By Mike Piellucci
Michael Wyche was in ninth grade the night he shot someone with three bullets fired from the chamber of his .44 Magnum. A week earlier, the situation had been reversed, and Wyche was the one being fired upon by the kid now in his crosshairs, when the kid tried to rob Wyche on the sidewalk of a public street. The bullet had hissed inches past Wyche's skull into a nearby gate, and he'd fled through a labyrinth of back alleys. It wasn't enough for him to escape just for the moment; he also had to make sure the kid didn't see where he lived.
That's not the most remarkable part of the story, though. That would come a few months later, when Wyche ran into the kid at a house party. He tensed up, steeling himself for a confrontation that ultimately never came. Instead, they locked eyes and nodded, settling the beef with their own frontier code. That is how mundane violence is in Wyche's South Norfolk neighborhood in Chesapeake, Va., where 36% of children live below the poverty line. Two kids who tried to kill each other, acting as though nothing happened, nobody else there to enforce the peace.
"The police around there, they don't care about all these gangsters," Wyche says. "[They say,] 'Let them kill each other, and we'll clean up their bodies.' You've got people that kill each other every day and get away with it."
Wyche, 20, tells this tale from a back room of East Los Angeles junior college's football stadium in Monterey Park, Calif., nearly 3,000 miles from home and even further from the person he used to be. At 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, with a torrent of dreadlocks cascading down his neck, he is the type of hulking run-stuffer that defensive coordinators crave for the middle of their defenses. In January, he will enroll at USC to do exactly that.
Steve Mojarro, his junior college coach, sits behind his desk in an adjacent room, his dark green walls lined with photographs of more than a hundred players he has sent to four-year colleges. Each of them has a story. The homeless wide receiver that he sent to Kansas as a cornerback. The offensive lineman who was kicked out of his house when his mother couldn't afford to feed him, who used football to start on a path toward a law degree. Few of them, however, have experienced anything that approaches what Wyche has endured.
"When you first hear his story, you stop and think, 'Oh my god, what else can go wrong for this kid?'" Mojarro says.
Wyche's grandmother Debbie Walker is a devout Christian, the kind who is in church every Sunday. Ask her to testify to her faith, and she can cite any number of verses from the Bible. She can also point to her grandson.
"I do believe in miracles," she says, "because Michael is one of them."
* * *
Debbie and James Walker, Wyche's grandparents, relocated their young family from North Carolina to Virginia in the 1980's, knowing little about the dangers of Chesapeake. Their only son, James Jr., got caught up in street life while also training as a boxer, a combination that led him to settle an unpaid debt by beating a man within an inch of his life.
At 22, James Walker, Jr., was given a 40-year prison sentence for malicious wounding and entered Greensville Correctional Center in 1996. He left behind the four-year-old son he had bathed in the sink and taken on trips to Radio Shack. The trajectory of Michael Wyche's life was altered immeasurably, as much by his father's incarceration as the schism James' absence created between the two women in his life.
Bludgeoned by grief, Debbie Walker made a vow to herself: Never again would a member of her family go to prison. "My son pulled my heart out of my chest," she says. "I never hurt so bad in my life. I said, 'This cycle is going to break right here, right now. I'll do whatever I have to [in order] to stop it.'"
Dorothy "Eve" Wyche had been just a few years younger than Debbie when she started seeing a then-18-year-old James Jr. Although they didn't stay together after Michael's birth, James Jr. was a constant presence in their lives. When he went to prison, Eve began to crumble. She married a man named Bruce Futrell, unaware that he was a two-time sex offender, and the marriage quickly devolved into a sinkhole.
It started with the late-night drinking. Savage beatings soon followed, often with a helpless Michael in full view. It was crack that ultimately devoured Eve, consuming her personality and maternal instincts, along with anything else that was an impediment to getting another fix. Her own son became superfluous and so he was ignored, left alone for hours at a time without food or supervision or clean clothing.
"She was a good person," Debbie Walker says. "But the crack changed her."
It was in that state, at five years old, that the Walkers found and retrieved Michael, after receiving a phone call from another relative. It marked the beginning of a constant push and pull between Debbie and Eve, between a structured home and the chaos of constant abandonment, between a normal, safe adolescence and first-hand knowledge of how South Norfolk can twist its inhabitants into the worst versions of themselves.
"His mind was a ball of confusion, because he stood between two different worlds," Debbie says. "I'm trying to show him a better part of life, that you don't have to do this. On the other side, he had all the street elements. He knew what he should do, but he never had anyone over there to guide him."
Debbie and James Sr. begged Eve to let them raise Michael, even offering to help her lie to Social Services so she would continue receiving support checks. Occasionally Eve would relent, leaving him in their care so she could venture off with her abusive husband for months at a time. The uprooting was so frequent and scattered that nobody can recall now which household Michael was in at different points of his life. He finds it easiest to catalog the time by which school he was enrolled in, but even that only goes so far after spending time in upwards of a dozen.
What he remembers is stark contrast. He remembers the two years he lived with his grandparents around the start of first grade, when he had a room to himself and clean clothes to wear to school every morning. There were trips to Disney World and Busch Gardens and the mountains of West Virginia, to show him proof of a much bigger world, outside of South Norfolk's crumbling infrastructure. He spent weekdays as an honors student and his Sundays in church, until the morning his grandparents dropped him off at Eve's house to wait for his school bus and he didn't come back.
Eve had decided it was time for him to live with his mother again. Debbie relented for legal reasons -- the Walkers did not have custody -- but also because she couldn't bear the thought of her grandson losing a relationship with his mother, too, after a lifetime of only knowing his father through brief prison phone calls. "This boy had an incredible love for his mother, no matter what she did," she explains. "I didn't want to touch that."
Wyche became more unkempt with each visit to his grandparents' house, starving but refusing to eat more than half his food so he could bring a little back to Eve. The pattern developed that they would coax Michael into eating by packing an extra meal to take with him, buy him a fresh change of clothes and drop him off at home. Then they would never see those garments again, because Eve would promptly pawn them to sate her chemical dependence. When she was at her lowest and the last vestiges of restraint were gone, she convinced Michael to empty out the piggybank his grandparents had given him, then later to steal from them directly.
The worst was the Christmas that almost wasn't, when Eve sold off a bushel of presents that Debbie had sent home with Michael, mere hours after they'd arrived. After his maternal grandmother called to explain what had happened, Debbie and James were forced to weigh paying the bill for their truck that month against their grandson waking up without any gifts underneath the tree.
They scurried back to the store, purchased the best thing they could afford and brought him back to their house. They tried not to wince the next morning, when Michael asked why Santa always managed to make it to their home, but skipped over his mother's.
* * *
As he shuttled between his two worlds, Wyche's escape came from sports. He inherited his father's size and unusual athleticism, leveraging it to play four sports in middle school. He was more of a basketball player at that time; football was just another outlet for him to compete, the same way he threw shot put and moonlighted as the heavyweight on the wrestling team. But more than mere distraction, sports were his means of reconciling the two halves of his divide. Eve would send him to go play with the neighborhood kids when his three sisters were home, and his father and grandfather were ardent supporters of his playing football, eventually convincing Debbie to acquiesce. The games were the closest thing he had to ballast.
It was during middle school when his worlds splintered apart. His grandparents had gained legal custody, and he flourished, until Eve reached out once more with promises of a better life at home with her. It wasn't long after he moved back that he realized that, "she just sold me a dream." This time, things were different in the worst way. Her old apartment was gone now, and the two of them vagabonded with trash bags slung over their shoulders for months on end. Sometimes, a friend or relative let them crash for a day or two; more often, they bounced between homeless shelters. On the nights when they got lucky and Eve scrounged up enough money, they would stay at a dingy motel. When they didn't, they took refuge in a nearby park. Eve always slept on a bench, while Michael usually went to the playground and crawled into a tube slide. Like his piggybank, the slide became a reminder of lost innocence, the hard plastic casing kids cheerfully toboggan down recast as his makeshift bedroom.
Through it all, he never once called his grandparents. Michael says that he forgot their number. Debbie believes he was too ashamed to dial it.
Years later, they both recall the conversation that most revealed the emotional toll he had paid. He was about nine when she woke up one night and found him rocking back and forth in the living room, his arms wrapped around his knees. He announced to her, with chilling conviction, that he was going to protect his mother by killing his stepfather. He even told her how, explaining that he would wait for Futrell to drink himself to sleep before grabbing the biggest knife in the kitchen and stabbing him to death in his own bed.
If you do that, she warned him, it would accomplish nothing. "You will wind up in prison or in a mental asylum," she said, "And your mother will just keep smoking crack and marry another man who beats her, because that's who she is and where she's from." He would never drive a car, or go to his prom, or graduate high school. "You have a choice," she cautioned. "If you pick the wrong one, you'll wind up in jail, and your daddy will be your cellmate."
They each say now that he made a decision that night, when he got up off the floor and hugged her close, tears rolling down his round cheeks. Although the moment was over, the scarring had just begun.
"Michael was carrying grown person's problems when he was nothing but a baby," she says. "He was a broken child."
It is not lost on Michael Wyche how his life bears a resemblance to that of Michael Oher, another player once abandoned and homeless. His high school classmates and teachers called him Big Mike in homage to Oher, while his coach, Richard Morgan, went so far as to nickname him "The Blind Side." Wyche's future position coach at USC, Ed Orgeron, was Oher's head coach at Ole Miss; he, too, mentions the similarities.
Except there is one crucial difference. There is no fairy tale ending here, no astonishingly kind family that swooped in to pluck him from his circumstances. The closest Wyche came to that salvation came when Eve left him again, this time in the care of a white family whom she hardly knew. But they could not care for him, or would not, and were on the verge of consigning him to foster care when his sister Gilberto was located at the last moment. He moved into her home on Commerce St., the unofficial center of crime in South Norfolk. And so, without his mother and bereft of his grandparents' structure, Wyche was still free to roam the same streets his parents had before him.
He thinks he was 13 when he first started selling drugs and committing robberies, although he can't say for certain. What he knows is that his first gun was a .22 revolver, the same way he remembers how he and some friends used a Mossberg Pump Shotgun and a Desert Eagle to rob one of his customers of $2,000. Just like schools, the guns help him recount his transient life, with memories better anchored to his surroundings than to his own place within them.
He carried himself like a real-life Omar Little, working in the shadows and often playing Robin Hood with the profits. Occasionally, that meant buying ice cream for every kid in the neighborhood. Other times, it was handing a wad of cash to someone who really needed it. It's possible to write that off as the work of a big, terribly misguided heart, and that's how Wyche justified it to himself then. He was using the money to demonstrate that there was someone around who cared -- "which was stupid," he says now. "I was lost, man. I didn't really care, though. There was no reason to care. I was mad at the world. I was mad at my mama because she left. I was just like, 'I'm going to sling this dope, and kill a couple of people or rob them.' That was my mentality."
By the time he reached eighth grade, his grades had plummeted and his behavior worsened, until alternative school eventually became the only recourse. He did three separate stints there, the last coming in ninth grade when he was sent to Southeastern Cooperative Education Programs. Wyche remembers many things about SECEP -- the fighting, the cubicle-style desks, the "quiet room" with thick, frosted glass, where students were banished to vent repressed frustrations. Perhaps what he remembers most is the athletes, who he swears were better than some of the players he lined up against at the elite levels of high school football.
It's symptomatic of Chesapeake and the rest of Virginia's famed Seven Cities, a region that births prodigious talent only to snuff much of it out. "There are a lot of talented athletes here with people who support them in sports, but not schoolwork," says Keith Burnell, a mentor of Wyche's and a South Norfolk native who played running back at Virginia Tech. "There are a lot of fans, but not a lot of great parents. Parents who show up to games, but not to teacher-parent conferences. A lot of dads, but not fathers. It's real sad."
Arguably the area's two most famous sons, Allen Iverson and Michael Vick, are testament that they rarely emerge unscathed; even the success stories oftentimes seem unable to separate themselves from their hometown's seedier elements. The less successful ones wind up in places like SECEP, skulking about the hallways, haunting its school yards.
Wyche quickly distinguished himself amongst them and caught the eye of a teacher named Alexander Cheeseboro. A former small college offensive lineman, Cheeseboro's mammoth 6-foot-6, 350-pound frame immediately commanded Michael's respect. He asked Michael questions that nobody else in that world had bothered to ask: What did he want out of life? Why was he wasting his talent? What was he living for? "We would talk every day, and we got so close," Wyche says. "He was like an extension of my grandfather and dad at school. I never had something like that."
Meanwhile, his best friend, Jerod Askew, was a star linebacker and eventual Tennessee signee at nearby Oscar Smith High School, a national powerhouse that boasted future Division I talents like quarterback Phillip Sims (Alabama), running back Perry Jones (Virginia) and defensive tackle Evan Hailes (Penn State). Askew was constantly in Wyche's ear about how the Tigers were one player short of a championship squad, and that he was the missing piece. He needed to get out of alternative school and join the team.
Finally, Wyche had a purpose. Even more importantly, he at last had found people in South Norfolk who could help him achieve it. "Jerod would be like, 'Believe in yourself, bro, you can get out of there and do anything,'" he says. "Then you've got Cheeseboro: 'I love you like a son. You mean a lot to me, Mike.' The more people I started hanging around, I just realized that it feels good to do something positive."
By the end his sophomore year, he had clawed his way out of alternative school for the final time. He moved back to his grandparents' house and made his way back onto the honor roll. Eve was back in his life and finally clean, the one positive consequence from four consecutive strokes that paralyzed her from the left arm down. Slowly, they re-forged a relationship from a foundry of hellish, shared experience.
After helping Oscar Smith win its first-ever state championship, Wyche remembers the pride he felt when his mother wheeled into the football team's banquet to see him accept his ring. "That was the first time she ever saw me get something," he says, "And I was like, 'Damn, this feels good.'"
He returned to SECEP to tell other students about that, kids like him who needed to hear one of their own confirm that, "there's more to life than messing up."
"I promise you," he said to them, "that success feels so much better."
But even at that point, Wyche hadn't extricated himself from South Norfolk entirely. He was still tooling around with his .44 Magnum one night, adjusting how it rested on his pants waistband when an undercover police officer caught him with the gun in his hand. It was a guaranteed conviction. Shackled in the back of a squad car, Michael contemplated the absurdity of it all. After having done so much worse, so many times, now he gets caught. Now, when he has something to live for, it gets taken away.
And then the car door opened, and the officer uncuffed him.
He told Wyche that he knew who he was, that he had a chance to make something of himself in football if he put crime behind him. The next time he got caught, there would be no escaping a prison term.
Once the bracelets were removed, he took off running towards his grandparents' house. He would soon get rid of the drugs and all of his guns, firmly ripping himself away from the streets for good. Last he heard, one of the friends he ran with is in prison. He's not sure about another; maybe in jail, maybe dead. He is convinced that one of those fates awaited him had he stayed in that life.
You would be forgiven for assuming that this was the long-awaited miracle, the 10 fleeting minutes that eradicated a bleak future and sealed away the harsher of his two spheres.
You would be wrong.
The miracle came when he got home. Hardened and numb for so long, Michael Wyche threw himself onto his bed and wept.
* * *
The tears flow more often now.
They came when he walked across the stage to accept his high school diploma, having made it to a day he once assumed was impossible. They returned in Lane Kiffin's office, when the Trojans head coach offered him his USC scholarship. Throughout Kiffin's entire coaching career, just one other player had reacted so strongly: Mike Williams, another survivor of a Blind Side-type story.
They fell harder in February, surrounded by relatives in a hospital room back home in Virginia, as they stared at Eve hooked up to a respirator. He knew that she was sick, but nobody had told him how bad it was, for fear of derailing the life he'd rebuilt. All of that was in their minds when Michael asked them how severe the illness was, when they hemmed and hawed over the answers.
"All of that's over now," he told them, meaning his old life on the streets. His tone recalibrates into something darker, angrier as he recounts it, the only time I have heard him raise his voice. "I'm a positive leader now," he continued, the words now tumbling out in almost rhythmic cadence. "I look at life from another perspective now. I'm in church now. I want to do what's right for this family -- I found the secret to success now. I'm fine. Tell me what's going on!"
It was uterine cancer, Stage IV. The next week blurred into a haze of bedside vigils and small talk, until the jarring moment when the doctors said that someone needed to decide whether to pull the plug. Wyche's insides twisted with two conflicting emotions as he held Eve tight in his arms, feeling the life seep out of her until she grew cold: "This was the worst decision I've ever had to make in my life." And: "I wouldn't want her to go any other way."
He broke down at her funeral, heaving huge sobs while draped over her casket. None of the other hardships compared to this, not even the kind she put him through. But a few weeks later, he was back in California, sweating his way through offseason drills.
"We thought, when Michael said he was going to go back home, that he was going to stay there," says Steve Mojarro, his junior college coach. "We were fine with that. What's more important than his family? But I think the sport of football is the one driving force in his life that keeps him going. I think everything is lining up for him now."
For many people, that would be enough, and perhaps it should be. But it is not for Wyche -- how could it be, he figures, after so many people helped him get this far?
"This kid loves to give back, and he doesn't have anything to give," Burnell marvels. That just makes Wyche toil harder, so that one day he can pay off his grandparents' mortgage and take care of the teacher who helped him pass Latin. Until then, he continues to donate his time, acting as a lifeline for six other players from Virginia's Seven Cities to enroll in California junior colleges, broadening their worlds as his grandparents did his.
One of those six was Jerod Askew, who hadn't played a down of football since graduating Oscar Smith in 2009. His older brother Leo was killed a year later, sending him into a tailspin that culminated in getting kicked out of Tennessee, leaving him adrift back in South Norfolk. The same friend who had used football to pry Wyche away from the streets years earlier was now on the receiving end of a similar message.
"Jerod is only in school because of Mike," says Burnell. "Darryl Waters is only in junior college because of Mike. Mike talked to these guys every day for a year, and he told me, 'I promise you I'll get Jerod and Darryl playing football again.' I know they would be back on the streets if Mike hadn't gotten them playing again."
"He got me out here," says Askew, who now plays at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. "He'd tell me, 'We're out here to get your future fixed.' I said to him, 'I know you look up to me as your big brother, but in some ways I look up to you.' Thanks to Big Mike, I'm in position to live my dreams again."
Wyche's own dreams extend beyond USC, further than football. He is a father to an infant daughter now, and he knows all too well that, "the way I grew up was b.s." Neither fatherhood nor NFL riches will come easy. They will require sweat and perseverance, and will almost certainly entail more adversity. None of that is daunting, however, not after coming so far and triumphing over so much.
"What's more struggle?" he asks.
He smiles as he says it.
* * *
Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.