Four black helmets gleam in a neat row as four young men dig in their cleats and claw at the grass. If there is one sure thing in all of football, it is their talent and potential. Muscles twitch with each motion, forearms bulging, thighs rippling under the black uniform of Hargrave Military Academy. Each is too fast for his size, too strong to move with such agility. They say the game is won or lost in the trenches, and on this Tuesday evening in October 2005, it rings true. Nobody can stop what might be the strongest, fastest, angriest defensive line ever to play outside the National Football League.
Beasts in the middle and missiles off the edge, each was ranked among the top four prospects at his position in the Class of 2005. End to end, they count 19 stars on Rivals.com, the college football recruiting site. Rivals named only 28 five-star recruits, and three play on this line. Each has a scholarship waiting at a major college program, but academic failures took them to Hargrave on a one-season detour. Now they glare across the line at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, eyes on the future. The boys in white — the University of North Carolina junior varsity — brace themselves for the impact.
The quarterback barks, the ball moves, and they fire off the line, an 1,180-pound wall of muscle and wrath. Five-star defensive tackle Callahan Bright leads the charge, wedging himself under the pads of two blockers. At 6'2 and 320 pounds, with a power-lifting physique and an unreal first step, he was the second-rated defensive tackle in his class — and might have been the top defensive lineman if he were more emotionally stable. He is committed to Florida State. Fueled by rage, ambition, and fast-twitch muscle, he drives the double-team backward.
Perhaps hundredths of seconds later, Ole Miss commit Jerrell Powe takes on a double-team of his own. By keeping so many players in to block, the Tarheels can hardly muster an offense, but they don't have much of a choice. Even bigger at 6'3 and 340 pounds, Powe moves like a cat. A five-star prospect and the nation's third-rated DT, he shoves the guard aside with his right arm, swims over the center with his left, and meets Bright in the backfield. They stop the running back on a dime, standing him up, only to find his hands empty.
He rates five stars only because the sixth does
Justin Mincey burns off the left end. The four-star prospect, a 6'5, 240-pound slasher with 4.65 speed in the 40-yard dash, is the line's weakest link – only the fourth-best prep defensive end in America. Still, Florida State can't wait to line him up next to Bright. He catches the quarterback bootlegging right, patting an open throwing hand and looking downfield, as if a man were about to come open. But there is no man, just a desperate attempt to create space. Reading the ruse, Mincey still drops the passer with a distracted paw to the chest, just to be sure, and then looks around for the ball.
A murmur rises from the stands as the double-fake reverse isolates a sprinting wide out against Melvin Alaeze, a 6'3, 280-pound right end waiting in the flat. It only looks like a mismatch. The nation's top DE, a consensus top-20 prospect overall, Alaeze is the fastest man on the line, even faster than Mincey, with an absurd 4.64 40-yard dash. He rates five stars only because the sixth does not exist. With 55 formal scholarship offers from every school that mattered, he chose Maryland. Now he beats the receiver to the turn, twists him into the grass, then uses the inert body to push himself back to his feet.
Nothing could stand in their way, no obstacle and certainly no other player. Coveted by coaches, anointed by the media, the Hargrave Four were destined for collegiate glory, professional cash, and all the trappings that fame would bring. Until something odd happened: nothing. None of it happened. Today, in 2014, football has forgotten the most talented defensive line in amateur history, even as the last man standing battles for an NFL roster spot.
Rock Star Tour
One by one, in the summer of 2005, the new cadets rolled into Chatham, a drowsy little town that straddles a two-lane highway near Virginia's southern boundary. Hargrave Military Academy sits among green hills at the top of a curved, tree-lined drive, looking over a broad swale. Parents from poor backwoods and distant cities must have gawked at the brick colonial architecture as cadets as young as 12 years old marched past, impassive to the newcomers and their goodbyes. Power was cut off to the elevators, so the Hargrave Four hiked five flights of stairs to their barracks, each hauling his own baggage.
In order to claim their college scholarship offers, each would have to meet the NCAA's confusing, arcane and sometimes heartless academic standards for student-athletes, regulations that reduce GPA, standardized test scores and performance in core classes to an algorithm. Bright's grades were OK, but his SAT score was too low. Mincey missed the GPA cut-off and failed some core classes. Alaeze was a smart kid, but lost credits in a school transfer. Powe simply did not graduate from high school. "You had a bunch of superstars who can't take tests," Mincey says, summing up the way many top recruits feel. College coaches referred them all to Hargrave, a private, Baptist-affiliated boarding school for grades 7-12, catering to wealthy families — annual tuition is $30,800 in 2014.
Non-qualifiers today must burn two years of eligibility in junior college, but until 2008, when the NCAA limited athletes to one make-up class after high school, a year at prep school allowed athletes to make the grade without losing a minute of their four-year college eligibility. At Hargrave, the postgraduate football program — which ceased to exist in 2014 — offered full scholarships to top recruits who struggled with academics. With a year of discipline and personal attention, even a failed student could rebuild his transcript.
Cadets called the school "The Grave," because it felt like being buried alive.
Reveille sounded each morning at 5:45 a.m., giving the cadets 15 minutes to dress, make their beds, conduct personal hygiene, and hoof it a half-mile uphill to the landing strip and back before standing in formation while the flag was raised. Some would sleep in their uniforms to save time. Days were structured around academics, leaving no alternative but to focus. They moved directly from class to personal tutoring sessions and mandatory study hall. Football was the lone outlet, and anybody who missed a scheduled activity was not allowed to participate. Back in the barracks, where two security guards kept watch, the lights went out at 10 p.m. every night.
"Man, this is jail," Bright told Hargrave head coach Robert Prunty. Still, he earned sergeant stripes, becoming perhaps the largest platoon leader in military history, and ran the yard like a Philadelphia street tough. His teammates were afraid to go near him, unsure when he might lash out to reinforce the lessons in intimidation he dished out in practice. "Hargrave could really tear you down," says Jonathan Meldrum, who later played offensive tackle for Syracuse. "It was like a prison movie without the shower scenes." Cadets called the school "The Grave," because it felt like being buried alive. Even if they could sneak off campus, the whole town would recognize a cadet on the lam.
Like soldiers, the cadets found comfort in camaraderie. Some nights the barracks would echo with music while postgrads played cards and drank ice-cold sodas. Sometimes Alaeze and Bright would debate which city was tougher, Philadelphia or Baltimore, and Alaeze would quietly brag that his friends ran with the Bloods. More often, the guys would lie still and listen as Powe told Mississippi stories and Mincey rumbled with the deep, easy laughter of a kindred spirit.
Chatham offered few temptations, but road games were another story, and Hargrave was the visitor 10 times that year. Bright would shout in the locker room, pumping up his teammates before leading them out of the tunnel. Hargrave beat Fork Union Military Academy, Louisburg Junior College, and twice destroyed Bridgewater College, a top-20 D-III team. They played junior varsity squads from Army, Navy, and West Virginia. Kentucky formed a JV team from the bench, just to bring Hargrave to town. Head coach Rich Brooks stalked the sidelines during the game, and Mincey thought he recognized some starters among the Wildcats' offensive linemen. Afterwards, Brooks crossed the field to shake the hands of the Hargrave Four, like every other coach that season. "All these cats wanted me," Bright says.
But the best part came after the games, when the courtship overran the confines of the field. Somebody bought the Four a gallon of gin in Morgantown. At Virginia Tech — where the varsity kicker sealed a one-point Hokies victory with a late 51-yard field goal — several home team starters invited Mincey and Alaeze to a party. Fans were even more persistent, tracking the Four down at the hotel, banging on their doors just begging them to switch college teams. And there were girls, lots of them. Groupies would sneak in and stalk the halls, calling out for each by name.
"They thought they had made it. Some of the guys already thought they were in the NFL."
A sincerely religious man, Coach Prunty tried to keep things under control, but it was like trying to steer a river. "They were like rock stars," Prunty says. "They thought they had made it. Some of the guys already thought they were in the NFL." His staff would stay up all night, fending off the interlopers, and sending disappointed young women home.
On a brisk Tuesday that December, about 400 college coaches came to the Hargrave combine, a popular recruiting stop. They drooled watching the four young messiahs work out — prospects with the talent to save a defense, turn a program around, maybe earn the coach a raise. Mincey ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds. Alaeze tossed up 26 reps on the 225-pound bench press. Powe flashed a 26-inch vertical leap, while Bright busted a feline-quick 4.54-second shuttle.
Back in the barracks, Bright and Powe talked about how easy life would be once they got to the NFL. "I just knew for sure," Powe says, "we all were going to be there one day."
A few days later, Bright walked away from Hargrave and never came back. He was the first, but less than two years later, only one of the Hargrave Four was on a college football roster.
The Good Soldier
Outside the stadium in Tallahassee, a bronze Bobby Bowden statue points into some vague distance — the future, maybe. Upstairs, in July 2007, Justin Mincey walks into a plush conference room, cool with air conditioning. He is muscular, but not strikingly so. Wearing shorts and a Seminoles T-shirt, he settles into a soft chair overlooking the practice field. Every few minutes, an assistant SID stops at the door to make sure my questions cause his player no discomfort. FSU runs a serious football program. They take good care of you, I say, asking. Yes sir, Mincey says, with a broad grin. He is a young man who says yes sir and no sir, even to reporters, and follows directions. He has no idea how much trouble that will get him into.
Mincey grew up in Folkston, Ga., a town of 2,178 near the Okefenokee Swamp. Sixty trains pass through every day, and the median household income is under $22,000. Somehow, that makes it a football town. NFL players Boss and Champ Bailey, who just signed with the New Orleans Saints, both came from Folkston. Still, back at Charlton County High School, Mincey says his older brother was even better than Champ was. No kidding? No sir.
Before long, Justin became the big name. Fast off the edge and 6'5, he earned a reputation for batting down passes. Opposing fans chanted his name, begging him to choose Georgia, but he didn't even feel like the big dog on his own team. He was still the little brother. At Hargrave, he blended in, getting along with everybody. "That was the best line," he says. "I wish we could've stayed together in college. We would've won the national championship." Mincey kept his head down at Hargrave, passed his classes, improved his SAT score, and in 2006 went on to FSU, just as he was supposed to.
Bowden's former dynasty had faded, from spectacular to merely solid. The recruiting class of 2005 offered hope, with Bright and two other five-star recruits as well as Mincey, who was rated 65th overall. Bright's personal havoc could anchor an aggressive defense, freeing speed players like Mincey to rush off the edge. But after leaving Hargrave, Bright never made it to FSU, and nobody seemed to know where he had gone. I asked Mincey if he had heard anything. No sir, he said.
When Bright didn't show up, that changed everything. It left the roster thin at defensive tackle, so the coaches asked Mincey to move inside. Money was tight back home. His father did tractor work, and his mother built sewing machines, or she had until the factory closed down. He was grateful for his scholarship, which covered $16,439 in annual out-of-state tuition along with other fees and expenses, like books, housing, and meals. "Paying school," he says, "I wouldn't be in school." Yes sir, he said.
The coaches asked Mincey to gain weight, sacrificing his greatest asset, his speed and agility. The leaders of the FSU coaching staff in 2007: Jimbo Fisher, Bobby Bowden, Mickey Andrews. (Getty Images)
The coaches asked Mincey to gain weight, sacrificing his greatest asset, his speed and agility. His target was 30 pounds of new muscle, and by the summer of 2007 he was about halfway there. There was no telling how the weight would affect his play or what stresses it might put on his body, but he trusted his coaches. Yes sir, he said.
Now a sophomore, Mincey was ready to fight for some playing time. More important, he was carrying a 3.2 GPA. He beamed as he announced it, proud as a little kid. His favorite class, he said, was Music Cultures of the World, a course an academic adviser strongly suggested he take. Yes sir, he said. Later, the tutor handed him a binder containing test answers. Yes sir.
That September, the school conducted an internal investigation into the music course and found proof of cheating. Three football players were suspended for at least one game, including a sophomore defensive end who missed the entire season. That made room for Mincey to get on the field, but that year the Seminoles played under a dark cloud. They managed a 6-6 record, just good enough for the Music City Bowl, before the scandal broke wide open.
According to the NCAA Infractions Committee, three FSU staff members — an academic adviser, a learning specialist, and a tutor — caused 61 student-athletes to cheat between 2004 and 2007. Citing the school for "failure to monitor" its employees, the NCAA imposed four years of probation, vacated victories, and cut scholarships in baseball, softball, football, basketball, swimming, track and golf. "Everybody knew what was going on," Mincey says. "The academic adviser signed us up. They put you in and nothing was said, just go do the class. It was the same thing, freshman and sophomore year. Our department had everybody in that one class."
Mincey paid the penalty. He was suspended from the bowl game, which FSU lost to Kentucky, 35-28, along with about two dozen teammates, and from four more games in 2008. His name was tainted, but he kept working and returned as a 270-pound nose guard. Starting four games, he forced a fumble and got a few tackles behind the line, but his performance never lived up to his promise. Then, as a senior, carrying all that added weight, he blew out his left knee — "tore everything around the ACL," he says. This was his last chance, so he accelerated his rehab and returned for five pedestrian games before re-injuring the same knee.
Mincey, the fourth-best defensive end prospect in America entering college, was not invited to the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine.
The Hype Man
For Callahan Bright, the future was written in dollar signs. Before his senior year at Harriton High School in Lower Merion, Pa., ESPN called him the nation's top prospect, a young Warren Sapp who could also play offensive guard. At age 17, he and others at Harriton High saw his name projected as the top overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. "These guys see something in me that they don't see in a lot of people," he remembers thinking. "I got to take advantage of it."
Bright was the second son of a working-class single mom in Bryn Mawr, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb surrounded by manor estates. Home was a rented duplex on Warner Avenue, a patch of affordable housing along the main drag, but with friends like the sons of then-Eagles head coach Andy Reid, he knew what money looked like. Posting on urbandictionary.com, he sarcastically wrote that in order to attend Harriton, "one must own an Abercrombie and Fitch store." Brash and rebellious, he spoke too loud in class, lied about his age to get summer jobs, and took a stolen golf cart on a joyride.
"He played the game as intense as you can play it. He played like he wanted to hurt somebody."
Whatever got him sent to Glen Mills, a court-adjudicated reform school, is sealed in his juvenile records, but in two years there he made the power-lifting team and wrestled in the state tournament. After transferring to Harriton as a junior, he lifted every weight in the gym at once — he could reportedly bench 400 pounds and squat 700 — so the school bought more weights. He paid them back, playing lacrosse and football, taking turns at halfback, fullback, linebacker, long snapper, kicker, and on both lines of scrimmage — whatever it took to win. "He played the game as intense as you can play it," said former Harriton coach Harold Smith. "He played like he wanted to hurt somebody."
Bright's aggression, as much as his athleticism, carried him up the recruiting charts. At the Elite College Combine, he tore through offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, who later became a first-round NFL draft pick and recently signed a $37.5 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens. "Words don't do justice just how impressive Bright looks from a physical standpoint," Rivals wrote after that summer's NIKE Camp in Virginia, where he went unblocked in drills. More than 50 schools offered him football scholarships.
To make sure nothing got in the way, Bright met with Smith every morning at 6:30 to practice for the SAT. School was slow and frustrating. Struggling with ADD and ADHD, Bright learned best in the resource room, a smaller class that allowed hands-on interaction with the teacher. In any case, he didn't have much taste for it. School was simply an obstacle to overcome so he could play football. College looked like more of the same, but that was the system, so he tried to play along. "We want to play football for a living," Bright says. "That's how you make it."
Despite the presence of Bright, Harriton lost every game that fall by an average of 28 points. Ejected from the second game and suspended for another after an altercation with an opposing player, Bright seethed. There had long been rumors of violence: that he broke a kid's back in wrestling; that he threw a punch at a park, putting the other guy in a coma; that he fought with fans after a football game. When he sat the last four games, new rumors kicked up — something about choking a teammate. Bright says some of his teammates threatened to quit if Smith let him play. "He had to sit me down," Bright says. "I probably got mad and cracked somebody at practice. Typical. Cause if I get mad, I'm just going to hurt somebody on the field." ESPN reported that he had been expelled.
The Army All-American Bowl rescinded Bright's invitation, but he only dropped a few spots in the rankings. Then his SAT score came back: 750. Not good enough for the algorithm. With only a 2.5 GPA, he would have to improve his SAT to 820. Coaches at Florida State suggested he spend the next year at Hargrave. They didn't expect him to walk away and fall off the map.
A few years after Bright left, I walked the streets of Bryn Mawr and called dead phone numbers. I interviewed officials at Harriton High School. I found Smith at another school. He gave me a number. Either it didn't work or Bright refused to call back. I even tried the Eagles, hoping Reid could give me a lead, but heard nothing. I checked local court records and discovered Bright had been charged with attempting to sell marijuana. On the promise of a rumor in the spring of 2008, I called the dorms at Shaw University, a traditionally black college in Raleigh, N.C., with a D-II football program, and asked for him. The phone went silent for several minutes, then a booming voice came on. "This is Cal," he said.
A few weeks later, Bright lumbered into the resident assistant's office and sprawled over a plastic chair. His thighs were trees under gray sweats, his belly bulging against a white T-shirt. He spoke of new study techniques that were making school easier — like reading a chapter two weeks before the test, instead of just skimming it the night before — but his purpose was clear. "I'm not furthering my education," he said. "I'm here to get tape, to play football, to go to the league."
"I'm not furthering my education. I'm here to get tape, to play football, to go to the league."
Bright filled in the blanks. After a semester at Hargrave, he repeated the SAT, but his score jumped so high, it was red-flagged for further review by the NCAA. He could have waited to see the results. If the NCAA refused to accept the score, he could have taken the test again. But he had no time for such nonsense. The "league" was waiting, and if he couldn't get to Tallahassee by January, he didn't see the point of trying again. So he went home, looking for the quickest way around the system.
First, he tried junior college. With an associate's degree, he could transfer anywhere, and he'd never have to see a lousy SAT booklet again. In 2006, he played spring ball at Butler Community College, a football factory on the Kansas plains, then quit school before the semester ended.
He flirted with the Canadian Football League, then turned to Arena Football. "The NFL? Screw it," he says. "I'll go out and make 40 grand, 'cause I don't have a dollar right now." He impressed in workouts for the New York Dragons and Philadelphia Soul, but wasn't signed. The coaches told him to go back to school.
So Bright enrolled at Delaware County Community College, just to prove he was serious. The school had no football program, so he joined the Conshohocken Steelers, a team of weekend warriors in a pay-to-play league. Most games, he got penalized for at least one late hit. But again, something went wrong, and he quit school before the semester ended. "Who would do anything that's not working for them?" he asks. "Why keep robbing a bank if you get caught every time?"
Even as Bright rode the back of a garbage truck — earning $24 an hour, with full benefits for him and his infant son, Xavier — junior college coaches kept calling Harriton, looking for him. His Conshohocken teammates pushed him to revive his career, if only for their sake. One suggested Shaw University, said he knew a coach there. In July 2007, Bright sold an unspecified amount of marijuana to an undercover cop, who later told me about an unusual condition of bail, based on Bright's troublesome history. The judge ordered him to stay at Shaw, except for holiday visits home. That year, even after he didn't qualify to play or practice, Bright did not quit.
Now, his booming voice fills the drab dorm office. The bare white walls need painting but Bright is still optimistic about the future, promising six sacks in a game that fall, and 30 or 40 on the year. His palms sweat as he talks, getting amped for the upcoming 2009 NFL draft. "If I can't get into the first [round], I'll get into the second," he says. "I can walk into the third. Right now, after (LSU's) Glenn Dorsey, I'm the best D-tackle in the nation." Then he walks out, moving like a caged, exhausted tiger. His bluster falls flat against cold white tile.
Bright finally qualified to play in 2009, recording 48 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and exactly one half-sack — good enough to make the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association All-Rookie team, but not the kind of dominant performance he expected. He needed more time to train, to get back in shape and practice against top competition.
But Shaw University was not like FSU. Sometimes, the gym was closed, and Bright found the food and the coaching subpar. "Not making it to Florida State made everything twice as hard," he says. "I would've been getting top-of-the line training, nutrition [at FSU]. It's structured for you to be successful. A school like Shaw, they don't have the means."
Again, Bright walked away. He hired an agent, spent a few months training for the 2010 NFL Draft, and told a thumbnail version of his story to Sports Illustrated. At NC State's pro day, he put up first-round numbers, benching 41 reps at 225 pounds, flashing 5.02 speed, with superior splits at 10 and 20 yards, all at 343 pounds. Still, he faced long odds. The NFL drafts only one in 50 FBS players — about 1.7 percent — and even fewer from smaller schools. Football is a buyer's market, and NFL teams can afford to be selective. Bright's phone didn't ring, not during the draft, and not after. "A couple background checks came back not too clean," he says. "Legal was extra strict this year, is the kind of feedback I was getting."
He wasn't the only one bucking against the system and coming up short.
The Beautiful Mind
The decision came down without a name attached to it after some desk worker at an office in Iowa City or Indianapolis reviewed the file. In 2006, Jerrell Powe had the numbers to meet NCAA academic standards, with a 2.54 GPA and a score of 18 on the ACT. But his transcript didn't look right, not to that desk worker. His scores and grades had improved too much, too fast. There is no presumption of innocence at the NCAA Clearinghouse, no constitutional guarantee of due process. A letter came telling Powe his eligibility was denied.
That's not how folks do business down in Waynesboro, Miss., a town of 5,000 near the Alabama border where Powe was raised. That's not to say things are perfect. His father was not around. His mother, who worked 12-hour shifts at the hospital, barely had the time to question whether the third of her four children belonged in special education. As reported by Bruce Feldman in "Meat Market," his chronicle about a college football recruiting season, the Wayne County School District dropped Powe into that category when he was in second grade, then let him pass for 10 years on D's and F's. There's no telling where Powe would be today if a teammate's father, Joe Barnett, a real estate appraiser, had never intervened.
Powe was already on his way to becoming a Parade All-American when Barnett walked him from coaches to teachers, asking why has this boy been forgotten? Doctors diagnosed Powe with mild dyslexia, ADHD, and difficulty processing information in group settings. Yet his memory tested at the 92nd percentile. There was no excuse for a child with these attributes to get lost in the system. With meds and individual attention, they determined he could learn just fine. Barnett pushed for a tutor to help Powe to catch up. Ginny Crager, a 65-year-old teacher of gifted students, volunteered, only to discover that Powe, a senior, was reading on a second-grade level.
Crager helped Powe become a fifth-grade reader within a year, but qualifying with the NCAA was another matter. The learning disability entitled him to have a reader during the ACT, and his score jumped 50 percent, from 12 to 18. Still, he had too many D's and F's on his transcript to qualify. Ed Orgeron, head coach at Ole Miss, suggested he take online courses from Brigham Young University to make up the difference. First at Wayne County High, and later at Hargrave, Powe signed up for 14 courses from BYU, scoring four A's and nine B's. It was too late for him to graduate with his class, but it would compensate for the nine classroom courses he had failed.
"I found new techniques," he says. "I became a more efficient note taker. I felt comfortable going into tests. I felt like any other student." Confident, Powe joined Ole Miss for voluntary workouts in summer 2006. One day, Feldman wrote, he ran 16 straight 110-yard sprints in that southern heat, passing guys who were 100 pounds smaller. Then, on Aug. 25, the NCAA Clearinghouse turned Powe down, citing the difference between classes and his online work. "It was devastating," he says. "So many [other] guys took those same correspondence courses. Not one got declined."
Powe sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, causing a media firestorm that burned his family. A reporter quoted his mother saying Powe was "a good child, but he just can't read." The statement wasn't true — not exactly, and certainly not anymore — but it made a perfect sound bite, depicting Powe as an athlete out to fleece the system. Changing tack, he dropped the suit and decided to try again, re-enrolling at Wayne County High. "It all made me a better person," he says. "Just to humble myself, to handle my business, and be more serious, school-wise."
"I knew what I wanted in life. This was what I had to do to get there."
Barnett helped Powe get a job at the county jail, eight bucks an hour to feed the inmates, clean the occasional mess, and man the reception desk, where he did homework on the office computer. By spring 2007, he had retaken every class once ruled unacceptable. His attorney kept Ole Miss and the NCAA informed at each step. "I didn't think I was wasting my time," he says. "I knew what I wanted in life. This was what I had to do to get there."
This time, Powe's application didn't even reach the Clearinghouse. After all that negative publicity, Ole Miss wanted to be sure before risking a scholarship — and possible NCAA sanctions down the road. So they offered to let Powe attend school on financial aid, but not join the team until he had proven he could perform in class. "It was a moral slap in the face to Jerrell," Barnett says. "Misunderstandings about his intellectual abilities had to cast a long shadow. Those decisions were made far on the side of caution."
In fall 2007, Powe attended every home game as a student and a fan, but it was hard to watch. The Rebels struggled to win three games, as opposing offenses averaged 423 yards. "I got sad on game day," Powe says. "I wanted to be out there." Orgeron's vision for a swarming defense, built around Powe, his prototype D-tackle, never took shape. He had gambled on Powe's academics, and lost. He was fired that November.
Shortly after Houston Nutt was introduced as Orgeron's replacement, he sat in his new office with Powe and Barnett. Nutt was a straight shooter. He wanted Powe, but not at the 384 pounds he now weighed. After two years without a camp, without two-a-days or summer workouts, he couldn't do 10 push-ups or 10 sit-ups. Nutt put him on a workout regime, three times a day, working him down to 312, and called Barnett five times a week to keep tabs on him, checking in so often the two men stopped bothering with formalities.
One afternoon in July 2008, Barnett answered the phone and snarled, "Now what?" A few minutes later, he was driving at full speed to the Wayne County High School gym where Powe was playing pick-up basketball. "Jerrell," Barnett said, "you need to get on the phone." Powe wiped away sweat, expecting to hear some TV reporter, not his new coach. "Done deal," Nutt said. "Nobody deserves this more than you." Powe was back on the team. Tears welled in the big man's eyes. He wrapped Barnett in a bear hug. "I felt like the world had been lifted off my back," Powe says. He went to Oxford that night, just to be around the team.
Football shape doesn't happen overnight, in a gym, or on a hardwood floor. Powe brought back that old Hargrave discipline, going to the gym every morning at 5:30 for 20 solitary minutes on the elliptical machine, then back for another 20 minutes after team workouts. "It's hard to work as hard on your own," he says. "Just look at Muhammad Ali, when he went to jail. He couldn't dance no more when he came back. It takes a toll on your body." He played 12 games that fall, learning from SEC competition and finding his legs.
Jerrell Powe participates in drills during the 2011 Combine, where he ran a disappointing 5.25 40-yard dash. (Getty Images)
As a junior in 2009, Powe started 10 games at nose tackle, fronting a ferocious defense that spent more time in the offensive backfield than any other in the SEC. He notched 12 tackles-for-loss, earning second-team All-SEC honors as Ole Miss went 9-4 overall. The Rebels forced seven turnovers in the Cotton Bowl, holding Oklahoma State to 259 yards on offense, and Powe even took a turn in the offensive backfield. Football was fun again. Fans called him "The Land Shark." He felt like he could dance.
With a year to go, Mel Kiper called Powe the second-best defensive tackle in the 2011 draft. Mocks placed him in the top 15. If the stories felt familiar, Powe didn't give them much weight. "Every time I hit a stumbling block, I knew there was going to be another one." He was right. The Rebels were awful in 2010, finishing 4-8, just 2-6 in the SEC. The defense was worse, ranked 81st in the country and 11th of 12 in the conference. Often double-teamed, Powe still posted 8.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks as team captain, but his stock fell. Then, at the NFL Scouting Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.25 seconds – two tenths slower than his younger self.
Suddenly, Powe looked like a third-round talent. It came three years late, when he was almost 25 — another strike against him. The Chiefs picked him in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, six long years after Hargrave, then discovered a long-broken bone in his wrist, an injury he suffered while at the military school. "They said it was sprained," Powe says. "We only had one trainer. Imagine that little helper trying to take care of 60 guys." Two surgeries repaired the wrist, but Powe rarely saw the field in Kansas City. He was released and re-signed twice by the Chiefs in 2013, but played only sparingly before being cut loose at the end of his third season.
The Inner Child
The bedroom waits in Baltimore, unchanged. A dark television stares down a silent stereo. Musty walls hold family photos, news articles, and a flyer from Maryland. Terps: Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking. In the basement of a quiet brick home on a cul-de-sac in Parkville, a quiet suburb, it feels like a museum, or a monument. On the queen bed, two boxes spill out greeting cards, personal notes, and countless scholarship offers from schools like USC, Florida and Penn State. "I was ready for the big time," Melvin Alaeze writes, in tight, controlled letters. "I just had a monkey or two on my back that slowed me down." He hasn't slept here since he was arrested on Jan. 12, 2007.
The arrest confused Dinma and Theresa Alaeze. Each had left Nigeria seeking education. They met in Baltimore, where both earned multiple graduate degrees. They wanted the same for their American son, and Melvin was a good boy, a smart kid who treated adults with respect. When basketball coaches recruited him out of junior high, athletics seemed like his ticket to college. Angling for the perfect situation, the Alaezes moved him from public to private school and back again, crisscrossing the city. He ended up at Randallstown High, a public school in what seemed a quiet corner of Baltimore County.
Physically, Alaeze blossomed, with unfathomable speed for his size. As a senior playing wherever the coach put him, he racked up 110 tackles, 18.5 sacks, 30.5 TFLs, 351 rushing yards, 17 catches for 257 yards, eight touchdowns, and a 40-yard punting average. The Rams went 6-5, but he saved one victory with four straight sacks to run out the clock. His coach, Albert Howard, worried about some of his "questionable associations," but the recruiters that came every day met a polite young man who said all the right things. Alaeze favored USC or Virginia Tech until his father, Dinma, chose Maryland for him. But first, he had to recover some core credits. The NCAA defines its own core, which often differs from high school graduation requirements or college admissions standards, confounding students and counselors alike. For Alaeze, transferring between schools made it even more complicated and he came up short.
At Hargrave, he stayed mostly on the sidelines of the rock-star tour. "He didn't get caught up in all that," Coach Prunty says. Prunty would often wake after road games to find Alaeze reading the newspaper over a hotel breakfast, dwelling on finance or international news. Privately, the coach wondered if Alaeze loved the game. "Melvin was kind of to himself. He didn't socialize. He didn't talk about sports."
Even the other cadets found Alaeze hard to read, almost gentle yet with something mysterious, even a little menacing, under the surface. He would buck the rules in practice, knowing the whole team would have to run for it. "I don't know why he wasn't as focused as he needed to be, or if the system got to him first," Powe wonders. "Maybe he had issues with regimentation." Meldrum found Alaeze kind and respectful, until he flashed a different side during a trip to Virginia Tech. "[There] he was more thug," he says. "Maybe he felt like he had something to prove. Like he wasn't soft."
Football couldn't stop his downward spiral. The student medical center diagnosed him with clinical depression.
Alaeze had no trouble qualifying for college after Hargrave, but by then academics weren't his issue. Back in Maryland in January 2006, he was arrested on marijuana possession and charged with five related crimes following a traffic stop. A passenger took the blame and Alaeze walked, but the damage to his career was done. The Terrapins pulled his scholarship. Maybe they also saw the Facebook photos that startled Coach Howard, Alaeze flashing gang signs for the world.
Few wanted him now, so when second-year Illinois head coach Ron Zook took a chance and offered a scholarship, Alaeze jumped at it. He went to camp in August 2006, enrolled in school, and played in two games — enough to start his four-year eligibility clock — but football couldn't stop his downward spiral. He missed class. He showed up late for practice and meetings. The student medical center diagnosed him with clinical depression. What happened next is a matter of discrepancy. Either Alaeze left the team or Zook sent him home to seek treatment. Neither Zook nor his relevant assistants have responded to interview requests.
Either way, Alaeze was in no condition to help on the field, so Illinois had no use for him. He was discarded.
Back home in Baltimore, Alaeze went through intensive outpatient care, nine hours each day his first week home. The doctor prescribed Wellbutrin, then doubled the dose when it did not help. Then he doubled it again, to 300 mg. Alaeze spent entire days in that basement bedroom, staring at walls with no windows. It didn't seem healthy, so Dinma suggested he get out of the house. In that condition, Alaeze got inked into the 79 Swan Bloods that November. He also started running with Caleese Thomas, a violent criminal who swore no known gang allegiance.
On Dec. 24, Alaeze arranged a meeting with Princeton Macer, an alleged drug dealer, two miles from the high school where they became friends. He introduced Thomas at 3 a.m. on a cracked asphalt basketball court at the Brookhaven Estates apartment complex. Alaeze says he waited outside while Thomas and Macer entered an empty unit through the sliding glass door. Hearing two gunshots, he ran inside to find Macer facedown on the floor. He saw Thomas fire the .22 revolver again, then again, leaving Macer with a bullet in the face, one in the back, and two in the back of his head. According to court documents, Thomas handed Alaeze the gun and told him to watch the victim.
"Baltimore's street life can get real gritty at times," Alaeze wrote later, "real chaotic." While Thomas went for Macer's car, a 1998 Buick, Macer was somehow able to stand. He told police that he fought himself free from Alaeze's grasp, then outran him, barefoot — robbed of two cell phones, $400 cash, and the blue Air Jordans he had been wearing. Anybody who has seen Alaeze play football can safely question that statement. A more plausible theory, and the lone redemptive point, is that Alaeze let Macer go, and probably saved the man's life to his own detriment. Survivors make good witnesses.
Officers from the Baltimore County Police Department arrested Alaeze after a traffic stop on Jan. 13, 2007. He was driving a rental car with Thomas in the passenger seat and the gun on the floor behind him. Charged with attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault, armed robbery, and eight other counts, Alaeze faced 25 years to life in prison. Under a plea bargain, he pleaded to assault and testified for the state, which dropped the remaining charges. He was hoping to get off with time served, but the judge handed down eight years. In Maryland, felons must serve at least half of their sentence without parole — enough to eclipse Alaeze's college football eligibility.
Charged with attempted first-degree murder, Alaeze faced 25 years to life in prison.
In 2009, there was still a sliver of hope that Alaeze might yet fulfill the promise that seemed so obvious at Hargrave. His parents, certain their son had been wronged, had already gone into debt and burned $50,000 on lawyers trying to find a way to appeal the sentence. Now they had found a believer, an ambitious rookie attorney, Andrew Ucheomumu, who filed a petition for post-conviction relief, asking an appeals judge to vacate the guilty plea. "I've been out of the loop for quite some time now and am anxious to make a major comeback," Alaeze wrote. "Not just in the sports world, but educationally as well, but most importantly, as an avid member of 'True Society.'"
Branded a snitch after he testified against Thomas — who got 18 years for attempted murder — Alaeze faced retaliation in jail. Over and over, he defended himself in the yard. The fights got him moved from work camp to prison and finally to a supermax facility in rural Cumberland. That's where the letters came from, each written on a single sheet of paper. The handwriting was elegant, the language formal and almost florid, dotted with phrases from the street. After we began a correspondence, he asked about my career, my life, my favorite foods. His were pizza, pastas, and burgers. His favorite pastimes were "traveling, social gatherings, playing videogames, working out, and hanging out with beautiful women."
Other letters were almost guarded. One day he sent two, the first one writing me off, the second apologizing for it. "Please disregard that most recent letter you have just received," he wrote. "My mind is everywhere and it's hard to receive professional help on the mental level in here. I'm lost and slowly still losing my mind." He ignored most of my questions, promising to tell all if we could ever meet in person. The warden's office denied a request for an interview, but when Alaeze appeared in court in July 2010, I booked a flight to Baltimore, eager to meet the last of the Hargrave Four.
He shuffled into a modest courtroom. A smart charcoal suit hung loose at the shoulders. His hair was trim. With hands and feet shackled, he took slow, tiny steps toward the defense table, glancing back for a stolen moment. His parents watched with eyes wide, sure in the rightness of his cause, but Alaeze looked gaunt and vacant. At age 23, he stood before a Baltimore County judge, 50 pounds under his playing weight, believing that his attorney would prevail, and he would go home tonight, in time for one last theoretical season of football. Small colleges were still sending letters to his house.
Ucheomumu, a Nigerian ex-pat hoping to one day run for his country's presidency, argued that Alaeze's original lawyer duped him into taking an unfavorable deal, and that the original judge failed to apprise him of the appeal rights he was waiving with a guilty plea. The objective of this hearing was a new day in court, but when the judge asked Alaeze if he understood the risk — that the attempted murder charge would be reinstated — he looked around the room, lost. When his attorney told him to say yes, he did.
Soon the one-hour hearing devolved into a circus. Rather than focus on the legal technicalities in question, Ucheomumu attacked witnesses and ranted about corruption and injustice until the judge, visibly annoyed, called for a recess. She took ill over lunch, and then postponed her decision. Alaeze went back to prison.
Later that night, in the Alaeze's basement, Theresa, his mother, stands in the doorway to Melvin's bedroom. Exhausted, she recalls an incident and wonders if it might explain something. Melvin played two sports as a freshman at Calvert Hall, a high school his parents could never afford without a scholarship. The football coach told him to bulk up, then the basketball coach turned on the boy, mocking his weight and calling him fat in front of his teammates. After school, Melvin would curl up on this bed and cry. Theresa didn't know what to do then, and now tears well up in her big, dark eyes as she looks into the past for some kind of answer.
That November, halfway through Alaeze's last college-eligible football season, the judge finally denied the appeal. A month later, the letters stopped coming.
Last Man Standing
Sometime this summer, The Land Shark, Jerrell Powe, will plant a beefy fist into the turf at the Houston Texans' training camp and glare across the line. There will be no intimidation, no aura of destiny about him. There will be no books to read, papers to write, or tests to take, and no bureaucrats judging him from afar. There will be just the next play and a chance to prove that he belongs here, getting paid to play the sport his body was built for, and receive a fair wage for it.
He knows that body is no longer enough. The competition is too fierce. He signed a one-year contract worth $645,000 last spring, with no bonuses and no guarantees. If he makes it, he'll line up next to Jadevon Clowney, but there are others eager to take his place if he does not. Now, just to hang on, Powe needs sound technique and infinite persistence.
He hears from Bright now and then, whenever the old platoon leader gets a new phone. Bright worked construction and spent a few years in arena football, bouncing from one team to another, still sure he'd find a way to prove he could be the best nose tackle in the NFL. "Write that down," he told me in 2011. This spring, in a brief phone conversation, he promised a story so amazing it would become a movie. But I could never get him on the phone again. Mincey played arena football, too, between gigs at a Folkston car wash. He recently announced his engagement on Facebook. He accepted a friend request, but then ignored messages and invitations to talk. I guess he's over it. None of them writes Alaeze, who is still imprisoned at the North Branch Correctional Institution, three years after he first became eligible for parole.
I wonder if Powe or any of them remembers that play so long ago against North Carolina, or the murmur that rose from the crowd as fans recognized the deception, or the ease with which the Hargrave Four snuffed it out. Crowds came out for every game, shouting those four names. Scouts took notes in the stands, and even coaches on opposing sidelines leered in hope or envy. All shared the same unspoken prayer: Save me. Save my job. Save my career. Save the throwback jersey on which I have staked my self-respect. Back then, they all believed in the system. I wonder if they know just how common their stories are.
At camp, when the ball moves, Powe will fire off the line, carrying his own weight and aware of his surroundings, eye on his opponent. He's the first kid from Wayne County ever drafted into the NFL, and he wants to make it home with tales of glory, stories he can tell on the porch into his old age, making the locals laugh.
One mistake could end it all. He knows that now.