How a mother and a murder shaped Joe Wilkins Jr.'s path to Notre Dame
'I am because you are'
Before Joe Wilkins Jr. was born, his father was buried.
It was June 8, 1999, and Ondrey Charles pulled a red Cadillac into the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, Fla.
In the middle of rush hour, surrounded by witnesses, a lanky 21-year-old named Daniel Harris sprung out of the passenger side and shot Joe Wilkins Sr. multiple times, gruesomely ending what the Tampa Bay Times called “a continuing dispute.”
Charles and Harris sped away but were arrested shortly after. Wilkins Sr. died at the scene.
Nearly 19 years later, Harris continues to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole. On his left arm, there is a tattoo that depicts a pair of praying hands, as well as an inscription:
“God can you forgive me?"
At Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, Fla., he is inmate No. 165994. Daniel E. Harris is 40 years old.
Joseph Wilkins Sr. is stuck on 21.
He’s a memory. A photo. A stack of yellowing letters.
A legacy and, in a few months, a name on a football locker at Notre Dame.
Turns out, Wilkins left behind a girlfriend who neither knew was pregnant.
On Jan. 22, 2000, more than seven months after the murder, Kristy Woodley gave birth to a son.
He already knew her name, even though he’d never met her.
He saw her, though, and for Joe Wilkins Sr., that was enough.
It was enough for the aspiring chef with the thick black hair and the baseball cap to beg his boss at Shells Great Casual Seafood in Tampa, Fla., to give that girl a job.
At least, that’s what Wilkins told her.
“My first night of work, he was cleaning the kitchen and I went back there to put something away and he started talking to me, and that’s where it all started,” Woodley said. “He even told me that he saw me the day I interviewed and he told our manager to hire me.”
She got the job, and he got the girl. She loved him.
She still loves him.
She loved him for his heart, for his sense of humor, for teaching her how to properly catch and cook a Chesapeake blue crab. She loved that he listened to OutKast and kept binders full of baseball cards he collected as a kid, despite the fact that he never earned the grades to play on his high school team.
She met his family and friends, including Daniel Harris — a lifelong friend he called his cousin.
Wilkins and Woodley were inseparable, whether in the kitchen at Shells or watching movies on the couch. She dragged him off the streets and helped him earn his GED. Joe juggled a second job at an Italian restaurant, and when he could, he wrote her letters.
Woodley became his life — and she sensed that Harris didn't like it.
“They grew up together. Daniel was a kid who relied on Joe to give him his identity," Woodley said. "They rode together. They hung together. They did everything together for the longest time, for years and years and years. They got into the streets together.
"But when Joe decided to change his life, Daniel thought it was an act against him, like he was turning his back on him."
Rapidly, their friendship began to fracture. When the "cousins" met at a club to sort it out, the night ended instead with another argument.
Less than two months later, on an overcast Tuesday, Wilkins dropped Woodley off at work. She said goodbye, he drove away and she never saw him again.
The relationship lasted a little over a year — “not long enough,” she says with a sigh.
If they had more time, Joe and Kristy planned to move in together. They talked about having kids. Joe always joked that the Wilkinses only ever had boys. She’d laugh, and he’d beat his chest, and their future seemed almost infinite. They'd be a family, sooner or later.
“That’s going to be my son,” he used to say.
Less than two months after Wilkins died, a doctor delivered the news.
Woodley was still a teenager, less than six months into her freshman year at Hillsborough Community College. She was working at Shells and living at home — and she was pregnant.
But was she ready?
“My mom wasn’t as adamant against it, but my dad definitely was,” said Woodley, who emphasizes that her father now loves and supports Joe Jr. as much as anyone. “He thought that was crazy, to bring a kid into the world with no father. He just thought I was setting myself up for failure.”
Woodley’s father worried about how her life would be affected, and what kind of life she could provide for her son.
But Kristy had already lost Joe Wilkins once. She wasn’t ready to lose him again.
“Even going through that time, knowing that I had a piece of Joe still here and a piece of him to take care of made my heart go back together a little bit,” said Woodley, who ultimately dropped out of college to care for her son.
“I knew I was probably the craziest woman ever to bear a child from a man that’s not here. A lot of people told me that. But in my heart, I knew I would make it happen. I would make my success come through him and make his life the best I could.
“In every year, in every moment, in every struggle, all I kept thinking was that as long as he has the prosperous life, that was my accomplishment.”
There has been no shortage of struggles.
On Dec. 20, a 17-year-old cornerback and wide receiver named Joe Wilkins Jr. signed a national letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame.
His signature is identical to his father’s.
But his mother supplied the pen.
“I was raised by a single mother, so her always being there for me and pushing me and seeing her struggle and watching my family struggle, it definitely motivates me to do the best that I can on the football field,” Wilkins Jr. said this month. “I can either win by making it to the (NFL) or I can win by getting an education at Notre Dame. So that’s what drives me, seeing my mother.”
In every game, in every sport, Joe Jr. saw his mom. The skinny kid with the curly black hair started playing football and baseball at 5. He added basketball in high school. His 15-year-old twin sisters, Briyanna and Lamiya, participate in volleyball and track.
Meanwhile, Woodley juggled two or three jobs at a time, primarily working with medical assisting and billing. She organized fundraisers to pay for their sports.
And she made it to every game.
“We had a couple (basketball) games like an hour away,” Wilkins Jr. said. “She’s trying to drive an hour to watch us get beat by 30. I’m like, ‘Mom, you don’t have to waste that gas and come watch me play when it’s an hour away and we’re going to get smashed.’ ”
No matter what he said, he still saw her.
Heard her, too.
“If you go to one of my games, you’re going to know who Joe Wilkins’ mom is,” he said with a laugh. “She’s always screaming.”
In the last couple years, she’s had plenty of reason to scream. Wilkins Jr. — who was named North Fort Myers (Fla.) High School’s football MVP this month — piled up 34 catches for 616 yards and six touchdowns, plus 36 tackles and two interceptions in 2017. Along the way, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior earned scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan State, N.C. State, Pittsburgh and South Carolina.
But he only needed one visit to Notre Dame to know his search was over.
“It was the coldest weather I’ve ever been in,” said Wilkins Jr., who took an official visit the weekend of Nov. 4 to watch ND’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. “It was raining. We were told we could go and wait in the lounge. I was like, ‘No, man. I want to get the game experience. There’s no point of being here if we can’t watch the game.’
“That was the best thing about it, too: it was cold and it was raining, and the stadium was still packed. Looking around, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ ”
Of course, there was one catch. Notre Dame is more than 1,200 miles away from Fort Myers, Fla.
“I still don’t know how I’m going to handle it, more so than him. It’s going to be … unimaginable without him,” Woodley said, the sentence divided by a strained sigh. “We’re just a close-knit family, you know? He’s the man of the house. He has been for many years.”
Specifically, he has been since 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2000.
Eighteen years later, to the minute, Wilkins Jr. and Woodley lay side-by-side on his birthday, wincing as five identical words were inked across their ribs.
“I am because you are.”
“It’s just telling him that I am the woman that I am today because of being his mom, and he feels like he is the man he is today because of the mom I was for him,” Woodley said of their matching tattoos. “The connection, the bond that we have has been special.
“He definitely has that genuine heart. I couldn’t have made that heart the way it is. He was just blessed that way.”
Joe Wilkins Jr. has his father’s name, and the binders full of baseball cards.
But that’s just the beginning.
“For a kid that’s never even laid eyes on the man, other than a picture, it’s kind of incredible how much he’s like his dad,” Woodley said on Feb. 13, which would have been Joe Wilkins Sr.'s 40th birthday. “I’ve showed him letters and things we had when we were dating. He writes just like his dad — his signature, everything.
“It’s incredible. I think in some ways it’s like he’s living for an old soul. It might just be that.”
Whatever it is, Joe Wilkins Jr. is thankful for it. He's thankful for his name, and the man he never met.
“All of my family members say that my dad would be so proud and I’m so much like my father," he said. "It’s rough, never getting to meet him and see what he was like. But apparently he was a great guy, so I’m happy to be a junior.”
In June, Joe Wilkins Jr. will arrive at Notre Dame with an expectation to compete on both sides of the ball. And although neither of his parents earned a college degree, he also has aspirations of becoming a doctor.
“He’s living the life his dad didn’t get to live,” said Woodley, who’s currently managing a gym while working to become a certified personal trainer. “He’s living the life I gave up living so he could have.”
Joe Wilkins Jr. is living the life his parents provided, but also the life he earned. He earned every yard and every interception at North Fort Myers High School. He earned every scholarship offer and award along the way.
He earned the opportunity to run out of the north tunnel inside Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1, to wear a blue jersey and a gold helmet and hear his mother screaming from the stands.
If his father could be there, Woodley says, Joe Wilkins Sr. would smile and beat his chest. They’d be a family — back together. She can almost hear him say it.
“That’s my son.”