It was after Patterson Mill dismantled Bohemia Manor for four quarters — a 41-14 win on Sept. 22 — that RJ Wilhelm realized it was within reach.
The junior running back walked confidently off the field having dashed 240 yards that night. His dad, Rich, told him the outing positioned him for a successful season and potentially to sniff a lauded milestone. A month later, RJ is at 943 on the year, only 57 rushing yards from joining a short list of Huskies to eclipse 1,000 in a single season.
He’ll have the chance to do it at 7 p.m. Thursday at Aberdeen in the Huskies’ regular season finale.
“I’ve always had a special connection with my football team,” RJ said. “I wouldn’t be able to get any of these yards without my teammates blocking for me. It’s all the line. They make the holes and I’m just the one who gets to run through them.”
Football wasn’t RJ’s first sport growing up. Like many 5-year-olds, he gave soccer a try. That lasted only a season playing on truncated fields and (handily) leading his team in penalties. RJ’s youth coach once told him, “Hey, you can slide tackle him.”
“RJ didn’t get the ‘slide’ part right,” Rich said. “Then he would just manhandle kids. … The ball would get to the middle and at 5 years old, it’s like a big clump of kids following the ball around. Well, you’d see kids falling over because RJ would be running through them.”
His physicality translated to football the following year and, as he started to take the sport more seriously, by 10U became his signature trait. RJ added it’s his field awareness and ability to cut back into gaps that have defined his backfield presence.
But to truly grasp the running back RJ is for Patterson Mill, you have to go back to his early years getting interested in the sport and an inherited fandom.
“I became a huge [Tampa Bay] Buccaneers fan when the [Baltimore] Colts left,” Rich said, tracing his fandom back to that fateful midnight move in March 1984. “I asked my dad, ‘Who’s the worst team in the NFL?’ It was the Bucs. I said, ‘Alright, well I’m gonna become a fan because they need as many fans as possible.’”
When the Bucs rose to prominence in the early 2000s, Rich clung onto Mike Alstott, a muscular downhill power back who played 11 years in the NFL. So when his son started playing the same position, Rich pointed to Alstott and said, ‘That’s gonna be you.”
The two formed a bond watching Tampa Bay every Sunday and RJ subsequently became an unwavering fan of his new favorite team’s former backfield star. Suddenly, he was watching old Alstott highlights on YouTube before rec football games to get psyched up.
Now, Alstott is the reason RJ wears No. 40 for Patterson Mill.
“I always liked running the same way he did,” RJ said. “So he’s always been like an idol of mine. Just hardcore downhill running and plowing people over.”
Two Alstott Bucs jerseys hang in RJ’s closet — creamsicle and white. The only decorations in his bedroom are Alstott memorabilia and a few posters of Juggernaut, the Alstott of fictional Marvel characters who similarly wears a helmet and is known for shedding physical attacks.
Patterson Mill’s 7-1 record, its first banner as UCBAC Susquehanna Division champs and a chance to claim the program’s second playoff win next week are largely thanks to coach Dave Huryk’s Wing-T formation.
The Huskies offense is averaging 28.4 points per game this year with RJ as a key cog.
Each rusher brings unique flair to Patterson Mill’s crowded backfield. RJ is undoubtedly the Alstott of the group. Huryk described him earlier this season as the perfect balance between athleticism and a bruising enforcer between the tackles.
“RJ is an amazing blocker who can set the edge or go inside and block when it’s not his turn to run,” Rich said. “But when it’s his turn to run — even from when he was 6 and first started running — it’s nothing fancy. He is a straight, strong downhill runner.”