Tyrone Wheatley Jr. sat on a blue mat and quietly observed from the back of a classroom inside Canisius High (Buffalo, N.Y.). His white iPhone was tucked into his sock so he could divert his attention to football coach Rich Robbins.
Despite having stayed up until 2 a.m. with friends after watching “The Purge 2”, Wheatley’s dark brown eyes bore no sign of fatigue. Teammates were equally alert as they sat — some hunched over desks, others on yellow and green BOSU balls — with notebooks and pens in hand, ready to absorb day three of mini camp.
There were no jokes, few smiles and mostly silence.
“We’re here for business,” Wheatley said. “Everyone knows what’s up.”
The Crusaders finished with a 9-2 record last season. Their new mission? To go undefeated en route to winning a state championship.
Wheatley, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive and tight end who transferred from Fayetteville-Manlius last summer when his father Tyrone accepted a coaching position with the Buffalo Bills, is a target for recruiters as he enters his senior season.
He has yet to decide where he’ll take his talents — Alabama, Florida, USC and Miami are options. But perhaps he’ll take the legacy offer from Michigan, where Tyrone was a four-year starting running back and holds the school record for single-season yards per carry (7.34), set in 1992. Or maybe it’ll be Syracuse, where Tyrone coached for three seasons following a 10-year career in the NFL.
But Wheatley’s not just under watchful eyes of esteemed college coaches. He’s prey for opponents.
“I know when I go into certain situations people are after me,” he said. “I take a lot of beatings in my positions. I just have to be aware and do the best I can to not get taken out. I’m a lot stronger now. I can do more.”
Life as one of the most sought-after football recruits and son of an NFL veteran is privileged yet humble in the Wheatley household.
Wheatley’s father Tyrone devised a chore list with names for his five children. Wheatley, who goes by T.J., is the oldest, followed by Terius and Tyrique, who will be a junior and freshman respectively at Orchard Park High. Then there’s Tiana, a soon-to-be sixth grader, and finally Tamari, who will attend kindergarten in the fall.
Chores, which aren’t limited to wiping floorboards, laundry and mowing the lawn, rotate every Sunday.
“My dad likes things a certain way so we keep everything organized,” Wheatley said. “My parents run a tight ship, but it’s manageable.”
His mother, Kim, added, “They know when their feet hit the floor they need to make their beds.”
Such accountability is a Wheatley family custom — in the house as well as in school and on the field.
Prior to enrolling at Canisius last year, coach Robbins presented the Wheatley’s with a PowerPoint that detailed the school’s SAT scores and graduation rates, among other statistics. And Tyrone spoke with Robbins for nearly two hours about the school’s academic culture, recruiting process and community service.
“We take a lot of pride in academics,” Wheatley said. “I’m a student first. It’s the most important part of my future.”
Last year, he did homework until 2 a.m. some nights, then and got up early to finish before school — welcoming a demanding workload all around.
He’s been committed in his pursuit to hopefully play Division I college football, a dream in the making since he was a freshman. Naturally, he turned to his father as a resource, well aware of what he was getting himself into.
“When he coaches me, he coaches just like he does Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller,” Wheatley said. “He’s not taking it easy when my legs are hurting, and I’m tired and slumped over.”
Tyrone had to learn how to balance the father-coach role.
“There were certain things I saw and didn’t like. I’d come home and work with him. I started being overbearing. I didn’t want to be that dad where my boys saw me and split,” he said.
Training has transitioned into bonding — time to work on foot placement and explosive movement and also talk about girls, politics and fishing.
Conversations about football, however, stay on the field and out of the Wheatley house.
Tyrone Wheatley Sr.’s 10-year stretch in the NFL after being selected 17th overall in the 1995 draft includes four seasons with the New York Giants (1995-98) and six with the Oakland Raiders (1999-2004). He later served as the running backs coach for Syracuse from 2010-12. He enters his second season as the assistant running backs coach for the Buffalo Bills.
As much as football is a big part of his life, Tyrone didn’t push the sport on Wheatley growing up.
“To be honest, I didn’t want him to start playing football until high school,” he said. “It seemed like all the little league coaches screamed and yelled. There was no technique being taught. Kids were just learning bad habits. I didn’t want that.”
So Wheatley grew up playing soccer on travel teams throughout his childhood in Michigan. He often walked around wearing a soccer jersey and dreamt of competing in the World Cup when he wasn’t playing AAU basketball.
But in seventh grade, football superseded after he watched old films of his dad and then started following the NFL. He didn’t miss soccer when he transitioned to playing right guard.
“Football just came naturally. It’s what I am meant to do,” Wheatley said.
It didn’t hurt that he was 6-feet in eighth grade. He’s always been big for his age. His mother Kim recalled being stared at when she pushed Wheatley in a stroller as a toddler. A woman, who thought Wheatley looked like a grown child, once asked her when she planned on transitioning him out of the stroller. Kim responded, “He’s two years old!”
Wheatley towered over his 5-foot-9 mother as a 6-foot-2, 215-pound freshman on varsity. A year later, another inch taller and 15 pounds heavier, Wheatley realized his fate playing at tight end and defensive end.
“Guys his size shouldn’t be able to move or have hands like he does,” said Canisius quarterback Jakob Loucks, an incoming senior. “There’s something about him — he just knows what to do. If I don’t know where to throw, T.J. always finds an open spot. He’s smart about it.”
College coaches have noticed.
Wheatley, who had 14 tackles for loss as a junior, received about nine offers by the end of his sophomore year.
Last year he relied on his iPad and iPhone to catalogue weekly phone calls with college coaches. His recruiting letters overflow from three white boxes tucked into the bottom of his bedroom closet. He doesn’t know what he’ll do with them.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Maybe it will be a project — I’ll count them all after I commit or something.”
When you’re a four-star rated recruit playing for one of the top teams in the state, curious minds want to know what you’re up to.
But Wheatley doesn’t use Twitter. And he maintains a private Instagram account.
“It’s new for us to have a recruit the level of T.J.,” Robbins said. “He’s raised the level of exposure, and it makes everybody work a little harder because they know that they’re going to be watched.”
Teammates respect Wheatley not just for his athletic ability, but his natural leadership.
“A lot of us are out here wishing and hoping to do what he’s already been doing — getting Division I scholarships,” Loucks said.
Wheatley doesn’t hesitate to order a teammate to run a lap if he’s talking too much during practice or nag a player who didn’t show up to study group.
“He’s wants more than just to be the best athlete on the field,” said special teams coordinator Bryce Hopkins. “He wants to be the best teammate.
“His ability to motivate as a group helped raise our program to another level.”
The question is, will it be enough to go undefeated and win a state championship?