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Live by the gun, die by the gun

Marcellus Wiley says ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality nearly cost him everything

Retired 10-year NFL veteran Marcellus Wiley takes a break from eating a Panera Bread sandwich in the backroom of the South Side YMCA in Chicago. His firsthand account of owning a gun and then disowning that same gun moved the entire crowd at Thursday’s Undefeated panel on athletes, responsibility and gun violence. Now he’s reliving it, again. Only this time in more detail. It’s a story always difficult to tell. Yet, one needing to be told, not just in the Windy City, but throughout a country that has seen its obsession with guns become an ineluctable tidal wave of tears, frustration and depression. About this, the normally upbeat Wiley is passionately serious.

Two in the morning in Buffalo, New York, is a lot different from 2 in the morning in Manhattan. Here, it’s just Wiley and his thoughts, sitting at a red light, watching a random pedestrian cross the street, with his hand on his “wallet.” The “wallet” is actually his gun, a .380. Wiley, then in his second year in the NFL and fresh out of the Ivy League’s Columbia University, had purchased the piece after a friend had been carjacked weeks earlier in their hometown of Compton, California.

“Then I start thinking. I’m going across the country,” he said, sitting on the couch, reorganizing his sandwich in the order of lettuce, cheese, meat and onions to his liking. “I don’t know anyone out there. I’m ’bout to come into a ton of money. I’m starting to think I’ma be a target.”

At 24 years old, the combination of money, fame and paranoia is dangerous. Everyone knew where he lived in Buffalo. Some Bills fans would bring pies and cakes to his front door. Nice gestures, but where Wiley is from, Compton – the birthplace of gangsta rap – everybody coming to his house isn’t there to ask for an autograph or to wish him good luck on Sunday.

The memories of friends and teammates showing up to high school football practice one day and not showing up the next all came rushing back. So did getting shot at while at practice. He remembered feeling defenseless when that happened because, in his words, “You can’t run, because you’re on a wide-open football field. You’re an open target.”

The memories of family members, some admittedly gangbangers, who lost their lives to gun violence. If he wanted to survive in his newfound high-profile way of life, the only way to do so, he convinced himself, was to strap up.

He purchased the gun. He took it everywhere. In 1998, Wiley was strapped in every team meeting, every practice, any lounge, club or mixer. If Wiley was in the building, his “wallet” was, too.

“Now I’m looking at things with a negative lens and the outcome could be violence,” he said. “Whereas the outcome before could have been peacefully trying to find these resolutions. That gun invited me to that disaster, that drama.”

Wiley travels back to the scene of the (near) crime. He was stopped at a red light in Buffalo and the pedestrian begins to cross the street. Wiley instinctively reaches for his gun, unsure of how the next few moments would play out. The pedestrian, black, stops in the middle of the street and begins to walk toward the driver’s side window. By now, the gun is sitting on Wiley’s lap and it’s pointed right at the guy brave enough to even approach him.

“I’m like, what does this dude want? Is it ’bout to go down right now?” Wiley said. Now he’s animated. But what happens next turns his eyes glossy.

“I roll down the window and I said, ‘Wassup, man?’ ” Wiley said. “He said, ‘Can you help me? Where’s Holmes Street?’ ”

Wiley’s “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality nearly cost him everything. His way of living. His career. His plans after the NFL. Emotionally distraught from the early-morning encounter, Wiley discarded his “wallet” the very next day.

Nearly 20 years later, Wiley is a full-fledged advocate for eradicating guns. He respects the law-abiding Second Amendment gun owners, but he refuses to budge from his stance. He’s seen the carnage. He’s still haunted by the destruction he nearly caused to a family, one whose husband-brother-uncle-son was simply looking for the right street to turn on. Most of the time, he says, people who own guns don’t realize the power of the gun. Himself included.

“I ask people all the time: Have you ever shot a gun?” he said before biting into his sandwich. “Have you ever seen the flame, the kick, the destruction it does to a person? Have you ever seen it hit flesh? When you go through those steps, I don’t see how anybody in sound mind would want to be a participant in that existence. I’ve seen so many people killed by it, people killed others by it. It has to stop.”

Wiley says he’s told this story at least three or four times on air over the years, but on countless occasions off camera. Especially to NFL newcomers. He empathizes with the lunacy that comes with trying to juggle new personal and financial responsibilities while playing in America’s most violent, but beloved gladiator contest. He’s walked into houses and sat in cars with so many guns he could have easily mistaken them for a military outpost.

Wiley hopes his pleas to get rid of the guns has gotten through to some. He’s not preaching from the pulpit while never living his scripture. For a moment in time, he was his scripture. America has a fascination with guns and the NFL is no different. It’s a thin line and invites a problem that could ultimately lead from preparing to play on Sundays to having visiting hours at a hospital or worse, a coffin.

But more than anything, Wiley, now a successful TV personality and proud father of two, realizes the ramifications had he pulled the trigger on the pedestrian looking for Holmes Street.

“It was the crystallization of that moment,” he said. “Like, you know, this is the warning. Next time, it ain’t gonna go this smooth. Once I realized that, I was like, stop playing, bruh. You better than this.”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.