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From Grand Am to the NFL

by Tim Rohan on Apr. 15, 2010
Mardy Gilyard was homeless — left to fend for himself on the streets of Cincinnati. He was a sophomore in college at the time, just 19 years old.

After his freshman year as a Bearcat, Gilyard ended the academic year before the 2006 season with a GPA below 2.0, and in trouble of facing disciplinary action. Over the summer Gilyard worked and eventually got his GPA above 2.0 — and he was thinking that he was going to be in the clear. That wasn’t the case.

“With the coaching change, my scholarship paperwork got lost somehow in the scuffle and I ended up not having a scholarship,” Gilyard said.

Brian Kelly was hired to coach after the 2006 season.

But Gilyard was without a scholarship. He was evicted from his home and forced to do the unthinkable for a teenage college football player — he had to work four jobs just to survive.

Gilyard lived out of his 2002 Grand Am in different spots around the city.

“That was the easiest rent I had to pay, just living in a car,” Gilyard joked.

He was in and out of jobs, including selling kitchen knives, working as a cook at an Italian restaurant, and even delivering pizzas to get by.

“It took me from a kid that felt like he was full. It took me from a kid that felt like I was everything and anything to football in Cincinnati, to somebody who didn’t have anything at all,” Gilyard said. “I was homeless in the city, I lost my scholarship, got evicted out of my house. With that all in mind, I just had to find faith; had to find myself and I had to grow up. I was a real knuckleheaded kid, arrogant, cocky, immature. I had to grow up, so that helped me a lot.”

While he was homeless, and off the team, Gilyard’s high school coach contacted smaller colleges, Youngstown State and Georgia Southern among other I-AA schools about Gilyard playing football for them. But he didn’t have to resort to that.

Gilyard returned to the football team for the 2007 as a scholarship player. All in all, he was homeless for six-and-a-half months.

“I wouldn’t be me,” Gilyard said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t go through those things. If I didn’t go through those things, I wouldn’t be here in front of anyone. I don’t have no shame in my game. I’m always speaking. I speak it truthfully, [and] I speak it as gracefully as I can. I try not to sugarcoat anything.”

Gilyard returned renewed and at a new position of wide receiver and he started seven games at the position in that 2007 season, which was his redshirt sophomore year. Before, he was a backup cornerback trying to make a name for himself on special teams.

The move paid off for Gilyard, especially in his redshirt junior and senior seasons when he had 80-plus catches, over 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns each year.

He had come into his own.

Through all of the adversity, Gilyard was standing on top leading the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season and Big East championship. He even saved his best performance for last, when he hauled in seven catches for a career-best 158 receiving yards and a touchdown in a loss against the Florida Gators in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Gilyard was invited to the Senior Bowl to showcase his skills, but received some criticism that during his time in Mobile, Alabama he dropped too many easy catches.

“I just have to make sure I lock in on that ball and just not drop anything,” Gilyard said.

The Detroit Lions coaching staff was charged with coaching the North team at the Senior Bowl and Gilyard received some guidance from Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson.

“Me and Coach Jefferson spoke a lot about life through this whole process," Gilyard said. He was also telling me, ‘Hey Mardy, you just need to make sure you stay out of the way. No need to get into any trouble. If you hang with a crew, tell your crew you’re going to hang with them when you get time to. This is the time you need to be indoors. Like you got a dog, you got a girl?’ And I was like, I got a dog, but I aint got no girl. He was like ‘well you need to spend all of your time with your dog.’ Just little stuff like that he showed me how to appreciate life as a professional.”

Gilyard is currently projected to be a late second round pick in the most recent DraftSite mock draft. And his reviews are somewhat mixed when scouting the fifth-year senior.

“Terrific athlete and extremely productive,” DraftSite NFL analyst Mark Olsen wrote. “Excellent return man. Good speed (4.5 40 time). Big play ability. Lacks ideal size and needs to add bulk - only 180 lbs. Good blocker, explosive and elusive. Great upside.”

“Uses long arms well,” added DraftSite NFL analyst Matt Marino. “OK speed, very good body control, elusive when see space. Lacks the size to take the big hit, trouble holding onto the ball, does not explode off the line, rounds off his routes, inconsistent hands.”

No matter what he eventually does in the NFL, Gilyard has learned a lot in his five years in college. That’s what taught him to work hard to get to where he is at in life.

Gilyard was a productive collegiate receiver and there’s no stopping him from continuing to grow as a player at the next level. Adversity is his middle name. Growing up in a house with a single mother, Gilyard’s older brother was his fatherly figure, and now looking back on his experience and everything he’s been through, there’s nothing but happy thoughts for their family.

Even though the draft isn't until next week, his brother is certainly proud of Mardy.

“ ‘Brother you did it,’ ” Mardy recalls his brother saying. “ ‘You got it, you did it. I’m just so proud of you man, I don’t even know what to say.’ And he’ll turn to the side, and you know brothers don’t like to see other brothers cry, and he’ll just kinda, ‘I just got something caught in my eye.’ One of those deals.

“But they always get choked up with the whole experience, what’s going on with me. And (my family is) just so excited.”