The pain caused him to see another doctor during the offseason. The first words out of the doctor's mouth were, "What's life without football like?" Wheatley's wrist had deteriorated to the point where it appeared he would have to give up the sport.
A second surgery in February 2005 didn't fix the issue — a bone that had deteriorated severely. Several months later, a third and final surgery fused together bones in his wrist and repaired the circulation system in the area. The surgery was a success — it saved the bones from completely dying. But it also limited the motion in his wrist. It was unclear how well he could play cornerback.
Wheatley was recovered enough late last season to begin practicing with the team. The first week of practices, he was held out of contact. By the time the Buffs went to Florida and practiced in preparation for the Champs Bowl, he wasn't held out of anything. It was a test run to see if the defensive back could play effectively with an immobile — but healthy — wrist. He passed.
"It felt good," he said. "It's not a big deal. It's a definite change as far as technique. But outside of that, I don't really notice anything."
Because he has limited motion in the wrist, he's had to adjust his game a bit.
"The wrist doesn't move at all, so I can't really jam the way I used to, I can't really get underneath people," Wheatley said. "So I have to rely more on good hand position and just overall arm strength to do what I need to do."
Once Wheatley was able to practice, he was also able to get back into the weightroom. The past three or four months, the cornerback from Dallas has put on 20 to 25 pounds of lean muscle. He's currently up near 185 pounds from a low of 160 following his third surgery.
He said it's the heaviest he's weighed and the strongest he's felt. Speed has always been a big part of Wheatley's game. He played in 25 games his first two seasons at CU, starting seven, and made 57 tackles. He was second on the team with four interceptions (and returned one for a score) in 2004, playing with the bad wrist.
Though he hasn't been timed in the 40-yard dash recently, Wheatley doesn't think the added weight has slowed him down. Feeling his oats after a good session of weight training, Wheatley told strength coach Greg Finnegan last week he thinks he could clock in the low 4.3 or even high 4.2 range.
"I actually feel faster," the junior with two years to play two said. "I definitely feel my acceleration has gotten a lot better. Part of that is because my legs are a whole lot stronger than they were previously."
How well his new-found strength translates into standout play on the football field remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: The Buffs' secondary could benefit from a healthy, strong and speedy Wheatley. Before his injury two years ago, he was poised to mature into the best corner on the team.
Beginning next week, he'll have the chance to impress his third coach in four seasons. New head coach Dan Hawkins hired Greg Brown to coach the secondary in January. Brown comes back to Colorado after serving on Bill McCartney's staff in the early 1990s, when he tutored standout DBs Ronnie Bradford, Deon Figures and Chris Hudson, among others. Since then, Brown has bounced around the NFL with several teams.
Wheatley has had several conversations with Brown in the past two months, picking Brown's brain about his experience in The League and about the former Buffalo greats.
"He's a real laid back guy," Wheatley said. "He kind of reminds me of (Vance Joseph) back from my freshman year. As long as you get the job done and don't screw up, he's kind of cool."
Of course, most of the Buffalo players will be trying to impress new coaches, as only Brian Cabral and Darian Hagan were retained from the former staff, and Hagan is coaching a new position – running backs.
Wheatley said the excitement among the players is palpable heading into the final days before spring ball, which begins Monday.
"It's crazy. Everybody is kind of revved up and ready to go," he said.
Wheatley made reference to the 2004 spring, when then-head coach Gary Barnett had been placed on administrative leave, and a shadow of scandal had been cast — mostly unfairly — over the program. On the afternoon of the first spring practice, several hundred fans gathered to form a tunnel of support to greet the players and coaches as they walked from the Dal Ward Center to the practice fields.
"I remember how excited everybody was," Wheatley said. "And it's more, it's better than that (now). Everybody is ready to go. The coaches are excited, the players are excited."
A big reason for the excitement is the opportunity that's ahead of Wheatley and his teammates under the new staff.
"There's no sure-fire starters. Everything's up for grabs, so everyone wants to go out there and prove themselves and show them you can play," he said. "And the coaches want to go out there and want to show the Big 12 that even though we went through some things, we're still a quality team."