"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.