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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : Landing on Wheatley Place : Michigan Running Back Finds Out This Season if His Roll of the Dice Will Pay the Dividends He Is Seeking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At last the truth can be told: The answer to the greatest Michigan football mystery since ‘Why can’t Bo win Rose Bowls?’ is located along a stretch of make-believe property that runs from Atlantic Avenue to Ventnor Avenue and ends at Marvin Gardens.

“I call them, ‘The Flamingos,’ ” said Tyrone Wheatley, budding Monopoly real estate magnate, All-American tailback and centerpiece of the Wolverine off-season drama. “The reason I call them ‘The Flamingos’ is because it’s like a little resort . . . right before you go to jail.”

Wheatley knows all about monopolies. He and San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk cornered the college rushing market last season and then had to decide between the NFL draft and returning to school. Faulk bolted, but Wheatley wasn’t so sure. Should he stay or should

he go? The choice seemed like no choice at all.

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Top-five pick or letter sweater? Face the Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Hoosiers? Advance to Go and collect millions, or settle for a Chance card?

Wheatley thought about it for a while, trusted his instincts and gave the NFL one of his famous crowbar stiff-arms.

He was staying for his senior season. A campus rejoiced.

Of course, the trouble with Chance cards is that sometimes they bear bad news. Wheatley got his on Wednesday, when X-rays revealed a second-degree separation of his right shoulder, caused by a hit he had taken during a contact drill a day earlier.

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As soon as the initial prognosis was announced--Wheatley is a likely no-show for the season opener Sept. 3 against Boston College, and a maybe against Notre Dame Sept. 10 and Colorado Sept. 24--you could almost hear the I-told-you-so’s from second-guessers.

Wheatley, said his critics, took a huge, unnecessary financial risk by passing up the NFL. This is what he gets in return: his worst nightmare--another injury to the shoulder he hurt last season.

Some nightmare. If any of this bothers Wheatley, he isn’t showing it.

“Even if I didn’t get injured many would say, ‘He still should have gone pro and taken the money,’ ” Wheatley said Friday. “I haven’t lost anything I said I wanted to strive for. Sure, a Heisman would be nice, but a degree from Michigan, a Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl is what my main goals were and still are at this time. Am I disappointed? Yes, but I’m not out for the season.”

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Seasoned Wheatley-watchers aren’t surprised by the response. Other players would have gone into seclusion. Wheatley returned phone calls hours after the bad news.

Come to think of it, most other players in Wheatley’s position wouldn’t be at Michigan. They would have joined Faulk and ditched college for the pros.

“Honestly, Tyrone is just a little different guy and he’ll do the unexpected thing,” said Michigan Coach Gary Moeller, who didn’t have a clue about Wheatley’s senior season preferences until shortly before the Jan. 10 news conference.

As it turns out, Moeller and anyone else who hums “The Victors” in their sleep could have saved themselves a peptic ulcer or two by simply asking Wheatley about Monopoly. Understand the significance of those three yellow properties--Atlantic, Ventnor and Marvin Gardens--and in a weird sort of way you understand why Wheatley is on scholarship and not on an NFL payroll.

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“You got to have a plan,” said Wheatley at the recent Big Ten media day. “You got to have a plan.”

And Wheatley’s plan goes like this: Never over-extend yourself. Never rush to a decision. Never change the plan.

So Wheatley wheels and deals until he collects all three Flamingos and lets everyone else battle for Boardwalk and Park Place in the volatile high-rent district. After all, what’s the use of owning a blue property if you can’t enjoy the view?

“The way a lot of guys get out of the game quickly is they buy early, then try to put hotels up and they have no money,” Wheatley said. “Then if you hit me, you’re out of the game. You mortgage your property and then I buy that mortgage.

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“It’s just patience. Just collect the rent and then you get enough money. Then you buy your houses.”

Patience is mostly why Wheatley is back at Michigan. He could have left early and no one would have said boo, especially after he rushed for 1,357 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior.

And just think what he might have done last year if Moeller hadn’t stuck him on the Wolverine punt coverage team, where Wheatley first injured his shoulder while making a tackle against Illinois. He missed two games, including a crucial matchup against Wisconsin, which the Wolverines lost.

Now he faces a similar layoff. Team doctors will wait until next week to re-examine the newest injury, but when he does return to lineup it will be business as usual.

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“I don’t have a lot of fancy moves,” Wheatley said. “It’s just me and the trusty stiff-arm.”

Fancy or not, Wheatley was usually at his best when it counted most. He ripped through Notre Dame for 318 all-purpose yards and two scores. He gained 192 yards at Penn State, 105 against Ohio State, 124 against North Carolina State in the Hall of Fame Bowl. A few months later, at the Big Ten outdoor track and field meet, Wheatley won the 110-meter high hurdles.

“He’s a great back,” said John Becker, the Rams’ director of player personnel. “He has size (6 feet 1, 226 pounds), power, speed, productivity and he’s played well in the big games. At this point, there’s probably nobody coming back in their senior year with his credentials.”

And this from Ram all-pro Jerome Bettis, the former Notre Dame star who was there the day Wheatley blew by the Irish bench on his way to a 27-yard touchdown reception in 1992, “He has a Rodney Hampton stiff-arm. He gives it to you, keeps his balance and still gets up the field. He has all the attributes to be a star in this league.”

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For the moment, the Big Ten will have to do. Wheatley doesn’t mind a bit.

“I just didn’t know it was going to be that big a deal,” he said.

*

It isn’t every day that someone tears up his winning Lotto ticket, but Wheatley sort of did. Had he left early, Becker said, Wheatley would have been a definite top-10 pick and a probable top-five selection. Instead, Wheatley stayed put, passing up the NFL’s big bucks for another season’s worth of Monopoly money.

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This was no small decision. San Diego State’s Faulk, the No. 2 choice, came out early and got a reported seven-year, $17.2-million contract with a $5.1-million signing bonus. Tennessee’s Heath Shuler, another undergraduate, was chosen third and received an eight-year, $19.25-million deal with a $5-million bonus.

Sam Adams left Texas A&M; after his junior season and got a five-year, $6.5-million package with a $2.75-million bonus. UCLA’s Jamir Miller, the No. 10 pick, bolted after his junior year and recently signed a four-year contract worth more than $4 million with a $2-million-plus bonus.

Wheatley got a summer job. Now that he is back on campus, he’ll get a $270 monthly scholarship stipend to pay for a $300-a-month apartment.

“But it isn’t about money,” he said.

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This is 99% true. Wheatley said he wants to leave Michigan with a degree, not a broken promise. He wants to set Wolverine rushing records--he begins this season fifth on the yardage list, 1,359 yards behind leader Jamie Morris. He wouldn’t mind a Heisman or another Rose Bowl appearance or, if Michigan’s depth holds up, a chance at a national championship.

Most of all, though, Wheatley, 22, would like to have fun. He wants to be a college senior.

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be controlled,” he said.

He means it too. Wheatley saw what happened to the more prominent members of Michigan’s basketball team, the famed Fab Five. He watched his friend Chris Webber leave after only two seasons for the riches of the NBA. Webber later told Wheatley that he missed college life.

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Wheatley saw the grip basketball had on his buddy Jalen Rose, the star guard who, along with center Juwan Howard, left after his junior season. Rose, especially, couldn’t wait to make basketball a full-time job.

“They wanted to seize the moment right there,” said Wheatley of Webber, Rose and Howard. “I got all my life to work and pay bills. I got one more year to sit around and be a big kid. I can still say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ After I graduate, you can’t say that.”

Moeller and the rest of the Wolverines always suspected that Wheatley liked to run against the grain. But to turn down millions? And for what, to pull double duty on the punt-coverage team? To risk another injury?

Said linebacker Steve Morrison: “I just can remember sitting there with some of the other guys and hearing them say, ‘Tyrone is gone. He’s going to make all that money.’ I don’t know why, but I said, ‘I will not be surprised if Tyrone sticks around.’ ”

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Meanwhile, Moeller, who had gone through this sort of thing with Desmond Howard and John Vaughn--both left--tried to walk the fine line between coach and counselor. When Wheatley asked for advice--and it didn’t happen very often--Moeller did what he could. The Michigan coach made some calls to friends in the NFL and confirmed that Wheatley would be gone, more than likely, by the seventh pick of the draft. Big money, but not as big as if Wheatley waited another year and moved closer to the top spot.

Moeller also made his own abbreviated pitch to Wheatley. He told him he wanted him to stay, but that there would be no special favors during the senior season. And then he asked Wheatley the question that mattered, “If you leave, are you going to be happy?”

Wheatley said he’d think about it, leaving Moeller to wonder if that was that.

“Some days I’d say yes, some days I’d say no,” Moeller said. “I couldn’t predict.”

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Almost everyone told Wheatley to take the money and run. After all, a Heisman Trophy makes a wonderful doorstop, but it doesn’t pay the bills. National championship rings are nice conversation pieces, but then what? And enough already about the Rose Bowl. What, you want another free meal at Lawry’s?

But Wheatley wasn’t married to the money. This was the guy who, after a big Michigan victory, would celebrate by taking his younger brother to a movie. He doesn’t drink. He isn’t extravagant. His idea of a good time is playing his beloved Monopoly or a football video game.

Of course, it also helped that he had an NCAA-approved $2-million injury insurance policy. He had an education degree in the waiting. Best of all, he had his own timetable.

“It wasn’t so much weighing a gamble,” said Wheatley, who renewed the insurance policy for the 1994 season. “It was, ‘Which dream do I want?’ It wasn’t a wrong or right choice.”

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Word of Wheatley’s final decision didn’t leak to Moeller until the day before a planned news conference. And even then, there were conflicting reports. At one point, Moeller, who was a semi-wreck by this time, heard Wheatley was leaving.

Wheatley finally stopped by Moeller’s office to deliver the news: He wasn’t going anywhere.

A relieved Moeller became a publicist.

“OK, you go home, go get cleaned up (Moeller is big on coats and ties for news conferences) and then you get back here. I’ll put together some notes and. . . . “

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“Uh, Coach,” said Wheatley, “I’m better when I just talk about it.”

So he talked. And people everywhere listened and were amazed. Wheatley began receiving bags of mail from fans, alumni, parents, teachers and children, applauding him for his decision.

Wrote one mother: “No ‘Stay in School’ commercial could compete with what you’ve done.”

No word yet if any opposing Big Ten coaches dropped a note of thanks.

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Wheatley was overwhelmed by the response. He said he felt proud of the choice and comfortable with the risks. But he also has a confession to make.

“If I would have gone (No.) 1, it probably would have affected (the decision),” he said. “Fifth through eighth is pretty large. But if you’re guaranteed first, no way in the world you can pass that up.”

There are no guarantees Wheatley will do better than a top-five pick in next year’s draft. The shoulder injury could linger . . . he could have a couple of so-so games . . . his offensive line could struggle--any one of them could affect his chances to earn, as he puts it, “the whole pot of gold.”

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Moeller will do his part. The Wolverine offense is built around the rushing attack. Which means that Wheatley, if he misses no more than a few games, should carry 200 times. Word is that Wheatley also will be used more often as a receiving threat. He caught 14 passes last year, a figure that could double.

Equally important is his competition. At the moment, there is no quarterback or running back who can match Wheatley’s resume. That may change, depending on the progress of quarterbacks Rob Johnson of USC and Steve Stenstrom of Stanford, or, say, Rutgers sophomore halfback Terrell Willis.

Even so, the Rams’ Becker predicts that Wheatley will be the first running back taken next spring--that is, if the shoulder is OK. And the No. 1 overall pick isn’t out of the question, either, he said.

Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboy director of player personnel who now serves as an independent consultant, is even less hesitant to predict draft day success for the Michigan star.

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“To me, if you’re going to pick today, I’d take Wheatley,” Brandt said. “And if I were picking and I was (expansion franchise) Jacksonville or Charlotte, I wouldn’t be afraid to step up to the podium and make him my No. 1 guy.”

Wheatley could live with that. Mostly, though, he can live with himself and his decision to look long term rather than short. So what else is new?

He does it with the Flamingos. He does it with football.


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