Nobody at Rams park runs like Mardy Gilyard. He darts, cuts, stutters and slips up the field, tracing a path through the open field like cigarette smoke through the air. To call it "elusive" isn't close enough ... like a squirrel, he half-runs, half-hides, always looking for an escape route.
Unfortunately, the coaches made it doubly hard to find Gilyard on the field in his opening season, hiding him on the bench for long stretches of the season. His snap count went down steadily from a season high of 61 against Detroit in Week 5 to a lonely 3 snaps against New Orleans in Week 14 ... and none after that.
He was hampered by not being able to attend OTAs in May, a victim of Cincinnati's late graduation date and the NFL's hypocritical policy of not allowing new draftees to skip such things. (Those who leave school early can join their new professional employers right away, but those who complete a degree must stay away until a man in a black robe starts handing out diplomas? Nonsense.) He was further held back by a wrist injury suffered in camp that ended up needing surgery after the season. And he had a Danny Amendola-sized roadblock in front of him on the depth chart.
And this week, he picked a particularly bad time to play hide and seek, as his quarterback convened his own minicamp here in Lindenwood college, providing a four-day crash course in the new playbook. Thirteen pass-catchers showed up for work, including three rookies. Gilyard did not.
Smart money at this point is probably on WR Mardy Gilyard not making the #Rams 53-man roster. http://bit.ly/mcqwH5
Gilyard has made a career so far of proving doubters wrong, but if he is to remain a Ram, he will have to do it in a hurry. And he'll have to shake a troubling habit of slumping in his sophomore year.
A week ago, Mardy Gilyard was in his home town of Palm Coast, Florida, to see his high school number 7 retired. He is the first graduate of Flagler Palm Coast High to make an NFL team, and as such, became an instant role model to a team full of kids, not only for his accomplishment in making it to the pros, but in the obstacles he had to overcome to get there.
As the youngsters lined in row facing the home stands, Gilyard came by slapping hands with each and every one of them, then brought them into a big huddle after getting the award.
"To be a Bulldog is a spiritual thing," Gilyard shouted, breaking down a couple of times. "Remember you're a Bulldog and when you're out there, even if you fall behind, you fight, you fight, you fight, you fight, you fight, you fight ... you don't quit."
Gilyard grew up in poverty with his mother and older brother, a part of his story that must be told. The "About Mardy" page on his official website opens with a story about eating mayonnaise sandwiches. Syrup sandwiches. Sugared milk. Cereal with water when the milk ran out.
He found an early escape route in football, playing varsity level as a freshman, but nearly bombed out of the game before his 17th birthday. He would have fallen to a familiar drug-fueled path to nowhere if not for his coach, Caesar Campana, who Gilyard says "rescued him." He spent his sophomore year in an alternative high school, receiving every bit of tough love the school, his coach, and his family could dish out.
Thanks to that intervention, Gilyard became a star in his Junior and Senior years, and earned the opportunity to go to school at Cincinnati ... "the farthest place from home I could," he says.
But again, after his first year in a new town, Gilyard nearly bombed out again, this time for academic reasons.
Redshirted, held away from the football field and denied his scholarship money, Gilyard says he wanted to give up, wanted to go back home. But his family wouldn't allow it. "They were like, 'Hey, don't come back down here. You know what these streets are like. We don't need you down here.' "
He spent the year living in a 2002 Pontiac, working three jobs until he could earn a second chance. Another second chance that Gilyard would make the most of, becoming Cincinnati's leading receiver and a feared kick returner by his senior year.
Now about to begin his second year in the pros, is the cycle happening again?
At each stage of his playing career, Mardy has had to be corrected by his coach, had to receive some form of tough love. But there is no room for tough love in the pros, as the story of Dick Vermeil and Lawrence Phillips can painfully attest. Or, more recently, the story of Spagnuolo and the troubled-but-talented Richie Incognito.
Here in the pros, instead of "tough love," you just get cut. And if you're lucky, you get a second chance on some other team. And maybe that's Gilyard's path.
Or, just maybe, this time he'll self-correct and earn his second chance right here in blue and gold. And prove the doubters wrong once again. If so, though, he'll have to start by taking advantage of his chances to work when they come.