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Over the years, Viking pro bowl cornerback Audray McMillian has purchased several dwellings for tax purposes, but he never truly understood the human element of being a landlord until he invested in Wheatley Plaza, a 108-unit apartment complex located in a Houston ghetto in an area called the Fifth Ward. In July 1992 McMillian, along with former NFL players Butch Woolfolk and Earl Thomas, bought Wheatley Plaza at an auction, and during this past off-season McMillian spent as many as 10 hours a day, seven days a week, immersed in his redevelopment project. If he wasn't negotiating with financial institutions, he was solving the personal problems of his tenants or teaching children how to change their attitudes.
"My heart and soul are into this," says the 31-year-old McMillian, who grew up in tiny Carthage, Texas, where his father worked in a factory and his mother was a nurse. "You can't just throw money at the problems of the inner city. What does that solve? Eventually, the paint will chip off. To make a difference, you have to show that you're really concerned."
Last spring, when a rock-throwing fight between Mexican and black gangs began across the railroad tracks from Wheatley Plaza, McMillian went to the local junior high school principal to suggest bringing the gang leaders together to put an end to the dispute. "The principal said, 'Son, this happens all the time,' " McMillian recalls.
"I didn't want anybody getting hurt on my property. Two or three days later, a race riot broke out at the school and a couple of kids got cut. I can see why kids give up on the system."
Instead of just accepting the problems of the inner city, McMillian has set out to change them. He demands that Wheatley Plaza be kept clean, and he has instituted rules to encourage self-discipline and evoke a sense of pride: No drinking in public; no loitering on street corners. And those rules are not negotiable. McMillian says he has grabbed bottles right out of people's hands and poured the liquor onto the sidewalk.
While many see Wheatley Plaza as a hopeless area, McMillian sees loads of untapped potential. He treated 30 residents who had pitched in on the security and cleanup crews at Wheatley Plaza to tickets to the Viking-Cowboy game last fall. He regularly writes checks for books and school supplies, funds a tutoring program and rewards the kids for good grades. Last spring he spent $4,000 to build a playground. Mothers look to McMillian for rides to the grocery store, and he has taken kids to the skating rink.
Although McMillian didn't grow up in a ghetto, he can relate to some of the bumps in the road that kids in the Fifth Ward encounter. When he was in eighth grade, he was discouraged from playing quarterback because he was black, and a few years later a school counselor told him not to aspire to a football scholarship because he would never pass college English classes. Today, McMillian has a bachelor's degree in business technology. He's also one of the founders of the Vikings' School Is Cool Team, which makes appearances to promote staying in school.
"My biggest claim to fame is my education," McMillian says. "I have reached a level of personal success in one profession, but I haven't even started fulfilling my purpose as a man. That comes later, with the help of my degree. I'm trying to add happiness to others' lives. Too few black athletes these days look around the inner cities and help other blacks. Reach back and give one hand. That's one fewer person in the ghetto."