CHARLESTON – Underneath O’Brien Field, past the Ohio Valley Conference championship trophies and the deep blue walls, Chris Wilkerson is surrounded by football in his new office.
On his desk is a paused video of last season’s Eastern Illinois University football team in action. He shows off a photo of his time as an assistant coach with the Panthers while wearing a grey sweatshirt with the block letters EIU in blue.
On a recent Saturday in Charleston during spring football practice, Wilkerson, the Panthers’ new head coach, shared the other sport that takes up his time in the spring – softball.
His wife, Sharna, was playing catcher for EIU when the couple first met.
The oldest of their three children, daughter Bella, is an accomplished softball player who is competing at the Division I level.
“I’m able to stream the games right here on my phone and watch the entire time,” he said.
Bella is a freshman catcher for “that other school in Bloomington-Normal,” Chris Wilkerson said with a smile.
That’s Illinois State University, the same school EIU plays on the football field each season for the Mid-America Classic trophy, a rivalry that dates back to 1901.
The 110th meeting of the rivalry will be played Sept. 17 at ISU’s Hancock Stadium, which is visible to fans watching Redbird games from Marian Kneer Softball Stadium every spring.
Along with planning EIU’s spring football practices, Wilkerson also was planning some 103-mile trips to see Bella and just be a softball dad, wardrobe included.
“I do have a (red) sweatshirt and a hat that I only wear at the softball diamond,” Wilkerson said. “I’m very proud of her. Her work ethic has been second to none. It’s a pretty surreal experience watching her grow and have a chance to do something that she loves.”
Since a young age, softball and football were prevalent around the Wilkerson home.
Sharna Wilkerson taught Bella the game, but there were some hurdles, like the time Bella tried pitching.
“I had one awful outing when I was like 8 years old,” Bella said. “(My mom) came back in the dugout and said, ‘Put the gear on.’ I put the gear on and went out there and I haven’t taken it off since. We still laugh about it.”
The close mother-daughter relationship was part of the reason Bella chose Illinois State after a standout career at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox.
“She brings a wealth of knowledge,” ISU head softball coach Melinda Fischer said. “The influence of her mom, as a D-I catcher, certainly has played a lot into her growth and development. Bella came in ready to play.”
Bella Wilkerson has started 15 games this spring and is batting .315.
Now in her 37th season at ISU, Fischer coached against EIU and Sharna Wilkerson regularly.
“(Bella) is one of the nicest players we have,” Fischer said. “She’s extremely polite, but there’s a little bit of fire that you see in her. That’s the part of her mom that I absolutely, positively see in her. Her mom was a ‘let’s go get ‘em’ catcher.”
While softball skills and knowledge came from her mother, Bella said she got a different trait from her father, who spent the past eight seasons as the head coach at the University of Chicago, and made assistant coaching stops at Eastern, San Jose State and Dartmouth.
“I definitely feel like I took his passion,” Bella said. “He’s been a coach my whole life. I’ve seen him talk every year in front of his squad when he introduces us as his family to the whole team.”
The call of Charleston
No matter where Chris Wilkerson was coaching, EIU was never far from his attention.
“Eastern was always on the TV,” Bella said. “Since he graduated and left, that’s been the No. 1 thing he wanted to get back to. He was extremely happy at all of his other schools, but this one was just different because he was coming home.”
While at Eastern, Wilkerson played and later was an assistant coach under legendary head coach Bob Spoo, who died in 2018 at the age of 80.
“Coach Spoo was his idol,” Bella said. “He always wanted to make Coach Spoo proud.”
On Jan. 28, when Wilkerson was introduced in Charleston, he was joined by Sharna, Bella, son Peyton (a defensive end at Lincoln-Way Central) and daughter Charlotte, who is a freshman in high school.
“I’ve never seen him smile so big than that day at the press conference,” Bella said. “That was a huge milestone for him.”
Rooting for red … or blue?
Bella Wilkerson also remembers the press conference because she wore her red Illinois State softball jacket to Charleston.
“They wanted to take my coat the first time I walked in, but I refused,” she said with a laugh. “I wore that the whole time I was there.”
So what will Chris Wilkerson’s daughter be wearing Sept. 17 when her dad’s dream school plays her dream school in Normal?
“I do have one blue shirt,” she said. “But since it is a home game and I bleed red, I will be supporting the ‘Birds that game.”
Will her dad understand the wardrobe choice?
“He’d better understand,” she said.