Posted December 3, 2009
VIA: Paul Daugherty, SI.com
The young man living in his car is passing out free sack lunches in the park downtown. He’s fresh from his construction job, so he looks a lot like the people he’s feeding: dirty blue jeans; hooded sweatshirt; size-12, steel-toed Red Wing boots. A homeless man, feeding homeless men. Charity squared.
In two years, he would be breaking pass receiving records on an undefeated team and playing in a game for a conference championship. NFL scouts would assess his worthiness as a No. 1 draft pick. The red carpet would roll right out there. It would be clean and waiting.
But he wasn’t thinking about that now. Couldn’t even imagine it. Now, he was wondering where he would sleep that night and how cold it would be.
Mardy Gilyard did not spend every night for six months folded up in the driver’s seat of the green 2002 Pontiac Grand Am, lent to him by the brother of his then-fiancée. That’s urban legend in Cincinnati, and it is mythic. Fact is, Gilyard did lots of time, in the fall and winter of 2006 and 2007, on living room couches and dorm-room floors.
But not this night. This night, he’d spend shivering in the car. After he worked construction, sold cutlery door to door, delivered some pizzas and fed the homeless in Washington Park.
In the fall of 2006, former University of Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio revoked Gilyard’s scholarship. He’d come to school, but not gone to school. His grades lacked. That was a problem. Here was a bigger one: Gilyard already had registered for classes. He owed the school almost $10,000. He didn’t have a dime.
That’d be the end for most kids, especially kids from a place like Bunnell, Fla., a proud, but poor town between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Bunnell owns all the standard urban calamity — drugs, shootings, domestic violence — but also a lot of the virtues families need to survive. Mardy was loved and cared for. But nobody had a spare 10 grand to offer him.
The ledge awaited, and it was narrow. Gilyard wanted to jump off and go home. At home, nobody would let him. He called his mother.
“Mama, I’m coming ho –.” He didn’t get to finish the sentence.
“No, you’re not,” said Ms. Viola Gilyard Crudup, a formidable woman. “And if we see you here, we will ship you back.”
Mardy took another shot, this time with Otis, his older brother by nine years. In Viola’s single-working-parent household, Otis was brother, babysitter, man of the house to Mardy. He’d advised his kid brother to attend college closer to home. Stay in Florida, he’d suggested, where people know you and will look out for you, where your fame is recognized.
Mardy chose Cincinnati. Now, he wished he hadn’t.
“Tell mama to let me come home,” Mardy asked Otis. “Let her know I made a mistake. I need to come home and regroup”
Mardy: “OK, bro’. But I don’t have a scholarship. If I stay, how am I gonna pay?”
“You got into the mess,” Otis offered. “Figure a way out of it.”
Mardy Gilyard has caught 75 passes this year for 1,052 yards. He has 21 receiving touchdowns the last two seasons. He has scored four more times returning kicks. He is the metaphor for how fifth-ranked Cincinnati plays the game. The Bearcats’ offense is a 33-rpm record, playing at 78-rpms. Nobody is spinning faster than their senior wide receiver.
Next spring, he’ll likely be a late first-round or early second-round draft pick, a 6-foot-1 burner with very good hands and unchallenged toughness. A slot receiver and return man, in the mold of Wes Welker and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. If the fairy tale ending plays out, he’ll sleep in a car again. But only if he wants to.
How did this happen? How did the redemption song of the college season find its way into the iPod rotation? What sort of person is homeless, yet spends his limited free time feeding other homeless? Talk about irony. Who is this guy?
“Blessed,” is all he says. Actually, Gilyard says a lot more. He talks as fast as he plays. But the conversations always ends with that. Blessed.