Wheatley able to turn corner

Raiders: Running back Tyrone Wheatley finds an opening with a team famous for springing careers that appear trapped behind the line of scrimmage.

January 05, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

ALAMEDA, Calif. - Tyrone Wheatley still sits a long way from the stardom many expected for him when he came to the NFL from Michigan in 1995. Star backs don't share duties with four other backs, and his 2000 season total of 1,046 rushing yards is nice but not sensational.

However, the 28-year-old tailback seems to be closer to NFL renown than ever before, having found his niche with the Oakland Raiders. For the first time in his six-year pro career, he's on a divisional champion. And in Jon Gruden, he has a coach who believes in him.

"I needed someone to say, `You are who you are. Now let's see you play football," said Wheatley, whose team will be host to the Miami Dolphins tomorrow in a divisional-round playoff game. "I knew I could play, because I wasn't the only guy quoted as a bust to go somewhere else and have some success."

The assurance wasn't always there. As a first-round draft pick, he was the top choice of the New York Giants' front office, but not of the team's coach at the time, Dan Reeves.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Reeves, enamored with Rashaan Salaam, derailed his career, but it would be safe to say that he didn't help, as Wheatley floundered, never gaining more than 583 yards in four seasons with the Giants.

Wheatley was said to be partly culpable for a lackadaisical approach, but, "Whatever I could do, I could do no right," Wheatley said. "All of a sudden, it wasn't anything wrong [with me], it's just he's not our guy."

The would-be feature back eventually ended up as a scout-team member assigned to help the starters prepare for opponents. Many players in the same situation might look back ruefully at such memories.

But as much as Wheatley would have liked more carries in New York, he lights up when recalling his days as the highest-paid scout player in the world, with fond memories of being Deion Sanders in practice.

"I still felt that guys I played with, I had to get them ready for games," he said. "If I was on the look squad, I was going to be the best look I could be. And have fun doing it."

Even those good times didn't last. Just as Wheatley was getting used to his role, the Giants traded him to the Miami Dolphins in early 1999 for a seventh-round draft pick.

South Florida was supposed to bring a fresh start. Instead, more rejection was in store. The Dolphins dumped Wheatley before the 1999 season.

"I didn't know what my plans were," he said. "I went to the mall, watched a movie. Took a nap. Then I called my wife, then my agent."

Not many days passed before Wheatley got a call from his agent, who told him simply to get on a 5 a.m. plane from South Florida to Oakland, and to take some clothes, "because if they like you, you're staying."

They liked him and he stayed, because sprinter speed inside a 235-pound athlete is tough to come by. He followed through on his physical promise by immediately running over defenders during training camp.

Gruden said it wasn't a leap of faith to trust Wheatley's ability, being familiar with the player he had been in college.

"It's not like he was a mystery man," the third-year coach said. "He was talented when he got here, and now he's found a niche, a rhythm."

Said Raiders offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy: "It was desire on his part and opportunity on our part. Any competitor whose life was taken out of him ... who feels any pride will take a change to make things right."

Gruden said he has never seen a team on which five tailbacks can co-exist. Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, Randy Jordan, Zack Crockett and Terry Kirby all have a good chance to get a significant number of carries against Miami.

But Wheatley has been able to separate himself from the pack, gradually earning more responsibility to the point where he has more than twice as many carries (232) as any other Raiders back.

"There wasn't a point where he let me know," Wheatley said. "Each week, he would play me a little more. Give me more assignments. My role got a little bigger until it's where it is right now."

Nearly 18 months after he headed west for what would likely be his last chance, Wheatley has settled with his family in the San Francisco Bay area after spending most of his life in the East.

He recognizes where he fits in, as yet another who has joined the Raiders to reclaim a career. Historically, traded or cut players, such as Jim Plunkett, have helped the franchise to its three Super Bowl titles. Five of the 13 former first-round draft picks on the roster were players who started their careers elsewhere.

"It is a makeup of the Raiders' foundation, guys who have been here five years or more ... then you have guys who haven't found a stable home," Wheatley said. "But we all have one goal: a steady home and a championship."

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