There may not be a player on the Cincinnati Bearcats roster who has enjoyed the national spotlight more than junior wideout Mardy Gilyard. Whether it was setting a new UC record for all purpose yards with 365 (including a 97 yard kickoff return for a touchdown) against Oklahoma on ABC, or the most recent moment that took place last Thursday on national TV when he comforted a young boy after he was unable to avoid crashing into stands, Mardy Gilyard has made a name for himself by performing at the highest level on the biggest stages.
The collision with the young man, which took place against the South Florida Bulls on ESPN, earned Gilyard the respect of fans and analysts across the country, as well as quickly earned him a reputation for being one of the classiest players in sports today. When asked about the incident, Gilyard recalled what went through his mind as he his momentum carried him towards the stands.
"I wasn't really worried about my own safety, as cliché as it sounds," said Gilyard. "I'm just a big sucker for kids. So when I looked up I just thought, oh god, I have to dodge these kids somehow. It's funny because if you look at the film you can see grown adults moving out of the way but not taking any kids with them. That kind of took me so I tried to literally jump over everyone. I was thinking the kids were going to rush the cage and I was going to be able to leap over them, but it kind of didn't happen that way."
Despite his best effort, Gilyard was unable to clear everyone and collided with a young man who was sitting in the first row.
"What the cameras didn't catch was me shoulder to face with a little kid, the seven year old that everyone saw, and it looked like the little kid's head bounced off of the bleachers," said Gilyard. "I have a lot of nephews, and that was just all I could think of, like this is somebody's son or cousin or nephew."
Gilyard then recalled what happened next, and also what fans saw when they tuned into various news stations across the country that night.
"So I just scooped him up and I instantly told him everything's ok, and you're ok. It's alright, you're alright," said Gilyard. "And he kind of gave me a little smile and said `ok, ok.' Then his dad, I think it was his dad, came down and was kind of freaking out a little bit and that's what took it over the edge for the kid. He really started bawling then, and that's when the cameras caught him bawling. But I really wasn't worried about my safety; it was just about making sure I didn't hurt a kid."
There is no doubt Gilyard has become of the most respected players on the team and in the country, but that success didn't come overnight. Gilyard was raised in Bunnell, Florida, a small city about 20 minutes north of Daytona Beach, known for the drugs and violence that plague the area.
When Gilyard arrived at Cincinnati to play for Coach Mark Dantonio, he was originally listed at the cornerback position. However, due to poor class attendance, and other academic issues, Gilyard was never able to achieve any sort of success. Prior to the start of the 2007 season, Gilyard had his scholarship revoked, was evicted from his apartment, and was declared academically ineligible. "It was just a really bad experience."
At that point, Gilyard found himself at a lower point than he ever could have imagined. With his scholarship gone, and no home, Gilyard found himself living in his car and working 4 jobs in an effort to earn enough money to get back into school, and back on the football field. In a situation like he faced, many would, and have, given up all hope. But Gilyard wasn't like a lot of others. He stayed focused on what he needed to do, and continued to work hard.
But even despite that hard work, there were still days when Gilyard felt he should give up. However, he was able to stay focused on his goals, and attributes his ability to do so to the strong support he received from a few special individuals in his life; mainly his fiancée Amber Johnson.
"My fiancée; she's my rock," said Gilyard. "There were days where I was just like, 'I'm going to go home.' I just felt like I was better off doing the old things, like stuff that really got me in trouble. I was just running about, getting money in my pocket, and keeping my head above water. I wasn't really worrying about school. But she stressed to me, as did my mother and father, that I came here to go to school. Football was always the second thing, but I really came here to go to school. That's why I'm stressing the fact that if I ever had the opportunity to leave early I wouldn't; just because the whole graduation thing is extremely important to me."
There is no doubt that without the support of his fiancée and parents, Mardy would have never been able to achieve what he has today. But in addition to his family, there was also one teammate that Gilyard kept close during his difficult times.
"I kept good ties with Terrill Byrd," said Gilyard. "Me and him are extremely close. Me and him stayed extremely close throughout this whole thing. I would see a couple guys here and there, but the one who really stood out would be Terrill Byrd."
Byrd, an all American selection last season, has consistently been one of the Bearcats top defenders, and a leader on that side of the ball. When he saw a close friend of his in a desperate situation, he saw no other option than to reach out to him.
"Mardy was going through a bad year, and he needed someone to talk to," said Byrd. "He felt that I could be that someone to talk to. Actually, he stayed with me for a little while when he was going through his ordeal. I just told him you're doing something nobody in your family ever did. Go to college and graduate college. I was just like stay at it. Sometimes things don't always go your way. Maybe plan A didn't work, so maybe you have to go to plan B. Just stay on the right path, keep doing the right thing, and something good will come out of it."
As Byrd will be the first to tell you, something very good did come out of the situation.
"As you can see, Mardy is having a great year, and he's grateful for every chance he gets to come out here on this field and try and get better," said Byrd. "That's why I care for him as a friend, and as a man. Mardy is a funny person if you get to know him. I told him that going through this hard time is going to make you a better man, and that's exactly what it did."
When Brian Kelly took over as head coach in 2007, he was impressed with the potential he saw out of Gilyard, and told Gilyard that he would like to have him back on the team. An NCAA rule would prohibit the Bearcats from re-awarding Gilyard a scholarship until he had paid off the debt he had to the University. However, with the money he had saved working four jobs, and a little help from a family friend, he was able to pay off his debts and rejoin the team, on scholarship, just a few days later.
Coach Kelly had high hopes for Gilyard this season, and so far they have played out just as Kelly had hoped. Outside of his amazing performance against Oklahoma, Gilyard is quietly leading the Big East in touchdown receptions, and is near the top of the list when it comes to receiving yardage.
"We thought that he was capable this year of elevating his status within our offense, and that was just a matter of consistency," said Kelly. "We also thought he had the ability to be recognized within the Big East as a top flight receiver. He's done those things."
Kelly also spoke highly of the Gilyard that most of the nation is just now beginning to take notice of.
"What we knew about Mardy is that he's a young man who has overcome a lot," said Kelly. "But one thing we knew about him is that he's a genuine kid, and he's like that all the time. He's got an infectious personality and he loves being around kids. He volunteers with one of the local community centers here. So what you saw on Thursday was not scripted, and he's a pretty genuine guy."
Coach Kelly made mention of Gilyard's service to local community centers, and that is something that Mardy himself considers very important. He is currently a volunteer at a mission center in Downtown Cincinnati.
"I do help out at a mission center downtown; Westwood Chapel Mission Center," said Gilyard. "I'm kind of like a big brother, or like an uncle type deal. And with my best friend, who is actually in federal prison right now, I try to talk to his kids every time I get a chance. They actually will be at the Pittsburgh game. I'll have them for the weekend of the Pittsburgh game."
Despite the extremely busy schedule that goes along with being a member of a Big East football team, Gilyard tries to make it to the community center as often as possible.
"I'm pretty much just a big brother to the guy's downtown at the Mission Center," said Gilyard. "I haven't been there in about a month because of how busy we have been, but that's where I spend most of my time."
It appears obvious that Cincinnati fans, along with most of the fans around the nation, have been impressed with Gilyard's play on the field, but what about the man himself? Gilyard says he is pleased, for the most part, with his play and the play of the team.
"I'm fairly happy where we're at," said Gilyard. "If I had to think about it, I'd like us to be better off in the standings, but I wouldn't change anything. I'd like to have the UCONN game back, for whatever that matters. But it really doesn't matter because we are pretty much in the driver's seat for everything now. From a personal standpoint, maybe a couple games here and there I thought I could have done a little better. But I think I'm living up to my expectations that I should."
As for what he expects to happen this Saturday, Gilyard made his thoughts loud and clear.
"I said it in Oklahoma," said Gilyard. "I wouldn't care if I had 1000 yards in that game, I just want to win. I WANT TO WIN, I WANT TO WIN, I WANT TO WIN. Make sure that's in bold letters. I want to win. I haven't beaten West Virginia yet, and we're out here busting our butt to win. We're not out here working hard to give them a close game in Morgantown. Every time we have gone there it wasn't a close game, so we want to win."
This Saturday night, Gilyard will get his chance to not only defeat the Mountaineers, but to further establish his mark on Bearcat history as he attempts to help lead them to their first Big East championship in school history.
The outcome of that game is impossible to predict. But one thing is for sure -- Bearcat fans, along with fans across the nation will be watching, and waiting to see what this charismatic receiver who has captured the hearts of many will accomplish next.