Our series on the 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 48 Gabe Wilkins, originally published on Jan. 11.
Time and experience taught Gabe Wilkins that football, even championships, are just a sliver of life.
Wilkins, a big man from a small town, was part of Green Bay’s back-to-back Super Bowl teams of the mid-1990s. The Packers, led by Brett Favre and Reggie White, defeated New England in Super Bowl XXXI. They got back to the Super Bowl the following year, but lost to Denver and John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII.
“At the time I thought winning the Super Bowl was the ultimate success,” Wilkins said in a Sept. 2007 story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Having the ring is nice, but as I got older, I realized it wasn’t the epitome of life.
“At one time I thought that’s all there was, but I found God and now I understand what it’s about. … The reality of it is clear now. Guys like Reggie White tried to explain things to me back then, but I was too young to take it all in.”
Wilkins, from the small town of Cowpens, S.C., was a 6-5, 300-pound defensive end with remarkable physical gifts for a man his size. He went to nearby Gardner-Webb, now a Big South Conference school, but then an NAIA program. He was an NAIA All-American and displayed the kind of potential that prompted the Packers to draft him in the fourth round in 1994.
Wilkins was a key defensive line reserve in 1995 and ’96. He had 18 tackles and three sacks for the ’96 Super Bowl-winning team.
At one point in the title game, White needed a blow after sacking Patriots’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe. But according to a story on the Packers’ website, Wilkins was so engrossed watching the replay of White’s sack on the Louisiana Superdome jumbotron, he didn’t hear defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur yelling at him to sub for White.
“I was paying attention,” Wilkins said, “but I wasn’t paying attention to the right thing.”
Wilkins had a tackle and batted down a pass for the Pack, which finished off New England, 35-21.
The following season was his best in a six-year career. He became a starter and finished with 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks, second on the team to White.
The Packers returned to the Super Bowl, but fell to the Broncos, 31-24. Wilkins injured his knee in the first quarter, and Denver took advantage of his absence, with Terrell Davis rushing for 157 yards against the Packers’ depth-shy defensive front.
“It was tough to lose to Denver in the Super Bowl that year,” Wilkins told the Journal-Sentinel. “You remember the losses almost more than the wins. I hurt my knee and couldn’t help the team like I could have against the Broncos.”
Wilkins signed a free-agent contract with San Francisco, but played just two years with the 49ers and retired after the 1999 season.
“I saw from Brett and Reggie how to handle both success and adversity,” Wilkins told the Journal-Sentinel. “I appreciate now every minute I was around those guys. My experiences in Green Bay are helping me as I raise my family now in another chapter of my life: middle age.”