Cory Wilkerson put together one of the greatest rushing performances in Lorain County history in 1988 and there is a variety of recollections from those who witnessed it.
Former Elyria West teammates remember the years put in leading up to the breakout season, coach Darrell Mayne talks about Wilkerson’s devastating spin moves and elusiveness, and the Wolverines Illustrated magazine shows his accomplishments in the weight room.
Off the field, everyone remembers a brilliant smile and a friendly demeanor that could lift anyone’s spirits within moments.
Those were just a few of the reasons Wilkerson’s unexpected death last week was so shocking for those who knew him.
“Cory was one of the kids that all of us invested in heavily and he invested in us, so any time you lose a young man like that it’s really sad … really sad,” Mayne said. “It’s very, very sad to lose Cory because you have such fond memories of who those kids were as people, working with them during those years at Elyria West and they are very special memories to all of us who were there.”
Wilkerson was the top offensive weapon for the Wolverines during a 9-1 season in 1988. He carried the ball 144 times for 1,633 yards — an 11.3 average — and 21 touchdowns. His 291 yards versus Keystone that season still rank in the top 20 in county history.
“Cory established himself as one of the bright young leaders on that team,” said Steve Tovar, who starred at Elyria West, Ohio State and in the NFL. “He was quick, very fast, but I always remember Cory for his other skills. He was always having fun and making every moment enjoyable for the people around him. He was surrounded by positive energy all the time.”
It was a needed lift for a team that had graduated superstar running back Tyrone Nelson, who went on to play for the Akron Zips. Many outside the program didn’t give the Wolverines much of a chance of matching their 8-2 record from 1987.
“I don’t know if any of us saw that coming,” said David Wright, who played with Wilkerson from seventh to 12th grade. “When you looked at who was coming back after Tyrone left, you kind of thought that (production) would just get split and (Wilkerson) just kind of took it over out of nowhere.”
It was a long journey for Wilkerson, who was a bit pudgy in junior high — “When he was in the eighth grade he was a little bit heavier than what he was in high school,” Mayne said — and had always served as more of a blocking back than a lead runner.
But after thinning out and showing exceptional power and speed, Mayne knew he had a secret weapon.
“By the time he was a sophomore we knew that he was going to be something special,” Mayne said. “You don’t want to go out broadcasting it as a coach. You don’t want to put that kind of pressure on a kid. We knew as a coaching staff going into the 1988 season that everyone expected us to be down because Tyrone was gone. Even though the two of them are totally different backs, we recognized what Cory’s potential was and what he could do.”
Wilkerson couldn’t hide his speed — “If you looked back at second halves of our sophomore year, you kind of saw sparks of it,” Wright said — as he was a member of the sprint relays and competed in the sprint events for the Wolverines track team.
But with a body that was sometimes described as “scrawny,” not many expected the strength he exuded. He finished second in the Power Line awards, which were given to Elyria West football players for their accomplishments in the weight room.
Wilkerson finished second with 2,020 pounds to fellow running back Keith Rivers’ 2,180. Wilkerson managed to lift 270 on the bench, 405 on dead lift, 220 on power clean and tied for the team lead with 600 on squats. He also shared the school record in bar jumps.
“He’d hit a hole, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, that scrawny little kid,’ and all of a sudden he’d run through a tackle or hit someone and spin right off them and he was gone,” Wright said. “His talent was natural. I always tell people about the game against Brookside when he had 10 carries for 165 yards and five touchdowns — he only got tackled five times. His ability to turn any play into THE play of the game … you just would never see it coming.”
The season earned him all-conference, all-district and all-county honors, and landed him on the All-Ohio second team. He added 13 touchdowns during his senior season in 1989 to lead the Lorain County Conference and finish fifth in the area.
“He was a tremendous part of the success of that (1988) team — a real game-breaker,” Mayne said. “He had an incredible spin move. You can show kids spin moves and you can drill spin moves, and then there’s kids who just do it instinctively. He could time a spin move like nobody I’ve ever seen. You’re all over him and he makes contact, spins and he’s gone.”
Wilkerson graduated from Elyria West in 1990. He married Luvenia M. Wilkerson (nee Hollis) and had four children — Michael Dante, Amiri Zaire, Azariah Jabir and Hollis Amira. He was just 41 when he died Jan. 21.
Wilkerson’s memorial service Thursday afternoon was standing room only, and both tears were shed and laughter was heard as friends and family members reminisced.
“They used to call him Silky Wilky, because he was smooth as silk,” Mayne said with a laugh during a phone interview Tuesday. “I’ll always remember that … a lot of great memories of that young man.”