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On Second Thought, Green Bay Turns Out to be Winning Choice For Wilkerson


*As part of the Green Bay Packers' celebration of the 10th anniversary season of the Super Bowl XXXI Championship, is running a series of stories about the people responsible for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown.

It's not that often when a player gets a "do-over" on the field, and it happens even less in the offseason. But Bruce Wilkerson was fortunate enough to get that second chance in 1996.

Wilkerson had an opportunity to join the Packers the year before as an unrestricted free agent, but instead elected to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars. All it took was a little down time for Wilkerson to ponder his future.

"I signed with Jacksonville and during the playoffs that year, I'm sitting at home," Wilkerson, 41, recalled. "We won four football games and lost a lot of close ones. So, I'm sitting at home and the Packers are playing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game and Ken Ruettgers was hurt.

"I'm sitting there saying, 'This team is a tackle away from playing in the Super Bowl.' So I mean, that gave me the notion the following year that there was a chance this team was special and could do great things."

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle was released by the Jaguars in April 1996 and this time around, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. He called General Manager Ron Wolf and told him he wasn't going to sign with anybody other than Green Bay.

A year earlier, it was Wolf who recruited Wilkerson to Green Bay. But the G.M. wasn't going to try and fool the man who had previously spent his whole professional career playing in warm weather. There was no getting around the frigid Green Bay winters.

"Ron Wolf showed me the temperatures," Wilkerson explained. "He had a board that had the temperatures of every game the year before. He didn't tell me that we were Super Bowl contenders or blah, blah, blah. He said, 'These are our temperatures.'"

This time around, the weather was a non-factor because Wilkerson knew what he was getting into.

"I remember playing with the Raiders and going to Green Bay the day after Christmas, December 26, 1993," Wilkerson recalled. "It was the coldest I had ever been in my life. I played with the Raiders and we played Buffalo, but that day in Green Bay was the coldest I had ever been."

Wilkerson's memory served him right as game-time temperatures that day got down to 1 degree at kickoff. But despite initially signing with Jacksonville due in part to the warmer weather, Wilkerson learned that Green Bay's temps weren't so bad after all.

"If you come in during July and you're up there from when it is warm until it gets cold, it has a totally different effect on your body than it does when you're coming in from somewhere where it's 70 degrees and you're coming in to play and it's 12, not counting the wind chill," Wilkerson explained. "So it totally has a different effect on your body."

Weather wasn't the only difference between Green Bay and the other teams Wilkerson had played on, either.

Playing with the Packers gave Wilkerson a close-up, literally and figuratively, of Green and Gold fans. Initially, this wasn't something Wilkerson was used to.

"Coming from the Raiders, everything in training camp was behind the black fence," Wilkerson said. "Everything was blocked off and all private.

"Then, you come to Green Bay, and everything's wide open. You ride the bicycles, you walk with the fans, you do the whole shebang up until the season and then they put the green fence up. It was cool. It was a shock at first, but it was very cool."

These days Wilkerson, his wife Antoinette, and their two children -- daughter Starkicia, 19, and son Jeremy, 14 -- live in Knoxville, Tenn. Wilkerson keeps busy working as a machinist for an aluminum company and tries to make it to Green Bay for one game in September and one game in October, although he only made it once last season.

Wilkerson was known for riding his Triumph motorcycle while in Green Bay, as well as collecting and restoring John Deere tractors. But he's since switched to a Honda cycle, saying he's "slowed down some," and he no longer has time for his John Deere hobby, either.

"It's time, basically," Wilkerson said. "You've got something that you enjoy, but your time restraints kind of kill you. My son is into golden glove boxing, he's been doing that for about a year. I laugh and joke with it and say that I am almost a soccer mom. I'm trying to take him as much as I can."

With his busy schedule, it's also not easy for Wilkerson to keep in contact with his old teammates these days.

"I'm not a stay-in-contact type of guy," Wilkerson said. "I mean, I probably talked to Aaron Taylor two-and-a-half, three years ago. It's been awhile. I talked to Frankie (Winters) this past football season."

Despite falling out of touch with the guys, Wilkerson still catches himself thinking about that '96 Super Bowl team. He said that although he started the last game of the year and throughout the playoffs, that wasn't necessarily planned when he arrived in Green Bay.

"Basically I was brought in there to be an insurance policy," Wilkerson recalled. "Ruettgers was hurt when I came in and they had John Michels and Gary Brown and they wanted to see them play. At one point, a friend of mine (defensive end Sean Jones) supposedly told Coach Holmgren that we had a guy over on the sideline that happened to be a better man for the job. They had those two guys, but they gave me a try and everything worked out."

This was a far cry from where Wilkerson initially was as a Packer, but he came to the team's rescue by not allowing a sack in the team's first two postseason games. When his number was called, Wilkerson's skills were still sharp in part because of Reggie White.

After all, he was facing White every day in practice, something that reminded him of his college days at the University of Tennessee when they were teammates.

"Reggie was in his younger days when we were in college, and I cut my teeth against Reggie," Wilkerson said. "Going against Reggie and Mike Cofer was one of those things that enabled me to play on Sunday. To come to Green Bay and play against him, he was an older guy, I was an older guy, it would be kind of funny because if we got going against each other, Mike Holmgren would call us pumped up Tennessee boys.

"And you know, I hate to lose. But going against Reggie, you're going to lose quite a bit. But it would just elevate the tempo of practice. It was fun. I just considered it a learning experience. If you can go against one of the best guys in the NFL every day in practice and do a decent job, that would make the games easier."

That sounds fitting, especially since Wilkerson's decision to sign with Green Bay in '96 made life easier for the Packers, too.

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