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Standing Tall in the NFL

Sept. 15, 2000

Everyone always told him he was too small to play football, yet he simply refused to listen. Standing 5'8" tall and weighing 179 pounds, Terrence Wilkins is smaller than most average men, let alone almost every NFL wide receiver. Combine this with the fact he has only played the receiver position for the past four seasons, and it may come as a surprise that Wilkins represents one of two starting wideouts for the Indianapolis Colts.

Five years ago, Wilkins was a reserve tailback for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, and prior to his sophomore season, the Washington, D.C., native agreed to take a shot at playing wide receiver. In just three years, he etched his name in the Cavalier record book, becoming the school's fifth all-time leading receiver with 1,495 career yards. During his senior year, he led the Cavaliers with 811 yards receiving, including four games with over 100 receiving yards, and following graduation, he hoped to continue this success at the professional level. Yet, his small stature concerned many pro scouts, and after not being selected in the 1999 NFL, Wilkins signed with the Colts as a free agent. Though not ideal, it was a situation he had faced time and time again throughout his career. What he lacked in size, however, he constantly made up for with the proper mind set.

"Coming from college to the NFL is more mental than physical. It's all about getting the opportunity where you can exploit your talent," said Wilkins. "As far as playing at this level, you have to have confidence and know that you can play. I never second-guessed myself about my talent. When I came into camp as a free agent, I had no doubt in my mind I could play, and I knew I was a playmaker."

As an undrafted free agent, Wilkins entered the Colts' training camp with no guarantees. Each day could be his last as the coaches worked to get a final roster, and the odds of making the team were stacked heavily against him. Though the uncertainty surrounding his final outcome proved somewhat unsettling, Wilkins' belief in himself provided the strength he needed to maintain his focus on making the Colts' roster.

"I never try to put myself in a pressure situation," said Wilkins. "Once again, it is all about having confidence in yourself and knowing what you can do. If you are always second-guessing yourself, then that brings pressure. I just went out, played football, and did what I could do as far as playing the game, executing the offense and learning every day."

Though earning a spot on the team came as no big surprise to Wilkins, it was how things developed throughout his rookie season that proved the most shocking. The former Virginia standout cracked the starting lineup by the fourth week of the season and finished with 11 starts on the year. Wilkins ranked third on the team in receiving in '99, amassing 565 yards and hauling in four touchdown passes. He finished the season with 2,089 total yards, the most ever in NFL history by an undrafted rookie, and became one of only six rookies ever to post 2,000 combined yards in a season. Once a childhood dream, succeeding at the professional level now serves as an exciting reality, and it remains something that still makes Wilkins a little giddy.

"Earning the starting position and to contribute as much as I have, that is a surprise. This is something I have always wanted to do, ever since I could walk," said Wilkins. "As a little kid, I watched the NFL games on TV and acted them out in my living room. Now, 20 years later, I am out there playing against teams with Deion Sanders and watching guys I have seen play all my life, like Dan Marino. This year, I get an opportunity to play on Monday Night Football, which I always watched when I was in high school. It is shocking and surprising to be in this position."

During his rookie season, Wilkins worked closely with quarterback Payton Manning and veteran receiver Marvin Harrison to help him adjust to life in the pros. Still rather new to the position, he relied on their expert tutelage to safely guide him through the challenges of a rookie season in the NFL. Entering his second season at the professional level and fifth year as a wide receiver, Wilkins admits he still has a lot to learn and hopes to add something new to his offensive arsenal each and every day.

"They are real good players, they are both pro-bowlers, and they have helped me out a lot, said Wilkins of Harrison and Manning. "As far as Marvin and Payton, coming in without as much experience at wide receiver as I probably should have had, I have learned something new from them every day. From running routes, to different techniques, I am always willing to take in new information, especially from them."

With players like Manning, Harrison, and running back Edgerrin James leading the way for Indianapolis, the defending AFC east division champion Colts look to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2000. Expectations abound for a team that only a few years ago ruled the bottom of the division standings. Picked by many as one of the top teams in the NFL, the Colts return a vast majority of the players from last year's play-off squad. The team's motto for the 2000 season is simply "Believe," which represents a philosophy Wilkins has practiced ever since he first began to play the game.

"We have a real good team this year, and mostly everybody is back. We had a young team last year, and we have learned a lot [since then]," said Wilkins. "We just want to work hard, and try to make it to the Super Bowl."

Voted to the 1999 NFL All-Rookie Team by Pro Football Weekly, Football Digest, and Football News, Wilkins was slated to start last Sunday in the Colts' season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Unfortunately, a concussion suffered in an early preseason game against New Orleans sidelined the former Cavalier for the first time in his pro career and only the third time since joining the Virginia squad in `94. Unaccustomed to sitting out due to injury, Wilkins admits the setback is disappointing, but he understands taking the necessary precautions now will only help ensure his future health.

"I was down a little bit, not being able to play in the opener, but I would rather get things straight now and make sure everything is alright now instead of missing four or five weeks in the middle of the season. It could be a reoccurring thing, so I want to make sure all my headaches are gone [before playing again]. I can deal with it as long as I know I am going to play this weekend, and I know I am getting better."




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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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