Part one of a two part series
Through the first half of the National Arena League season, Massachusetts Pirates wide receiver Mardy Gilyard is tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions with 15. He is also second in yards per reception with 13.2 and is in the top ten in receptions, receiving yards per game and total receiving yards. The 32 year old veteran shows no signs of slowing down. His passion for the game began at an early age.
Gilyard’s journey began much like that of several high school football stars from the state of Florida. He possessed all of the skills that would make any college recruiter sit up and take notice. Glyard played at Flagler Palm Coast High School where he was a first-team Class 5A all-state selection as he amassed over 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. After being named the MVP of the Florida Coach All-Star Game he committed to the University of Cincinnati in 2005.
Mark Dantonio, who has been the Head Coach of the Michigan State Spartans for the last 12 years, was the one who convinced Mardy Gilyard to leave his home state of Florida and go north to play for the UC, the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. Dantonio was the Head Coach the Bearcats at the time and was the one who gave Gilyard his scholarship. He eventually would also be the one to take it away, due to academic reasons, sending Gilyard on to a few extremely challenging months. Looking back, Gilyard admits that was the right decision.
Dantonio warned him: Either you go to class, or he would take something that Mardy really loved. "I only loved two things back then, Gilyard said, my scholarship and my hair. He took both."
First, the coach called Gilyard's mother, she called Mardy and told him to get a haircut. Mardy's answer? No way. "So then coach Dantonio said that for a smartass like me, he has “recruit” someone else. So he called my grandma and she called me. She never used to call me. I just said “hi” and she yelled at me and said that she can't believe that I am not listening to this man. “He brought you from the forest to the city,” she told me and said I must cut my hair."
When Mardy's grandmother tells him something, he listens. "I immediately thought about all the times she gave me a haircut when I was young, and ran to get one on my own." Unfortunately for him, that was not enough. When he actually attended classes, he used to get good grades, but he wasn't attending enough of them. "My coach told me, you are not dumb, just lazy."
When Gilyard lost his scholarship, he ended up owing a lot of money to the university. He found himself sleeping on some couches and even spending a few nights in a borrowed car. It was an all-time low, but over a decade and many fascinating stops along the way later, he can look back and reminisce about all the good and bad things that had happened. It's easier to do that when you are up, at the top, and these days, Mardy Gilyard is at the top of the National Arena League as one of its best receivers with 15 touchdown receptions.
A couple of months after Dantonio left Cincinnati to coach the Spartans, Mardy ended up getting his scholarship back from his new coach, Brian Kelly. Gilyard has "a love-hate relationship" with Kelly, who had a great tenure at UC, but abruptly left to coach Notre Dame and did not even guide the Bearcats on what was supposed to be his final game before the move, a 51-24 loss to Florida Gators in the 2010 Sugar Bowl.
"I am still mad at him for the way he left us. It left a hole in me and that hole was burning for a long time. I had to stand in front of my friends, my teammates, and explain why I lied to them a few weeks earlier, but I was also lied to. I do love him for everything that he got from us and the staff he built there. I owe our position coaches everything. They held us together."
One of those coaches was Tim Hinton, who worked in Cincinnati for six seasons (2004-2009). After the fact, Gilyard found out that when he got to the university, Hinton made a promise to his mother that she would see him leave as a graduate. When Mardy got in trouble, Hinton put his job on the line for him and he was the one who told Kelly to give the kid a second chance, because this kind of talent doesn't come too often. "Kelly just told me that if I could pay my debt, he will give me my scholarship back." Mardy did, and his life, and career, were both quickly back on track.
Cincinnati was also the place where Marshawn became "Mardy". His family used to call him Motty and when he attended a University of Cincinnati game as a sophomore (the year he redshirted due to academic reasons), a local reporter heard one of his relatives call him "Uncle Motty", but misheard it and "Party Mardy" was born.
Until this day, he is considered to be one of the fastest players to ever wear the Bearcats uniform and he says: "In practice, we had a couple of very fast guys, but they have never seen anyone faster than me on or off the field. I was also the fastest dresser, always the first with my cleats on."
That on field speed, which is still extremely visible these days, even as a 32 year old, made him famous in his college days, when during a game against the University of South Florida, he caught an incredible ball in the end zone, could not stop his momentum and went flying into the stands where he crashed into a young fan. Gilyard immediately stood up and gave the kid a long and warm hug. That clip made the rounds and was shown many times on ESPN.
"I remember that day as if it was yesterday and I recently got to talk to the kid, who is 18 or 19 now. It was crazy. I was mad at my quarterback Tony Pike, because I had already beaten the cornerback and I had to go back and then run again. I tried to stop, but in our stadium, the crowd was right next to the end zone. I just made three steps and got to the stands and everybody, including the boy's father, ran out of the way and celebrated my touchdown, leaving the kids there. Nobody noticed that I was running straight at the kids."
The kid became a celebrity after the game and so did Mardy. They were interviewed together by national channels and participated in the Bearcats holidays special. Mardy was receiving fan letters from all over the world. Germany, Japan, Hawaii. Everybody was telling him it was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen a football player do. Mardy's troubles were behind him by that point and after he had the school's best seasons ever for a receiver in 2008 and 2009 (When he became an All-American as a senior), his path to NFL was clear.
Thus a new adventure was about to begin for Mardy Gilyard.
Idan Vinitsky is a freelance writer and contributes weekly to the Massachusetts Pirates.
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