“When I was a kid, there were two things — football and pro wrestling — that occupied my every waking thought,” Del Wilkes once told a reporter from The State. It was those two passions that helped this son of Columbia become one of the most remarkable athletes ever to come out of the region. Known to a generation of wrestling fans as “The Patriot,” Del built a career out of those passions. He earned All-American honors as a guard for his hometown South Carolina Gamecocks and wrestled for the best-known promotions in the business. But in life he was so many more things. A family man, a proud grandfather, a survivor, an active member of the Gantt Street Baptist Church in Cayce, and a great South Carolinian.
Hanging out with Del Wilkes was, by all accounts, time well spent. Gregarious and honest to a fault, Del was quick with a laugh and a joke. He made friends easily in every walk of life. It should be no surprise that he took up automotive sales after injuries brought his wrestling career to an end. He had a personality tailor-made for working with the public. Sadly, this Columbia great died way too young but left a unique legacy in all aspects of his life.
Delbert Alexander Wilkes, Jr., was born on Dec. 21, 1961 in Columbia and raised in Irmo. He was a standout football player for the Irmo Yellow Jackets, earning All-State honors as an offensive lineman. He represented South Carolina in the 1979 Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, which the Palmetto State won by a 37-21 margin. He received offers from college football programs from across the region but chose to stay home. Del accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of South Carolina. As an offensive lineman, Del was a born road grader, a rough and tumble interior lineman capable of moving opponents out of the way. As a freshman, Del blocked for George Rogers, the greatest running back in Gamecock history. In that 1980 season, Rogers led the country with 1,781 rushing yards and won the Heisman Trophy, the first and only USC player to win the honor. The Gamecocks went 8-3 that season and finished the year ranked 18th nationally. The season came to a disappointing end with a 37-9 loss to No. 3-ranked Pitt in the Gator Bowl.
Though Del continued to excel as a sophomore, the Gamecocks posted a somewhat disappointing 6-6 season in 1981, leading to the dismissal of head coach Jim Carlen. The move was highly controversial at the time and kicked off a five-year legal battle between the school and the former coach. Del had adored Jim and his staff. Like many veteran players, Del struggled to get along with new head coach Richard Bell. Rather than play for Richard, Del went home to Irmo and sat out the 1982 season, working as a delivery truck driver. After a poor 4-7 campaign, USC fired Richard and replaced him with Joe Morrison. Del was soon back in the fold at his familiar right guard position at USC.
In 1984, Del led South Carolina to one of its most successful campaigns in school history. Then an independent program, the Gamecocks went 10-1 in the regular season and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the national polls. USC would again lose in the Gator Bowl, this time in heartbreaking fashion to Oklahoma State. Key to the attack of the “Black Magic” Gamecocks, as they came to be known that season, was its overwhelming rushing attack. Del was the dynamo on the offensive front that opened up hole after hole for South Carolina running backs. Four different USC rushers gained more than 350 yards on the season while the team averaged better than 230 rushing yards per game. The sporting press took notice of Del’s dominant efforts, selecting him for all of the major All-American football teams that season.
“I have no idea how I made it,” a befuddled Del told local reporters after finding out he’d been named to the All-American team. Del was just the second player in Gamecocks history to earn All-American honors, following in the footsteps of his former teammate George Rogers in 1980. Just two other Gamecocks have been named All-American in the succeeding 38 years: linebacker Melvin Ingram in 2011 and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in 2012.
Del appeared on the 1984 Bob Hope Christmas Special along with the rest of the All-American team, including the likes of Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Smith. The USC lineman later joked that the only requirement of the players was stating their name, school, and position — all of which was listed on a cue card in front of them. At the event, the easy-going Del befriended fellow All-Americans Bill Fralic and Tony Casillas, both of whom had highly successful NFL careers.
Despite his impressive college football career, Del was not selected in the 1985 NFL Draft. He signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was cut in training camp. He was later signed by the Atlanta Falcons but also failed to make their roster.
Following his brief professional football career, Del tried his hand at professional wrestling. He enrolled in a local wrestling school run by “The Fabulous Moolah,” the longtime women’s champion and trainer of several generations of primarily female wrestlers. By 1988, Del was earning a living in one of the country’s best known wrestling promotions, the American Wrestling Association. He worked closely with the company’s owner, Verne Gagne, one of the most respected men in the wrestling business, to hone his craft. Del credited both Verne and wrestling great Wahoo McDaniel, who had been a professional football player himself, with helping him learn the ins-and-outs of the business more so than The Fabulous Moolah, who was more skilled in training female wrestlers.
Del competed in the Minneapolis-based AWA as “The Trooper,” a babyface “good guy” law enforcement gimmick that emphasized his chiseled physique, athleticism, and strong skills on the microphone. Del’s look, work in the ring, and speaking ability made him an immediate favorite of AWA crowds. In late 1990, “The Trooper” and tag-team partner D.J. Peterson won the promotion’s tag team championship. Del’s title reign proved short-lived. Competition from Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, later World Wrestling Entertainment, forced the AWA to shut down permanently in 1991 after several years of financial instability.
Success with the AWA enabled Del to land on his feet, earning a top spot with the Global Wrestling Federation, a new promotion that found a plum televised spot weekday afternoons on ESPN. The wrestling boom of the 1980s, which evolved into a near-monopoly by the WWF, encouraged many national broadcasters to televise new promotions. Del took on a new character in the GWF, “The Patriot,” which became his signature for the rest of his career. Riding the wave of patriotic feelings that accompanied the 1991 Gulf War, Del donned a red, white, and blue mask and red, white, and blue tights that highlighted his impressive physique. He entered to patriotic music and was immediately the company’s most popular babyface. He won two championships in GWF before leaving the promotion in 1992.
As GWF fans learned, “The Patriot” character was so much more than just flag waving. Del put his deep, booming voice to great use on the microphone. He spoke eloquently and passionately about his love for his country. His chiseled 6-foot-2-inch, 275-pound figure certainly looked the part of a larger-than-life professional wrestler. His in-ring work, too, was impressive. Having grown up watching Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, Del was raised on a wrestling product that aspired to realism. Unlike the WWF’s more cartoonish presentation of wrestling, Jim Crockett’s promotion presented wrestling as a simulated fight. That ethos was certainly evident in Del’s work. “The Patriot” used his power to manhandle opponents with a series of strikes, grappling holds, and body slams. His finishing move, the “Uncle Slam,” displayed the raw power that was evident from his days in college football. Del would put his opponent in a full nelson before tossing his opponent over his head for a suplex slam. Del was known by his peers to be a particularly safe performer, always focused on making sure that his opponents were unhurt by his moves in this particularly dangerous sport.
“He looked like a movie star,” legendary wrestling manager and promoter Jim Cornette said of Del. Jim worked closely with Del during his time in the WWF. “Handsome and square-jawed, he had a great build and was in tremendous shape,” Jim said on his popular podcast, The Jim Cornette Experience. Jim also noted what an easy performer Del was to work with in the WWF. He was always on time, enthusiastic about doing his job to the best of his ability, and prepared physically and mentally to put on a great show.
“I wish we [the WWF] would have had 15 guys that were as easy to work with as he was,” Jim said on his podcast.
Like many American performers, Del brought his talents to the wrestling-mad country of Japan. In late 1992, he began the first of two stints performing for All Japan Pro Wrestling (1992-1994, 1995-1997), one of the country’s two most popular promotions. Del brought “The Patriot” character with him to Japan, where he was again a wildly popular babyface. Fans in Japan marveled at Del’s size and power in the ring. Though it was far from home, Del thoroughly enjoyed his time in Japan, impressed by the friendliness of the people and the safety of its large cities. Del did a short stint in Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling in 1994-1995, teaming with Marcus Bagwell as “Stars and Stripes.”
Following his second stint in Japan, Del got a shot with the WWF in 1997. Vince McMahon’s company, which had long been the industry’s most powerful, was then in a struggle with WCW for cable television supremacy. Del played no small role in kick-starting the WWF’s resurgence in 1997, finding himself in an internationally flavored feud with Canadian hero and world champion Bret “The Hitman” Hart. The intense crowd reactions to this multi-month feud helped reenergize a company that at the time seemed rudderless to many fans and commentators.
Bret was in the process of turning heel, meaning becoming a bad guy, by badmouthing the United States when Del came on the scene, ready to champion the red-white-and-blue to roaring approval from fans across the country. In late July 1997, Del pinned the rarely defeated Bret for a victory on Monday Night Raw. The victory earned Del a shot at the WWF title against Bret at the company’s next pay-per-view event, entitled In Your House: Ground Zero. For the next several weeks, Bret interfered in Del’s matches regularly. On Sept. 7, 1997, Del finally got his shot at Bret at the pay-per-view at Louisville Gardens in Louisville, Kentucky. While the crowd was firmly behind Del, Bret defeated him by submission.
In late 1997, Del suffered a serious injury to his triceps in a match in the WWF. Unfortunately, it brought not only his run with the company to an end but also an end to his career as a professional wrestler. A decade of work in the ring had left Del with a series of chronic upper body injuries and led to the darkest period of his life. Recovering from surgery, Del developed a dependence on prescription pain medication, which later led to legal troubles. After undergoing rehab, Del persevered and rebuilt his life in the Columbia area.
Del was active in his church, the Gantt Street Baptist Church. He was the proud father of three children and two grandchildren and close with his family in the Columbia area. He worked for many years at Dick Smith Nissan in Columbia as a car salesman. This career enabled him to make many more friends and develop strong relationships with his customers. Sadly, Del Wilkes died of a heart attack at his home in Newberry on June 30, 2021. Locally, nationally, and internationally, Del was mourned as a unique talent in many different aspects of his life. He is sorely missed by not only friends and family but wrestling fans in every corner of the world.
Clayton Trutor teaches history at Norwich University in Vermont. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta — and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports (2022) and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Gary Williams, and College Basketball’s Forgotten Cradle of Coaches (2023).