implied things where I just want someone to tell me how good I am. If I can impact somebody to where I walk into a room and see their face light up, that means so much more to me than some freakin’ accolade.”