You’re probably familiar with the story of Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle whose journey to the NFL was told in the book and Academy Award-nominated movie "The Blind Side".
Oher, who grew up bouncing from foster homes to the streets, was recruited by then-Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron to play college football at Ole Miss.
Orgeron is now the recruiting coordinator at the University of Southern California, and while the geography has changed, the coach’s knack for identifying talent hasn’t.
Enter Michael Wyche, a 20-year old defensive tackle at East Los Angeles Community College. He’s now a USC verbal commit, and Orgeron told him he reminds him a bit of a kid he used to coach at Ole Miss: Michael Oher.
“Where I come from it’s either the graveyard or jail,” Wyche said. Born in Chesapeake, Va., Wyche was raised in nearby South Norfolk by a single mother addicted to drugs. His father has been in prison since Michael was just 4 years old and won’t be eligible for release until 2032.
The lights at home weren’t always on. His mom wasn’t always home. Wyche often had to entertain himself.
His entertainment came in the way of selling drugs and robbing people.
“I was in the streets really bad, and like I said, I was robbing people and in guns and violence,” Wyche explained. “I ended up in alternative school because when I was in middle school I was bad in there, too. They ended up sending me there. But I was always playing sports. I’ve been playing football since I was 5 years old.”
It was an old-timer in the neighborhood, who Wyche still only knows by the nickname "Killer Weed," who put him on the local teams. By the time he was in middle school, he was the first student-athlete to participate in four sports a year.
“I was the first kid to do football, basketball, wrestling and track,” Wyche said. “I did basketball and wrestling at the same time because they didn’t have a heavyweight to do the wrestling so I actually didn’t even practice. I was just playing in games.”
Even with the time commitment involved in playing sports, Wyche still had time to lead a troubled path. He continued to sell drugs and carry guns. His grandparents stepped in to do all they could to look after and raise him. His mom remained in and out of the picture.
There were a few others along the way, however, who proved to make a difference.
At Chesapeake Alternative School, Wyche met a man who cared about him, though he still doesn’t really understand why.
“I met this guy named Alexander,” Wyche recalled. “He became a mentor to me and changed my mind about life. He ended up just telling me, ‘Man, you’ve got a good ability to play sports. And you need to get out of here and get on the right path and stop selling drugs and all that and live our life, man. I see a lot of guys get out of here and get killed and go to jail’.
"I started to listen to him. I trust him.”
By the end of his freshman year, Wyche made it out of alternative school and enrolled at Oscar Smith High School, joining the football team in the process.
He was closer to the right direction but still couldn’t manage to stay on the straight and narrow, continuing to make money selling drugs.
He recalls being shot at by guys who wanted to steal his cash, a moment he says put the real change in motion -- as a bullet whizzed by.
“I was running, they tried to shoot me in the head but they hit the gate,” he said.
That was one of the moments that define the choices he made. The next, he says, was when an undercover police officer gifted him with a second chance.
“He saw me walking down the street and I was flashing my gun,” Wyche recalled. “He hit me with the lights and I was like ‘Wow, my career is over with’.”
But it wasn’t.
“He took the gun and said, 'I know you play for Oscar Smith. The next time I see you with a gun you’re going to be going to jail for a long time.' So at that point in time, I was like, 'I’ve got to change my life to do something better.'”
So he finally did. With the help of a teacher, who he says was like a mother to him, and Oscar Smith football coach Richard Morgan, Wyche made the honor roll for the first time and the football team won a state championship.
“It really changed my mind that I want to be successful when I started doing that and I won a state championship my freshman year of high school,” he said. Just a few small tastes of success that seem to have changed his path.
Wyche became the first of his mother’s four children to graduate from high school. But despite the accomplishment, his grades weren’t good enough to qualify for a four-year scholarship to play at a university.
But College of the Canyons, a junior college, came calling from California. For Wyche it was a no-brainer.
“They said, ‘Mike, if you would like to come out here, we’d love for you to play for us,’” he recalled. “I just thought, ‘Wow, California? Hollywood! L.A.?! So I was like, ‘I’m on my way.’”
Three-thousand miles away from the graveyard and jail he said most in South Norfolk end up in.
He played a season at College of the Canyons before transferring to Mount San Antonio College, also in Southern California. But even with so much distance between them, it didn’t take long for Virginia to call him back.
“Come to find out, my momma was sick,” Wyche said. “I went home, come to find out -- my mother has cancer. Nobody told me but she kept looking different and different every time and nobody was telling me because they didn’t want me to mess up school. But I knew something was wrong.”
Wyche knew he couldn’t stay in his hometown surroundings long. He made his way back to California in December to enroll at East Los Angeles Community College.
Just two months later, in February, he received a call: “Mike, you might want to come home,” he recalled hearing.
“I kind of knew what it was and the doctor told me before I left on my winter break, because I went to the hospital. He told me my mother would be passing from cancer.
“I went to the funeral and kissed her goodbye. I knew I had to be a leader for my family.”
So Wyche, also the father of a 7-month-old daughter, went back to California. This would appear to be when his luck starts to turn.
Wyche wasn’t practicing long at East L.A. before college coaches started showing up to watch practice. He picked up two scholarship offers before picking up the game-changer.
“USC comes out here and I was like, ‘Wow! USC! That is crazy,'” Wyche said. “And the first guy I see is [receivers coach] Tee Martin.
“I (saw) him play for Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders, so I was shocked to see him.”
The Trojans didn’t stop there.
“Then I heard about [defensive line] coach Ed Orgeron,” Wyche continued. “He was really excited about seeing me, and I reminded him of a player he used to coach back when he was at Ole Miss and he’s now with the Ravens. And some of the stories -- we have similar backgrounds, kind of.”
The Southern California coaches liked what they saw. Before Wyche knew it, he was on an unofficial visit at the campus of USC shaking the hand of head coach Lane Kiffin.
“He talked to me for awhile and we greeted each other and then he told me that he wanted to offer me a full scholarship. I just went like ...” he said, putting his head in hands. “I shed a couple of tears.”
The irony is that in a time of happiness, Wyche remembers something very sad.
“People told me I’d never be nothing,” he explained. “I had a third-grade teacher that told me -- I told her that I was going to be a football player one day -- and she told me I was going to be dead or in jail.”
Neither Wyche’s mother nor father has ever seen him play a snap of football. But he says if his mom were here, she would be smiling from ear to ear. He says he called his dad, who he remains in constant contact with in prison, and could hear tears when he told him the news. He put his new head coach up to telling his grandparents.
“Coach Kiffin called my grandmother,” Wyche explained. “She was on the freeway driving and she pulled over and she started crying.”
As for Wyche, he doesn’t see it as a sad story. He doesn’t think about every turn where he went wrong or every hardship he has overcome.
“I just see it as hard work pays off and I see it as everybody who always told me I wasn’t going to be nothing, I just smile.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you want to be somebody, go be somebody. Don’t let anybody ever tell you you can’t do nothing. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it. I love the life. I love what I went through. It made me stronger as a person. As a man.”
Wyche is on schedule to graduate from East Los Angeles in December. He is expected to sign with USC in February and enroll in May, part of the Trojans' 2014 recruiting class. He’ll have two years of eligibility remaining.
Well, hopefully every football player's dream: the NFL. Wyche says he will exhaust himself to get there but knows if it doesn’t work out he’ll go back to Virginia to coach and help other kids find their path in life.
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