New England Patriots vs Jacksonville Jaguars

Patriots receiver Kristian Wilkerson (17) celebrates with teammates Justin Herron (75) and Damien Harris (37) after one of Wilkerson’s two touchdowns against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Tom Matukewicz was playing a board game, “Spades,” with his family on Sunday afternoon when his cell phone started, well, “exploding.”

First there were a few, “Kristian is playing” text messages, followed by “Kristian just scored!!!” followed by “Kristian scored again!!!

Matukewicz had to stop being a dad for a little bit, putting a halt to the game, and start Googling Patriots highlights and those scores by Kristian Wilkerson.

That is former Southeast Missouri State wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson, one of coach Matukewicz’s all-time favorite players.

“It was incredible to get the messages, then to actually see the videos,” recalled the Southeast Missouri State football coach of his former pupil’s big day last Sunday against the Jaguars, including his first four NFL receptions and first two touchdowns.

Wilkerson’s story, says Matukewicz, is a classic one, at least at the low Division 1 level.

The late bloomer nobody wanted, except, of course, Southeast Missouri State.

“He was more of a basketball kid in high school, like his older brother, who got a Division 1 scholarship,” said Matukewicz, who hails about 2½ hours north of Memphis, Tenn.

“We were at a camp in Memphis and our receivers coach at the time talked to him and got him to come to our place on a visit,” said Matukewicz. “He was probably more of a 4.7 (40-yard dash) back then when he tested him. You could see he was underdeveloped, still growing. But we loved his ball skills. He fought to catch the ball, and usually did.”

The rest, for Wilkerson and Southeast Missouri State, was history.

Every year was better than the previous one.

His breakout season was as a junior when he hauled in 61 receptions for 894 yards and 14 TDs in 13 games.

“The game against Tennessee-Martin was ridiculous,” recalled Matukewicz of Wilkerson’s 8-catch, 263-yard, 3-TD afternoon that junior year. “He caught long ones. He caught a few short ones and took off. I’ve never seen anything like it. He scored three touchdowns, but it felt like five.”

As a senior, Wilkerson was even better with 71 receptions and 1,350 yards, which included a 10-catch, 254-yard, 2-TD afternoon, copping first team honors in the Ohio Valley Conference.

“The thing about Kristian is every year he added something to his game,” said Matukewicz.

But what most impressed Matukewicz about Wilkerson, a construction management major, occurred after his junior season.

Matukewicz said he recommended Wilkerson work an internship in his major, finding a company offering an opportunity about 30 minutes away.

“Guys heading into their senior year, especially guys with pro aspirations, usually don’t want to deal with internships,” said Matukewicz. “But Kristian had over a 3.0 GPA. Getting experience would help him immeasurably if football didn’t work out.”

It wasn’t easy, said Matukewicz, but Wilkerson worked out transportation and worked five days a week, also finding time to practice and lift weights.

“I sit down with 10 guys and say the same thing I said to Kristian, and eight of them say, ‘No thanks. I’m going to work out,’” said Matukewicz. “Kristian showed me a lot that off-season. He’s a driven young man ... and I mean driven.”

As for football, Wilkerson was signed as an undrafted free agent by the local team, the Tennessee Titans. He was released just before the 2020 season began.

Three days later, the Patriots signed him to the practice squad.

“I remember telling people, ‘(Bill) Belichick will find a way to get more out of Kristian. He will appreciate what Kristian brings,’” said Matukewicz. “Honestly, we all knew Kristian had more inside of him. There’s only so much coaching that can be done at our level, with our resources. He’s with the right coach and the right team.”

After the win, Wilkerson mentioned he’d contacted friends and family about his big day. Matukewicz was among the people he was referring, too.

“Yes, I texted him and told him how proud I was,” said Matukewicz. “He sent a nice text back. I could read it in the text how happy he was.”

Matukewicz heard a few things after Wilkerson’s performance last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, with one Patriot, Matthew Slater, referring to his calm, quiet demeanor.

“That’s why I think he’s going to be good, because he never gets too high or too low,” said Matukewicz. “He’s even-keeled most of the time. That’s his personality. That’s always been his personality whether he makes a great play or doesn’t make a play.”

Matukewicz also heard it mentioned that Wilkerson was an “overnight sensation.” That one made him laugh out loud.

“Overnight sensation? If they only knew his story. It’s anything but overnight,” said Matukewicz. “He’s a great example for everyone, especially the late bloomers. Work hard for something and you never know. Honestly, I believe the best is yet to come for Kristian.”

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You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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