When someone outside the county hears the name Dan Wilkinson, they may think of a man once called “Big Daddy,” a 6’4’’ defensive tackle drafted first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1994.
But around these parts, particularly in Newark, you’re likely not thinking about the big man from “The” Ohio State University, but rather, “Big Dan,” who also spent time in the NFL, and playing minor league baseball. He, too, has heard the accolades, but has come to prefer the quiet time on the diamond, instead.
He’s had it both ways, whether it was impersonating NFL running backs like Freeman McNeil on a Buffalo Bills practice squad, or playing pro baseball in the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros organizations. But, baseball is what led him to his life’s work of 37 years, as one of the best-known and well-respected groundskeepers in the country.
“It kept me active,” Wilkinson recalls. “It’s hard for people to let go after their playing careers are over, so this was a way to stay connected.”
Dan got his start grooming fields in Plant City, Fla. under the tutelage of the famous George Toma. Toma, among other things, is known for preparing EVERY Super Bowl field.
Spring Training is the perfect place for someone with the desire to remain part of the game to get their start. Each MLB team has over a dozen fields to work on, so manpower is imperative. Dan learned quickly under Toma, and word got around that the Lyons native may be among the best in (or on) the field.
After getting summoned to Auburn to fix a mound issue, word went through the Astros organization on the job Wilkinson did. Houston then retained his services to fix any hill west of the Mississippi for Hall-of-Famer, Nolan Ryan. If the “Express” was coming through, Dan was there to make sure the tracks were smooth enough for a speedy ride, to many hitters’ dismay. But, Wilkinson isn’t one to brag.
He makes it sound simple:
“If there was something about the mound they liked, word traveled and got out and I’d get a call.”
Yeah, a call. Calls from the ‘Stros, the Cubs, the O’s, the Blue Jays, the University of Texas, Florida, Florida State, and even the Rochester Red Wings and Rhinos when the teams shared Frontier Field and needed to flip dirt into grass, and back to dirt like trying to shave and re-grow hair over a weekend, or less.
He’d get it done.
It’s a simple lesson in just showing-up and doing a job well. But, Wilkinson, a rather stoic man, doesn’t talk about his success, or the players he’s come across unless someone pries it from him. He loves what he does as much for the solitude, peace and quiet—other than the music of mowers humming in the background—as he enjoys staying connected to the game, at Colburn Park with the Newark Pilots.
The once professional park, which is built to host about 60 games a season (the Pilots play an average of 25 each summer, now gets used 125 times from April through September for various leagues. While the field isn’t built for that (high school and youth leagues try to get wet or damp April games in at any cost other than puddles, and continue long after the Pilots are finished), Dan has done his best to make sure every player using that field enjoys a big league experience.
But soon, the Pilots, who are the Park’s longest tenants, will have to call on someone else to create that environment–for the rest of the summer, that is.
Wilkinson had his colon removed in 2011 for cancer and, after several years of living free of the disease, an annual body scan has found a recurrence in one of his kidneys.
“It’s on the inside of the kidney, so they have to go right in,” he says nonchalantly as if he’s going to get a haircut. “There is a possibility I could lose it, but they hope they can just remove half of it.
“They scan me every year inside and out. That’s why it’s treatable. They catch it early. No chemo or radiation after. Recovery time is about 10-to-12 weeks.”
Odds are, without Dan manning the grounds at Colburn Park during his recovery, he’ll return in better shape than the field.
But, as those who know Wilkinson will attest, he won’t complain, but will calmly enjoy the challenge of returning the park back into the field where hundreds of people live out their dreams.