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?