By Nathanael Hawthorne
The 1999 St. Louis Rams featured some of the most prolific players in the NFL, and the team played in one of the greatest Super Bowls in NFL history.
There was one component of that team that made that Super Bowl special for Youngstown residents: a Penguin.
Jeff Wilkins, Austintown Fitch High School and Youngstown State University graduate, was a large contributor to “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Wilkins came to YSU in an era where the football program was still growing. A big reason for his decision to come to YSU was current president and former YSU head football coach Jim Tressel.
“It felt like the perfect spot for me. I remember being in high school and thinking, ‘I would love to play at Ohio State or some big-time college,’” Wilkins said. “Once I met coach Tressel and my parents met coach Tressel … It was just natural. From day one I wanted to play for him.”
Wilkins attended YSU from 1990-1994. During his time, he won two national championships, putting him on the road to setting many records that still hold to this day.
Some of those records include most points scored (373), field goals made (66) and points after touchdown made (173).
The football program at that time featured many student-athletes from surrounding high schools. According to Wilkins, this led to a sense of community within Youngstown and the surrounding areas.
“As I got there we just kinda took off,” Wilkins said. “Being able to play in front of your hometown community and seeing the crowds going from 2,000 to 5,000 to 10,000 to sold out as we were making those championship runs was great because you knew everyone in the area. … The people coming to the games were people I grew up with, so it was nice to be able to do that in your hometown.”
This sense of community came to a head when the team went on a string of playoff and championship wins. Wilkins said one of his fondest memories from YSU was during one of those championship runs.
In a playoff game against Villanova University at Stambaugh Stadium, time was running out and the team was losing.
Then-quarterback Ray Isaac threw a pass to wide receiver Herb Williams. Williams, according to Wilkins, made a highlight reel catch, setting Wilkins up to make a field goal to send the team to the second round of the playoffs and then the national championship.
In 2003, Wilkins was inducted into the Youngstown State University Hall of Fame.
“[It] means a lot because being from this area, playing on some great teams and being recognized for some achievements … That’s what you want to do,” Wilkins said. “I think it’s just a blessing. Now, I sit back and think about it and go to the YSU games and relive all those memories from those days.”
After his time in college, he then prepared for the NFL — something he didn’t think was going to happen. Until it did happen.
“You dream about it as a kid, but [I] never really thought it was going to happen until that senior year when you get told, ‘You’re having tryouts at the end of this [season]. You better get ready,’” Wilkins said.
Wilkins went undrafted in the 1994 draft, a common occurrence for kickers moving from college to the professional level.
There was another name on the undrafted list in 1994 that would also play a big role in “The Greatest Show on Turf”: future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.
According to Wilkins, the future Hall of Famer’s start with the team was an opportunity Warner made the most of.
Despite the Rams’ early season personnel problems, the team had an impressive season altogether.
They went 13-3 and went on to win the Super Bowl that year. In that championship game, Wilkins drilled three field goals, which were the only points scored by either team in the first half of the game.
He would go on to finish with 11 points for the game.
“Leading into it, it was amazing,” Wilkins said. “We start making this run and then you start thinking playoffs, then we start winning the playoffs. Next thing you know, it’s [the] Super Bowl. … We went straight from the NFC Championship to the Super Bowl and how fast it goes. Then all of a sudden, it goes from 30 or 40 cameras after a game to hundreds of cameras. … It was just a crazy experience.”
The craziness of the time leading up to the Super Bowl quickly fades away once the first series is done.
“After the first series, it’s just a game,” Wilkins said. “After you run out and you see the camera flashes like crazy, probably more than ever, the game starts, you settle down. Then, it’s just a game and you go out there and doing what you’ve done throughout the whole year when it’s over. At that point, it was more like a relief. We did it.”
Two years later, the Rams found themselves in the Super Bowl once more.
The team ended up losing that game on a field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri as time expired. In that game, Wilkins converted on a 50-yard field goal — the third longest field goal in Super Bowl history.
Now 11 years removed from his retirement, Wilkins can finally sit back and be proud of what he and his team were able to accomplish.
“It’s more when you retire and you can sit back and think, ‘Wow, you know, was I really in two Super Bowls?’” Wilkins said. “And now it’s when you sit that back, you really appreciate it and things you’re able to accomplish as a team.”
Wilkins retired in 2008, but not before setting the record with the most points in Rams organization history at 1,223. He finished with 1,416 points in his career.
Upon retirement, Wilkins returned home to the Valley. The driving motive behind this decision was one of the reasons he chose YSU: family. A conversation between Wilkins and his wife was the deciding factor.
Currently, Wilkins is an avid golfer and YSU football enthusiast. As someone who knows what it takes to make it to the professional level, he has advice for YSU student-athletes who want to make that jump to the next level.
“Never give up. It’s a matter of trying to work harder than anyone else, and with a little bit of luck involved, hopefully you can get that workout opportunity. When you do, you have to take advantage of it and perform.”