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."