GREEN BAY – Manny Wilkins never has been one to ask, “Why me?” But he sure came close on Dec. 15, 2018.
In what would be the 1,114th and final pass of his college career, Wilkins took a nasty shot to the side of his right knee in the final minutes of Arizona State’s 31-20 loss to Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Replays showed the knee hyperextend in scary fashion. Players on both sides knelt, as trainers tended to the Sun Devils’ three-year starting quarterback in pin-dropping silence.
Wilkins has overcome a lot in his life – the loss of his father when he was 10, a move to Texas while he was entering high school and a coaching change during his final year at ASU.
He’s thankful for it all. It’s what had brought him to this point. But now, less than four minutes away from his shot at the NFL, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound QB was being helped off the field inside Sam Boyd Stadium to an uncertain diagnosis.
“There were some low points…some challenging spots for questioning some things,” said Wilkins, one of 11 undrafted rookies who signed with the Packers Friday. “You pray every night for your family’s health, your own health, and for something like that to happen was kind of upsetting.”
Fortunately, Wilkins’ anterior cruciate ligament was intact. However, there was a tear in his medial collateral ligament that required surgery, raising questions about how his recovery might impact his pre-draft prep.
Working out at EXOs in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wilkins put everything he had into being cleared to run at ASU’s March 27 pro day. After getting the green light two weeks beforehand, Wilkins made a good account of himself. He showed an NFL-caliber arm, threw well from the pocket, and was clocked in the low-4.7s in the 40.
A week later, Wilkins received his one and only invitation for a pre-draft visit – to Green Bay. While realistic knowing whatever chance he had of being a late-round pick probably went out the window with his knee injury, Wilkins also was aware college free agency meant he could sign wherever he pleased.
So he took his meeting with the Packers extremely seriously.
“I did my best to make sure I talked to everybody in the building that I saw,” Wilkins said. “Management-wise, this is one of the few places that really dig deep throughout this process of scouting guys and making sure they get right fits for this organization. When they draft a guy or get an undrafted free agent, they really believe that guy can make it happen.”
Wilkins spent draft weekend with his agent. He probably would’ve been with his mom, his uncle and his aunt under different circumstances, but Wilkins wanted to be in the best position possible to make a well-informed decision on his future.
As the third and final day drew to a close, Wilkins’ phone began to light up with prospective teams checking in. The Packers first called in the middle of the sixth round.
There were a few offers on the table, but in the end Wilkins told his agent Green Bay “just feels right” and probably for good reason.
It’s not only a golden opportunity to share a QB room with Aaron Rodgers, but also the last three quarterbacks the Packers have signed as undrafted rookies have made their way onto 53-man rosters.
“You dream of this,” Wilkins said. “You dream of being in an NFL locker room and just getting the chance and the opportunity. I won’t take it for granted. I’m going to put my head down, go to work and give myself the best chance to make it happen.”
Wilkins’ story is well-documented. His father and namesake died as a result of a drug overdose when Wilkins was 10. A few years later, Wilkins moved with his mother, Natalie Ford, to Houston, where he attended Elkins High School as a freshman.
Needing a change of scenery, Wilkins moved back to California before his sophomore year to live with his uncle and aunt, Chris and Nikki Casanovas.
With Chris stepping in as a father figure, Wilkins blossomed into one of the top quarterback recruits in the country at San Marin High School in Novato, Calif. A four-star recruit, Wilkins threw for more than 4,500 yards during his final two years of high school with 62 touchdowns (40 passing, 22 rushing).
Anxious to get his NFL career off the ground, Wilkins said his uncle gave him straightforward advice before departing for this week’s rookie orientation: “Go to work, go earn a job.”
With the knee injury now behind him, Wilkins wants to show everyone what he’s about and how past adversity shaped him into the quarterback he is today.
“I’m not supposed to be here right now,” Wilkins said. “A lot of things I’ve gone through in life (with) some situations I’ve put myself in and the situations I’ve been put in, it’s just a blessing to be here, man. After going through this injury, I will say I won’t take it for granted.”