The big mono called Tyrone Wheatley. The big money stretched itself like something lovely, begging to be taken, and who resists that anymore? Even when the agents sliced it so coolly—$1.2 million for one year, $3.6 million for two, $8 million for four, then the signing bonus, incentive clauses and, yes, the endorsement deals—the package laid out for a sure-thing NFL rookie would still end up feeling the same: green and crisp and nothing like life. No more driving that Escort his grandparents got him from the Ford plant, bringing it home weekends so his sister could use it. No more worrying over his 12-year-old brother, Leslie, smack at the age when so many drift into Detroit's welter of drugs and guns and punks in Mercedes. And the memory of rationing meals and of days when the rations weren't much, well, that would just...fade, wouldn't it? All he need do was reach out. "I would've left," says Wheatley's roommate, Michigan fullback Che' Foster. "I would've taken it."
Fifteen years old and tempted to spit in God's face. Two friends dead already. Running football for Michigan, that's some other kid's vision this icy night. Just trying to get home from a basketball game at Robichaud High, race-walking alone through the streets of Inkster, Mich., breath rising in a cloud. Car pulls up and a voice drifts out: "Hey. What you got in the bag?"
Keep walking. Don't say a word.
"You're not a seller, are you?"
Don't give them anything.
"Come work for us."
Don't stop.... But now they see the school colors, now they're out of the car and on him, and all he can hear in his head are the words: Damn...why? WHY? It happens quickly. He's on his butt and staring dead-on into the barrel of a gun: time stops, curses and threats rain down. But no. They send him off running. He gets home, takes his aunt's 9-mm pistol and trips back into the dark, bent on retaliation. Two hours later, feet cold and temper cooled, he comes to this: I shoot, my life is over. And this: You cannot depend on anyone. My brother, my aunt—they didn't know I had the gun. If I'd shot one of those guys, who else could I blame?
No one would have blamed Wheatley. Five years ago, maybe, there was an onus on underclassmen who left college early to play pro football. Not anymore. Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler, Fresno State OB Trent Differ, San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, Alabama receiver David Palmer, Auburn running back James Bostic. Nebraska running back Calvin Jones and 23 others shirked their senior seasons and bolted for the NFL, before the Jan. 10 declaration day. All had good reasons. But none more so than Wheatley, who finished eighth in last year's Heisman balloting, whose 40 touchdowns already make him the most prolific running back in Michigan history, whose freight-train combination of a 230-pound body with a sprinter's speed has elicited hosannas for three years and now makes him the odds-on favorite to win this year's Heisman Trophy. NFL scouts pegged him as a top-five pick, "I don't know what I would've done," says Michigan coach Gary Moeller. "It's sad. But I think everybody has a price."
What his mother once said: "Stay clean. Don't do drugs or drink." But then came her back injury, disability checks, money slipping away like a toilet flushing down. He comes home, and there's booze in a bottle, and Pat Wheatley has become just like everyone else around Tyrone, wishing one thing and doing another. That alcohol on her breath...smelling like a child's first whiff of betrayal. Now she says, "It's something you can't under-stand until you're out." Out? Other kids wearing new Air Jordans and flashing money, calling him a fool for playing ball. He is 14, no dad and a mother crumbling. "Why is this happening to me?" he says. "I'm going from house to house; I shouldn't have to depend on other relatives to live the way I live. People say. 'Have faith in Cod. He'll lead the way.' And I think. Lead me where? Where the helium I going?"
Question was, who wasn't going anymore? Look at his Michigan pals. Wide receiver and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard left Ann Arbor as a junior in 1991. Chris Webber deserted the Fab Five after his sophomore season, leaving Michigan basketball to Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard; those two bailed out as juniors a year later. Flip on the TV: There's Webber and underclassmen Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway with contracts hovering between $5 million and $6 million a year: there's former Notre Dame junior Jerome Bettis, for god's sake, battling for the NFL rushing title with the Los Angeles Rams. Yes, Tyrone tried to set an example for Leslie, be the father Tyrone could remember only from photos. He told Leslie education was the most important thing. But stay in school'! Why?
His grandmother, Louise Wheatley, she kept most of it to herself. She wanted Tyrone to know that she loved him for who he was, not because the way he walked and spoke and lit up around kids reminded her so much of her own son, Tyrone Sr., dead these last 20 years. She didn't talk much about the nights she would put little Tyrone, eight years old, to bed and then wait for the sound that always came, the boy crying hard in his sleep. "He had a great hurt, "Louise says. "I didn't know what type of hurt it was. I'd ask him what he was dreaming about, but he would never saw To me, it was that his father was there, with him...."
This, too, she kept to herself until it mattered, until the time came for Tyrone Wheatley to declare who he was. Twenty-two years old last human; everyone urging him to go to the NFL, and Tyrone thinking he would. Louise took him aside and told him how it had been the day he was born. How her son had pointed to his new baby boy, an hour old. "You see him?" Tyrone Wheatley Sr. said then. "You see my baby. Mama? He's going to be one great man."
On Jan. 10 the son walked into a room at Schembechler Hall. "A man has to do what he thinks is best for him," he began.
Tyrone Wheatley let the money be.
That, of course, only made him bigger. Suddenly Wheatley wasn't just a great football player; he was an example, a symbol: the man who chose education over cash. "Thank you, Tyrone," wrote one columnist. "Just when I had lost faith in my generation, you stood up and let me know there's still hope." But Wheatley says he was making no statement at all. Wheatley says he factored in football—the Michigan rushing record he can break with a good final season, the Heisman, the chance for a national title—as heavily as his wish to complete his degree in four years. But maybe even that's too simple. Moeller, who has watched Wheatley for three years, says. "Tyrone's different. I don't know if even he knows exactly why he decided to stay. Maybe because he didn't want to be like everybody else."
Not to worry. Wheatley has little of what coaches and sportswriters call attitude: He is never out of shape; he always credits his offensive line. After recovering from spring football practice in April, he trained a week, then won the Big Ten outdoor track championship in the 110-meter hurdles. "He's very modest about his athletic ability," says Wolverine track coach Jack Harvey. Even now, accepted as the country's best college running back and inviting comparison with Gale Sayers and Eric Dickerson, Wheatley wants to be better. "He's an example of the right way to do things," Moeller says. "There are kids who can really be jerks, and you say, 'I've got to put up with this guy?' But this kid you can keep around forever."
The problem with this sketch is that it reduces Wheatley to a choirboy in shoulder pads. It makes him sound charitable, giving, obedient, when Wheatley's motivations have nothing to do with being a coach's dream. In fact, his most striking characteristic may be his independence. On the morning of Wheatley's announcement Moeller drew up a draft of things the player might say. Wheatley rejected it. He refused to tell his aunt, whose house was his home through high school, about his decision to stay at Michigan until the night before the press conference; his girlfriend, Kim McClinton, heard the news on television. They have dated for five years, and he plans to marry her. But if she ever leaves him, Wheatley has told her, "that'll just give me an excuse to do even better." He has a line for people who displease him. "There's nothing you can do to upset me; there's nothing you can do to embarrass me," he says. "I can live without you."
This jarring combination of selflessness and selfishness, humility and cruel honesty, leaves even those closest to Wheatley off balance. "He's not letting anyone deviate him from his program," says Michigan offensive tackle Trezelle Jenkins. "And only he knows what it is." Says Wolverine backfield coach Fred Jackson. "You talk to him. The unexpected? He's the person you're going to get it from. He's not the natural."
Except on the field. As a freshman in the 1992 Rose Bowl, Wheatley announced himself with a frenzied 53-yard touchdown run. "It was a draw play, and he just cut outside," says Michigan quarterback Todd Collins. "Everybody saw the look on his face: it was just crazed. He was flying." He hasn't stopped yet. Wheatley tore through Notre Dame last fall, even though his team lost, rushing for 146 yards, returning four kicks for another 133 and picking up 39 more in the air.
Injuries kept him out of two games and limited him in two others, but he gained 1,129 yards last season; Minnesota coach Jim Wacker called him the best back in America. Joe Paterno, who watched Wheatley race 192 yards in State College last October—the highest rushing total surrendered by Penn State in six years—uttered the usual paeans to his gifts, plus, "He has the best stiff-arm I've seen in college football in a long, long time."
"His ability is beyond that of any person who ever put a foot down around here," Jackson says. "You don't find anybody that big, that fast, that strong, that tough in one body. He's a fast Emmitt Smith. He'll run around Emmitt."
It's not just Wheatley's size and 4.4 40-yard dash that make him so coveted. In a return engagement against Washington in the '93 Rose Bowl, Wheatley produced a 235-yard, three-touchdown performance on just 15 carries despite back spasms so troublesome that he could barely stand afterward. Three weeks later he won the 55-meter dash at the Michigan relays with a time of 6.3 seconds—in his first race with the team. Against Ohio State last season Wheatley piled up 105 yards in less than a half, then suffered a concussion. He tried sneaking out onto the field; Jackson stopped him by taking his helmet. "Where I came up, a lot of guys wanted to do easy things," Wheatley says. "I feel better if I work. I feel a lot better if I go through pain."
Better? Maybe he means normal. Wheatley does not do right because society or coaches say so. Wheatley does what he does because the pain taught him to, and if that puts him on the side of angels, so be it. He doesn't care what people think because he has learned he can't depend on most people. "I forgive a person real easy," Wheatley says. "But I won't forget. I'll know next time to never, ever let you have the opportunity to get close."
Here is Wheatley's post football plan. He is majoring in administrative education. He's aiming to be a principal, but before that he wants to teach, he wants to work with physically and mentally disabled kids. Growing up in Inkster, near the Detroit airport, he was approached by three kids whom others shunned: too slow, too dumb, retarded. Over time he forgot those labels. "Those three people touched me, asked me for my time," Wheatley says. "Why did they ask me? Things happen for a reason. And I really enjoyed it."
Superman? That's what they were calling him coming out of Robichaud High, what they called him after that breakout in the Rose Bowl. But what would they call him now, after fourteen days in the hospital? He took a helmet in the back during the spring game, and they tell him his spleen is bruised; but this isn't like any bruise he has known. Tubes in his arms, up his nose, catheter jammed in his crotch...30 pounds lost, his sophomore season in jeopardy...can his eyes sink any farther into his head? "It was so gross, my teammates didn't want to come see me," he says now. That hurt. That taught him something valuable. "I could've died," he says. "No one knew if I could come back from it. I'm Tyrone Wheatley, I had everything, and all of a sudden I'm reduced to where people don't come see me because of the way I look?" He gets home, and for 10 days he can't ride in cars, walk, nothing. He's on the couch. "And the people who were there before I was hurt weren't there for me anymore," he says. Except for the three. The kids everyone always laughed at—in they come to show they care. Too slow, too dumb, retarded: his friends. They make him laugh. They joke. They ask him, "Do you feel pitiful? "And Superman smiles and says, "Yes, actually, I do."
"Now you see how we feel," they say. "People see you, and they know. And then they treat you different."
It might have been different, if his dad and mom hadn't gone to that party on Dexter Street. But it was April 15, 1973, a cousin's birthday. Were the men looking for the cousin? Who knows? Tyrone Sr., 20 years old, never had any trouble with the law, worked the line at Ford. Three men came into the house on Dexter. They thieved some, grabbed a TV, and on the way out one of them said, "This is your last party." He shot Tyrone Sr. in the head, then rifled through his pockets. Pat was unharmed, but, says Louise Wheatley, "to see her husband, oh...she passed out once she knew he was dead."
For a while Pat held the family together, raised Tyrone Jr. and his sister, Ava, worked construction until the back injury ended that. She began drinking, and Tyrone, at 14, didn't know what to do. "I couldn't take it," he says. "Here's the woman who raised me, who would go to any extreme in the world for me. Yet she turned into something she always told me to fight against. It grabbed her. It hurt me.... It destroyed me a little."
He made himself tougher. He demanded his mother get help. He told her he was moving out, began a circuit of stays with grandparents, an uncle, Pat's sister Jeanette Boyd. He went to Robichaud High, became a star. Jeanette would hear him repeating, "I can't wait. I can't wait till I get an opportunity."
"For what?" she would ask.
"Anything," Tyrone would say. He forgave his mother, says she has been sober for two years, says, "She helps keep me going now." But he never forgot. "It's not that I'm angry," he says. "I don't trust too much. Don't promise me anything, because I'm not going to look for you to keep your promise. Just say you're going to try."
For himself he leaves less room. His decision to stay in school was an unspoken pledge to Leslie made good. "I want him to know there's more than just money," Wheatley says. "A person with morals cannot be bought. I told him this is the choice I made. Not to win the Heisman, not to break records—this is something I felt I should do. If you want a path to follow, I'm going to set the best path."
This is a world of pressure, far heavier than a stadium full of 100,000, and it is chilling to see Wheatley negotiate his way, allowing no weakness. Jackson says he has never seen anyone so rigid. "He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't do anything anybody else does," Jackson says. "And that makes him strong. He gathers strength from not being what the odds say he should be."
Midnight. Tyrone and Kim are on the track, both practicing starts, over and over. She is tired. He doesn't care. "One more, "he says.
She is beginning to hurt. She wants to stop now.
"Not till you get it right, "he says.
Her hands are bleeding. She is crying. "Why do you train so hard?" she says.
"One more," he says. "One more...."
This is not meanness. This is survival.
Tyrone Wheatley is a senior at the University of Michigan.