It was a typical summer day in June when Taylor Wilhelm saw his new office at the University of Pittsburgh had a lot of blank walls.
A 2011 South Central graduate, Wilhelm had recently been hired as the Director of Creative Media for the Pitt Panthers football team. So the Malone University graduate took matters into his own hands.
“I hadn’t made anything that big since high school, and I never felt like a painter — but I always loved watching Bob Ross paint on television,” Wilhelm said.
Wilhelm went to a nearby Hobby Lobby and bought some canvas and paint to create his own wall art.
New to Pitt, Wilhelm decided to go to the most obvious choice — former Panther standout Aaron Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams.
“He had just been named the No. 1 player in the game by NFL Network, so I started painting him, and it took me a long time,” Wilhelm said. “I hadn’t done my art before like that. I just tried free-handing it, and definitely almost gave up a couple of times because I thought it was turning out horrible.”
About two months later when the artwork was finished, the result was stunning. Cropped in on Donald’s face, Wilhelm incorporated the royal blue and yellow uniform scheme of the Rams — and also similar to Pitt.
When I saw Wilhelm’s finished painting on Twitter over the summer, it wasn’t a surprise. For someone who simply dabbled some artwork in Adobe photoshop software while in college, he’s come a long way.
The piece itself took about 50 hours to complete. And as luck had it, Donald randomly flew back to Pittsburgh and was working out at the team’s training facility. Wilhelm took the painting off his wall and showed it to the 6-foot-1, 284-pound All-Pro.
“He loved it, and genuinely thought it was awesome,” Wilhelm said. “He signed it for me, and now it’s a piece I have a lot of pride in.”
The story itself sums up Wilhelm’s journey to his role at Pitt. He never stopped teaching himself to expand his craft. That has shown up time and time again in the work he posts.
“You always want to continue to improve, because if you’re not getting better — someone else out there is,” Wilhelm said.
A former football player at South Central and Malone, Wilhelm’s big break came when he decided to craft an image of former University of Toledo and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
The business and accounting major then posted it to his Twitter account, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. That led to getting noticed by the UT football coaching staff, and suddenly Wilhelm was offered a graduate assistant position with the Rockets as part of their recruiting team.
When head coach Matt Campbell left Toledo for Iowa State University in the Big 12 Conference in 2017, he took Wilhelm with him and created the position of Director of New Media for the Cyclones.
After two seasons in Ames, Iowa, Wilhelm received word near the end of May of a similar opening at Pitt. He and his wife, Shannon (Ebert), weren’t really looking to leave Iowa.
However, the idea of living in a bigger city that was significantly closer to home for the married couple of two years was appealing. Also from the area, Shannon was a standout athlete at Perkins (2013 graduate).
When he interviewed at Pitt, he was seeing images on the walls of legends such as Donald, Mike Ditka, Larry Fitzgerald, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Darrelle Revis.
Wilhelm started the job in June, which has a similar workload and daily jobs to his former position at Iowa State. He creates graphics and videos for social media and recruiting. He also helps produce graphics for branding and promotions, and notably works on recruiting graphics, like personalized mail items for the coaches to write something on — or a digital version.
“It’s a position with a heavy recruiting focus,” Wilhelm said.
He also is the secondary photographer on the sidelines for Pitt, which takes a 7-4 record into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference finale vs. Boston College at Heinz Field.
“It seems like here I’m able to focus on my role here,” Wilhelm said. “It was a new position at ISU and no one really knew the expectations. I kind of had responsibilities outside of my main job, where here I have a more defined role and a settled job.”
The work begins at around 6:30 a.m. each day — as the staff arrives early to beat the Pittsburgh commuter traffic. Wilhelm’s week is typically heavy at the front, and tapers off as Saturday approaches.
But inside the life of big-time college football, there isn’t much of a break. After this week, there will be an early signing period for recruits on Dec. 18. The Panthers are projected in a late December bowl game from there, which leads to another recruiting cycle that finishes in mid-February.
From there, spring football isn’t far around the corner and it starts all over again. It’s all a far cry from growing up in Greenwich, a small village of less than 1,500 people in Huron County.
“I had never really been to Pittsburgh before, but it’s a really cool city,” Wilhelm said. “Shannon and I go on a trail that has a great view of the city skyline and all the bridges. From a creative standpoint, it’s very inspirational.”
The story of Wilhelm’s rise in college football has always fascinated me since I learned of it two years ago. When we spoke then, he recalled nervously trying to sell adults at a business project at a trade fair as a sixth-grade student on the idea of sports drawing as a profession.
But he was never exposed much to his talents and passion back then. It took time. It’s something myself and many people can relate to. Being the sports editor at my hometown newspaper wasn’t the career path I set my sights on growing up, either.
But because Wilhelm never gave up on the 12-year old version of himself and his scribblings of Tiger Woods and Allen Iverson on that poster board at the trade fair, he’s got a front row seat to major college football — while meeting legends of the sport.
“One big thing I’ve learned is how huge connections are,” Wilhelm said. “I was an accounting and business major. My only work experience I really had was a summer internship at R.S. Hainline in Shelby.
“But once you get your foot in the door, a lot of it is who you know and just being able to prove yourself with your work,” he added. “It’s crazy how tight-knit the community is once you get inside Division I football.”
Wilhelm is just a kid from Greenwich who maximized talents even he didn’t know he had. But he found that untapped potential, and encourages everyone to do the same.
“Life is so much better when you wake up on Monday mornings and can’t wait to get to work,” he said.
We should all be so fortunate. Wilhelm is, and myself and others will continue to watch him shine.