In honor of the former Wolverine running back’s birthday
Today is the birthday of Tyrone Wheatley, which is still one of the best names to come through college football in the last 25 years for my money. Wheatley played for the Wolverines from 1991 through 1994, which happens to be right around the time I first started to actually pay attention to college football and begin to understand exactly what I was talking about.
While I grew up learning about the sport by watching Penn State, I’ll admit that my knowledge of the sport outside of Happy Valley was limited at best early on, so I consider myself late to the party when it comes to Tyrone Wheatley. Of course, when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, my introduction to Mr. Wheatley was somewhat unpleasant as a young Nittany Lions fan. But my respect for him was quickly gained as I started to pay more attention to the Big Ten overall, trying to see where my team fit in those first couple of years in the Big Ten.
For a refresher, Wheatley rushed for over 1,000 yards each of his final three seasons in Ann Arbor, running his way to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 1992 and a 1993 Rose Bowl MVP in Michigan’s 38-31 win over the Washington Huskies. The win was Michigan’s first since a 40-7 victory at Northwestern. Michigan had tied in their final two games of the season, first at home against Illinois and at Ohio State. It was the third tie of the season for Michigan (Notre Dame), which held the Wolverines out of being considered as a national championship team. Wheatley rushed for 1,357 yards and 13 touchdowns that season but was upstaged nationally by guys like Marshall Faulk and Garrison Hearst. He finished his collegiate career with 53 total touchdowns and the Big Ten scoring titles in 1992 and 1993. Wheatley still owns a pair of Michigan rushing records for single-season yards per carry and single-game yards per carry.
But Wheatley was a multi-sport star as well. His track career is well-documented and includes a number of accomplishments. Wheatley was a 110 meter hurdles champion in 1994 as well as an All Big Ten track and field selection. This should be no surprise, because Wheatley was an eight-time state champion at the high school level.
The New York Giants drafted Wheatley in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft 17th overall (Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter was drafted number one overall, the only running back drafted before Wheatley). He was the first of three Wolverines drafted in the first round, joined by defensive back Ty Law and tackle Trezelle Jenkins. It was a good year for the Big Ten powers, as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State each had three players drafted in the first round. The drafting of Wheatley was not without its share of debate and controversy. Head coach Dan Reeves was outspoken about wanting the reigning Heisman Trophy winning running back Rashaan Salaam out of Colorado. Salaam was selected with the 21st overall pick by the Chicago Bears.
Despite a promising college career, life in the NFL just never quite panned out for Wheatley.
Things got off to a rocky start for Wheatley and the Giants, after an initial contract negotiation saw plenty of family involvement, and that rarely plays off well. Especially after Wheatley held out for 17 days. Despite being viewed as the running back of the future of the franchise, Wheatley struggled to gain playing time in the backfield ahead of an aging Rodney Hampton and Herschel Walker, and Charles Way eventually become the team’s go-to running back while Wheatley was used more for special teams duties. Wheatley was the all-purpose yards leader for Big Blue in 1996 and was the team’s top ball carrier, but Charles Way led the team in rushing yards with one fewer carry and 115 more yards. Wheatley was an adequate ball carrier, but his work ethic was wearing thin with new head coach Jim Fassel, who replaced Dan Reeves in 1997.
In his final days with the Giants, Wheatley’s image took a significant hit as he struggled to manage his weight (according to Fassel) and do anything much more than perform scout team drills. Being late for meetings also became an issue and some even described Wheatley as a problem player in the locker room. He was eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins and was cut prior to the 1998 season. The Oakland Raiders (who else?) picked him up and gave Wheatley a second chance. Wheatley played his final game in 2004 and finished with 4,962 rushing yards, 40 rushing touchdowns and 900 receiving yards.
Wheatley has since moved on from playing but has stayed involved with the game as a coach. He started his coaching career by returning to his own high school, Hamilton J. Robichaud High School in Michigan. He was head coach in 2007 and quickly turned his alma mater around from a record of 0-9 to 9-2 and reaching the playoffs. He moved on to Ohio Northern and joined the coaching staff at Eastern Michigan in 2009 as an assistant. He is currently a running backs coach for Syracuse.
Let’s finish by taking a look at some of the highlights of Wheatley’s Michigan days, giving us all an opportunity to hear the one and only Keith Jackson enunciate Wheatley the way only he can.
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