Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson threw a private party last month for 50 or so friends. BYOS. Bring Your Own Stopwatch. On the indoor practice field at Ohio State, Wilkinson jumped and juked and sprinted, drawing gasps from the NFL personnel men, coaches and front-office folks who witnessed the invitation-only, one-man workout. When stopwatches caught this man-mountain in 4.79 seconds for the 40-yard dash, no one could be certain if the blur had been Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson or Big Daddy Don Garlits of drag racing fame.
Wilkinson, a 21-year-old Ohio State defensive tackle who has made himself available in Sunday's NFL draft after having played only two seasons of college football, is not the first of the Big Daddies, but he is an original. He is 6'3?" and 313 pounds, and can bench-press 500 pounds. But he can also jump 30 inches off the ground and could just about keep up with some NFL defensive backs in a footrace. "The size, the speed, the strength, the power—it's scary," marvels John Wooten, the vice president for player personnel of the Philadelphia Eagles. "The good Lord said, 'I'm going to do this once, then I'm not going to do it anymore.' "
Defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb of the Baltimore Colts of the late 1950s stood 6'6" but weighed a mere 288, while Big Daddy Hairston, the defensive end of the Eagles, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals, was just 6'4", 260. There have been other Big Daddies—Big Daddy Kane, blues guitarist Big Daddy Kinsey, Florida spring-break toastmaster Big Daddy Flanigan and Negro-leagues star Big Daddy Herron—but not one of them had Jimmy Johnson, before he left the Dallas Cowboys last month, musing about trading his entire draft to get him. "Wilkinson could be a once-in-10-years player," says Billy Devaney, the San Diego Chargers' director of player personnel.
If Wilkinson does realize that potential, he could be the most memorable Big Daddy since the one created by Tennessee Williams, who is not to be confused with Tennessee Heath Shuler, the marquee quarterback in this draft.
The cats on the hot tin roof in this case are the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the first pick in the draft (box, page 36), and are planning to stick with quarterback David Klingler, their top choice in the '92 draft, for at least another season. Having decided to pass on Shuler, the Bengals can 1) take Wilkinson; 2) trade down to the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks or the Cardinals—teams that have expressed interest in Wilkinson; 3) trade down to the Indianapolis Colts or the Washington Redskins, and hope they still can get Wilkinson; or 4) use the lure of Big Daddy to get rich off a late-pick team that decides it simply must have him. Cincinnati's draft-day options are plentiful, a kind of make-your-own Sunday.
Wilkinson says he will go anywhere—for the right price. But he is not floored by the thought of wearing Bengal stripes. "I don't want to go to a team that isn't dedicated to winning," says Wilkinson. "If Cincinnati shows they want to get the top-notch players and move to the next level, O.K. If they continue to be cheap and go after secondhand players, then I don't want to be part of that organization."
If Wilkinson goes to Cincinnati, his entire family can drive to watch him play. Of course, if he winds up anyplace else, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, will get him enough money to charter a jet to airlift the Wilkinson brood in.
The 10th of 11 children, Wilkinson grew up in Dayton, an hour from Cincinnati. His mother, Veronda, still lives in the five-bedroom house where the laws of nature were defied as surely as they are in Big Daddy's vertical leaps: There would seem to be no way that 13 people could have lived in this house with its sharp angles, compact living room and single-file kitchen. But if you cram a place with bunk beds and love, anything is possible.
"Their friends were always coming over," Veronda says. "There always seems to be one house in a neighborhood where everyone goes, and this was it. This house was rockin'."
If her son Daniel is Big Daddy, Veronda is Super Mommy. She is a handsome woman of 52 who works as a computer programmer and analyst at Miami Valley Hospital. She earned a degree in business administration and computer information from Central State University in 1986, having attended classes at night for seven years while holding down a job and managing the household. Veronda would bake bread and roast four chickens for supper. Dessert would be homemade ice cream. The children would drink two gallons of milk a day. "There are pictures of me in second or third grade where I'm skinny," says Big Daddy. "But I don't think anyone's seen my bones since."