Clemson University

Why Christian Wilkins started with an apology as Clemson celebrated its title

Clemson celebrates national championship victory

Clemson won the college football national championship against Alabama in a blowout 44-16 victory at Santa Clara January 7, 2019.
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Clemson won the college football national championship against Alabama in a blowout 44-16 victory at Santa Clara January 7, 2019.

Christian Wilkins grabbed the microphone at Clemson’s national championship celebration at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, and despite having helped the Tigers to a second national title in three years, the first thing the star defensive tackle did was apologize.

“I just wanna apologize first and foremost. I cried on national TV,” Wilkins said to the crowd of about 50,000. “I’m not sorry that I cried. I’m just sorry that I’m such an ugly crier. I didn’t know that. I do apologize. I don’t cry a lot, so that’s why it was like an awkward moment.”

But as Tigers coach Dabo Swinney pointed out minutes later, it was understandable that Wilkins was emotional.

The Massachusetts native made the surprising decision to return to Clemson for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft last January, despite Wilkins having already earned his college degree and being projected to be a high draft pick.

Wilkins returned to school to improve his draft stock, enjoy another year with his teammates and win a national championship after losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoff in 2017. The win over Alabama in the 2018 national championship game allowed Wilkins to finish off all of the goals he set out to accomplish this year.

“I love the emotion. I love seeing that ugly cry. It was beautiful,” Swinney said. “You can’t fake that. That’s called passion. That’s called love. That’s called appreciation. It’s special.”

Wilkins was perhaps the most important piece of a senior class that as Swinney said, “changed Clemson forever.”

The group set the record for the most wins by a Clemson senior class with 55, won two national titles, four ACC titles and made the College Football Playoff four consecutive seasons.

“It’s just special to get to the mountain top,” Wilkins said after the win against Alabama. “The best thing about it isn’t just the mountain top moment, it’s definitely the journey, just day in and day out being around the guys and grind every day. That’s what makes this moment so special and just love and appreciate this one.”

Wilkins was not only the emotional leader for Clemson, he was also a star.

He was named a freshman All-American in 2015 and earned All-American honors in each of his next three years, culminating with being named a unanimous first-team All-American in 2018.

Wilkins will now begin the next step of his football career as he is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft. But no matter where football takes him next, Wilkins will always cherish his time at Clemson.

“This was really special and to get it as a senior, the last game walk off as the best ever, first 15-0 team, you just can’t script it,” Wilkins said. “All the things we’ve been through as a team, all the adversity, and all the things that people don’t know about. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on day in and day out. I feel like this group of seniors just did a great job of leaving Clemson better than they found it and taking this program to new heights.”