- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 7, 2004

CARBONDALE, Pa. — Charlie Wysocki could use a job. His days are filled with visits to therapists and watching Judge Judy dispense justice on the TV in his small corner of a group home.

He could use a hearing aid, and his diabetes would benefit from a better diet than the one provided by the cans of soup and spaghetti in the pantry.

His left hand sometimes shakes as a result of the medicine he takes, the same ones that caused him to put on more than a few pounds.

Yet after more than 20 years of chaos caused by bipolar disorder, these are still the best times for Wysocki since he went into the 1981 season as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy as a running back for the Maryland Terrapins.

Bipolar disorder robbed him of an NFL career, two marriages and any permanent stability, but the 44-year-old hasn’t been hospitalized in three years, and now there is a new grandson that can put a smile on his face.

The condition often emerges in early adulthood. Episodes of extreme mania and depression can vary from hours to months. There’s no cure, though many attain good results through medication. Bipolar patients can intermix good and bad stretches.

There’s no self pity, no wondering why he’s one of 2.3 million Americans who suffer from manic depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Just a mellow acceptance forged by living with the disorder his entire adult life.

“I’m no different than anybody else,” Wysocki said. “I just have to take medicine.”

Wysocki takes 17 pills each day to try to avoid returning to a hospital for the 17th time since 1982.

The medication allows him to live comfortably in a house he shares with five others on a side street of this hardscrabble town in northeastern Pennsylvania, a town not far from where Wysocki became a prep legend recruited by more than 100 colleges.

Wysocki takes a bus or gets a lift from friends to the thrice-weekly therapy sessions and to church twice on Sundays. There’s a corner market for grocery shopping and a YMCA one door down.

At least it’s a roof over his head. Wysocki nearly wound up on the streets at age 15. He was the 16th of 18 children in a family torn apart by their father’s death. A nearby family took in and later adopted Wysocki, who changed his surname from DeGraffenreid.

Football was Wysocki’s escape. He became a star at Maryland as the Terps’ workhorse. There was a 50-carry game against Duke. There were so many standout efforts over three seasons that Wysocki ended his college career as the Terps’ all-time rushing leader, a distinction he held until LaMont Jordan surpassed him in 2000.

Wysocki expected to be drafted in April 1982, and he and 200 friends crowded into his adoptive parents house to watch the ESPN broadcast of the draft. One by one his friends slowly slipped out of the party as a bitterly disappointed Wysocki failed to be selected. It was the beginning of his slide.

Wysocki passed up several more promising opportunities with other NFL teams to sign with the Dallas Cowboys. He wanted to prove he was better than Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, but Wysocki soon told coach Tom Landry there was “something wrong with his brain.” He was released after a week.

When the cheering stopped, depression followed. Wysocki returned to Maryland in August 1982 to complete his degree, but he slept little in more than two months and gained 30 pounds.

A suicide attempt, of which Wysocki’s details are sketchy, led to his first stay in a mental hospital in the Scranton area.

Bipolar wasn’t readily understood then. Wysocki received electroshock therapy. Medication he took for schizophrenia left him unable to move his arms. He was catatonic for 14 months and received last rites after four days spent in a coma.

Wysocki grew distrustful of those trying to help him.

“At the time, I hated it,” he said. “They were messing with me. Just leave me alone — I’m not bothering anybody.”

It wasn’t until Wysocki received “mood stabilizers” in the late 1990s that life became more normal. He left the hospital, worked as a fork-lift operator and even played defensive line for a local semipro football team in Scranton.

The company shut down last year, and Wysocki is looking for work. Otherwise, it’s not a bad life. Maybe not the one he expected but one he can enjoy.

“When he’s focused, he’s well driven,” said Theresa Chmelik, who oversees Wysocki as a case worker for Tri-County Human Services in Scranton. “It’s hard to get him down.”

‘Saddle up, Charlie’

Wysocki was the foundation of coach Jerry Claiborne’s “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense that once was the staple of college football. He carried the ball a team-record 334 times in 1980 and 769 times over a four-year career that ended in 1981. He would have carried the ball another 100 times had he not been hampered by an ankle injury his senior year.

“Saddle up, Charlie,” Claiborne used to tell Wysocki.

Wysocki the workhorse was born during a game against Duke in 1980. The Terps were losing when Claiborne scrapped the game plan and sent Wysocki into the line 50 times. He gained 216 yards, and the Terps won 17-14.

“Coach said, ‘Forget it. We’ll give the ball to Charlie,’ and we ran over them,” offensive lineman Dave Pacella recalled.

It was just another jarring effort by Wysocki. The 3,317 yards he gained in his career were a school record until Jordan finished his career in 2000 with 4,147. Wysocki still ranks among the top 10 in 15 Terps rushing categories. There were three 200-yard games, including two straight in 1979, 17 100-yard efforts and 26 touchdowns.

“He was the original ‘Big Man on Campus,’ ” former Maryland kicker Jess Atkinson said. “Charlie was a superstar at Maryland. He was revered by players, by students. He was the last great player of Jerry Claiborne’s tenure.”

Wysocki finished fourth in the nation in rushing in both 1979 and 1980, and the Terps went 15-9 combined and finished second in the ACC both years. The 1,359 yards Wysocki gained in 1980 stood as a school record for 19 years.

But Wysocki was bothered by an ankle injury and gained just 715 yards his senior season. It was the first setback after a standout college and high school career in Wilkes-Barre. In fact, Wysocki made such a name for himself at Meyers High School — he was not only a football star but also an All-American wrestler who won one state and three district wrestling titles — that locals still recognize him on the street.

“That [injury] threw him,” Atkinson said. “It was his first taste of life moving on without [him].”

Some skeptics wondered whether Claiborne hurt Wysocki’s pro chances with the heavy workload, but Wysocki dreamed of a 60-carry game.

“I told [Claiborne] to give me the ball more,” Wysocki said. “He didn’t wear me out. He said, ‘Ready to run?’ ”

Wysocki ended his Maryland career with four touchdowns and 153 yards in a 48-7 victory over Virginia on Nov. 21, 1981. It was a happy day for Wysocki, something he would not experience often over the next two decades.

Gone in 4.6 seconds

Wysocki showed durability, strength, shiftiness and persistence while at Maryland, but he lacked speed, the thing NFL scouts covet most. Wysocki’s time in the 40-yard dash was 4.6 seconds, two-tenths of a second slower than NFL scouts demand.

Two-tenths. That’s not even a half step, but it’s the difference between slipping through a hole in the line and having that hole close.

“He was elusive, tough as can be, but not much faster than some of the linemen,” Pacella said. “On some of the sweeps, we’d almost catch him.”

Wysocki’s omission in the 12-round draft devastated him. Several people close to Wysocki believed it hastened the onset of his bipolar disorder.

Six NFL teams offered free agent contracts. Kansas City was probably the best opportunity, but Wysocki chose Dallas to prove he could play on one of the NFL’s top teams. It was a career-breaking mistake.

“I should have gone to Kansas City, but I was crazy about the Cowboys,” Wysocki said. “I wanted to take on the best there was.”

Wysocki, who felt the enormous pressure of camp and didn’t sleep as a result, lasted only a week and was cut. He was hospitalized again later that year near Scranton, preventing him from reporting to camp for the Washington Federals of the USFL in 1983. He had signed a contract with the Federals earlier that year.

It’s a missed opportunity that still haunts Wysocki.

“With the right team, he might have been a kick returner or a third running back,” former teammate Boomer Esiason said. “He just wasn’t fast enough. Compare him to Tony Dorsett. Charlie could take on hits in college, but you can’t do that in the pros.”

Dealing with being bipolar

Friends noticed two things about Wysocki when he returned to Maryland to complete his degree — his ever-present smile was gone, and he carried 30 extra pounds. He aimlessly wandered the athletic dining hall wearing his old No. 18 jersey.

Several former teammates said they knew something was wrong but had no idea Wysocki was suffering from a mental illness. In retrospect, Wysocki showed all the signs of bipolar disorder.

“The public doesn’t see the devastation if someone’s not healthy enough to handle it,” Pacella said. “Charlie didn’t have a chance to grieve the loss of his ‘real family’ [of football]. When you’re not a star anymore, you start to think about real life.”

Renford Reese understood Wysocki’s dilemma. Reese, an All-American safety at Vanderbilt, went undrafted in 1990 and saw Wysocki as a kindred spirit. He sought out Wysocki and wrote an unpublished biography of Wysocki illustrating the difficulty of post-career transitions.

“Charlie had a taste of glamour and romanticized a life that he had in high school and at the University of Maryland that was taken away,” said Reese, an author and political science professor at Cal-Poly Pomona. “The guy is an analytical, articulate, engaging personality, but he’s mentally ill.”

Wysocki’s support system disappeared at Maryland. Claiborne retired in early 1982, and the new staff didn’t know Wysocki. Incoming coach Bobby Ross supported Wysocki’s desire to continue his education under a returning student program that paid for his tuition, but Wysocki still felt alone.

Over a two month period he barely slept and finally called his adoptive parents and returned home. A suicide attempt soon followed in October 1982, and Wysocki was admitted to another mental hospital. He spent much of the next eight years in and out of institutions.

Wysocki’s medication helped him cope with his bipolar disorder. He even married twice for short stretches. However, further hospitalization came after Wysocki either stopped taking his medicine or became engaged in other personal troubles.

Finally, a new drug therapy stabilized his moods and allowed him to live in a group home. Wysocki even played nose tackle for the Scranton Eagles in 2000-2001. Returning to the field might have been the pinnacle of his adulthood.

“It was just a fun thing to do,” Wysocki said. “I just wanted to hang out with the boys. The only thing was I couldn’t go to the parties after the game because I don’t drink [alcohol because of my medication.]”

‘Amen’ to that

Every Sunday morning and evening, Wysocki sits in the front row of Revival Baptist Church in nearby Scranton. With Wysocki, pastor Randy Bloem knows he has a vocal supporter to punctuate his sermon.

“Charlie’s my ‘Amen’ person,” Bloem said. “He’s the loudest. He’s really encouraged by being part of the church. He finds in the church a family, and he loves the fellowship and the food. He’s really faithful in coming.”

Wysocki admitted he has a lot to be thankful for even in his modest settings. He lectures about his disorder twice a month to groups. He even made a video for a local mental health group. Wysocki speaks with both his biological and adopted families. He maintains a relationship with his only daughter — Tiffany — who has a son, Sincere.

A job application sits on the living room table next to McDonald’s wrappers, videos and books. Jobs are hard to find, especially given his past. That’s OK. Wysocki just sees it as another challenge. Better times are ahead.

“It’s going to pay off in the end,” he said. “I know it’s going to work out.”

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