- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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QUARTZ HILL, Calif.
It's a little after 1 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Wendell Tyler has already put in a full day.
Most days his alarm goes off before the sun rises, when it's dark and cold around his 2,200-square foot house in this rugged high-desert town more than an hour north of Los Angeles.
He's on the clock starting at 6 a.m. when his eldest son, Wendell Jr., wakes up and is ready for his bath. Wendell Jr. is 28, but has special needs. When he was an infant, an extremely high fever damaged his brain and left him with the mental capacity of a 4- or 5-year-old.
He's spent most of his life in a group home, but his condition deteriorated this April, leaving him unable to walk, and he's been living at home with Wendell Sr. and his wife Carmen ever since. Every morning, they must bathe him, feed him, dress him and stretch out his legs so that he might one day walk again.
"It's a full-time job," said Tyler, who starred for UCLA from 1973-76 and led the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl during a 10-year NFL career.
"It's 24/7. But what am I gonna do? It's my son, you know. It's difficult, but I love him."
Seventy miles south, his youngest son Marc is still asleep in his apartment near the USC campus.
He needs all the sleep he can get these days.
After four years of working his way back from a devastating leg injury in his final high school game, Marc Tyler is getting more than he bargained for.
He leads the Trojans with 868 yards and nine touchdowns on 163 carries. He loves every second of it, but after carrying just 41 times the past two seasons, the workload is taking its toll. So he sleeps as much as he possibly can during the week so he's ready to carry the load on Saturdays.
Every day or two, his dad will call to check in on Marc. But Wendell Sr. doesn't drive down to visit as much. Since Wendell Jr. had to move back into the house, it's been harder for him to get away.
"My wife and I trade off going to Marc's games on the weekends," Wendell Sr. said. "One of us will go to the game and the other one will stay home with [Wendell Jr.]."
You can tell it's killing him to miss any of Marc's breakout season. After being there and helping his son through so many rough times the past four years, this is the payoff. The part that makes all the struggle worth it. But instead of basking in Marc's success up in the stands, Wendell Tyler is watching a lot of it on TV.
"Marc's first two years, I was down there so much it was like I was going to school there, too," he said, laughing a little at the thought of a former Bruin spending so much time at USC.
"But I sensed that he was beat down. That he was discouraged. He wasn't playing and he wasn't healthy. That can definitely beat a person up."
Wendell Sr. would drive to USC almost every day and check in on Marc. He'd make sure he was going to class and eating right. He'd ask how his leg felt and talk about how he was going to get all the way back to where he was before he broke his leg in his final high school game for Oaks Christian High (Westlake Village, Calif.) in 2006.
He'd tell Marc to push himself harder than he ever had, even though it seemed like he was buried on the depth chart and would never get his opportunity to play.
If everyone else worked out once a day, Marc had to work out twice a day. If his coaches didn't want to give him a real opportunity, he had to force their hand with his performance.
"He told me I needed to get a mean streak in me because he thought I was too nice," Marc said. "He tried to tell me to do the things I needed to do. But you don't always listen to your parents.
"I mean, I'd take it in. But I don't know how much I really listened. You kind of have to realize things for yourself, you know?"
Wendell Tyler knows all about coming back from injuries. He played the entire 1975 season for UCLA with a broken wrist.
"I really could only carry the ball with one hand," he said. "After a while other teams started to realize that and that's where that fumbling thing started.
"But we won the Rose Bowl that year, so..."
Though a knee injury is what ended his 10-year NFL career, there is only one injury in his career that really matters.
"July 4, 1980," he says, reliving that night all over again in his head. "That's the night that changed my life."
Tyler was 23 and coming into the prime of his life. He'd just signed a new contract with the Rams after rushing for 1,109 yards and leading the team to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He'd gone to West Virginia with his wife in the offseason to spend time around her family. On the night of July 4, he went to a dance at a local church.
It was the offseaon. Wendell thought he was entitled to a good time, too. And by the end of the night, he was tired.
So he slept while his brother-in-law drove home.
"I woke up and I thought my back was broken," Tyler said. "I guess my brother-in-law had fallen asleep and we went off a ravine."
It took hours for paramedics to find them, late at night on the desolate road. The pain was excruciating. Tyler had dislocated his hip.
"When I got back to California, I was in the hospital for three weeks. [Rams owner] Georgia Frontiere had sent a Lear jet to come pick me up and take me to Centinela Hospital.
"I remember we were all in the hospital room. Me, Georgia and John Shaw, our general manager. And the doctors told me I only had a 10 percent chance of ever playing again. Everybody in the room started crying.
"But you know, I started reading my Bible and a couple days later I had an experience in my room...
"I don't know what it was, but after that I didn't worry about whether I'd make it back. I knew I would."
He was right.
Tyler sat out all but four games in 1980. But the next year he was good enough to rush for 1,074 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns.
Within three years, he was all the way back. In 1984, with the 49ers, he rushed for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns and San Francisco beat the Miami Dolphins 36-16 to win Super Bowl XIX.
Marc Tyler knew it was bad. Everyone did. The doctors tried to sugarcoat it, but the reality was inescapable.
Both his tibia and fibula were broken.
Everything about the play was hard to swallow. The horse-collar tackle. The meaningless first-round playoff game that would end in a rout like basically all of Oaks Christian's games did that year.
"It was horrible," Wendell said. "Just horrible.
"Everything about it was devastating. He broke both his tibia and fibula. They had to put a rod in. I cried when it happened.
"But I tried to tell Marc, 'When you go through injuries, it shows your character. A lot of guys can't come back from injuries because they won't put in the work.
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"'You have to have character and work ethic. But a lot of guys haven't had to sacrifice and work for what they've got. Maybe they didn't grow up in the inner city, maybe things came easy for them.'"
He told Marc all of that to challenge him. But deep down he worried, because he knew this would either make or break his son's career.
"Marc didn't grow up in the inner city. He grew up in the suburbs. He was the biggest kid out here. And then he went to Oaks Christian. Biggest kid there, too. When he went to 'SC, he was only one of the biggest kids, so he had to develop a whole new work ethic.
"So when this happened, I had to challenge him."
Marc listened, but didn't fully comprehend just how hard the road ahead of him would be.
He assumed it would take 9-12 months to heal and he'd be back to his former self. In the meantime, he might put on some weight, but that was no problem either. He'd take it off when he needed to.
But in reality, the healing process took seemingly forever.
"It didn't feel right until probably this summer," he said. "My leg bothered me the whole time. I was always a little hesitant on cuts off my left leg because it still hurt."
Then last year, when he'd worked himself back into good enough shape to compete for carries, he suffered another setback.
A week before the Trojans' showdown at Ohio State, Tyler stepped awkwardly on a teammate's foot during practice and broke a bone in his foot. At first doctors hoped it'd heal well enough on its own, but it did not, and the delay in having surgery made it so that Tyler ran for the first time a week before spring practice.
The timing was horrible. With USC coach Pete Carroll off to the NFL, Tyler was hoping to make a good impression on the new coaching staff.
Instead, he was just getting back into shape during spring practice. He was heavy, rusty and lacking in self-confidence after three years on the bench.
He considered transferring, but didn't know where he would go.
So Wendell, Carmen and Marc had a meeting with new coach Lane Kiffin and asked him to tell it to them straight.
"He said it doesn't matter where you're at on the depth chart, it's all up to you," Wendell recalled. "And so far, he followed through on it.
"I look at Lane Kiffin, from what I can see of him, he tells the truth. A lot of people don't speak the truth in the pros, but Lane seems like he speaks the truth.
"He spoke the truth about the Oakland Raiders. He said the quarterback [JaMarcus Russell] was no good, and it hurt him. But I can appreciate him for that. I always want someone to tell me the truth, even if I don't like it, so that I can adjust to it.
"That's all you want from a coach."
It was all Marc needed to hear.
After three years of being buried on the bench and beaten down by circumstance, he finally felt like his destiny was back in his control.
Getting an opportunity and taking the opportunity were two different things.
Marc's leg was finally feeling better, but to keep it that way, and keep his foot feeling better, he knew he needed to lose weight and get into the best shape of his career.
It was the second time in his life he'd come to this fork in the road. Before his senior year in high school, Marc was told to drop weight and work on his speed to help improve his stock in recruiting.
Easier said than done. Marc had been living with teammate Jimmy Clausen and his family his first three years at the tony private school in Westlake Village, an hour and a half from Lancaster. The Clausens were great to him. He and Jimmy became best friends.
But after a while, Wendell felt like he needed to move closer and parent his son. He rented an apartment in Encino, cut back on his work, and lived there during the week with Marc. He cooked all of his meals.
"He cooked," Marc said. "But he pretty much made the same thing every day. Chicken and broccoli. It was good, but it got old."
As weight-loss goes, it was fantastic. Marc dropped 20 pounds over the summer and was running faster and harder than he ever had. Every college seemed to want him. But he only had eyes for USC.
This time around, Wendell Sr. was too busy with Wendell Jr. to be Marc's personal chef.
If Wendell Sr. was free, he would've gladly done it. But after a while, he began to think this way was for the best.
"I knew in my heart Marc could make it back," Wendell said. "But I can't live his life for him. He had to wake up and live for himself.
"I can tell Marc he's got to work out twice a day, but he had to realize that himself. He had to get to a point where he realized, 'My dad is right.' I have to work this hard."
It was a lesson Wendell had learned at about the same age. From his coach at UCLA, Dick Vermeil.
"I hated Vermeil. We all did. He was like a drill sergeant. He drilled that work ethic it into us. I hated it. It was hard work. But that hard work made me who I am today."
This time, Marc was on his own. His father was busy with Wendell Jr. He could call every day, but the motivation had to come from within.
Marc had always been capable of working hard. But he'd never had to push himself on his own.
It was easier than expected. All he had to do was think of his infant daughter, Aaliyah, and his family in Lancaster that he hopes to help provide for if he makes it to the NFL one day.
"Having my daughter changed everything," Marc said. "It changed the way I worked. I'd never really worked as hard the past years here. I wasn't healthy, and I knew Coach Carroll had the guys he wanted to play. It was easy to get negative about things.
"But when Kiff and [running backs coach Kennedy Pola] threw everything open again, it just gave me confidence again. Just knowing they believed in me and would give me a chance."
Marc worked out twice a day. Morning and evening. In between he went to summer school.
His dad wasn't around to cook like he used to, so Marc improvised.
"I kind of starved myself because I don't really know how to eat healthy," he joked. "So I just ate less."
By the time fall practice began in August, Marc felt better than he had in years.
The parallels of his son's life and his own are not lost on Wendell Tyler.
The injuries, the bad luck, and then of course the remarkable comebacks.
Ever since his car accident, he has spent his life trying to give back to the community. Though it nearly ended his career, Wendell Tyler emerged from the wreckage as a grateful man, not a bitter one.
When he's not taking care of Wendell Jr., he mentors kids through the Dare to Dream Foundation.
He lives modestly in this windblown, dusty town. He misses the big city, but he's settled in here now. And it's not all that important anyway.
"I've been through a lot," Wendell says. "But the things you go through in life are what prepares you for the rest of your life.
"My football career, my ups and downs, prepared me to train [Marc]. And then everything he's been through has helped me to deal with [Wendell Jr.]
"You got to be tough in this life. Maybe even more mentally than physically.
"I think the key is to realize the truth about life as soon as possible. Sometimes we take our gift for granted. I did when I was younger.
"But you get to the point where you can't take your gift for granted, you have to work on it. And you have to realize what you have."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
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