"I didn't know how my family would react to my bringing a black friend home for dinner. I figured it would be okay and I wasn't absolutely sure." -- Steve Wysocki
It didn't take Steve Wysocki long to find out that any friend of his was welcome in his family's home. The black friend's name was Charles De-Graffenreid. He was 13, the 12th of 14 children from a family that lived on the wrong side of the tracks in Wilkes-Barre.
A ninth-grader at the time, he had met Steve Wysocki when they played together on the Meyers High School football team.
Today, six years later, he signs his name Charles Wysocki. He calls Steve's parents, Pat and Tony, Mom and Dad. Millie Wysocki is his older sister and Steve his brother.
Charlie has become a star tailback for the Maryland football team, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing as a sophomore with 928 yards going into Saturday's season finale against Virginia at Byrd Stadium. He rused for 222 yards Saturday against Louisville and tops the ACC with a 117.3 rushing average, the best ever by a Maryland back.
As a result, he has been asked on dozens of occasions to explain his story, to tell people how a poor black teen-ager became a member of a well-to-do white family.
"It's hard to explain," Charlie Wysocki said. "It just happened. It wasn't like it was planned or anything.
Sitting in the Wysockis' comfortable living room, a room filled with pictures of Charlie and his brother and sister, it is easy to understand how a lonely 13-year-old whose father had died a year earlier would find comfort with the Wysocki family.
At the other end of the spectrum, Charlie Wysocki is a warm and friendly youngster with a bright smile and an irrepressible sense of humor. What's more, he won Pat Wysocki's heart immediately by eating everything in sight that first night at dinner.
"He just seemed to fit in from the beginning," Tony Wysocki said. "It was like he belonged here. We loved having him around."
After that first night, Charlie De-Graffenreid became a regular visitor to the big white house at 90 Charles St. Eventually, he was given his own key and when he didn't show up for a meal the Wysockis worried about him, sometimes sending Steve out to try to find him.
He will not compare the two homes or families. "I don't ever want to do anything to hurt my (natural) mother," he said."There's no reason to do that. I can't understand why people want to bother her."
But people have wanted to bother her. Sports Illustrated, writing a story about Wysocki, talked to his natural mother. This upset Charlie to the point where Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne and the Wysocki family lawyer called the magazine and demanded to know what it was planning to print.
The reason: Mrs. DeGraffenreid had signed the adoption papers reluctantly. "I did it because Charlie wanted me to," Charlie's mother was quoted as saying.
Charlie Wysocki says he does not want to talk about his early home life. When the subject comes up, his normally smiling face turns sober, his voice becomes soft and he speaks slowly and haltingly.
"It's a long time ago," he said. "A lot of it was unpleasant, I guess. I don't really like to talk about it. I'm here now. I'm playing ball, going to school trying to get an education. I want to think about the future, not about the past."
At age 19, Wysocki cannot understand why people will not accept the present as it is, why they must seek some mysterious link to his past.
There is nothing mysterius about the Wysocki family. Their devotion to their adopted son is apparent whenever his name comes up. They speak of him as if he has always been a part of their household.
Within two years after first meeting the Wysockis, Charlie had moved in. He had become a part of the family. Neither Charlie nor any of the Wysockis can remember any particular turning point or incident or moment when he became "family." But Pat Wysocki remembers when she became "Mom" instead of "Mrs. Wysocki."
"We were sitting right here at the dining room table," she said, "playing cards. He was fiddling around with the cards, kind of looking down at them and he said, 'Would you mind if I called you Mom?'
"It was about as soft as I've ever heard his voice. I just looked up and said, 'That would make me very happy.'"
The Wysockis adopted the youngster during his junior year in high school. As a senior he began signing his name Charlie D. Wysocki. This year, he has dropped the D.
Charlie's ball-playing is a subject of much pride in the Wysocki home. From the time that he moved into the house, the entire family has attended virtually every athletic event -- football or wrestling -- he has competed in.
"The first time Charlie came to church with us, when we walked in everybody's head kind of whipped around," Steve remembered. "I guess there was some whispering. But that was all. Now when we go to church, you would think he was the priest the way everyone surrounds him."
Tom Wysocki remembered something else. "There was a time early on when he would find excuses not to go with us when we went out to eat. Finally, I took him aside and asked him what was going on. He said he was afraid he might embarrass us if he went into a restaurant with us.
"That's one of the few times I was really stern with him. I just said, 'Look, young man, if you are a member of this family, you go where we go. Period.' That ended that."
Pat Wysocki: "Once, when I took Charlie shopping he had gone behind a partition to try on some pants. He kept putting them on top, saying, 'Too big, Mom; too small, Mom; don't like them, Mom.'
"The whole time, there was this salesgirl standing there. When he finally came out, her face hit the floor. She thought she was seeing things." f
And, as you might expect, Steve Wysocki encountered some problems when he tried to convince an usher at the Maryland-Villanova game that he wanted to get on the field to take pictures of his brother. The usher knew enough about football to know that Maryland's starting tailback was black.
There is also confusion about Redskin linebackeer Pete Wysocki. There is no relationship between Pete and Charlie Wysocki's family, although the family sometimes jokingly refers to him as "cousin Pete."
"But he's gotten in touch with Charlie and told him if he ever needs help with anything he should just call," Pat Wysocki said."He's acted as if Charlie was a relative."
Sitting in the Wysocki living room or exploring the Wysocki basement, it is impossible to differentiate between Charlie's place in the family and Steve and Millie's. In the family pictures, as the middle child, he stands between his brother and sister.Some of his trophies sit by the fireplace, the rest take up most of the room in the basement. In fact, the basement looks almost like a Charlie Wysocki shrine.
"I think a lot of their warmth has to do with the fact that my dad was poor when he grew up and he learned to appreciate having a nice home, a warm home where you feel loved," Charlie said. "He and Mom have always been like that to everyone. They're just very good people."
Tony Wysocki is a successful contractor. He started in business in Wilkes-Barre with his father-in-law after marrying Pat. Now, Steve works for him. Whether Charlie will join the family business is as yet an unanswered question, but right now everyone in the family, including Charlie, is hoping professional football is part of Charlie's future.
"I remember last year before Charlie's first game, he called to see if we were coming," Pat said. "Steve (then a senior at Meyers High) was playing on Saturday night, Charlie in the afternoon. We wanted to see both games but there was no way to get to both games by car.
"We didn't know what to do. Charlie was so upset. He kept saying, 'You're going to miss my first college game.'"
The Wysockis found a solution: a friend with an airplane. They made both games.
Freshman year was not a particularly good one for Wysocki. He played sparingly behind senior tailbacks Steve Atkins and Alvin Maddox. Like any college freshman who is homesick, he called home frequently -- virtually every night -- collect, of course.
"We would all get on the phone and try and encourage him," said Millie Wysocki, a lithe, attractive woman of 23 who, like Charlie, but unlike Steve, loves to dress up. "We'd tell him about what was going on here, what we were all doing, just try to take his mind off problems.
'It was the same thing you do for any brother at college. No difference."
Which to the Wysockis is the bottom line. They look upon Charlie as a member of the family.He is bawled out like any member of the family, yelled at for not taking the garbage out and expected to meet his responsibilities to his family and his schoolwork.
"They've taught me a lot about responsibilities," said Charlie, a poor student when he met the Wysockis, almost an 'A' student as a senior in high school and about a C-plus student so far in college. "When you're part of a family, you have responsibilities to them and they do to you."