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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : Landing on Wheatley Place : Michigan Running Back Finds Out This Season if His Roll of the Dice Will Pay the Dividends He Is Seeking

August 27, 1994|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — At last the truth can be told: The answer to the greatest Michigan football mystery since 'Why can't Bo win Rose Bowls?' is located along a stretch of make-believe property that runs from Atlantic Avenue to Ventnor Avenue and ends at Marvin Gardens.

"I call them, 'The Flamingos,' " said Tyrone Wheatley, budding Monopoly real estate magnate, All-American tailback and centerpiece of the Wolverine off-season drama. "The reason I call them 'The Flamingos' is because it's like a little resort . . . right before you go to jail."

Wheatley knows all about monopolies. He and San Diego State's Marshall Faulk cornered the college rushing market last season and then had to decide between the NFL draft and returning to school. Faulk bolted, but Wheatley wasn't so sure. Should he stay or should

he go? The choice seemed like no choice at all.

Top-five pick or letter sweater? Face the Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Hoosiers? Advance to Go and collect millions, or settle for a Chance card?

Wheatley thought about it for a while, trusted his instincts and gave the NFL one of his famous crowbar stiff-arms.

He was staying for his senior season. A campus rejoiced.

Of course, the trouble with Chance cards is that sometimes they bear bad news. Wheatley got his on Wednesday, when X-rays revealed a second-degree separation of his right shoulder, caused by a hit he had taken during a contact drill a day earlier.

As soon as the initial prognosis was announced--Wheatley is a likely no-show for the season opener Sept. 3 against Boston College, and a maybe against Notre Dame Sept. 10 and Colorado Sept. 24--you could almost hear the I-told-you-so's from second-guessers.

Wheatley, said his critics, took a huge, unnecessary financial risk by passing up the NFL. This is what he gets in return: his worst nightmare--another injury to the shoulder he hurt last season.

Some nightmare. If any of this bothers Wheatley, he isn't showing it.

"Even if I didn't get injured many would say, 'He still should have gone pro and taken the money,' " Wheatley said Friday. "I haven't lost anything I said I wanted to strive for. Sure, a Heisman would be nice, but a degree from Michigan, a Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl is what my main goals were and still are at this time. Am I disappointed? Yes, but I'm not out for the season."

Seasoned Wheatley-watchers aren't surprised by the response. Other players would have gone into seclusion. Wheatley returned phone calls hours after the bad news.

Come to think of it, most other players in Wheatley's position wouldn't be at Michigan. They would have joined Faulk and ditched college for the pros.

"Honestly, Tyrone is just a little different guy and he'll do the unexpected thing," said Michigan Coach Gary Moeller, who didn't have a clue about Wheatley's senior season preferences until shortly before the Jan. 10 news conference.

As it turns out, Moeller and anyone else who hums "The Victors" in their sleep could have saved themselves a peptic ulcer or two by simply asking Wheatley about Monopoly. Understand the significance of those three yellow properties--Atlantic, Ventnor and Marvin Gardens--and in a weird sort of way you understand why Wheatley is on scholarship and not on an NFL payroll.

"You got to have a plan," said Wheatley at the recent Big Ten media day. "You got to have a plan."

And Wheatley's plan goes like this: Never over-extend yourself. Never rush to a decision. Never change the plan.

So Wheatley wheels and deals until he collects all three Flamingos and lets everyone else battle for Boardwalk and Park Place in the volatile high-rent district. After all, what's the use of owning a blue property if you can't enjoy the view?

"The way a lot of guys get out of the game quickly is they buy early, then try to put hotels up and they have no money," Wheatley said. "Then if you hit me, you're out of the game. You mortgage your property and then I buy that mortgage.

"It's just patience. Just collect the rent and then you get enough money. Then you buy your houses."

Patience is mostly why Wheatley is back at Michigan. He could have left early and no one would have said boo, especially after he rushed for 1,357 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior.

And just think what he might have done last year if Moeller hadn't stuck him on the Wolverine punt coverage team, where Wheatley first injured his shoulder while making a tackle against Illinois. He missed two games, including a crucial matchup against Wisconsin, which the Wolverines lost.

Now he faces a similar layoff. Team doctors will wait until next week to re-examine the newest injury, but when he does return to lineup it will be business as usual.

"I don't have a lot of fancy moves," Wheatley said. "It's just me and the trusty stiff-arm."

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