The Associated Press | August 18, 1999
By DAVID KINNEY
Brandon Short, Penn State’s exuberant middle linebacker, could have spent the summer writing checks – and righting family troubles in his downtrodden hometown.
He could be in the NFL now, in some faraway training camp pushing himself to break into a starting lineup.
He could be repaying debts to the people who kept him out of trouble back home. Instead, he’s playing football for free.
Last winter, McKeesport lost out to Penn State in the battle for Brandon Short’s soul – but it took one heck of a battle.
If he were in the NFL, checks would be finding their way to the cell of state prison inmate No. BN-6679. There, his older brother, Devell, is serving life without parole for murder, spending hours in the law library trying to get his conviction overturned. What he needs, he can’t afford: a lawyer.
If Short were in the NFL, checks would be finding their way to Harrison Village, a project in McKeesport. There, the grandmother who raised him spends $ 1,000 a month for personal care because she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
There, too, is the mother of his 4-year-old daughter Karli, growing up with the drugs and gunfire Short escaped four years ago.
“When I looked at it initially, it looked like a hard decision,” Short said. “But my family, we haven’t had much our whole lives, so what’s one more year?”
The checks will have to wait. This autumn, Short will anchor one of the best defenses in the nation as No. 3 Penn State tries for a national title.
The hyper, 6-foot-3, 252-pounder spent most of 1998 jabbering about how much he wanted a national title. When 12-0 became 9-3, he started going on about winning it all in 1999. But when people started putting a bug in his ear last November about the NFL, he couldn’t help but weigh his dream of winning it all against the crush of obligations back home.
He thought back to how his grandmother, Ozella Wilkes, didn’t let him go farther than the 14 Building’s front stoop until he was a teen-ager.
He thought about his uncle, who sternly punished him when he went astray – once when he stole bluejeans, many times when he got into the fights seeking respect in the project.
He thought about Devell Short, who shot a man during an argument; he said the man was about to kill him. He warned his little brother to learn from the trouble that landed him in jail.
He thought about his father, Melvin Wilkes. He wasn’t around much when Short was growing up, at least not after U.S. Steel laid him off after 19 years. He started selling drugs and ended up in prison, but Short said he thinks he did what he could to help. Now, Wilkes is free, married, living in a new house and working three jobs to pay off the mortgage.
Last, Short thought about his six close friends, a group so tight that all of them got brands on their right biceps. All seven of them dreamed of playing Division I football, making the pros. They kept each other out of trouble. When one of them got shot in the leg after running with a bad crowd this year, they pressured him to get a job.
Maybe, Short figured, he could help them, too.
The reasons to bolt to the NFL piled up in his mind.
“He said, ‘I want to help you. I want to help the rest of the family.”‘ Devell Short said. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry about us. We’ll be all right.”‘
But his father wanted him to go pro. He worried about Short getting hurt – either on the field or in the project.
“We’ve been shot at, a couple of times, actually, but it was a near-miss the one time,” Short said. “We were around shooting all the time. I’ve been arrested for fighting multiple times. … I would probably be doing the same things that everybody else in the neighborhood is doing, but I’ve been blessed with this body.”
To go or to stay. Short turned it over in his mind. In the end, it was his closest friend, Mike Armstrong, who sealed the decision.
“Bran, I don’t know if you’re satisfied with what you did in college,” he told him. “Tell you the truth, I ain’t.”
“I was like, ‘Dang!”‘ Short said. “We laughed about it. But then I said, ‘You know, I’m not satisfied, I have so many more expectations than this.”‘
Penn State coach Joe Paterno could barely hide his glee when Short made the announcement in January.
“If anybody had a reason to just go get some money and get on with it, you’d have thought Brandon would’ve been the guy,” Paterno said this month. “But he’s very loyal.”
LOAD-DATE: August 18, 1999