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No Way to Know Why : Whether Mike Wise’s NFL Days Had a Role in His Suicide Is Unclear, but the Sport’s Impact on His Life Is Unmistakable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every year since I was 9 , it’s been the same: Come midsummer, I’m in training for football. Come September, I’m playing football games.

It’s one thing to say you’re doing the right thing by preparing for life afterward, but you still don’t know. You haven’t done it. I’ve played football for 24 years. Besides family, that’s my life. It’s not all I know, but it’s all I’m comfortable with. I love football so much. It makes the idea of leaving it very scary .--BOB GOLIC, Raider defensive lineman

*

Mike Wise stood 6 feet 7 and had a likeness of the Grim Reaper tattooed on his calf. To outsiders, he appeared impenetrable, almost insulated by his sheer mass.

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His mustache and goatee did not project a sense of warmth.

Tough?

During an argument once, Wise knocked a teammate down with one punch.

He went to school in Davis, Calif., a town so Raider-crazed that a kid there might think they named the place after Al.

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Wise worshiped the silver and black.

And when he slipped a Raider helmet on for the first time in 1986, he became the actor immersed in his role.

Off stage, though, Wise was a paper tiger, a 270-pound emotional eggshell who wrote eloquent poetry and passionate love letters to his girlfriend, Mary McBride. She called his football persona, “the whole charade of the tough guy.”

Wise spent hours at the nature store in his local mall, fiddling with knickknacks and bird whistles. He liked to buy wilderness prints and give them to friends. He was a gentle giant to the children in his neighborhood.

He was a psychology major at UC Davis who liked football and physics.

Wise was equally impulsive, creative, complex, quick-witted and hot-tempered.

The last year had been a roller-coaster ride for Mike and Mary. She, approaching 25, had become more independent, making a career for herself as a mortgage lender at a Davis bank.

Wise, not yet 28, was barreling blindly toward football mortality. His last summer with the Raiders--1991--is best described as a nightmarish relationship that ended in bitter divorce, with Wise threatening to sue the man he admired most, Raider owner Al Davis.

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It was a summer of fistfights, of walkouts and walk-ins, of perhaps a hundred telephone calls between Raider executive Steve Ortmayer and Wise’s agent. The Raiders were tolerant at first but ultimately played hardball, withholding five paychecks while they held Wise captive on the team’s exempt/did-not-report list before finally releasing him in October.

Wise, a self-made defensive end with modest natural talents, quickly signed with the Cleveland Browns and thought his problems were over.

But the injuries that had reduced him to a backup with the Raiders followed him to Cleveland. He played three games for the Browns before a knee injury ended his season.

At a mini-camp last spring, Wise felt a pop in his back while doing a squat press. He reported to training camp in July, but was unable to compete to his usual standard.

Frustrated, Wise went AWOL. He called Mary from a phone booth in Ohio and told her he didn’t know where he was or where he was going. Mary told him to check into the nearest hotel.

She recalls: “He called me from there and I said, ‘I think you need to think about some things.’ I said, ‘Maybe you should think about going back to camp and work things out.’ ”

Wise promised he would call the next morning, but didn’t.

“I freaked out,” McBride said. “I called the Cleveland Browns to see if he had gone back. I said, ‘Can you please have somebody go to his room?’ When he finally did call, I just started bawling at him. I said ‘You can’t ever do that to me again. I thought they were going to find you in the room (dead). You can’t ever do that.’ I was hysterical. He knew how I felt about that.”

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The Browns released Wise on Aug. 4, despite a back injury that made it difficult for him to get out of bed.

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21, Wise was found dead in the bedroom of his luxury home in Davis. His financial future uncertain, Wise had recently been forced to put his dream home up for sale.

The body was discovered by his real estate agent. The Yolo County coroner ruled the death a suicide as a result of a gunshot to the head.

Mary McBride, the last person to see Mike Wise alive, more than 24 hours earlier, was called to identify the body.

*

I’ve joked about the day I walk away from the game, that I’m going to need therapy. The reality is, I’ve already gone in and talked to a therapist, just to try to ease things. It starts to get to you after a while. The mental injury that goes with leaving the game is not like the physical. You can’t just go , ‘His leg’s broken, his shoulder’s separated. We can fix that.’ There’s a mental injury that goes on, a mental stress that isn’t necessarily seen or recognized. --BOB GOLIC

*

“ ‘Mary, wake up, I need you to come get me. Mary, wake up. They let me go.’ ”

The phone call Aug. 4 startled Mary McBride from a sound sleep.

Wise couldn’t believe the Browns had released him with his bad back.

“When he woke in the morning, he couldn’t stand up straight,” McBride said. “Nobody saw that side. I did. When I had to go through his things at his house, he had every kind of back brace you could possibly think of. He couldn’t understand how you could release somebody when they’re hurt.”

Actually, according to NFL rules, you can’t.

Spokesman Kevin Byrne of the Browns said the organization has decided not to comment about Mike Wise.

“We do that out of respect for Mike and out of respect for his death,” Byrne said. “You have no idea what we went through with Mike. We have made an educated decision here, one of compassion.”

There might have been more to it than that.

At the time of his death, Wise and his attorneys were filing an injury grievance against the Browns.

Although the Browns’ medical staff considered Wise’s back strong enough to warrant his release, relieving the team of his $500,000 salary, that prognosis wasn’t shared by all.

According to Wise’s agent, Jeff Moorad, two independent doctors--one in Sacramento, another in San Francisco--concluded that Wise had a significant injury in the lower region of his back.

Both doctors estimated that Wise would be unable to play for at least six weeks, Moorad said. Had the Browns put Wise on injured reserve, though, they would have been required to pay his salary, $31,250 a week, once the regular season began.

Because diagnosing football injuries is sometimes subjective, it is not uncommon for NFL teams to release injured players in order to force a grievance procedure, through which the player can try to recoup some of his salary through arbitration.

When he was released, Wise grew more despondent. He put his house up for sale, listing it for $600,000. His back was not responding to treatment.

“Mike was scared that his career might be over,” Moorad said.

Wise tried to get his life in order. He was in relatively good spirits when he returned home, joking to a friend that he might join the FBI.

He had also enrolled in real estate classes in Sacramento.

Four days before he died, though, Mary and Mike sat alone in her car.

“I was giving him a ride to pick up his truck,” she said. “And he started crying. He said he was scared.”

Earlier, he had confessed: “I should have been prepared for this.”

Mike and Mary had sought counseling, separately and as a couple.

Although they had once lived together, she had her own apartment at the time of his suicide. Mary had become less dependent on Mike, but she said they had discussed getting married next spring.

“I work in a real estate department at a bank,” she said. “He wanted me to move out to Cleveland and quit my job. It was always hard for me to understand. He always wanted me to do well, but he wanted me to give that up.”

*

There’s a stigma attached to the mental stress. The physical challenges are acceptable in the framework of a manly game. But when you start dealing with the psychological and the mental stresses, well, I don’t think it has the same acceptance. Then you’re delving into an area of ‘sensitivity,’ which really isn’t supposed to have a place in a manly game. --BOB GOLIC

*

It has been said that an athlete dies two deaths; one when he leaves the sport he loves, and his natural death. Sometimes, the deaths are one and the same.

The transition from a career in professional sports can be brutal, particularly life after football, where careers are shorter, contracts are rarely guaranteed, pensions pale in comparison to other sports’, and injuries are more often permanent and debilitating.

There is also a communal phenomenon known primarily to football players that is hard to duplicate.

A 1988 Times study of 440 former NFL players revealed that 54% suffered significant emotional trauma after leaving the game.

Tony Bober, a Newport Beach psychiatrist, reached the same conclusion in a study of 670 former NFL players.

As much as blocking and tackling, he said, depression is part of the game.

“I would go so far as to say that it’s far more common than not common,” Bober said. “I’ve been around guys and they’ll say, ‘So-and-so was cut and he hasn’t been out of the house for three months,’ and you go, ‘Wait a second.’ But those feelings of depression, the feelings of shock, readjustment, that stuff is so common.

“If you feel it all crashing down, and you get inside that house, I don’t care if it’s a dream house or not a dream house. When you get inside that house, it’s like the walls start closing in around you.”

Bober compares the readjustment to postwar traumatic syndrome.

“Ironically, when most of the guys came back from Vietnam, they are mustered through the base about 35 miles from Davis,” he said.

“What those guys consistently said was, ‘One day we’re in the middle of the battlefield and the next day we’re in Northern California, getting dumped out on the base.’ It’s not like culture shock, it’s like real shock.”

*

I tore my calf muscle last year. You tape it up and play. I go out and play because I love this game. You have a reason to go out there. But when the games are over, the injuries will still be there. And they will only get worse. And then you’re waking up on Sunday morning and you can’t bend your knee or your back’s stiff and you don’t even get to play the game. --BOB GOLIC

*

McBride does not directly blame football for Wise’s death.

“It goes much, much deeper than that,” she said.

But, as one Bay Area columnist wrote, football’s fingerprints were on the gun.

“Mike started out great in college, he got drafted,” McBride said. “He worked his way up from the top.”

Wise and McBride met on a blind date about four years ago at a steak house in Davis.

McBride came from a humble background, having grown up in the farm community of Dixon. She didn’t know Wise was a Raider when they met.

“I wasn’t attracted to him physically at first,” she said. “I was attracted to him mentally. He was fun, very spontaneous and very emotional.”

They were different.

“I am from a very poor family,” she said. “I tried to show Mike that. I’m self-sufficient. I’m 25 years old. I take care of myself. I have my car. I have my job. I used to say to him, ‘Mike, it’s not like that for me. I have to go to work. I have to support myself.’ It’s the real world. He never could grasp that concept.”

In the prime of his life, playing for the Raiders, drawing a handsome salary, Wise had no reason to grasp that concept.

His favorite song at San Marin High in Novato was “Jack and Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp because it had a line, “Jack’s gonna to be a football star.”

Wise was gonna be a football star.

It would be difficult. Through determination and hours in the weight room, Wise transformed himself from a 205-pound freshman into a menacing 270-pound defensive end.

Some have suggested his rapid growth and drastic mood swings might have been the result of steroid use.

“Mike knows how I felt about steroids,” McBride said. “What he did when I wasn’t around, I have no idea. If he used steroids, I’m sure he’d never want me to know.”

Wise’s agents also denied knowledge of steroid use.

As a college senior, Wise had 16 1/2 sacks for the Aggies and was voted Northern California Athletic Conference player of the year.

Still, he was not considered more than a late-round NFL pick until he turned in an impressive performance during the East-West Shrine Game. In practice that week, some players complained about Wise’s aggressiveness.

But Wise knew what he wanted. In early 1986, he squeezed into a yellow button-down shirt and tie and walked the 75 steps to agent Leigh Steinberg’s office in Berkeley.

Steinberg wasn’t in the business of taking on projected late-round picks, but Wise argued persuasively, and the agent and his partner, Moorad, took a chance on him.

In Los Angeles, Raider executive John Herrera, a Davis alumnus, lobbied for Wise as the 1986 draft approached.

“I was a little prejudiced toward Cal Davis guys,” Herrera acknowledges. “But I let my heart tell me, my emotion, that the kid had a chance to play. Obviously, he proved me right.”

The Raiders selected Wise during the fourth round, the 85th overall selection. When Wise made the final roster that first year, Herrera beamed.

“I felt like a proud papa, almost,” he said.

*

It’s strange. Even within the framework of the game, you’ll see players who have retired and come back (to visit). They’re still friends, but they’ll come into a locker room and it’s a real weird situation. They come in, I believe, to find that feeling of camaraderie that they had before. And it disappoints them. They see everyone else getting ready to go out on the field. And they’re not. --BOB GOLIC

*

The Raiders weren’t disappointed with their fourth-round selection. In 1988, Wise started 14 games, getting five sacks and 56 tackles. In 1989, he started 11.

But he started only two games in 1990.

Wise was unhappy about his diminished role as the 1991 season approached. He reluctantly signed a one-year deal for $390,000, but told Ortmayer he wasn’t happy with the contract.

Wise saw the handwriting. The Raiders were loaded with defensive linemen. Anthony Smith, a No. 1 pick who had sat out the 1990 season because of a knee injury, was returning. The team was also excited about rookie Nolan Harrison, a sixth-round pick from Indiana.

Wise complained about not getting the respect he deserved. He said he also was distraught over the declining health of his grandfather, Ray, who was rapidly losing his eyesight.

Wise reported to training camp in Oxnard on July 12, but he left the next day. Ortmayer hit the roof. Wise returned two days later, attended a morning practice, but went AWOL again that afternoon.

“When he’s ready to come back, he’ll give us a call,” Coach Art Shell said at the time. “There’s a lot going on in his head.”

Wise returned to practice July 24 and apologized to Shell. But on Aug. 8, he left again. He returned the next day, at which time all hell broke loose.

The story, according to several eyewitnesses and Wise, who recounted it to friends:

During a review of film, a coach complimented Wise for a play he had made. Defensive lineman Emanuel King, who was later cut, shouted, “Way to go, Meathead!”

Meathead had long been Wise’s nickname, but he was in no mood for it then.

“Don’t call me Meathead,” Wise said.

Defensive end Howie Long stood up and told both players to cool it.

“Who the . . . does Meathead think he is?” King shot back.

Wise and King charged one another, Wise knocking King down with one punch. Both players were removed from the room.

Later, in Shell’s office, Wise was being reprimanded for his behavior when an enraged King charged through the door wielding a tire iron.

“I’m going to kill the . . . ,” King screamed.

Wise later told friends he didn’t think the coaches made much of an effort to stop King.

Racial tension became a concern. King was black, Wise white. The Raiders ordered Wise home to Los Angeles to cool off.

Wise was outraged that he was being blamed for the incident. He wanted out.

The Raiders were willing to oblige him, but Davis wasn’t going to let Wise go for nothing.

With his career in limbo and the season approaching, Wise tried to force the Raiders’ hand.

On Aug. 30, he drove to Los Angeles International Airport and attempted to board the team plane headed to Houston for the season opener against the Oilers.

The Raiders wouldn’t let him board. Wise figured that was his ticket out.

He was willing to come back, right?

Instead, the Raiders neither traded nor released him. He spent six games on the team’s exempt/left-camp list. The Raiders paid him one game check, $17,647, but withheld five others totaling $88,235.29.

Wise was furious. He feared he might lose the dream house he had built adjacent to the 13th hole of the Davis Municipal Golf Course.

“He was scared to death that he was going to have to sell it,” Moorad said.

Friends say Wise overextended himself financially, that he counted too heavily on the $390,000 he was due to earn from the Raiders in 1991.

It was some house.

Wise trucked boulders into his back yard and built a hot tub into the hill so that it connected to a lower swimming pool by a tiled slide.

One room of the house was devoted to football memorabilia. He was most proud of a four-sequence photograph of him sacking San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana in 1989.

“That house was so huge,” Mary said. “But he only lived in his bedroom.”

As the Oct. 8 trading deadline approached, the Raiders offered Wise around the league for a mid-round draft choice. The Rams reportedly had agreed to a deal when Davis upped the ante at the last minute.

Wise faced yet another personal crisis: To collect his back pay from the Raiders, he would have to sue his childhood hero, Al Davis.

Davis declined a recent interview request.

Ortmayer said he saw no telltale signs that Wise was suffering from emotional problems.

“He was an emotional kid,” Ortmayer said. “But (his problem with the Raiders) was a contractual thing.”

The Raiders released Wise on Oct. 10. The Browns claimed him on waivers the next day.

Cleveland, surprisingly, agreed to assume Wise’s entire salary from the Raiders and even offered an additional year at $500,000.

“Mike was ecstatic,” Moorad said. “The best part was that Mike didn’t have to sue the Raiders.”

But on Oct. 27, during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wise suffered a knee injury and spent the remainder of the season on injured reserve.

*

I love the emotional ups and downs of football. You don’t want to lose, but losing has its purpose. Because if you win all of your games, then the highs aren’t that much higher. I thrive on the extreme emotion. But it can really get to you. People say it’s not worth taking your own life. That’s the statement of any of us speaking rationally. But the mind is a weird thing. He obviously wasn’t thinking the way you and I were thinking.

A lot of times, you get in situations where things pile up on top of each other and your body is like a warehouse. You keep taking in stuff and taking in stuff and pretty soon you’re full. You can’t fit anything else in. And you just kind of lose your grip. --BOB GOLIC

*

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, Wise called Steinberg’s Newport Beach offices and spoke to an associate in the firm, David Dunn.

Dunn was handling the paperwork on Wise’s grievance against the Browns.

Wise sounded depressed, but Dunn was not overly concerned.

“We were going to touch base later that week, regarding the grievance,” Dunn said. “He was frustrated. His back was hurting and nothing the treatment physician in Sacramento was doing would help.”

Later, Wise spoke to his father, Bob Wise who, like Dunn, was not concerned enough about Mike to become alarmed.

At noon, Wise had lunch with McBride at a restaurant in Davis.

“I told him to keep his chin up,” she said. “We just had a nice lunch and goofed around.”

At 3 p.m., Wise called McBride at the bank to tell her of an exciting business proposition. The owner of the restaurant had asked Wise if he would be interested in running one of his other restaurants.

At 5:30 p.m., Wise called McBride again, even more excited about the job opportunity.

McBride did not see Wise again until he came to her apartment later that night. At some point in between, she said, Wise spoke with his roommate, Allen Mentigo.

Only McBride knows what happened next. It has been speculated that she and Mike had an argument.

“There’s been a lot worse things said,” she said, not elaborating. “But that night, we did not get in an argument. When I talked to him at 11:30, he was fine. He said, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow at work.’ He gave me a kiss, he gave me a hug. In my mind sometimes, I really think he had no idea he was going to go home and do that.”

Police aren’t sure at what time Wise put a 9mm handgun into his mouth and fired. Wise was found wearing the same clothes he had worn to McBride’s.

The body wasn’t discovered until Friday afternoon. For the next week, news vans waited outside McBride’s apartment.

“I’m sure there were a lot of people looking for blame, pointing their fingers at certain people,” she said. “But I believe strongly I was a big part of his life and that I made him happy. Maybe I didn’t make him happy 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day, but he was my best friend. Now, I have to find a way, somehow, to live on.”

Wise was buried Aug. 28 in Novato. The Raiders sent a silver and black floral display with Wise’s former uniform No. 90.

Al Davis did not attend.

McBride says she doesn’t want Wise’s life remembered for how it ended.

“Mike had a huge heart,” she says. “He was a very compassionate person. He loved to make people laugh. He has written me so many beautiful things. People probably wouldn’t believe he wrote them. Mike wasn’t Prince Charming and I wasn’t Cinderella. It’s not like we had this beautiful, easy relationship. But nobody does. It’s so tough for me. My best friend is gone.”

*

I heard about it the morning of the game ( an exhibition Aug. 29 against Houston ). We have a lot of new guys on the team, a lot of guys didn’t even know who he was. The guys who knew him were more in shock. It was a difficult time to sit and reflect, as you’re putting your pads on for a game.

People see that Mike was an extreme. I don’t think they see themselves, that they could be driven to that depth, because most of us have always been in full control of our faculties, for the most part. You see it as something that can never happen to you because , “I’m a rational-thinking person; that’s a stupid thing to do. I would never do it.” I’m sure at one point Mike probably said that too. --BOB GOLIC


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