Growing up in Michigan, where their dad’s name is legendary to college football fans, TJ and Terius Wheatley took to one particular sport. They played it a lot, and they played it well. They were on travel teams, including some that were among the best in the state.
That sport was … soccer.
“He was like, ‘I don’t care what you guys do,’ ” TJ recalls his dad saying, “ ‘as long as you guys put in 100 percent and go for it.’ ”
As the sons of Tyrone Wheatley got older — and bigger, and stronger — the attraction to try the sport which made their father famous was too great. Now they are following in the football footsteps of their dad, footsteps that this fall have made their way to Western New York.
Tyrone Wheatley, an all-time great at the University of Michigan and standout NFL running back, was the running backs coach at Syracuse University under head coach Doug Marrone for three years. With Wheatley accompanying Marrone to the Buffalo Bills, that relocation has resulted in perhaps the most newsworthy high school football arrival ever in Western New York.
For those who might find that last sentence to be overinflating the football a bit, consider: TJ Wheatley is a 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end and tight end. As he enters his junior season, he has scholarship offers from eight schools, including Alabama, Michigan and Penn State.
Terius Wheatley is 5-11½ and 170 pounds as he enters his sophomore year. He’ll play defensive back and wide receiver, but he’ll likely play running back in the future. His performances at summer camps were impressive enough that Penn State and Syracuse have already inquired about him.
The Wheatley family settled in Orchard Park, and ultimately decided on Canisius, where the brothers’ arrival has more than bolstered a team that was already loaded. As high school football opens practice throughout New York State on Monday, Canisius has been designated the No. 1 team in the state by some national polls.
“We were big soccer players,” said TJ, whose given name is Tyrone Jr. “We didn’t even play football — we knew our dad played and everything, and we liked watching the games, but we were really big into soccer.
“I was like, ‘My dad played football, he was good, I want to try it out.’ I tried it and I was like, ‘Hey, I like this.’ ”
A growth spurt by TJ helped convince his parents to allow him to play his first year of football, which came in Michigan. Terius didn’t play until his seventh-grade season, after the family had moved to Syracuse.
“If you guys want to play football,” TJ recalls his father saying, “I just need to know, do you want me to work you, or do you want to do your own thing?”
TJ answered “a little bit of both,” and every so often, he’ll ask his dad to work them out. Then dad becomes Coach Wheatley, and as he’s shown in a career that started with Robichaud High (Dearborn Heights, Mich.), Ohio Northern and Eastern Michigan before joining Marrone at Syracuse, he knows what he’s doing.
“My dad, he’s a funny guy — he’s a football player, but he knows everything about every sport,” TJ said. “No matter what sport we played, he knew exactly what to say and what to do. I wouldn’t listen to him sometimes, but then I’d think about it and do it … and I’d get so much better. And he’d be like, ‘I told you.’ ”
Said Terius: “I was always small, so he was worried about me getting pushed over, so I had to work on all my athletic abilities with him to get me better so I was faster and stronger than all the other kids. Now I’m getting better and better.
“He worked me to death — but I’m glad, because it paid off.”
When the brothers are asked if there was ever a time when they’d tell Coach Wheatley that the workouts might be a little too much, TJ said with a laugh: “We wouldn’t dare. You just have to grind it out. The next morning, you could say, ‘Dad, that was a little rough,’ and he’d be like, ‘All right, I’ll cut it down a little bit.’ ”
Given the massive workload of a major college or NFL coaching staff, which requires extensive time away from home, TJ and Terius appreciate the time they have with their father.
“It’s exciting and everything to say that my dad’s a coach for the Bills and this and that, but it’s rough,” said TJ. “When you see him, you’ve got to cherish it and make the most of the opportunities.”
They both also laud their mother, Kimberly. The mother of five (another son is in eighth grade, and there are two younger daughters) played volleyball at North Carolina Central. “She takes us everywhere, drives us all over the country to visits and camps and everything,” said TJ. “She has that mother sense about coaches and people. … like, ‘Oh, he’ll take care of you,’ or, ‘He’s just giving you the grand tour.’ ”
Coach Wheatley prefers for his sons to enjoy their own high school football careers (he declined requests by The News to be interviewed for this story).
“Dad’s done a great job,” said Canisius coach Rich Robbins. “I think he’s been hard on those boys, in a good way. You can tell they’ve had a lot of discipline. When they came for their visit, they were real straightforward, very business-like. ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ Very coachable. Very unassuming. TJ’s obviously a big kid physically, and he has a lot of street cred, but he didn’t come in here acting like an Alabama-offer kind of kid.
“Tyrone told me one thing: He said, ‘I’ll never tell you anything, coach. Just coach ’em hard.’ And that’s an NFL coach and legendary-type player coming into the program as a parent. I have lots of other parents who do try and tell me what I should and shouldn’t do — but Tyrone, that was his only thing.”
The Wheatleys considered buying homes in the Williamsville North and Orchard Park districts, and they toured those schools along with Canisius and St. Francis. Schools tried to sell them using academic statistics. Canisius senior running back Qadree Ollison, himself a top-flight Division I recruit (he’ll decide between Syracuse, Penn State, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Rutgers), reached out to TJ.
At one point, TJ’s phone rang. It was Williamsville native and New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who attended Williamsville North before transferring to Pittsburgh-area Woodland Hills for his senior year.
“He said, ‘I heard you’re considering my old school. If you go there, you’ve got to break all my records in basketball and football,’ ” said TJ, who also plays basketball. “It was funny.”
Prior to the Wheatleys making their decision on schooling, coach Wheatley had coach Robbins on the phone for about two hours one night.
“It was the most detailed parent conversation, of course,” said Robbins. “Everything from offensive and defensive philosophies to how deep were we at receiver, what were our plans for defending our championship this year, what we were doing in the offseason.
“We spent about 20 minutes on football and over an hour on academics, recruiting, the NCAA, the process and things like community service and everything that is at the school. Because it takes a certain kind of kid to be here.
“And as much as having an NFL guy come in, it would be so great to have him as a resource, and be at games … he said to me: ‘I have to coach the Bills, you coach Canisius. You coach my boys hard, that’s all I want you to do.’ He just wants them to be treated like any other kids.”
Of course, they are in some ways not like any other kids.
TJ’s scholarship offers also include Syracuse, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Washington and Nevada. And then there is this from Robbins: “Everyone knows about TJ. He’s been more publicized. … The gem here is Terius. He was one of the best high jumpers in Section III (Syracuse area) as a freshman. He’s a dynamic player.”
Soon after, another telling quote from Robbins: “But Terius probably won’t start.”
That is due to what has become an off-the-charts collection of talent at Canisius, which would have been a power with several returning players from an undefeated team, led by Ollison (News co-Player of the Year last season), seniors Ryan Richards (defensive back/receiver) and Mike Sharpe (linebacker) and junior Josh Huffman (defensive back/receiver). Then came the transfer of linebacker/receiver Brad Zaffram, who was a first-team All-Western New York selection as a sophomore at Sweet Home. Then came the Wheatleys.
“We’ve got to put a lot of work in,” said Terius. “There’s a lot of competition for every spot. There are so many athletes here. We just push each other. It’s like a family.”
Said TJ: “They’re athletes – ‘Q,’ Huffman and all the guys. It’s not all on me. I’m going to keep working hard, but it’s not like I have to do everything. I’m excited to get this show on the road.
“Just stay humble, my dad always told me, and good things are going to come our way. Just keep working hard. And don’t get a fat head — that’s when you’ll get in trouble.”