Nov. 12, 2016

by Allegra Zamore

For Donte Wilkins, football and family have always been intertwined. The choices he has made, and will continue to make, have all been centered on being close to home, where friends are like family and football is a part of his identity.

One person who has a big part in Wilkins’ life is his first coach, Leonard Alexander, a father figure to Wilkins since his little league days started in Northern Virginia.

“I was so big that my mom signed me up to play football when I was four years old,” Wilkins said. “We went to preseason camp and my head was so big they couldn’t find a helmet to fit me. When [Alexander] found out I was on his team his eyes lit up like I have never seen. Ever since then, meeting him has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.

“He has always been there for me and always made sure that I was okay. He gave me rides to practice if I couldn’t find one, and in high school, he would always make sure I was keeping up with my grades by finding me tutors if needed.”

This guidance and perseverance led Wilkins to commit to Virginia because it was close to home and, more important, close to his family.

“I am a huge mama’s boy, so the thought of being far away from her was not an option,” Wilkins said. “Even looking back, I still don’t think I can be far away from her. She comes to every home game and even drove up to UConn to watch me play. I look forward to Saturdays because it means I get to see her.”

With the transition to a new coaching staff, Wilkins entered this season knowing that something needed to change. Assistant coach Marques Hagans and his wife, Lauren, offered some simple words of advice that have stuck with him all year.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Don’t let your mom outwork you,’ ” Wilkins said. “They said it once and that is all I needed to hear to turn my attitude around. They knew how much my mom meant to me and that she works nights.”

The fourth-year took that advice and put in the extra work in the off-season, attending 6 a.m. track practices at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., over the holiday break.

“It was something I had to do,” Wilkins said. “This was my last season and something had to change.”

This mindset helped Wilkins shave off seven percent of his body fat, putting him in the best shape of his life.

“As the season rolls by my body is definitely feeling a little worn down,” Wilkins said, “but I am definitely feeling better than last year, though. It mentally takes you to another level when you put yourself through something that hard. It is amazing what you can learn from it.”

First-year UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall told the team to train, train again, and if they thought they had trained enough, to keep training. Mendenhall announced that the team would be able to pick their numbers after they had earned them, and Wilkins knew he would earn the number one jersey.

“We unanimously decided that Jordan Ellis would pick first,” said Wilkins. “He wanted the number one as well, but he told me that if I wanted it, I deserved to have it. That just showed me the kind of person that he is.”

Wilkins has always valued the relationships he has built through football. Whether it is keeping in touch with his friends from little league or his UVA teammates, he knows he has a family wherever he goes.

“I am closest with Tim Harris and Taquan Mizzell. They are like my brothers,” Wilkins said. “They got the chance to meet my best friends from back home and now all of us are like family. Before every game I always ask the guys [on the team], ‘Who has my back?’ I try to fist bump or make eye contact with every player and coach so that they know we have a connection.”

At the beginning of the season Wilkins was named a co-defensive captain, along with linebacker Micah Kiser, who he first met on his official visit to UVA.

“We both committed [around the same time] and ended up living together our first year,” Wilkins said. “Ever since then we have been boys. He has matured so much since our first year and it has been an honor to watch him lead our team and our defense. He is one of a kind.”

Wilkins says that if he were not playing football he would be coaching little league, teaching kids or doing anything that allows him to give back. He remembers how helpful his mentors were to him and he hopes to lead by the same example.

“Football has always been something that I have always needed,” Wilkins said. “My friends and I even joke about who will have the best little league team in the future, but for now I am just working as hard as I can in everything that I do.”