Merdice says she persuaded Andre to pursue football in college, and then encouraged him to play wide receiver instead of defensive back. "Basketball was Andre's first love," says Merdice, "but he needed to look at the odds of where he could have the best career. He's not tall enough for the NBA, and he wouldn't be happy playing defensive back. Andre likes the glory. He needs to hear the crowd cheer, 'Rah, rah, rah.' He thrives on touching the ball."
Rison accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State because the Spartans promised him he could play basketball as well. As a freshman, Rison was a reserve on the football and basketball squads, and then quit the basketball team for no particular reason and joined the track team. He placed second in the long jump, with a leap of 24'�", at the Big Ten indoor championships.
As a sophomore, Rison set single-season school records for receptions (54) and receiving yards (966), averaging 17.9 yards per catch with five touchdowns. For the next two seasons, however, Rison's life was filled with turmoil and uncertainty, and he admits that at times a pro football career seemed unattainable. In some games during his junior season Rison had no passes thrown to him because Michigan State was winning with All-America tailback Lorenzo White carrying 40 times a game behind the blocking of celebrated tackle Tony Mandarich.
"I didn't know what the coaches expected from me," Rison says. "When I was recruited, they said they'd throw to me. All I wanted was a chance to express myself on the field. The experience was something I had to grow through, a time for me to grow up."
He had some quick growing up to do off the field, too. Before his junior year, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Tonja Harden, who was pregnant. When Merdice heard the news from a friend, she confronted Andre. He initially denied the wedding had taken place. "I didn't want him to get married," she says. "He was too young."
Andre Jr. was born while the Spartans were in Pasadena preparing for the 1988 Rose Bowl, and Rison waited almost a month before bringing the baby to Merdice. "Later that night Andre phoned and said, 'I just had to be a man about it,' " Merdice recalls. "I said, I want you to be a man. I raised you to be strong.' "
As a junior and senior Rison considered transferring or quitting the team to join the Canadian Football League, but he didn't want to leave East Lansing, which is 45 miles from Flint, where Merdice, Tonja and Andre Jr. were living. He finished his collegiate career with a terrific performance in the 1989 Gator Bowl, catching nine passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's 34-27 loss to Georgia. However, NFL scouts were hearing that he was spoiled, moody and immature. What most of them didn't realize was that Rison was going through a stressful time, trying to cope with a rapidly disintegrating marriage.
"Few people at Michigan State ever knew I was married," he says. "For two years, I'd go to school, practice and then drive home to Flint to be with my wife and son. I was physically and mentally tired. When I didn't get home as much to see them my senior year, my family life went into turmoil."
On April 23, 1989, when the Indianapolis Colts made Rison the 22nd pick in the NFL draft, he was stunned. "I was the best athlete in that entire draft," he says. "How the hell could Tony Mandarich [chosen second by the Packers] have been a better athlete?"
Rison started 13 games as a rookie with the Colts, catching 52 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns. Tonja and Andre Jr. joined him in Indianapolis, but the friction between husband and wife intensified. "The prestige of being an NFL player put pressure on the marriage," says Rison, who's now in the midst of divorce proceedings. "Lots of money. Attention. I didn't tend to my values. The Lord has life patterns for us, I guess."