By Ryan Buck
On the second-to-last evening in January 2000, Austintown native and former Youngstown State kicker Jeff Wilkins was at the pinnacle of his sport. Confetti rained from the rafters of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta as Wilkins and his St. Louis Rams teammates celebrated their thrilling victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Wilkins converted all 38 extra-point attempts and made all 17 of his field-goal attempts during a regular season that saw St. Louis lead the league in scoring. Three more Wilkins’ kicks gave the Rams a 9-0 lead in the first half of their win over Tennessee.
Two seasons later, Wilkins and the Rams made another Super Bowl trip, where they fell to the New England Patriots, 20-17.
Flash forward 11 years and Wilkins is playing a different game.
“It’s a whole lot of nothing going on,” said Wilkins, who retired from the Rams in 2008 after a 14-year professional career. “I’m playing a lot of ‘Dad.’ ”
He and his wife, Tina, live in Canfield with their three daughters, aged eight, 11 and 21. Football was his focus for 22 years, but he now devotes his time to his family.
SDLqIt’s mostly sporting events and school stuff,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”
Wilkins enjoyed a standout career at Austintown Fitch, where he was All-Steel-Valley Conference and All-Ohio as a kicker.
In 1990, he moved on to YSU where he became a record-setting four-year starter at both kicker and punter for then-coach Jim Tressel.
Among his school records are 373 career points by a kicker, field goals made (66) and attempted (98) and extra points (173).
He started as a freshman and was a part of two Division I-AA national championship teams in 1991 and 1993 and the runner-up team in 1992.
“When I first got there, YSU was on the incline,” he said. “Then it exploded and we were making those championship runs every year. People were excited and fans were meeting us at the airport after the championship games.”
Wilkins spent three years between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers before he became one of the NFL’s best kickers with the Rams.
In 2003, he kicked a then-record tying 39 field goals and made the NFC Pro Bowl roster before becoming the team’s all-time leading scorer.
While splitting the uprights was his focus as a player, dropping the golf ball into the cup drives his competitive streak now.
“That’s where golf has filled in, though it’s never been near as good (as his kicking),” Wilkins said, chuckling.
Though competitive rounds are rare, he does find them.
He’s been a mainstay in The Vindicator’s Greatest Golfer of the Valley with his ever-declining handicap.
“I’ve played the last three years,” he said. “It’s a great tournament for the area. It gets people excited. It’s something to look forward to every year. You get a little nervous and a little excited.”
Wilkins keeps tabs on both the Falcons and the Penguins as much as family time permits.
“I obviously keep track of them, but with three girls, I’m always running around on Saturdays for softball games, soccer games, or gymnastics, so not as much as I’d like to,” he said. “I’ll catch a couple of YSU and Fitch games every year. I still have a lot of friends from Fitch. If the girls don’t have anything on Friday nights, I’ll head over to the stadium.”
Throughout it all, his heart never left his hometown and the memories he made there.
“My favorite kick, whether its high school, college, or in the pros was the Massillon kick my junior year,” he said.
His 43-yard strike in Week 5 of the 1988 season sent Fitch Falcon Stadium into a frenzy and gave the Falcons a 20-19 victory.
For Wilkins, it proves endearment can come from a Friday night in northeastern Ohio as well as the glare of a 70,000-seat stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.