DETROIT – The ultimate goal for Julius Wilkerson has always been to play in the NFL. But the Wayne State senior knew he had to respect the process before he could even think about his dream.
“It’s something that both of my parents [Vincent and Linda] always instilled in me,” said Wilkerson, a linebacker on Wayne State’s football team. “Academics was always a major part of everything that my brother and sisters had to do. In fact, most of the time, my dad would tell me that I wasn’t going to football if I didn’t get it done in the classroom.”
Wilkerson can now look back and proudly declare that he mastered the process while keeping his childhood dream alive.
This month, the suburban Milwaukee native will graduate from the Wayne State College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor of arts in psychology and minors in sports psychology, sports management and coaching.
“This is all my dad has wanted for us because growing up, neither of my parents had their degrees before we were born,” Wilkerson said. “They eventually went back and got them because it was so important to have a college education. That’s what he has been drilling home for all of us since we were young. … Now my dad is really hammering me to go to grad school.”
The hard-earned accolades – on and off the field – have been bountiful for Wilkerson, who finished his classroom course load with a 3.85 grade point average.
As a player, he started 25 career games, was named the Warriors’ defensive rookie of the year in 2019, WSU defensive MVP and All-GLIAC first team in 2021, and second team this season. He also earned the 2021 Randy Guzowski Award, given to the player who demonstrated team leadership and showed exemplary school and community citizenship.
Recently, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) named Wilkerson the winner of the Jack H. McAvoy Award, presented annually to the GLIAC football player who best exhibited character and leadership on the gridiron, in the classroom and in the community.
On a nationwide scale, Wilkerson is among 15 finalists for the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Trophy, which is considered the academic equivalent to the Heisman Trophy, given to the best college football each year. Wilkerson, who is the only finalist from a NCAA Division II school, will attend the award ceremony at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 6.
“I’m excited to just be in the presence of everybody who is going to be there,” he said. “I’m very grateful for even being a finalist and the first in Wayne State history. It’s just been awesome. Reading up on the other finalists, they’ve all done such great things in their communities; it’s going to be so cool to meet them and have a great time there.”
Wilkerson has one year of college football eligibility remaining. Yet, while the idea of forgoing his final year for a shot at the NFL is tempting, he knows life exists after football.
“The NFL has always been a dream of mine. It’s always been a goal,” Wilkerson said. “That’s why college was great for me, because I knew it was a necessary step to my next adventure. It’s definitely something I’m going to pursue and I want to pursue. Eventually, I want to use my degree to become a sports psychologist. I enjoy being around sports and enjoy being around people, so it felt like the best way for me to kind of meld those two together.”
A three-year team captain, Wilkerson admits that psychology wasn’t his first academic choice.
“I took one media arts and production class and fell in love with that major; it was awesome,” said Wilkerson, who was on the academic honor roll for four years at Homestead High School in Mequon. “But in my senior year of high school, I took a psychology class and it was so interesting. Then my freshman year, I kept reading books about the human brain and I was like, ‘I have to do psychology.’”
Wilkerson credits Jeffery Martin, professsor of Physical Activity and Exercise Psychology, and Janet Hankin, Sociology professor, for his continued desire to pursue a career in helping people.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Wilkerson never heard of Wayne State, never visited Detroit. His senior year of high school, he committed to play football at Drake University, a private institution in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I had other offers from schools in the Pioneer League and a couple of Ivy League offers,” he said. “But then I flipped my commitment to Wayne State when my high school coach — who at the time was friends with our offensive line coach here at Wayne State — asked if he wanted to talk to me.”
Almost immediately, Wilkerson found a good academic fit on the Midtown campus.
“Right from freshman year, we had mandatory study table for every new incomer and eventually you can graduate out of it, depending on your GPA from the previous semester,” he said. “It gives you an idea of how much time you need to set aside for assignments and homework, because with freshman year, you kind of want to experience college but you also need to be reined in a little. So, you’re kind of forced to be a good student that first year, then they slowly hand you the reins and that worked for me.”
The time commitment for student-athletes is a grind, with long hours dedicated to training and practices, which is why Wilkerson said he felt fortunate to find summer internships close to campus. His first internship was with CNN during the Democratic presidential debates. held over two days at Detroit’s Fox Theatre in July 2019.
“It was awesome and everybody there was so nice,” Wilkerson said. “It was pretty funny because you get there and you think you’re going to do a lot, but because of the unions, they didn’t really have us do too much. So, we kind of got to watch everything behind the scenes.”
Wilkerson also interned at Prudential, Detroit City FC and Upward Bound, a federally funded TRIO program hosted by Wayne State.
“Every summer, I just try to do something a little bit different because, even right now, I’m not the type of person who just wants to do one thing for the rest of my life,” he said. “And it’s not realistic anyway.”
Wayne State football has seen 13 alumni play in the NFL, including current Detroit Lions linebacker Anthony Pittman, who has played 30 games in three seasons. If, for whatever reason, Wilkerson doesn’t become the Warriors’ next player to graduate to the next level, he says he will likely pursue a master’s in the Wayne State School of Social Work. After all, that’s what his dad has been hammering him on.
“If I did get a clinical psychology or counseling degree, would it be able to do as much as a master’s in social work?” he asked, rhetorically. “I think it would open a lot more doors and I still would be able to pursue being a sports psychologist. I’m still deciding and seeing how everything is.
“I love Wayne State and I love Detroit. I’m definitely not opposed to staying here. I love it. I fell in love with the city when I got here. I’m going to take some time to myself, unwind and relax. I’ll still be on my grind, still training, but I’ll come back and make my decision then.”
Whatever decision Wilkerson makes about his future, one thing is certain: he will always jump at the chance to promote the university to prospective students.
“If I was trying to recruit a student, I’d say, just look at our campus and see how beautiful it is, how diverse it is, how much our professors care, how much everybody here cares,” he said. “We all care about each other, from administrators to faculty, they all try to put in that extra effort to make everybody feel included, everybody feel safe and everybody feel like they can do more here.
“We always say it in football, you choose four years to set up the next 40 of your life. I think we do a great job of that here at Wayne State.”