Cincinnati's Gilyard thriving with second chance

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
The most memorable play in last week's Cincinnati-South Florida game occurred not on the field, but just off it.

Bearcats receiver Mardy Gilyard barely missed catching a touchdown pass and his momentum carried him into the stands at cozy Nippert Stadium. Gilyard slammed into 7-year-old Garrett Monroe, who started crying after the impact. Gilyard stayed with the boy for a few moments and gave him a hug.

"I caught him clean with my shoulder," Gilyard said. "I know because he had his face painted, and when I got up, his whole face was outlined on my jersey -- cheeks, eyes, the whole nine yards."

Later, the boy got interviewed by Erin Andrews and was spotted signing autographs for other fans.

"I was like, 'Look at this little superstar,'" Gilyard said, with a hearty laugh. "I tried to take him a game ball after the game so he'd feel a little bit better about me smashing his face in. But the celebrity hopped in the limousine with his bodyguards and just left."

Gilyard is always quick with a one-liner and a smile. It seems as if he's having more fun playing football than anyone else. And that's because he knows what it's like to have the game taken away.

Before the 2007 season, Gilyard lost his scholarship, got evicted from his apartment and spent several nights sleeping in his car while confronting a mountain of debt. Now he's one of the top receivers and kick returners in the Big East and a major weapon for Cincinnati, which takes on West Virginia this Saturday in a key conference matchup.

He played cornerback as a true freshman under former coach Mark Dantonio. But Gilyard quickly started neglecting his schoolwork and enjoying the nightlife too much. His grades went down the tubes.

"I was so ignorant that I didn't even go to class half the year," he said.

Dantonio pulled his scholarship. Although Gilyard brought his grades back up to par, an NCAA rule prevented the school from giving his scholarship back in the middle of an academic quarter. Gilyard had already registered for classes and was charged nearly $10,000 in out-of-state tuition. The NCAA then wouldn't allow Cincinnati to re-award the scholarship until Gilyard paid his bills.

His family didn't have much money to help. Gilyard knew he couldn't go back home to Bunnell, Fla., a small town between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville that he says "is known for nothing but drugs." Gilyard spent some of his teenage years slinging dope on the corners, and even got grazed by a bullet once.

He wanted to stay in Cincinnati, where he'd met his girlfriend, Amber Johnson, during the first week of his freshman year. But he had no money and no place to live.

So from March to July of 2007, Gilyard took on four jobs. He sold kitchen knives. He cooked and served as a delivery driver for a restaurant. He worked construction.

He ate nothing but fast food and some nights went hungry. He would crash at friends' places, and after he'd worn out his welcome, live for days at a time in his 2002 Pontiac Grand Am. Most of the stuff from his old apartment -- pots and pans, a TV, a few clothes -- were crammed in the backseat, so he slept in the driver's seat. He'd park behind a CVS store, and on nights when there was too much traffic for him to sleep, he'd move the Grand Am over to campus.

"The cops came by a couple times and were like, 'Where you going, son?'" Gilyard said. "I didn't know what to say so I went, 'I'm passed out.' I guess a lot of students pass out in their cars, so they were like, 'Stay off the drinking.'"

Through it all, he said, his girlfriend encouraged him to stay positive and pray for good things. He didn't tell her he was homeless because he was too embarrassed. But he wasn't going to quit.

"Football wasn't as important to me as just finishing what I started," he said. "I wanted to go back to school and graduate."

Dantonio left for Michigan State at the end of the 2006 season, and new coach Brian Kelly liked what he saw from old film of Gilyard. He wanted him back on the team and promised to renew his scholarship as soon as Gilyard cleared his debt. With money from all his jobs, no living expenses and some help from Johnson's uncle, Gilyard said he took $7,000 in cash to the registrar's office.

"Everybody was looking at me funny," he said. "But I was like, 'This isn't dirty money.' I worked hard for this."

He signed the scholarship papers two days later, joined the team for the start of 2007 and got engaged to Johnson. Kelly moved Gilyard to receiver, where he caught 36 passes for 536 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore.

This year, Gilyard's numbers have exploded, even as Cincinnati has dealt with all kinds of quarterback upheaval. He leads all Big East receivers with seven touchdown catches and is second to Rutgers' Kenny Britt with 685 receiving yards. He's averaging a league-best 27.5 yards on kick returns. Against Oklahoma earlier this year, he returned a kick 97 yards for a score and had a school-record 365 all-purpose yards.

"We thought he was capable this year of elevating status within our offense and that was a matter of consistency," Kelly said. "We also thought he had the ability to be recognized in the Big East as a top-flight receiver, and he's done those things."

One key to Gilyard's improvement is the LASIK eye surgery he had over the summer. His vision had deteriorated and he couldn't wear contacts because they irritated his eyes. It got so bad that last year, he would have to turn to fellow wideout Marcus Barnett and ask what play they were running, because he couldn't see the signals from the quarterback.

"It was ugly; I could barely see anything," he said. "Now I see stuff a lot faster and I'm able to read coverages a lot better. It looks like they're throwing me a big old beach ball out there."

He also has good hindsight on his past mistakes. He tells younger teammates to make sure to go to class. He volunteers at a local community center in downtown Cincinnati, mentoring disadvantaged kids. He's eternally grateful to Kelly and says he tries to show the coach every day in practice how much he appreciates the second opportunity. And he says he doesn't go anywhere without his fiancee, who got him through the hard times.

"She kept me going," he said. "Without that, I don't even know if there would have been a Mardy Gilyard to hit that kid last week, to be honest."

He was, though, and his reaction to it made the second-grader briefly famous, while also showing Gilyard's character.

"I'm amazed by the guy," said Greg Monroe, Garrett's dad. "Most guys you see crash into the stands or a camera man and they're just like, 'Whatever.' He was so awesome with my son. I'm a huge Mardy Gilyard fan now. How could you not be?"