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September 8, 2010Publisher's Note: This is Part 14 of a series going in-depth with Cal's 2010 recruits, allowing fans a look into the lives of their newest Golden Bears.
Standing there, in that tunnel, you can't hear the noise so much as feel it. 58,000 Cal fans on their feet. More than 7,000 students jumping up and down on metal bleachers. 87 years of ghosts, all humming along, the vibrations rattling their way through the toes, up the legs, into the chest and spreading out, propagating like an earthquake.
It's the feeling of a dream come true for true freshman David Wilkerson, who played his first collegiate game last Saturday, for the school he's been in love with for as long as he can remember.
"It was awesome. It was the craziest adrenaline rush of my life," says Wilkerson. "I had probably the biggest smile of my life. This is my dream. Everything. To come out on that field, to come out of that tunnel, was one of the best feelings in my life."
Sitting in a now-empty stadium, at the top of Section R, Wilkerson points across the expanse to where he first sat to watch a Cal game, all the way back in third grade.
"I remember I was sitting in the middle of that section over there, right on the 50," he says. "It's a lot different from being on the field. Just going out there and playing on it now, it's crazy to me."
And then, as if last Saturday couldn't get any better for the lifetime Bears fan, he was sent in to play, in the first quarter, no less. Then, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, on second-and11 at the UC Davis 31-yard line, Wilkerson brought down Aggies quarterback Randy Wright for his first tackle in blue and gold.
"I was ready to go," Wilkerson says. "I was like, I'm here, I'm ready to do it, I'm happy and it's just like practice and back home, so I'm happy to do this and I'm happy to be here."
Wilkerson-who's father Dave was a linebacker at Cal-has been a lifelong Bears fan, and his recruitment started early, when he attended Cal's three-day full-contact camp between his sophomore and junior year.
"I went to one of their camps, and Taylor and Quinn Tedford went to our school," says Wilkerson. "I probably started getting recruited junior year, went to their camp at the end of my sophomore year, going into my junior year."
So, when Wilkerson received his formal offer letter, his recruitment was over.
"It was pretty much sealed from there," he smiles. "I didn't really want to look anywhere else. This is always where I wanted to go."
And the four-star linebacker couldn't fit in better. Aside from physically resembling former Cal berserker Zack Follett, Wilkerson's play-even the way he moves on the field-has engendered even more comparisons to the Detroit Lions linebacker.
"It's great. Zack Follett's a great player, obviously a great linebacker, and it's good to be compared to him," says Wilkerson. "But, I don't think I can be compared to him because I'm a different type of person, and Zack is a totally different type of person, too. He made his own legacy here, and now it's time to make mine."
After just one game, it's a bit premature to start talking about any kind of legacy for the young backer out of Danville (Calif.) Monte Vista. But, what can be talked about is Wilkerson's toughness. Not long into this year's fall camp, Wilkerson sported a club cast on his right hand and bandages on his face, looking for all the world to have been the veteran of several ugly bar brawls. But that's just the way he goes about his business on the field.
"More toughness. That's what I want to bring. More mental toughness," says Wilkerson. "I'd say I'm pretty calm, a calm dude. When it comes to game time, I'm definitely going to express my emotions and lay it all out and have a say in everything on the defense and try to get people fired up. I've got good mental toughness, I don't really get down on things when they go bad. I would say mental toughness is probably my biggest attribute."
That toughness was tested late in camp, when a paperwork snafu held him out of practice, even when a broken right hand couldn't.
"I got to rest (the hand) more, which I was happy about, but I also still felt that the time the coaches gave me off to rehab it and everything was good enough, but having to go through that, I just had to keep waiting to get out there and keep playing," says Wilkerson. "It's probably the most annoying thing I've ever gone through in my life, definitely. To know everything you did to get here, to play here, and then to have the NCAA say you're not eligible, it was kind of like, 'Well, what did I do wrong?' But, you've just got to keep going with everything and you've just got to push through it."
Turns out that the thing that held Wilkerson out of practice was a misplaced class credit.
"It was a mix-up. There was a mix-up on my transcript, because I went to DVC (Diablo Valley College) and I did a BYU class online, and that didn't transfer to the transcript," says Wilkerson. "They were on the transcript, but they weren't in the right place on the transcript."
But even though missing practice cost him valuable camp snaps, he was still on the field early in last week's game, rushing the passer and terrorizing the Davis offensive line. While he didn't start last week, it may not be long until he does. He's come a long way from being on the undercard of the 2010 linebacker class, headlined by two men who are not presently in Cal uniforms.
"I didn't feel any pressure or anything when (Chris Martin) left," Wilkerson says. "It's not going to affect me. It's not going to affect us. He did what he had to do."
Wilkerson's brain doesn't have wrinkles. It has white laces. All he does is think about football. His favorite movie? Friday Night Lights. Favorite TV show? Anything on ESPN. His favorite pastimes? That's where it gets a bit Zackarian.
"I just like to play sports, really," says Wilkerson. "Basketball, swimming, it doesn't matter. But I can't swim, so I just stay in the shallow end in the kids' pool and just chill."
Right. Got it. Put him down for two tighter screws than Cal fans' favorite Zyger.
But, swimming aside, it was during youth basketball that Wilkerson met and befriended another promising Cal target-and would-be second-generation Bear-Dalis Bruce, who attended summer camp this year at Memorial Stadium.
"Me and Dalis played basketball with each other ever since the fourth or fifth grade with the Oakland Rebels," Wilkerson says. "He's a great ballplayer. He's going to be good. As a sophomore, he stepped up huge last year and he was a big part of our offense and our defense. He really helped us to get to where we were last year."
Has Wilkerson prevailed upon young Bruce to come join the party in Berkeley?
"I talk to him, told him that you've got to keep your options open, that you've got to experience it and have fun, even though I didn't really experience it," Wilkerson laughs. "I just say it to him because everybody's different, and if people want to experience it, then they should experience it. But, if you already know where you want to go, why would you go anywhere else?"
Once Wilkerson hit campus, it was time for him to work to get on the field and make a difference for his childhood dream team.
His focus on football has left little time for much else during his first few weeks of college. Wilkerson says that he hasn't even really experienced much of college life.
"I don't know really yet, because it's really just been school and football and really getting all of that taken care of so I'm eligible for games," he says. "Right now, it's just been school and football, working hard in the classroom to make sure you don't fall behind and everything, so I haven't really gotten to experience the college life yet."
Wilkerson is simply a sports nut. His favorite video games? Madden, NCAA 2K10, NBA 2K10, pretty much anything with a ball, or a puck. Turns out he's a huge hockey honk and a loyal San Jose Sharks fan.
"I wish I could play. I loved watching it and everything, and when I was a kid, I told my dad I wished we lived somewhere where I could play hockey-somewhere way colder," smiles Wilkerson. "It turned out for the best, but I'd say hockey is my second-favorite sport. I love it."
Good thing he didn't move somewhere colder. Wilkerson said that the biggest adjustment he's had to make to Berkeley is the chillier Bay weather.
"This weather, really, to tell you the truth, I mean, I would come to games, but it's way colder than over in Danville," he says. "Danville's hot all the time. It's not next to the Bay like this. Just the weather is a little different. I'm used to always wearing shorts and everything, and now I'm in sweats."
But hey, more sweats means more Cal gear, something about which Wilkerson barely tries to hide his excitement.
"I've never had a favorite player on Cal, I've just always loved Cal, the whole way around," he says. "I've loved everyone on the team, everyone that played. My dad played here. I never really had a favorite, I just loved everybody, I loved coming to games, and everything was really exciting for me."
The other big adjustment that Wilkerson had to make when he stepped onto campus was to the collegiate training regimen.
"Right when I came in that training room, everything was so much more intense than high school training, like with weights and running and everything, that was a real big wake-up call to me," says Wilkerson. "It was a lot different, a lot more mental. It's a lot more tiring, all the lifting that we did, the running that we did, that was definitely a 'Welcome to Cal' moment."
Wilkerson has taken to that increased mental element like a Bear to the woods, and sees this year's Cal defense as one that is sharper, mentally, than the Bears' defenses that he has seen since he was a boy.
"We're a lot smarter, I think," Wilkerson says. "I've been watching my whole life, and everything, and I feel that this crew, my first year, is a really smart defense. We communicate a lot. We talk a lot and everything, and having Coach (Clancy) Pendergast come in, the whole defense is blitzing a lot more than Bob Gregory's. He's changed up the defense a lot. He brought a lot more passion and a little bit more of an attitude, and that's helped us a lot, too, in developing as a defense."
The Bears' new defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast brings a lot of NFL experience to the Cal defense, and even though he's coached for the better part of two decades, he still has a fire that appeals to Wilkerson.
"He's very intense. He's going to say what's on his mind, he's going to tell you what's up, he's going to tell you how he wants things run, what you're doing wrong," Wilkerson says. "He's very straight-forward, he's going to tell you just how things are and he's going to get in your face. But, you know at the end of the day, he still loves you, but he's doing it for the good of the team."
Under Pendergast, Wilkerson has begun to refine his technique, going from being a caged animal let off the chain to a laser-guided quarterback-seeking missile.
"There's a lot more technique. In high school, you didn't really have to use techniques as much. You just played. You didn't have to do the strike or rip or stuff like that," says Wilkerson. "We're learning all the little things in college, and that helps you so much more with your game, makes you better on the field, with shedding blocks re-routing people, getting off, just everything, really. Tackling certain ways, like the roll tackle, stripping certain ways, how to bat balls down correctly-all technique really. You can't just rely on being a better athlete, you really can't. You have to also use those other resources that you have, and that will help to get you to be a better ballplayer."
Wilkerson is not above improving himself, be that on the field, in the weight room or in the classroom. As if sniffing out Pac-10 quarterbacks wasn't difficult enough as a true freshman, he also intends on going pre-law, something he says he prepared for during high school.
"I loved my college writing class, because my college writing teacher actually really helped me a lot going into Cal, because there's a lot of writing in college, and a lot of reading that you have to do, too, and that's all what our class was," Wilkerson says. "She was very helpful, and she helped me a lot with my transformation. It was easier to me to come from high school to here and be used to that already, because she already had us prepared for that. She had a couple kids that came to Cal and gave her feedback on the stuff, so she really helped me a lot with my transformation with my writing and reading and everything."
As for the daunting task of going pre-law, Wilkerson is prepared to attack that just as he would a spooked quarterback.
"I'm always up for a challenge," says Wilkerson, who's currently taking an eclectic schedule of Education 98, Anthropology 3AC and Introduction to Human Nutrition.
And what greater a challenge is there than to help the Bears get to their first Rose Bowl since 1959?
"I see us winning the Rose Bowl," says Wilkerson, of where he sees the Bears in the next two years. "It's the goal of every team, just to get there."
Wilkerson has already fulfilled on dream: running through that north tunnel for the first time. Anything more than that would be all the sweeter.
"My grandparents were there, too, which was awesome, because my whole mom's side didn't go to college," says Wilkerson. "My grandma was right there after the game, crying there at Section T, which was awesome. I was happy she was there. I didn't even know she was going to be there until I saw her after the game with my grandpa and everything. That was pretty awesome. To go to the Rose Bowl, that would be a dream come true. That would seriously be a dream come true. That'd be the highlight of my whole entire life."
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