Coach Tony DeRosa of the Egg Harbor Township High School football team visited George Wilkinson at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point on Friday.
“I left the room feeling better about myself,” DeRosa said Monday.
Wilkinson had a way of making people feel that way.
Wilkinson, a longtime EHT coach and teacher, died Sunday night of cancer. He was 58. Wilkinson primarily coached football and boys track and field. He was synonymous with Egg Harbor Township sports.
“George Wilkinson was not only a great coach,” DeRosa said. “He was a great person. He was a great teacher. He was a great husband and great father.”
Wilkinson and wife Carol lived in Egg Harbor Township. Their daughter, Holly, graduated from the school in 2008. Wilkinson taught math. He started at EHT in 1983 — the year the school opened. His illness forced him to retire in 2012. Carol also teaches math at EHT.
Wilkinson was born in Austin, Texas, and was a huge fan of the University of Texas football team.
“If I could do half the stuff he’s done, my career would be (complete),” current EHT boys track and field coach Ryan Smith said.
EHT coaches and former players spent Monday exchanging memories of the man they called “Coach Wilk” through social media. Wilkinson was the head boys track and field coach and a football assistant.
Zach Agostino, a 2010 EHT graduate now at the University of Pennsylvania, got to know Wilkinson through sports and school. He played for Wilkinson as a freshman football player and had Wilkinson as a calculus teacher. During his freshman year in college, Agostino spent 12 hours at Wilkinson's house one Saturday getting help for an upcoming calculus test.
"He was my hero," Agostino said. "If I needed help with anything, he was a text or a call away."
A heavyset man, Wilkinson stood at least 6-foot and his physical presence dominated the EHT hallways, where just about every student knew his name and would say hello as he walked by. Wilkinson’s classroom was located on the second floor. He would jokingly threaten to throw students who gave him a hard time out the window.
Wilkinson had a way of reaching nearly every student he taught. Scott Henderson, a 2004 graduate, was a big hockey fan. Wilkinson used scenarios from that sport to explain math problems to him.
“If there was a problem you couldn’t understand,” Henderson said, “he would explain it in a way that you could understand it.”
Wilkinson was diagnosed with Type 4 melanoma in 2010. The illness forced him to resign as head coach but he stayed close to the team. Wilkinson watched the boys track and field team win a team title at the prestigious Woodbury Relays on April 20.
“This whole meet was a tribute to (Wilkinson),” EHT senior Steve Morgan said that day.
Before the South Jersey Group IV championships on May 24-25, Wilkinson handed each EHT athlete a Texas quarter for inspiration. The Eagles carried the quarter with them while they competed. Some ran with the quarter in their sock. EHT won the first South Jersey Group IV title in the program’s history.
“Kids would go through a wall for him,” DeRosa said.
Wilkinson received numerous honors in his career. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association honored him in 2010 for his boys track and field coaching. He was a big part of the local high school track and field scene. Coaches and athletes from other teams would make it a point to say hello to him at meets.
DeRosa said Wilkinson was his usual positive self Friday night. The two spent most of the visit talking about EHT’s upcoming football training camp.
“He was excited for us,” DeRosa said. “He wanted us to play fast and hard, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
But what people remembered most about Wilkinson on Monday was his sense of humor. Smith said Wilkinson loved to tell a joke and then walk immediately after the punch the line without waiting for the laughter. It was humor that enabled Wilkinson to talk so effectively with parents, coaches and students.
“He was such a positive person,” DeRosa said. “What he taught me most was how to talk to people.”