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� 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� 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."