UL football player Kendall Wilkerson keeps vow: 'I kept talking to my cousin, from Heaven'

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Kendall Wilkerson was not alone last October when he stepped onto Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Ragin’ Cajuns defensive lineman from Kentwood High was accompanied by his inspiration, whom he last saw behind him on a fateful April day.

Ryan Johnson was there, then she wasn’t.

“I was driven because when I had my accident my cousin was in the back seat,” Wilkerson said, “and she didn’t make it.

“I was like, ‘If she can’t wake up the next day, and I’m still living, I just got some injuries … I’m gonna do it for her.’ ”

So he did.

Broken leg. Broken wrist. Busted up jaw.

It didn’t matter.

Wilkerson – a sophomore for No. 18 UL, whose visit to No. 12 Coastal Carolina for Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference championship game at Conway, South Carolina, has been canceled due to COVID-19 issues at Coastal (– was determined to tackle again.

“When I first got hurt … they told me I wasn’t going to play, I was gonna sit out the whole season,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

Whether it was one snap, 10, 20 or more didn’t matter.

What did was 19-year-old Ryan was with him, he felt, every grueling step of the way.

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Louisiana State Police investigated

It was shortly past 6:45 p.m. last April 22.

Wilkerson was driving his silver 2016 Chevy Sonic on Interstate 10 in Lafayette Parish, about three miles past Louisiana Avenue headed east toward Breaux Bridge.

In the front passenger seat was his old high school teammate, Ed Magee, a Southeastern Louisiana wide receiver. In the back was Ryan, a Grambling student.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of in-person classes at their respective schools. All were headed home to Kentwood, a rural Louisiana community of around 2,500 located about 30 miles north of Hammond, just below the Louisiana-Mississippi border off I-55.

According to Louisiana State Police, initial investigation determined a 2009 Jaguar XF “stopped due to a flat tire, on the inside eastbound lane of I-10 and inside the construction zone.”

“As eastbound traffic slowed for this stopped vehicle,” state police said, Wilkerson’s Sonic “struck the rear of a 2020 Chevrolet 2500 pickup.

“(After) the initial crash, a fourth vehicle, a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe ... struck the rear of the Sonic. After impact, the Sonic struck the jersey wall, came to rest on the inside lane, and the Tahoe overturned, blocking the outside lane.

“Johnson … was restrained but suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced deceased on scene.”

'She was like a little sister'

Johnson and Wilkerson were more than close in age. Raised in the same small town, he said the two were “super-close.”

“She was like a little sister,” he said.

“We would always be together, always hanging out and stuff. And we were just together that day.”

According to her Richardson Funeral Home obituary, Alexis Dunn’s and Louis Johnson Jr.’s daughter – a 2019 Kentwood High graduate – “loved Glitz and Glamour!”

“Hair and make-up was something she enjoyed,” the obituary reads, “whether it was on her or someone else.”

Johnson supported Wilkerson’s pursuit of NFL dreams.

“She’d be like, ‘Yeah, do it. I know you can do it,’ ” he said. “She always used to tell me that.’ ”

Wilkerson loved Johnson’s humor.

“She was always laughing,” he said, “and joking around.

“That’s why I think we were close, because everybody knows I’m a joking-around person. … I’m always laughing and stuff. She was like that too. A funny, cool person.”

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UL defensive lineman Kendall Wilkerson (8) pressures Texas State quarterback Tyler Vitt during a 2019 game at Cajun Field.

'It all happened so fast'

Vivid details pepper Wilkerson’s mind.

For three straight minutes, seemingly without a breath, he shares what happened as the three 19-year-olds traveled together.

“There was a big white truck in front of me, so, like, I couldn’t see what was in front of me,” Wilkerson said with reference to the Jaguar with the flat tire. “I about, like, 25, 30 yards – I would say – from behind, and I could see him getting on his brakes, because I could see his brake lights.

“But it was like he wasn’t really slowing down. It was like he was still going the same speed. So I started to ease on my brakes, just in case. And it was like I just blinked, and he just stopped. He was, like, at a complete stop.

“I stopped my car, and I got it to stop all the way to where I just … tapped him, like a little bit. I just tapped him. Then I got out to look at my car, and he got out; he talked to me.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, let’s just get off at the nearest exit so you can call somebody and I’m like, ‘Alright, cool,’ ” Wilkerson added. “So I’m walking back to my car; I called my mama (Theresa). I’m like, ‘Yeah, Ma, I just got into an accident on the interstate – just a little fender-bender.’ ”

Wilkerson reentered his Chevy subcompact about three minutes after getting out.

“I looked in the rearview mirror … and that’s when I seen this truck, just like coming full speed,” he said.

The Tahoe.

“It all happened so fast,” Wilkerson said.

“I wasn’t yelling or nothing. … I was calm and I just said, ‘Yeah, I’m about to get hit. ... After that, I just remember waking up.”

He was on the side of the road with paramedics working on him.

“I was asking them where was I,” Wilkerson said, “because I didn’t have (any) memory.

“They told me I was in Lafayette, and I had a car accident, and that my leg was broke.”

In two places, actually.

“That’s the only thing I knew that was broke at the time, because … the bone had came through the skin,” he said.

“It wasn’t hurting, so I was like, ‘I’m not about to look at it so it can start hurting.’ So I just went back to sleep.

“That’s when they woke me up, asking me who was in the car with me, do I know this person. I was like, ‘No.’ Because I couldn’t remember nothing. I just remember them taking me to the hospital, and once I got (there) and they stopped moving me … it’s like I just woke up. Like a light just went off. Everything came back. I could remember everything.”

'My mama heard it all'

Almost.

Wilkerson still didn’t realize Johnson was gone.

“When I was laying on the side of the road I could hear … the people talking, saying that they had one dead,” he said. “But they said there were multiple cars, so there was a lot of people.

“Basically, I found out … when I woke up the next day after my surgery, and I had my phone. I had all these people calling me, texting me. I found out when I … got on Instagram, and I just (saw) everybody posting pictures of her everywhere.”

Like watching film from past games, Wilkerson replays everything.

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Ragin' Cajuns defensive end Kendall Wilkerson, seriously injured in an April 2020 car accident, was on the field for UL's win over Arkansas State in November at Cajun Field.

“They had a wall next to the fast lane – this big wall,” he said. “So I couldn’t, like, go over to the left.

“When I think back, I should have just … got back in my car and got off to the other side of the road and just, like, got out of the way, or something.

“But,” Wilkerson added, “I just didn’t. I couldn’t.”

There was nowhere to go.

“My mama heard it all,” he said.

“She heard me say, when I was talking to my cousin … ‘We’re about to get hit.’ Then, she told me, she just heard this big, like, crash.

“She was calling my name and stuff, and I wasn’t hearing her. Then she kept calling me when I wasn’t answering. So, that’s basically how she found out. She had to hear it actually happen.”

'It was just her time'

Wilkerson couldn’t take part in Ryan’s funeral, but – after leaving the hospital – he did attend a repass for her.

It seemed like the whole town was there.

“Everybody knows her … and everybody loved her,” he said, “so everybody came out.”

Many comforted Wilkerson, telling him, “ ‘It’s gonna be alright.’ ”

“It meant a lot,” he said.

“Because I think all the time … it’s like football; at the end of the game, you just think, ‘Man, I could have did this different, or that different. I could have made that play.’ It was like that.

“I feel like, ‘Man, maybe if I would have just swerved over at the last minute,’ or, ‘I could have pulled off after that first incident.’ It’s, like, ‘You could have done something.’ ”

But, circumstances what they were, he couldn’t.

So Wilkerson had a message of his own to deliver. Doing so took courage.

“I just went and showed my face. I hugged her mama, and told her that I was sorry,” he said. “Because I was the driver, so I feel like I had some responsibility.

“She told me that it was alright; it wasn’t my fault, and … ‘It was just her time.’

“I was really kind of mad about it all,” Wilkerson added, “so that’s why I played this season.”

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Ragin' Cajuns defensive end Kendall Wilkerson (left) pulls down Arkansas State running back Marcel Murray (34( during a 2019 game in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Magee, the high school teammate, sustained what Wilkerson said was a lower back fracture from which he’s now recovered. He’s still on the roster at Southeastern Louisiana, which for COVID-19 related reasons won’t play its schedule until the spring.

Wilkerson had a small fracture in his jaw. He broke right-side ribs. In his leg, the two breaks were bad. Even worse, though, was the wrist injury; in addition to a broken bone, ligaments were torn.

A rod was inserted into his leg. The wrist was in a cast, preventing him from using crutches, so Wilkerson initially used a wheelchair, then a walker.

“My mama and my daddy – I didn’t like them doing everything for me,” he said. “They were bringing me my food, bringing me something to drink. They were doing everything.

“I was like, ‘Nah.’ … So I used to get up on my own. I started using the walker, and I just basically hopped. I just limped around the house to go get what I needed.”

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'I told you I was gonna play'

Four months after the accident, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was running full speed again.

But Wilkerson missed all of preseason camp.

One day, while rehabbing, he asked, “ ‘So, when will I be back?’ ”

“And they said, ‘Yeah, next season,’ ” Wilkerson said. “And I was like, ‘Next season? For real?’

“I went into Coach (Billy) Napier’s office and he said … ‘We’re gonna redshirt you.’ ”

Wilkerson’s ears heard what Napier was saying. His own heart said something altogether different.

Determined to disprove doubters, he did just that. After playing in 13-of-14 games as a true freshman in 2019, Wilkerson made it back midway through the 2020 season.

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He still has pain, every day, especially in the weakened hamstring on his once-broken leg. Full range of motion isn’t back in his wrist either.

So be it.

“It hurts,” Wilkerson said, “but … I put my cast on my wrist, tape it up, take some medicine and I just go to practice.

“Every time I go out there, even though I know I’m hurting, I just try to do my best, for her.”

His cousin.

Ryan.

Which is all anyone, including Napier, can ask.

“Kendall’s a young player. He’s still learning the game. He’s still developing fundamentally,” the Cajuns coach said. “Certainly the offseason injury set him back from a physical standpoint. But … he’s been able to contribute.

“So hopefully Kendall will learn more of the defense and become a more dependable, consistent player. But ... he’s had a great attitude. He’s worked really hard to get back, and we hope he continues to improve and get better so he can play more.”

Teammates admire how Wilkerson handled the tragedy.

“It takes a strong person to come back from that, you know?” Andre Jones said. “Some people would be traumatized when stuff happens like that. But he kept his head up. He (hasn’t) changed.”

Working along with Andre Landry behind Jones at field-side defensive end, Wilkerson was in on a tackle during a mid-November win over South Alabama. His strength coming back, he had three total tackles in a late-November victory at UL Monroe.

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But perhaps no game meant more than that one in Birmingham.

On Oct. 23, sixth months and a day after he made it but Ryan didn't, Wilkerson appeared in a 24-20 win over UAB. He made no tackles. But he played, six snaps.

That’s why that first step onto Legion Field meant so much.

“When I got out there, I just looked around, and I basically was talking to myself in my head,” Wilkerson said, “like, ‘I’m just so thankful.’ ”

Ryan Johnson was there, too, even if she wasn’t.

“I kept talking to my cousin, from Heaven I guess,” Wilkerson said. “I was talking to her, just, like, ‘Yeah, I told you I was gonna play this season.’ ”

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