KANSAS CITY, Mo. — So he runs. He runs for Joe, wherever the hell he is.
Probably under that same tree, in Washington Park, casting aspersions at the skies above. Or inside the gazebo, if it looks like rain.
“Every time I get to Cincinnati, I’ve got to make sure I stop by the park and see if I can catch Joe there,” Mardy Gilyard chuckles. “He might be out running his ‘errands,’ or so he calls it.”
And the new Kansas City Chiefs receiver shakes his head and laughs. He usually does when he thinks about Joe and his — ahem — errands.
“Joe actually went to UC,” Gilyard continues, referring to their shared alma mater, the University of Cincinnati.
“And he is, I want to say, a biomechanical engineer. He was a rebel to society. He didn’t want to abide by (any) rules. He lives on his own terms. And that was one of the most remarkable conversations, and one of the most remarkable people, I have ever run across.”
Gilyard doesn’t judge. He doesn’t look down on those trapped in life’s margins, nor does he turn his head away in denial. If he sees a man on the side of the road, begging for loose change, he reaches for his pocket. No conditions, no pity, no self-gratification. Here, brother. Take it. It’s yours. God bless.
“I don’t care if they’re using the money for beer, drugs or for food,” the Chiefs’ receiver explains. “It (doesn’t) matter. Because I was one of those people. I stop.
“If I have a dollar. If I have five dollars. If I broke a 20 that day, and I’ve got 11 dollars in my pocket, I give them 11 dollars. Because I know I’m working, and I can get that back. You need to kind of show remorse for those kind of people, and you can understand them. I was there.”
So he runs. He runs because he remembers the cold and the hunger, the fear and the shame. Especially the shame. Powerful thing when it hits a man, shame. You can move past it, sure. But you never, ever, forget it.
For six months and change, Gilyard lived, off and on, in a borrowed green 2002 Pontiac Grand Am. Most nights, he’d curl up along the driver’s seat, kicking himself to sleep.
“I’ve seen so much, being in that city,” he says. “I’ve seen everything from rape to drug use. You name it, I’ve seen it. A lot of stuff, I tend not to say.”
This was 2006, the penance Gilyard paid for being, as he terms it, “a knucklehead.” After his freshman season as a defensive back with the Bearcats, he flunked out of UC. His scholarship was revoked by then-coach Mark Dantonio. The school informed him that he owed five figures in tuition. He was evicted from his apartment.
Mardy called home, to Bunnell, Fla., seeking refuge and escape. His mama told him, in so many words, to keep his crazy backside in Ohio, that she wouldn’t have him.
Gilyard stayed. He worked four jobs. Construction. Pizza delivery. Cooking. Selling cutlery door-to-door. He would even practice his pitches out on Laura Ellis, a friend of his then-fiancee, a woman he calls his “godsister.”
They volunteered, together, at the Wesley Chapel Mission Center. They mentored children whose parents were working, incarcerated, or just plain lost.
They played games. They went on field trips. They went to Washington Park. They passed out sack lunches to the homeless.
They met Joe.
“I’ve just seen so much stuff,” Gilyard says now. “And there was just so much heartache that went around that city.”
He bounced from job to job, from couch to car to floor to futon to car, squirreling away every cent he could. In the meantime, back at UC, Dantonio had bolted for Michigan State. New coach Brian Kelly saw footage of Gilyard, a 6-footer with 4.5 speed and no fear, and reached out. Kelly said he could have his scholarship back — but not until he’d paid the university what he owed.
Mardy paid. Then he repaid. As a junior, Gilyard, now a receiver, caught 81 balls for 1,276 yards. He made 87 more grabs as a senior, rolling up 1,191 yards and 11 scores. By the time he was done, he was the Bearcats’ all-time leader in receptions (204) and a two-time All-American.
“You know, living in a car, man, I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody,” Gilyard says. “But it made me a stronger person. It made me appreciate things. It made me hungry. It really made me hungry.”
So he runs. He runs for his kids. Gilyard is a father now, twice over, at the age of 26.
“At this point, I’m playing the daddy role,” he says. “Daddy’s got to take care of the house. Daddy’s got to take care of the family. So I’m doing everything I can to make sure I’m doing the best job I can to provide for what I need to provide for.”
The NFL loves a great comeback story, but only so much. Gilyard has ridden in carriages and in pumpkins, and in all modes of transport in between. In 2010, he was Cinderella, a fourth-round selection in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams. He has been cut five times since: The Rams, in 2011. The Jets in 2011. The Eagles in 2012, twice. The Jets (reprise) in 2012.
He’s been poor. He’s been rich. He’s been dumb.
“Getting cut five times is not nice,” Gilyard says, matter-of-factly. “But a lot of that has to do on my end. Coming into the league, I kind of was a knucklehead, a little bit.
“At this point in my career, I’m just trying to make sure I come in and do everything right. And be right. All that fun stuff is out the window.”
Fun is out; business is in. New coach Andy Reid thought enough of Gilyard’s short Eagles stint to sign him up over the winter. And, hey, there are worse landing spots for a wideout: Besides Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs’ depth chart at receiver could remain in flux well into August.
“We don’t have any hard-heads, no knuckleheads here,” says Gilyard, who’s gotten a slew of reps during organized team activities in April and May. “Even Bowe, being the big-money man, Bowe is the most humble out of everyone. That’s my big brother.”
Gilyard notes he has spent the spring over at Big Brother Bowe’s house, sharing the love and the knowledge with equal aplomb. Gilyard helps translate Reid’s playbook — which he has seen before, up in Philly — while Bowe breaks down the finer points of life as a Chief.
“I’ve got more experience than most of the guys that they’ve brought in,” Bowe says. “So a lot of guys look up to me, because I’ve played at this (high) level.”
Nor does it hurt that Gilyard can field punts and kicks. When you’re trying to stick, every little bit helps, especially as the Chiefs are looking to replace Javier Arenas — who was traded to Arizona for fullback Anthony Sherman — in the return game.
“We need to take it to the next step,” Reid says. “This has been in shorts. We’ve got to get in pads, and you’re challenged both mentally and physically, to another level, once you’re in pads. It’s tougher, when you’re that tired, to concentrate, day in and day out. So we’ll see how all that works.”
Gilyard wants to make it work. More than anything. For as long as Reid will have him.
“The best part of being a Chief is that everybody here is humble and hungry,” Gilyard says. “And those are the two H’s that you really need on a team. You need a humble team that’s hungry.”
Humble players don’t hurt, either.
“So if a guy comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, you look familiar,’ and I kind of joke around: ‘What do I look like?'” Gilyard cracks. “And he’s like, ‘Well, you run pretty fast.’
“And I just kind of laugh. ‘Well, we’ve all got to run fast every now and then.'”
So Mardy Gilyard runs. For Joe. For old friends, loved ones, and second chances. Because each step brings him that much closer to daylight.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org