This University of Cincinnati receiver was last seen a week ago yesterday on ESPN, bursting out of the end zone after a deep-corner catch, continuing through an opening in the Nippert Stadium wall and steamrolling a 7-year-old boy in the stands, whereupon he ripped off his helmet and hugged the crying child. The receiver was immediately heralded, especially for never looking back to see if his catch was ruled a touchdown. The kid was interviewed by ESPN's Erin Andrews, gave autographs and appeared the next day on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The tale that led Mardy Gilyard to little Garrett Monroe goes much deeper, though.
Raised in a single-parent household.
Accused of cheating in class.
Had his scholarship revoked.
Got evicted from off-campus housing.
Worked four jobs to pay his debts.
Slept in a car for four months.
Marshwan Gilyard, 21, is a self-professed reformed knucklehead who comes with the Bearcats (6-2, 2-1 Big East) to Mountaineer Field tomorrow night to play No. 20 West Virginia (6-2, 3-0). He is their second-leading receiver. He is No. 1 on the roster. He is the favorite part-time counselor at the Wesley Chapel Mission Center in a section of downtown Cincinnati and, perhaps most of all, a world-wizened football player with a tale to tell.
- Game: West Virginia (6-2) vs. Cincinnati (6-2), 7 p.m.
- Where: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.
- TV: ESPNU.
"I just fell in love with the kids," Gilyard, over the telephone, recalled of the day he followed a counselor friend into the center. "They're the nicest kids. But, at the same time, they're inner-city kids, and you don't have a chance to get out of your norm. That's why I'm there, to show them it can be done.
"I can't talk to kids who are in trouble if I've never been in trouble myself, you know what I mean? I can talk about if your mom's not there, if your dad's not there. ... I just try to share with the kids, 'Hey, I'm on your side. I may not come from the same city, but I know where you came from.' "
He admits being "a sucker for kids," but there was more to his hug with Garrett Monroe than that. It was more than showing the roughly 2.37 million folks tuning into that broadcast and the almost 20,000 more clicking on his hug video on YouTube that football players "are not just flashy and ... flamboyant and caring [only] about ourselves." Rather, it was all about an embrace with the humanity that is Gilyard.
"It's a blessing. The whole season I feel is a blessing," Gilyard said. He scored the Bearcats' first touchdown of the season, against Eastern Kentucky. The next week, at Oklahoma, he scored the team's first kickoff-return touchdown in 145 games, established a Big East record with 246 return yards and collected a school-record 365 all-purpose yards. He is the Big East leader and 21st nationally in kickoff returns with an average 27.5 yards. He is heading to West Virginia tomorrow with 43 catches for 685 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. He had four receptions for 98 yards in the 24-10 South Florida upset, better remembered for the pass Gilyard didn't catch: As he hauled in Tony Pike's 26-yard throw, his left foot stepped out of bounds two strides before that collision. "I always knew I had the ability to do what I'm doing now. I just didn't have the right mind frame to do it, that's the only way I can put it.
"I did a lot of praying, just helping me in general with myself."
Start at the beginning. Gilyard was born in Bunnell, Fla., to Viola Crudup and Addison Morgan, who separated when he was young. In a small town halfway between the Daytona and St. Augustine beaches, he rose to all-state status at Flagler-Palm Coast High. After a 2005 freshman season as Cincinnati's backup cornerback, he found himself failing a course, being academically ineligible and losing his scholarship once a professor accused him of plagiarizing parts of an assignment in which, he said, a bunch of Bearcats players wrote a paper about one night at a jazz club. He denied cheating.
It could have been his end.
No scholarship, no football, no college, no housing, no hope.
"I said, 'I'm going home. I can't figure out how to get this [university] bill paid,' " he recalled. "My fiancee, she said, 'You got to stick with it. Stick with it.' "
His grandfather died. His team went to the International Bowl without him. His sleeping quarters from March through July 2007 were a Pontiac Grand Am borrowed from his fiancee's brother and packed with his belongings. He remembered applying for work and getting call-backs all in a four-hour period. His response: "Perfect. 'I'll work.' 'I'll work.' 'I'll work.' 'I'll work.' " Four jobs.
"Sleeping in the car. Dealing with it. Seeing my teammates play. ... It was extremely hard, just the whole comeback portion of it," he said.
Becky Costello, the Wesley Chapel Mission Center director who wears his No. 1 jersey whenever the Bearcats play, said the folks there had no idea about Gilyard's straits: "He was coming here at the same time he was going through all that, and I never knew. Some of us would have tried to help him."
Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly came from Central Michigan to replace Mark Dantonio, who left for Michigan State, and soon he was able to restore Gilyard's scholarship.
"What we knew about Mardy is that he's a young man who's overcome a lot," Kelly said this week. "He's got an infectious personality, and he loves being around kids. What you saw [last week] was not scripted. It's who he is, and he's a pretty genuine guy."
All that authenticity, that swirl of a life's experiences, are what brought Gilyard careening into the end-zone corner of America's fifth-oldest college stadium.
Worrying he could break a leg the way a University of Houston receiver did a week earlier, Gilyard chose to use an opening in the brick wall and take his chances. His post-collision first instinct: Console the kid.
"I didn't care about the touchdown, to be honest," said Gilyard, whose catch was ruled out of bounds. "I just had to make sure the little kid was OK. If he said he wasn't OK, they would have had to call a sub in for me. What the camera couldn't see was, I caught him clean in the face."
That little face, painted Bearcats red, black and white, left an image on Gilyard's black No. 1: "Just like the movie 'Cast Away,' I had Wilson's face on my jersey."
Four plays later in that second quarter, Gilyard romped those same 26 yards with a screen pass for the touchdown that turned out to be the winner.
That victory against then-No. 24 South Florida gives Cincinnati the feeling it could win the Big East. That victory had the Bearcats watching West Virginia tapes the day after and Gilyard on WLW-AM in Cincinnati saying, "We see a couple of tendencies we're going to be able to take advantage of." That victory had blogs and message boards marveling: message board member In Ben We Trust posted on SteelerNation.com, "Put him in black and gold right now."
"That's funny," Gilyard said of the Pittsburgh admirers. "They hate us."
That victory, though, might have been forgotten if not for the moment between Monroe and Gilyard, whose Facebook friends grew exponentially, whose coaches got calls, whose mother and fiance's mother got calls. But a call from the kid?
"I haven't heard from him since the incident," Gilyard said. Then he joked, "The last time I heard, he was jumping into a limo, bodyguards fighting off all the fans. ... He's big time. Big time. He ain't got time for me."
The kids do at the Wesley Chapel Mission Center, where they were just talking to the director about him Wednesday. They're planning to go Nov. 22 to Nippert to watch their No. 1 counselor play Pitt.