After valleys, Gilyard reaches peak

NEW ORLEANS -- Let Mardy Gilyard describe the proper way to enjoy a mayonnaise sandwich:

"Take a little Hellman's, put it on some bread, toast it lightly. Then just close your eyes and chew it real slow. It'll taste like a porterhouse."

Gilyard laughed. Moments earlier he had been crying. Both emotions were wholly appropriate as the Cincinnati wide receiver described how he journeyed from a childhood of deprivation in an allegedly abusive Florida home to a ballroom in a New Orleans hotel, surrounded by media members from around the nation.

Millionaire celebrity coach Urban Meyer thinks he's living with stress? Mardy Gilyard knew real stress growing up in Bunnell, Fla.

Stress about whether the electricity would stay on at home because the bills weren't paid. Stress about whether there would be violence in the house at any given time. Stress about whether there was going to be anything for dinner that night.

When you're hungry and a mayonnaise sandwich is all you've got? Yeah, it can taste like a porterhouse.

There were syrup sandwiches in Gilyard's childhood, too. Sugar added to milk, to make it seem more like a meal. And when there was no milk, he ate cereal with water.

"I was a skinny little kid," Gilyard said with a smile. "I was like a lollipop."

He was a scared little kid at times, too. He described his relationship with his dad as positive now, but it wasn't always that way.

"My father, what he would do to my mom," he said. "I grew up in an abusive home."

The two biggest reasons why Gilyard can look back on those days with some buoyancy were his mom, Viola Gilyard Crudup, and his older brother by nine years, Otis. They got him through it without letting the daily heartbreaks break him down.

When Mardy would ask Otis for a specific kind of food, the response was often, "We ain't got none, but we'll figure it out."

They figured it out as best they could. And now, with Gilyard an All-American on the verge of playing his last college game and heading toward an inconceivable potential payday in the April NFL draft, the gratitude he feels to his mother and brother is palpable.

"My mom, that's my girl," Gilyard said. "My brother [now a Flagler County, Fla., police officer], I don't know what I'd do without him."

It was about then that you heard Gilyard's voice catch, and the tears flowed down his cheeks. He went on talking, not even bothering to wipe the tears away. Shutters of cameras began clicking intensely.

The profundity of the moment was striking. In more than 20 years of covering college football, I don't think I've ever seen a player cry at a pregame news conference. Then again, I don't think I've ever heard a player with a story like Mardy Gilyard.

"They sacrificed so much for me to be where I am now," he said.

Where he is now is on the verge of playing the glam team from his home state, which didn't recruit him seriously, in a game Gilyard said he's been "dreaming about for probably 12 years." He'll be playing against one of the best defenses in the country, specifically a secondary full of players who may join him in the 2010 NFL draft.

But ever since the Bearcats beat Pittsburgh 45-44 to win the Big East championship and earn this BCS bowl bid, not much has gone right for Cincinnati football.

The Bearcats watched Texas beat Nebraska by the thinnest of margins -- a single point, on a kick launched with a single second on the clock. It was the margin that likely kept them out of the national title game.

Then they watched their coach, Brian Kelly, end an awkward flirtation with Notre Dame by jilting the Bearcats the night of the team banquet.

Gilyard walked out of the team's meeting with Kelly and became the voice of player anger at the coach.

But that anger is absent in Mardy Gilyard right now. He is the life of the Louisiana party this week.

"I'm just happy with life," he said. "I'm loving every millisecond. I've never been to New Orleans. Life is good. ... I'm sucking in all the culture I can down here."

That included a 10-minute conversation with a homeless person the other day.

"I think he thought I was going to make fun of him or something," Gilyard said. "But I wanted to ask him about Katrina passing through."

Of course Gilyard could relate to a homeless man, after the way he grew up and the way he spent the fall of 2006.

Then-Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio had revoked his scholarship after a shoddy academic performance as a freshman. Gilyard wanted to drop out and come home, but his family wouldn't let him.

Without scholarship money but not without resolve, Gilyard did what he had to do. He lived in a loaned 2002 Grand Am, sleeping there most nights and working three jobs. He had a construction job, he sold cutlery door-to-door and he delivered pizzas.

"Where I'm from, my city's known for drugs, cocaine, dope, a lot of violence," Gilyard said. "I was happy to get out of there, and I was happy that someone wanted to send me to school somewhere. I wanted to go to the farthest place from home I could, and me doing that, everyone from back home respects that. They love that.

"They were like, 'Hey, don't come back down here. You know what these streets are like. We don't need you down here.'"

Gilyard stayed where he could do some good for himself. With his grades back in order and his scholarship returned, he caught 36 passes for 536 yards and three touchdowns in 2007. Those numbers jumped to 81 catches for 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. This year his stats have been nearly identical: 80 receptions, 1,150 yards, 11 TDs.

That, combined with his dangerous kick-return ability, will almost certainly make him a first-day NFL draft pick come April.

And when that day comes, Mardy Gilyard will do something special for his mom and his big brother, probably starting with a sumptuous meal.

There will be no mayonnaise sandwiches that day.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.