CINCINNATI (AP) - The steel-toed Red Wing work boots stand alongside the football trophies in the entertainment center that serves as Mardy Gilyard's trophy case. He's as proud of the scruffy, size-12 footwear as anything else on display.
The boots remind him of where he was three years ago, when he had next to nothing.
Out of a scholarship. Nearly out of football. Working four jobs just to pay off his tuition bill. Sleeping on friends' sofas and occasionally living out of his 2000 Pontiac Grand Am parked on campus. Falling asleep hungry.
Only three years ago.
"I think about it every day," Cincinnati's top receiver and kick returner said. "I know that the next day is not guaranteed to you, the next play is not guaranteed. So I relish every millisecond I have around the guys, around the coaches, playing the game.
"Sometimes I wish the games would drag a little big because I know when they're done, they're done."
The 6-foot-1, 187-pound receiver recovered from his rock-bottom year, earned back his scholarship and made himself a prominent part of one of the nation's top offenses. When he puts on his size 12 cleats and gets the ball in his hands these days, he makes the games go awfully fast.
Gilyard scored four touchdowns during a 70-3 win over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday. He became the first Bowl Subdivision player to score on a punt return, a run and a catch in the same game since UCLA's Maurice Drew (now Jones-Drew) did it in 2005.
The 17th-ranked Bearcats play Saturday at Oregon State, which has won 26 straight nonconference games at home. To keep it going, the Beavers know they are going to have to figure out a way to stop Gilyard, who learned the hard way that he can be all too good at stopping himself.
Former coach Mark Dantonio recruited him out of Flagler Palm Coach High School, where he was an All-Florida offensive star. Dantonio's staff made him a backup cornerback and kick returner as a freshman in 2005.
So much promise. He wasted it so fast.
Gilyard stopped going to classes. He became academically ineligible to play. His scholarship was revoked, leaving him with a steep out-of-state tuition bill to pay. He moved his belongings into his car, filling the back seat and trunk, and set about raising the money.
He juggled four jobs. He cooked at an Italian restaurant near campus, delivered packages, sold kitchen cutlery and worked a construction job. He slept in his car. His days were a weary blur.
Gilyard did landscaping at a condominium construction site in the suburbs during the morning, then hawked knives during his lunch hour. He'd stop at a service station restroom to clean up, trade those boots for a blazer, then make a sales call at a home.
The pitch: Slice through a piece of leather or a length of rope to show the knife's sharpness, take the kitchen shears and cut through a penny to show their strength. He had to do it quick - there wasn't much time to change back into the boots and get back to work.
"I'd be at the construction site, hurry up, wash up somewhere quick, get dressed and try to get a quick one in," Gilyard said. "It was a lunch hour, so I'd try to get somebody in the area where we were working, try to get a quick sell."
There were times when the job-juggling felt like too much. He wanted to go home. His family and girlfriend talked him out of it.
"I can remember calling my girlfriend and telling her, 'Man, I'm dying,"' he said. "I just wanted to be done. She said, 'You're going through this now. Think about if you come out of it, you'll be able to tell someone else who's going through something similar.' So I stuck it out."
And, he got a break.
Coach Brian Kelly replaced Dantonio near the end of Gilyard's lost 2006 season, learned about his situation and offered to give him a scholarship once he took care of his tuition obligations.
"I just wanted to get him back into school," Kelly said. "He had bills to pay, he had rent to pay, he had a lot of things he had to overcome. We just wanted to get him started, and anything that happened in the football end of things would have been a bonus for me."
Kelly's staff moved him from cornerback to receiver, and he emerged as a dangerous deep threat in Cincinnati's no-huddle, spread offense. Senior quarterback Tony Pike is astonished by what Gilyard has overcome.
"People think that I've been through a lot since I've been here," said Pike, who broke his nonpassing forearm last season. "But it's nothing compared to what Mardy's had to deal with."
If he's ever tempted to forget, Gilyard has those two boots to get him grounded again.
"They're still dusty, just like they were the last day I worked," he said. "I can never forget it. I spent a lot of that day cutting wood.
"They're just there to remind me that hard work does pay off."