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Catching up with West Virginia's Grant Wiley

(Note: this is the first in a series looking at former Big East stars and where they are now. To suggest a player for a future story, e-mail me at this link.)

Less than two years after setting the Big East's single-season tackles record, Grant Wiley had a pro contract with the Minnesota Vikings and seemingly everything he ever wanted. And he was morbidly unhappy.

"I really felt like I was in jail, personally," he said. "It's funny when your dream is coming true and all of a sudden your heart and mind are tilting in another direction."

Wiley had lost his fire for football and instead longed to pursue a passion he had hesitated to embrace: acting.

He feared his jock image would suffer in high school if he dabbled in drama. While at West Virginia, Wiley would sometimes sneak into plays and wonder why he was in the crowd and not on stage. Even when he trained for his NFL auditions in Los Angeles after college, he would watch the Oscars and wish he were working toward that dream instead.

So after a shoulder injury derailed his NFL plans for a second straight preseason, Wiley decided that was a sign. He quit the sport and dived headlong into trying to become an actor.

Following a brief stint working football camps to build up his bank account, Wiley crashed on the floor of a buddy who lived in Morristown, N.J. He'd take the commuter train into Manhattan every day, first finding some work at a modeling agency and then for three years learning the craft in an actors' studio. He lost 60 pounds, going from 240 to 180.

"People don't even recognize me," he said. "[Former teammate] Pacman Jones called me and said, 'Are you all right?'"

Wiley is still seeking his big break and says he studies successful actors to see how they pull it off. He's done some background work as an extra on "All My Children" and in a few movies, including an upcoming film called "The Dark Fields" starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

He's attacking this new career the way he once rabidly ran down ball carriers as a Mountaineers linebacker. He was the Big East rookie of the year in 2000 and earned All-America honors his senior season in 2003 while making 167 tackles, which is still the league record. He led the nation with seven forced fumbles that year.

"It's really no different from the kind of work you have to put in for football," Wiley said of acting. "No one was with me during game week when I'm devouring film and completely neglecting my classwork because I wanted to make every single play against Miami. And I've been approaching acting the same way."

Wiley looks back with fondness on his playing career, recalling the first day in spring practice as a redshirt freshman when an upperclassmen picked him up and slammed him into the turf during a drill. He swore that day that he'd never let that happen again, and few people got the better of him from then on.

But Wiley said he doesn't miss what football did to his body, and he loves being able to move freely without pain.

"I put a great deal of work into football," he said. "I kind of look at it as that was one phase of my life, and it prepared me for what's to come and the roads ahead."

Wiley, who's living in Washington Heights, N.Y., hopes the road ahead includes starring in feature films and television episodes. Wherever his path leads, he's content knowing that he's following his heart.