As Muhammad Wilkerson rumbled 21 yards to the end zone, 300 pounds-plus, his mind flashed back to high school.
"I had picked up a fumble my junior year, and I got caught at like the 1-yard line," Wilkerson says. "A guy jumped on my back and I fell on my knees, fell at the 1. The next play or a couple plays later, the offense of my high school team, they wound up fumbling, so we didn't even score."
So as he was making his own Piesman moment against the Seahawks in 2012, he had to constantly remind himself "Don't get caught, don't get caught," before finally feeling the sweet release of a touchdown. Then-rookie Russell Wilson danced too long in the pocket and took a big hit from Mike DeVito that popped the ball up out of Wilson's arms and bounced directly into a streaking Wilkerson's.
Wilkerson ran through the back of the end zone. He didn't know what to do -- defensive linemen rarely find themselves upright in the end zone. He saw the goalposts, leaped and ... well, what ensued is controversial.
"I got a lot of crap about that," Wilkerson laughs. "That was a -- everybody said it was a layup, they tried to say I dunked the ball. I don't know, layup, dunk, whatever you want to call it.
"I barely got it over, so they tried to get on me saying I ain't got no hops, but I can still, you know, throw it down in a gym."
I met Wilkerson at Morton's Grille on Park Avenue in downtown Manhattan ahead of an event he held to raise money for his foundation, TEAM 96, which funds scholarships for high school student-athletes in Union County, N.J. Wilkerson grew up in Linden and is still a regular in the community. TEAM 96 is his way of giving back to the area.
Wilkerson spoke about his foundation, being an NFL dad, his feeling towards Coldplay and impressions of new Jets head coach Todd Bowles.
Why is TEAM 96 important to you?
Growing up in the area I'm from a lot of student athletes get overlooked, they get looked past. They tend not to attend college or don't have the funds to do it, so I felt like I'm in the stage of my life where I can be a positive role model to help them get somewhat an extra push with that.
Would it have benefited you as a high schooler?
Yes, it would have helped. I had to go to a prep school. I didn't qualify for my scholarship out of high school, so I had to go to prep school and go from there. That would have helped me out, knowing that I would have gotten a scholarship or something, some type of money or funds to help me go to that prep school.
Is it difficult being an NFL dad?
For me it's not hard. Both of my kids are awfully young, fairly young, so, I mean, they kind of know "the Jets" and that's Daddy, that's the team he plays for. My daughter she's 3, my son is 1.
What really makes me happy and makes me smile a lot is my son. He's so young, he's 1, but he knows the Jet logo and he'll always say 'football' and he knows that that's me and say 'Daddy.' So that's something special to me.
I love what I do, of course that's football, but at the end of the day I love being a dad and my kids mean the world to me.
Have you started hanging out with other players with kids more often?
You have them, but at the end of the day, for myself, I just pick my brains with guys who have kids, I know I can adapt to them. At the end of the day, get tips and stuff, or find out some things in the area that I can go do to take my kids and do things.
What's the feeling like when you know you're about to sack the quarterback?
It's a good feeling, your eyes get big, you get excited and then of course it makes it that much more special because the crowd goes crazy, especially if it's a home game, you've got the crowd behind you. You're making a big play for the team, that's what it's all about.
Who's the hardest player to take down?
Ben Roethlisberger. He's a big guy. I actually missed him about two or three times, so I'd say him.
Is there any one you can't chase down?
I wish I could chase down everybody.
*Someone else in the room says "He can't catch Cam."*
Yeah, I mean Cam, he shook me one play, so I guess you could say that's a guy who's pretty hard to catch.
Are you quiet on the field?
Oh no no no, I'm not quiet on the field. I'm quiet off the field, I'm not quiet on the field. Running backs, when they run towards me, of course I feel like nobody can run the ball at me, so if I stop them, most of the time I do, I just tell them, tell their coordinator to stop running the ball this way, maybe run it a different way.
What changes has Todd Bowles made to the Jets?
Every coach is different. He just brought in his own way of coaching. Myself and my teammates, we've just got to buy in, and it looks like everybody's buying into what he has to preach and say.
What exactly does he say?
Just 'Be who you are' and 'Be accountable.' Really just mental things about us in practice, little things, penalties, dropped balls, he gets on us about every little thing because, at the end of the day, come Sunday, it might be a penalty or a dropped ball that can hurt us and cause us to lose a game. I mean, every little thing that he preaches to us, it really benefits.
I think he's kind of more like myself. He's a quiet guy, really don't say too much, you know, laid back. He's not a yeller, he's not a guy who just yells or anything, he's not a rowdy guy. He will yell if he has to.
What's your favorite thing about running a foundation?
Just know that I'm helping out a student-athlete. I'm helping out another person achieve their goals, and I'm pretty sure every student athlete wants to get to college, so I'm helping them somewhat to get there, and hopefully they get there and continue to be a great citizen and continue to help out the community where they're from and also wherever they attend school at.
Do you get recognized when you go back home?
Yeah, everybody recognizes me for the most part. I pretty much know a lot of people in my area where I'm from, so it's normal to just see me at a basketball game, at a football game. It's normal to see me in the area, at a store, you know, I get out my car I might walk into a store -- 'What's up Mo.' It's normal to see me. It's not like everybody's shy. Nothing like that.
I'm probably in the area every other day, I'm always out that way.
What is the extent of your love of Coldplay?
In da whip bumpin some Coldplay— Muhammad Wilkerson (@mowilkerson) April 11, 2013
I don't know a lot of their songs.
*From the peanut gallery: "He goes to sleep to it every night."*
I remember, I was in college, when I was being recruited at Temple, one of the graduate assistants was playing some Coldplay, and I liked the song so I had him tell me who it was, so I wound up Googling them, and listening to them. They have a couple songs that I like. I also went to -- they had a concert with Jay-Z at the Barclay, I went to that a couple years ago. I mean for the most part, I like some of their songs.
What's your favorite song?
I have a couple of them. Charlie Brown and uh, what's the other one, Viva ... I forget the name of it, Viva ... I don't know how to say it. A couple songs.
*"Viva la Vida"*
See, I'm over here struggling and he know it.