Hard Charger A rich new deal in San Diego puts late-blooming, sack-happy Marcellus Wiley among the NFL's elite defensive ends

March 19, 2001

Broadway beckoned, and Marcellus Wiley heeded its seductive call.
Four-and-a-half years ago, in the middle of many a New York
night, he'd come to an island in the middle of the Big Apple's
busiest street, seeking peace, perspective and a sense of
direction. Wiley would fold his 6'4", 270-pound frame onto a park
bench, and there he'd sit--eyes closed, head bobbing, mumbling as
if he were a Morningside Heights madman. "A lot of people thought
I was a borderline schizophrenic," Wiley recalls. "But those who
knew me better just viewed me as the extreme of weird."

As a senior defensive end majoring in sociology at Columbia,
Wiley faced an uncertain future. Would he, as some NFL scouts
were predicting, be the first high-round draft pick to come out
of the Ivy League in nearly three decades? Or would he turn in
his helmet and make a living by counseling impoverished kids in
Hollywood, as he had done during a yearlong break between his
junior and senior seasons?

These were the questions Wiley pondered as he sat on that bench
across the street from his dorm room, with his portable CD player
turned up to Spinal Tap amp volumes. Over and over he'd blast
OutKast's 13th Floor/Growing Old, a reflective hip-hop ballad
that tells of staying pure amid a swirl of hype and material
possessions. "I'd listen to the music and feel the cars go by and
think, Half the world wants to go one direction, and half wants
to go the other," Wiley says. "I'd relate it to my situation. I
could be headed for a life of making $20,000 a year as a
counselor, or I could end up with a career that might allow me to
make that same amount for two hours' worth of signing autographs.
Each would be fulfilling in its own way, but that's quite a
dichotomy for a 21-year-old to contemplate."

Now Wiley is sitting pretty. Drafted in the second round by the
Buffalo Bills in '97, he became a free agent in January and
signed a six-year, $40 million contract with the San Diego
Chargers earlier this month. It's a lot of cheddar for a
little-known player who has started only 19 games in his four
NFL seasons, and Wiley, 26, is nearly as surprised as you are.
In a league full of athletes who have tasted glory at every
level and spent little time contemplating it, the late-blooming
Wiley is a refreshing counterpoint, a player whose last star
turn came during his days as a Southern California Pop Warner
sensation. Coming off a 2000 season in which he stepped
admirably into Bruce Smith's large cleats and led the Bills with
10 1/2 sacks, Wiley now ranks as the league's
second-highest-paid defensive end, behind the New York Giants'
Michael Strahan. "That's just incredible," Wiley says. "Just to
be in the NFL is enough, but that kind of cheese is for the
poster boys. I mean, damn--me? Wow!"

If you doubt the sincerity of Wiley's humility, consider how many
times he has had to swallow his pride. He won a TAC age-group
national 400-meter championship as a 13-year-old. But shortly
thereafter he developed Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful knee
ailment that hindered his movement and contributed to his switch
from running back to offensive tackle when he was a freshman at
Westchester High in Los Angeles. He eventually transferred to St.
Monica's High, a small Catholic school, where he started at
running back and safety for two seasons, then enrolled at
Columbia, the laughingstock of college football at the time. Even
after the Bills selected Wiley, his unrefined skills (defensive
end Gabe Northern, then a teammate and now a Minnesota Viking,
nicknamed him Wild Style as a rookie) and Ivy League pedigree
made him an easy mark. Last year, after off-season surgery for a
bulging disc contributed to a subpar first half, Wiley heard
teammates debate how poor his statistics would be. "I was the
target of a lot of jokes, as usual," Wiley says. "But I knew the
jokes carried a serious undertone."

Even after Wiley came through with a stellar second half (7 1/2
sacks and 44 tackles), making his big payday possible, it earned
him no reprieve in the Buffalo locker room. "Respect? He still
ain't got it, dog, not around here," Bills tackle Marcus Spriggs
laughingly told a reporter last week. "This is a guy who played
his college ball against future accountants and attorneys who
weighed 180 pounds. I'm surprised he gave you my number, because
I've been killin' him for years, and I always will."

Spriggs must have been tempted to add that Wiley should fit right
in with the Chargers, who went 1-15 last season. However, San
Diego executive vice president and general manager John Butler,
who came to the team after spending the previous eight seasons in
the same capacity with the Bills, knew what he was getting in
Wiley--a staunch run stopper with a knack for chasing down
ballcarriers from the backside, and improving skills as a pass
rusher. "I've watched the growth over the past four years,"
Butler says, "and as hard as he plays, there's still a lot of
untapped potential."

Adds Smith, the future Hall of Famer who groomed Wiley: "The guy
deserves the contract, because he worked hard and progressed
rapidly. He's a person with a great deal of character and
integrity."

Like some of his peers, Wiley has a child he fathered out of
wedlock, two-year-old daughter Morocca. Yet not many pro athletes
go to court to fight for custody, as Wiley did. He splits
Morocca's care with her mother, his former girlfriend, from
January through August. During the meat of the football season,
from September to December, he cares for Morocca at least 10 days
a month, with the help of day care and his current girlfriend,
Vitaelola Porter.

Thanks to his parents, postal workers Charles Wiley and Valerie
Howard, Wiley has an acute sense of right and wrong. Shortly
after arriving in Buffalo, he startled Smith and sharp-tongued
Ted Washington, a veteran nosetackle, by rebuking them for poking
fun at the stuttering problem of fellow rookie defensive lineman
Pat Williams. "My best friend stuttered growing up, and I saw how
he struggled," Wiley says. "He's a VP with Salomon Smith Barney
now, so all those people who used to tease him should've been
kissing his butt."

Wiley, too, had to work for his success. One day during his
senior season at St. Monica's, he noticed an assistant coach
wearing Columbia football shorts. When Wiley asked the coach
where Columbia was, he replied, "It's a place you never want to
go as a football player." But Wiley--who had received mild
interest from UCLA and Cal and a scholarship offer from St.
Mary's, a Division I-AA school in northern California--was
intrigued enough to attend a reception hosted by a Columbia alum
in the San Fernando Valley. "The guy had a million-dollar wine
cellar and a pool with underwater speakers," Wiley says. "That's
when I learned about the Ivy League."

During his recruiting visit to Columbia, Wiley did a double take
when coach Ray Tellier, while addressing a group of recruits,
referred to the Division I-AA record 44-game losing streak the
Lions had suffered from 1983 to '88. "The attitude when I got
there was sickening," Wiley says. "Guys would watch Florida State
on TV with their mouths open. Players had soft-belly attitudes:
Either they saw football as a P.E. class, or their daddy wanted
them to play." Jackie Blackett, Columbia's associate athletic
director and a Wiley-phile--he calls her his "pseudo mom"--says
Wiley "refused to let [the Lions] lose. During games guys would
talk about what they were going to do that night, and he'd go
nuts."

Eventually, the transformation took, resulting in an 8-2
season--Columbia's best since 1945--in Wiley's senior year. His
close friend Rory Wilfork, a linebacker who was a co-captain that
season with Wiley, says Wiley often instigated fights in practice
with lax underclassmen. "Marcellus was the biggest guy on the
team," Wilfork says, "and when he'd grab someone's face mask and
say, 'It's not going to be that way,' it had a rather dramatic
effect."

There is nothing subtle about Wiley, an aspiring DJ and freestyle
rapper who drew 107 noise complaints during his first month in
the Columbia dorms. He relished his role as the big mouth on a
small campus. At the start of his junior year Wiley, after
scouting a freshman orientation meeting for talent, cozied up to
an attractive student from New Jersey and asked for her number.
They talked on the phone a couple of times about their shared
love for hip-hop before she said, "Let's see what kind of flow
you've got." So Wiley began freestyle rapping, then sheepishly
listened as she put him to shame. You might win some but you just
lost one. After all, Lauryn Hill was no ordinary freshman.

Wiley laughs at the memory as he changes Morocca's diaper in his
L.A. apartment on a recent afternoon. Celebrities throughout the
city have converged for the taping of the Soul Train music
awards, but Wiley is out of the mix, instead watching a videotape
of his heroics as the 12-year-old star of the Inglewood (Calif.)
Chiefs. "I've seen the tape," Northern says, "and he's definitely
the best Pop Warner running back ever."

It's true: Wiley looks like a cross between Barry and Deion
Sanders. He pauses the tape and sighs; it is not lost on him that
after a decade and a half of fighting adversity, he's again on
the A-list. "A lot of guys have been the Man since they first
grabbed a ball, but I've been on the bottom, too," Wiley says.
"Yet one thing I fear tremendously is that, like the OutKast song
says, I'll get caught up in all this success without realizing
it."

If perspective eludes him, there's always that bench in the
middle of Broadway. But Wiley has a more ambitious plan. "You
know what I'm going to do when I retire?" he asks. "I'm going to
get into a Winnebago, get a leather jacket with sketches of the
OutKasts airbrushed onto the back and follow them around the
country, just like the Grateful Dead's fans used to. I know what
it will look like, too."

Of course he does: the extreme of weird.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY KEN HOLLIS COLOR PHOTO: TOM WOLF Coming through After mentor Bruce Smith joined the Redskins before the start of last season, Wiley led the Bills with 10 1/2 sacks.

"A lot of guys have been the Man since they first grabbed a
ball," says Wiley, "but I've been on the bottom, too."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)