The season didn’t start like a dream. For Donald Wilkerson is went off like a nightmare. The 1994 Southwest Texas State season kicked off in San Marcos against rival and second-ranked Texas A&M Kingsville. The Javelinas did the kicking, bludgeoning the Bobcats 45-14. To make matters worse, local TV picked up the game for a regional network to see. Wilkerson, in front of a TV audience, fumbled twice, leading to two Kingsville scores. Wilkerson rushed for 160 yards on 28 carries, but the fumbles took the starch out of him.
A year before, Wilkerson arrived at Southwest Texas from Fort Scott Community College. He ran for 787 yards in his first year in Jim Bob Heldhauser’s option offense. After a two-win season, Helduser scrapped the option for a pro-style attack. He may as well have run the Flying-V for the limited offensive success his team produced. He did, however, have Wilkerson, and in spite of the two fumbles, the senior was on track for something special.
At just 5-7, Wilkerson was low to the ground; he became even more compact thanks to his hunched running style. He’d signed with Jim Wacker and TCU out of Tyler, but grades sent him the JUCO route. In 1994 Wilkerson teamed with a freshman named Claude Mathis to give the Bobcats whatever hope for an offense they could muster.
After the opener, SWT welcomed 3rd ranked Northern Iowa to San Marcos. In a rare glimpse of that miraculous and deceptive commodity hope, the Bobcats beat the Leathernecks 20-19, thanks to Wilkerson’s 184 yards on 34 carries. He earned Southland Conference Player of the Week honors for his efforts.
The Bobcats, unable to build on the Northern Iowa win, lost to the now-defunct Pacific Tigers 27-7 in Stockton, California a week later. Wilkerson dipped below 100 yards for the first time, mustering 96. Wilkerson caught six passes for 84 yards as well. Keeping up their tour of now-defunct California collegiate programs, SWT beat Cal State Northridge the following week with Wilkerson getting back on track with 187 yards. He carried the ball 36 times; hopefully, he received an ice bath and stem cell treatments afterward.
Mathis and Wilkerson combined to give the Bobcats the second most potent rushing attack in I-AA. Good thing too, the Bobcat quarterbacks were putrid, completing 41% of their passes through four games with nine interceptions. The ‘Cat tour of Cali ended a week later with a 57-7 beat down of lowly Sonoma State. Sonoma State’s mascot, by the way, was the Cossacks, a brilliant nickname abandoned by the school in 2002 when they became the Seawolves. Helduser basically gave Wilkerson the day off, handing it to him just nineteen times and playing only one series in the second half. Wilkerson did take advantage to the tune of 224 yards and three touchdowns.
In their Southland opener against North Texas, the Bobcats spit the bit again, losing 27-14. Wilkerson caught the fumbles again but still managed to run for 116 yards. Wilkerson nearly single-handedly lifted SWT to a win over Nichols State two weeks later, rushing for 209 yards, 59 if which came on the Bobcats game-winning drive in the final three minutes. If SWT were forced to pass, who knows if that experiment would’ve worked.
With his 209 yard day, Wilkerson became just the fourth Bobcat in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Wilkerson broke Roy Jacksons’ school single-season rushing record a week later in a loss to Northwestern State. After losses to McNeese and SFA, SWT headed east to Sam Houston State for the season finale. With the Southland Conference single-season rushing title on the line, Wilkerson put on another show with 153 yards, and 33 carries, Wilkerson set conference marks for both yards and attempts.
For his efforts in 1994, Wilkerson earned First Team All-Conference, All-American and Southland Conference Player of the Year honors. He finished third in I-AA rushing, averaging 143 yards per game. With his pass-catching, Wilkerson finished fourth in all-purpose yards with 186 a game.
Wilkerson held the conference and schools marks for just two seasons. Records are made to be broken. Mathis bested him in consecutive years, even topped his single-season carries record. They’ll never take away that one time in 1994 when Donald Wilkerson carried Southwest Texas on his back on the way to rewriting the Southland Conference record book.