For anyone who remembers his college exploits, it has been strange to see Mardy Gilyard in Philadelphia, toiling near the bottom of the Eagles' preseason roster.
Three years removed from a standout career at Cincinnati, after which the Rams drafted him in the fourth round, Gilyard is already with his third NFL team and struggling at the league's margins.
No one wanted him on their roster last season. With the Eagles, he is stuck near the back of the pack of a deep group of young receivers and returners fighting for roster spots. As he heads into training camp, the odds of making the team are stacked steeply against him. The thing is, he has overcome worse.
Gilyard, whippet-thin with long dreadlocks that hold small seashells in the ends, finished his college days as a star, but before that he was kicked off the team and left homeless, living out of a borrowed car. In Philadelphia, he hopes to revive a career already marked by talent, mistakes, and recovery.
When Gilyard arrived in Cincinnati as a star recruit from Florida, hard work was the last thing on his mind.
"Coming from the football mecca to Ohio?" he asked rhetorically. This would be easy.
"You didn't have nobody to yell at you, tell you to go to class," he said.
Snow? After growing up a half-hour's drive from Daytona Beach?
"You wake up, six inches on the ground? No, I'm cool, I'll stay in," said Gilyard, 25.
The Midwestern cold, the freedom, the campus of more than 40,000 were all new for Gilyard, who had come from a Northeastern Florida town of about 3,000.
"It was a culture shock," said his older brother, Otis Gilyard.
Skipping school caught up to Gilyard fast. After his freshman year, Bearcats coaches revoked his scholarship. Gilyard, though, had already pre-enrolled for fall classes, so he owed the school $10,000. He didn't have the money.
Soon he was evicted. He called back to Florida, asking for help, and here is where his story turned around. Send a bus ticket, send a plane ticket, anything, just get me out of here, Gilyard pleaded.
His mother and brother told him no. He wasn't coming home.
No going back
Home was Bunnell, Fla., a city 70 miles south of Jacksonville where roughly one in four people live in poverty.
The Gilyard household was led by a forceful mother, Viola Gilyard Crudup, who had sent her son off to be a success. Growing up, Otis said, there were days the family had no water and nights when dinner was served by candlelight because the power had been shut off.
But their mother always had something for anyone in need.
"Mama would take a stranger in or take a family member in quicker than anything," Otis said. "She's in nursing and I've never really seen her turn anyone down when they ask for help, and the funny thing is I've never really seen her have anything."
While their mother worked, Otis watched over his siblings and relatives, as many as 10 staying with them at a time. Now, Mardy, the youngest, was calling for help from the family that always found a way to aid others.
Bringing him home, though, would have felt like an admission of failure.
"It was one of the most difficult tasks I've ever been faced with. I knew if I did it and I cracked, I would not be so happy with myself today," said Otis, nine years older than Mardy. "I cannot tell you how difficult it was and how disappointed I was and how frustrated I was and how much I wanted to bring him home all at the same time."
But Gilyard had gone to Cincinnati promising to focus on football and school, and he had botched both.
"You haven't even come close," Otis told him. "I'm not going to be the guy to save you from the now and hurt you for the future."
Back in Bunnell, there was little to do for an unemployed African American with no direction except get in trouble, said Otis, now a sheriff's deputy in Flagler County, Fla.
"I'd have been out there in the streets," Mardy Gilyard said. "If it wasn't school, it wasn't football, the only thing I knew was being a businessman, and there wasn't no Fortune 500 company."
He had to stay in Cincinnati and figure things out.
Gilyard had nowhere to live, but the brother of a girl he was dating loaned him a forest green 2002 Pontiac Grand Am. It became home.
His possessions filled the trunk and backseat. Some nights he crashed with friends; others he pulled into a CVS parking lot, laid back the driver's seat, and slept.
He worked construction in the morning, delivered pizzas at night, and sold Cutco knives door-to-door.
"They'd pull a piece of frozen chicken out and I'd slice right through it," he said.
After his construction work, Gilyard rushed to informal practices with teammates, running drills in his dusty jeans. But on game days, he was in the stands, like anyone else. In his free time, Gilyard played basketball and volunteered to help feed the city's homeless. He still visits some who became friends.
"It was a humbling experience," Gilyard said. "At the end of the day, it just forces you to work hard and focus."
Otis made sure they were in touch every day.
"There wasn't a night that went by that I didn't keep a phone close to me," he said. "I was very concerned."
But he knew his brother could fall back on lessons learned in Bunnell.
"He knew what it was like as a kid to not have water. He knew what it was like as a kid to not have lights. He knew what it was to not have something and want it," Otis said. "Pride does not get in the way when it is time to survive."
Eventually, Gilyard found a route back to the field.
New coaches, new chance
In late 2006, a new coaching staff came in at Cincinnati, led by Brian Kelly.
"When we first arrived, the name Mardy Gilyard was an enigma," said Charley Molnar, then Kelly's wide receivers coach.
Players talked about this athletic cornerback, a converted running back who had been kicked off the team.
Kelly, now Notre Dame's head coach, was intrigued. At the Bearcats' 2007 spring game, Kelly brought Gilyard to Molnar. He wanted the receivers coach to give the young man direction and mold him into an offensive weapon.
"I took that as a challenge," Molnar said.
"You knew that this guy not only wanted to make it, he needed to make it," he said. "Also, we needed a playmaker."
With help from his family, Gilyard erased his debt. He had saved money from work and made his final payment with a huge stack of cash. He quickly saw Kelly and signed new scholarship papers. After six months of life in a Pontiac, he moved back to a normal home.
Some old habits remained, though. Sometimes, Gilyard still treated class as optional. Molnar did his best to break him of that habit.
"He would call me and leave me the most vulgar messages - 'You stinkin' this and that and this and that. You scared this and that, you don't want to pick up your phone, huh? Wait till tomorrow,' " Gilyard recalled. "He'd always say, 'Be a man and take your medicine.' "
"What's my dosage today?" Gilyard answered.
Late at night, Gilyard met Molnar at Nippert Stadium. In the cold of the Ohio winter, Molnar watched as Gilyard ran the stadium stairs until sweat soaked through his shirt. Sometimes he ran every row, from the field to the top of the 35,000-seat stadium.
"He took his medicine every time like a man," said Molnar, now the head coach at the University of Massachusetts.
On the field, things came slowly. Gilyard caught 36 passes as a sophomore in 2007. Molnar said he must have dropped just as many.
That offseason, Gilyard had Lasik eye surgery, and in 2008 he exploded as a receiver and return man, scoring 13 total touchdowns as the Bearcats won the Big East. As a senior, Gilyard matched those scoring numbers and averaged 206.9 all-purpose yards per game, second most in the nation. The Bearcats went undefeated in the regular season.
Cameo in the NFL
He left Cincinnati without a degree, but mature.
"That particular episode made him more of a man than he had ever been," Otis said.
The Rams drafted Gilyard in 2010, but he stumbled in St. Louis. More quick than fast, Gilyard had just six catches as a rookie and wasn't a factor in the return game. The Rams cut him in September 2011. The Jets picked him up, but waived him five days later. He spent the rest of the 2011 season out of the league.
He has another shot with the Eagles, though his chances appear very slim.
Still, Otis said not to count his brother out. He has been through daunting scenarios before. In high school, after being found in possession of marijuana, Gilyard spent a year in an alternative school before returning to Flagler Palm Coast High School and earning his scholarship to Cincinnati.
"Mardy has always done better on his second go-round," Otis said. "If history repeats itself, Philly has a good catch."