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One-on-One Coverage: Marcellus Wiley on stealing Bruce Smith’s shoes, Flutie Mania and more Bills memories

Marcellus Wiley is 43, yet he never allows his mind to drift too far from that kid who grew up surrounded by poverty and violence in South Central Los Angeles.

“The kid that was on the bus stop waiting for an hour to just go on a five-minute drive,” he said. “I just remember food stamps and welfare checks and the shame. I remember just not having opportunities.

“I’m just a kid that probably wasn’t dealt the best hand in the world, but I never really got caught up in counting my cards or assessing my hand. I just started to play the game and tried to calculate the experience the best way possible.”

Wiley traveled an unlikely path, going from South Central to the Ivy League, where he became a standout football player and earned a degree in sociology at Columbia University, and from the Ivy League to the NFL, where he became a second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1997.

The Bills selected Wiley as the heir apparent to Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, who he eventually replaced in 2000, Wiley’s final season with the Bills. Wiley spent the next three years with the San Diego Chargers, one with the Dallas Cowboys, and spent the last two of his 10 NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In 147 career games, he amassed 320 tackles, 44 sacks, 13 forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. His best season with the Bills was 2000, when he finished with 10.5 sacks. In 2001, he was selected to the Pro Bowl after a 13-sack season with the Chargers.

Wiley became a broadcaster with ESPN, and last July moved to Fox Sports. He believes the story of his improbable journey as a player, rather than his actual playing career, did the most to get him to the “front of the line” for his television gigs.

Wiley recently expanded his media exploits by writing a book titled “Never Shut Up: The Life, Opinions, and Unexpected Adventures of An NFL Outlier.” He goes into great detail about those formative years with the Bills, including a turning-point moment when Wiley asked Smith for his secret on how he was able to get off the ball faster than everyone else. Smith responded by asking Wiley what he was looking at before the snap.

“The ball,” Wiley said.

“Where on the ball?”

“The tip.”

“Which tip?”

“The top tip.”

“That’s your problem. I’m looking at the guy’s pinky finger and the bottom tip.”

Wiley, who the Bills have invited to “lead the charge” before they face the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4 at New Era Field, said he wrote the book to inspire others. “My story was full of contradictions, stat-busters as they call them,” he said. “The title is really about the essence, to never shut that up despite the circumstances."

In this week’s “One-on-One Coverage,” Wiley spent some time on the phone with The Buffalo News discussing how he ended up at Columbia and his memories of Buffalo and the Bills.

Buffalo News: What stood out the most about being in Buffalo?

Marcellus Wiley: It was just an amazing experience, a place where football was at its core. Everything seemed to flow with football as the priority, whether it was just going to the bank and cashing your check and having long discussions with the teller about the game and him or her being educated and passionate about it. Grocery stores, anywhere you went in the city, Buffalo Bills was No. 1 and the only show in town, it felt like. And that was amazing to have your career start like that, especially from a small school like Columbia. I’d never been on an airplane before to travel for a football contest. I never knew what big-business football looked like.

And then I'm in an organization where Marv Levy, another former Ivy Leaguer, is the coach. I got drafted to a team with Bruce Smith, the greatest defensive end who ever played a game, and to really match my skills up against his on the daily and really to be overwhelmed by, not only his skill set but his knowledge base, and to always try to match up to that standard and falling short time and time again, really excited me. It really gave me something to chase. You add up all the Hall of Famers on our roster, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, it was just Football 101 and it gave me the best start for a D-end ever.

BN: And yet, for all of your respect for Bruce, you wrote in the book that one of your very first thoughts the very first time you entered the locker room was plotting to steal a pair of his cleats.

MW: You know how everyone always talks about a full-circle moment? A moment where your dreams are reality? For me, he was the guy that I knew I wanted to be like. And it was just by luck that I was on his team, drafted in a high round. And it was even more luck that this is the same guy that I wanted his shoes. For every basketball player that wanted Jordans, I was the guy that wanted Bruce Smiths, with Dennis Hopper in that (TV) commercial. I remember asking my mom for the money ($79.95) to get the shoes. There was no way I was getting those shoes.

But I walk into a locker room, not only is Bruce Smith right there, but the damn shoes are going up the wall into dozens. And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” I just left Los Angeles inner city and I couldn’t even scrape 60-70 bucks for the shoes. And now I'm here, with not only the shoes but the guy, the man, the beast, the baller. He can give me the shoes, I bet, but why get the shoes that way when it felt like I earned them? So I had to go get them.

BN: You also admit in the book that you adopted the gang-initiation mentality where you have to prove your loyalty to fellow gang members by committing a crime in going after the shoes.

MW: I was never a gang member, I never even thought of being one, but I was part of this new Buffalo Bills gang and that was like my greatest initiation. And it really pulled at my heartstrings to be able to do that, kind of like those moments that you cherish growing up, when that “No” turned into a “Yes.” And I was in a moment of realization that I just accomplished something that was unbelievable, that was a dream for me and my family. So no better way to pay homage to my roots than to kind of do the gang ritual and take the shoes from him.

BN: Of course, you write that Thurman Thomas witnessed the whole thing and told Bruce about it, but Bruce sort of pretended like it never happened.

MW: Thurman was always the stirrer of the pot. He had four eyeballs and three sets of ears, so he caught everything. His locker was right where you walked in, so he had a commander’s post and he could see everything in the locker room. But by that point, I felt Bruce respected me as a young guy that he could help shape and mold, so it was water off his back, which thankfully it was.

Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith pursues Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. (Buffalo News file photo)

BN: One of the more powerful stories you tell in the book is about when you decided to buy a small handgun – a .380 that you said was nicknamed a “Baby 9” – while with the Bills, complete with a holster you called a “wallet.”

MW: I’m from the inner city my whole life, never had a gun, never gang-banging, but I felt protected because of my family, and I had a lot of family that was in gangs. I felt protected because I had talents and everyone wanted to make sure I realized my talents. And then, all of a sudden, one day I get drafted. My world didn’t really change, at least not financially immediately, but I’m now this NFL player that everyone is looking at differently.

I had a good friend and one day we were just riding around and he asked me if I’m going to get a gun and I was kind of caught off guard. And he was like, “Yeah, you know they just robbed me in front of my own house not too long ago. Now you have all this money. Everyone knows who you are. You're going to Buffalo, you're gonna stick out like a sore thumb. You don't know anyone out there. Maybe you should look into it.” I brushed it off, but I have to admit that it stuck with me for a bit.

Finally, after a couple of trips back and forth to Buffalo, whether it's minicamp or some of the marketing things, I started to realize that I was going to be lonely out there, I was going to be different out there. People are pointing at you like you're in an aquarium, like you're not a person. So I did get the gun just because I knew I would be gone on road trips, people would know my schedule.

I didn't use it at first, I was an upstanding gun carrier, and then I don’t know what happened, but it changed. It turned from me being as careful as I could be to, I’m a 22-year-old with a gun and I was going to start carrying it around with me to make sure I was protected, not just at home or at the club, but unnecessarily at work. It culminated one night when I was leaving the club and a guy stepped in front of my car and looked at me. And then he started to make his way to the driver side window and I started to reach for my gun like, “Is this the moment I'm supposed to protect myself from?” It’s 2, 3 in the morning. The guy looks suspicious and I’ve seen that look before, I know what it felt like. And then the guy taps on the window and he just asked me for directions. I’m this close to hurting this guy, if not killing this guy, over directions. And just like that I had a moment of clarity and got rid of it. I just launched it into the water. I’ve never owned one since.

BN: How does a kid from South Central L.A. end up at an Ivy League school?

MW: I always wanted to be presumed intelligent. Growing up in the inner city, where everyone was talking about the gangs and the poverty and the drugs, I kept noticing the low ambition and expectations were so low from others, whether it was the people in the community or especially the people who weren't from that community. I saw how it affected the spirit, how it affected emotions. Everyone was living on the edge. You can drop something, spill some milk in aisle seven, and it could turn it to a gunfight just because everyone's on the edge. It just comes from people living experiences they didn’t desire and being stuck in that experience really can suppress some of the joy of life.

No one expected much of you. They kept telling you statistics how you wouldn't make it, and I wanted to change that. And I know being another football player doesn't really change or attack that mindset because you're just another football player, another dumb jock as I kept hearing my entire life growing up, even though I had great academic success.

But even if I made it to the NFL, I didn’t want to go my whole life having to prove to people that I was smart, because it’s impossible. Until they get to know you, what are they thinking? And I know what they're thinking as a big, black football player from Compton and South Central. So what better way to immediately undermine the negativity and immediately turn it to the positive than going to an Ivy League school?

BN: In choosing Columbia, you turned down scholarship offers from UCLA, Cal and Arizona, among other schools with big-time programs that seemingly would have given you a better chance to get to the NFL.

MW: I made my decision, so when I was done playing, no one would look at me as less than I was. I was comfortable with taking the NFL loss if it meant my lifetime gain, and thankfully, I got the best of both worlds.

BN: Did you ever dream that NFL world would begin in Buffalo?

MW: At that time, there were 30 teams in the league, not 32, and I had talked to 28 of the 30. Of the two that I didn’t speak to, one was Buffalo, so I never had any contact with (then-General Manager) John Butler, never had any contact with Marv Levy. None of their coaches came to my Pro Day. I don’t remember any of them coming to my school for any of my games, none of the practices, so Buffalo was not in the conversation and I didn’t think anything of it because they had Bruce Smith and Phil Hansen. I was like, “Alright, I get it. They don’t want me.”

BN: What was the transition like from Columbia to the NFL?

MW: I started to gain confidence in practice and I started to become a special practice player. Now, Bruce would always tease me. He was like, “Yeah, but you don’t play in the game, so it’s easy to be great in practice because (those of us who do play) are sore." I used to laugh at that, but it still didn't stop my confidence from growing. And when I finally got my opportunity, I started to feel that I could be special in the league.

BN: What were the highlights of playing for the Bills?

MW: There were two. To be selfish, one was just the fact that I came back from my back surgery before my final season and actually played well. It was my contract year, a chance to get a big contract and generational wealth, and to recover from that and still put up double-digit sacks, to me, was amazing.

But the best part about the Bills experience was really going through Flutie Mania, man. That was just insane, when Doug Flutie was rolling. It's crazy enough that everyone knows Doug Flutie from the Hail Mary and USFL. And he was so personable. I remember he took us on a private jet to a game at Boston College. I felt like I was with Bon Jovi or some rock star. He had a police escort and when we got to the stadium, he didn’t show a ticket. He showed his face to the people at the parking lot, at the gates, and everyone was letting him go right through.

The spirit of Doug Flutie, what he embodied to me is, you can’t count someone out and that was my whole experience growing up. And to watch him, despite all the adversity and all the naysayers, not just go out there and play well but ball out. He changed us from a 0-3 team to a 10-6 team. He deserves all that love and respect.

BN: So you obviously picked a side in the Flutie vs. Rob Johnson debate.

MW: Absolutely, Doug Flutie.

BN: How divided was the locker room on that?

MW: It wasn’t 50-50. I would say it was 70-30, 80-20 Doug. But the craziest thing was how it played out in real time, how we knew Rob had to start the last game (of the 1999 season before the Bills faced Tennessee in the wild-card round) against Indy. I think Wade Phillips was wholeheartedly resting Doug, but because Rob played so well, Ralph Wilson came down and said, “Change your tune immediately.” And I remember when Wade came in and said, “Guys, we’re changing quarterbacks.” It was craziness. People were like, “What?” Then, we all calmed down and realized, “Hey, it’s playoff week and if those are the marching orders, we must follow.”

This is no shot at Rob, but Doug would have won that game for us. It’s just that simple. Jevon Kearse is not going to get two-and-a-half sacks on Doug Flutie that easily, and we still almost won the game. It is what it is, but, yeah, I was Team Doug.

BN: How awful was the Music City Miracle for you?

MW: I remember there was a fan, a heckler, right behind our bench for the entire game. We couldn’t shut him up because we weren’t winning. And then, when we finally got the lead, I remember that fan because after he poured it on so thick, he started to pack up and was walking up the stairs. We’re clowning because this was our first time to say something back.

When that play happened, oh my God, it was unreal. It happened in slow motion. You saw (Frank) Wycheck get the ball from Lorenzo (Neal on the kickoff after the go-ahead field, and lateral to Kevin Dyson, who returned it for the winning touchdown). Everyone saw it at the same time. “Oh, no!” Look, it was still a forward pass, I can’t go to that place, but it was the most disturbing thing I ever experienced in football.

The 1999 Buffalo Bills: Where are they now?

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