In a confession that must have been chillingly sober and frighteningly candid for both the interviewer and the interviewee, former NFL linebacker Keith McCants suggested in a jailhouse session with Tampa Tribune columnist Joey Johnston last week that: "I wish I never had had money."
There was a time when McCants didn’t have any money, save for the advance that former representative Lance Luchnick — who pleaded guilty more than 20 years ago to breaching state rules for premature contact with an underclass player — allegedly fronted him for departing the University of Alabama a year early.
Wracked by dementia, McCants, now 43 and arrested 11 times since 2002, probably and tragically can’t remember. But the superb column brought back a flood, and we do mean flood, of memories. It was the early spring of 1990, and McCants, coming off a brilliant career for the Crimson Tide, was all the rage. The Atlanta Falcons, the team I covered at the time, owned the top overall choice in that year’s draft, and there were strong rumors that McCants would be the selection.
Practicing the kind of journalistic enterprise that cash-strapped newspapers probably can’t afford anymore, or that 140-character bursts have rendered nearly obsolete, the Journal-Constitution dispatched me to Mobile, Ala., McCants’ hometown, to do a feature on the player many felt would become the Falcons’ savior.
The one-day trip was memorable for many reasons: The short commuter flight from Atlanta to Mobile occurred in near-hurricane conditions and the white-knuckler prompted me and photographer Renee Hannans to clutch hands in prayer for the entire 45 minutes of the bumpy ordeal. Long before the advent of GPS devices, we got lost at least three times on the way to the motel where we were to meet up with McCants. The surface streets to McCants’ home were so flooded by the torrents of driving rain that the rental car stalled several times and Hannans was dismayed at the possibility of losing her expensive equipment stowed in the trunk. The trip to McDonald’s for lunch featured five Big Macs, three of them for a ravenous McCants. At the end of the day, McCants was so acutely suspicious that we might attempt to track down some friends and acquaintances who could confirm his illicit relationship with Luchnick that he covertly followed our car through the flooded streets and back to the airport.
Maybe most memorable from that visit, though, was the nondescript mobile home in which McCants and his family lived. The basic, cinder-block house was incredibly tiny. The front yard was essentially barren and we had to travel over some wooden planks laid down to traverse the mud. Amenities were sparse, particularly in the kitchen, where we sat at the table and discussed McCants’ NFL dreams. To term the house "modest" would have been gross understatement.
Reading the jailhouse comments from McCants over the weekend, I dug out the old and yellowed remains of that ’90 feature and reviewed them. McCants spoke of what the NFL money would mean to him and his family, how he hoped to purchase a new home for his mother, the social mobility the windfall would signify. Twenty-one years ago, the future seemed so glaringly bright for McCants. And now, more than two decades later, McCants, sporting a cane, and with a rap sheet that approximates a medical dossier he claims includes 29 surgeries, the dream is a nightmare.
McCants can barely walk and can’t find a job. He has been diagnosed with clinical depression and has contemplated suicide. Football has left him in "physical agony," according to the paper. The $7.4 million he earned from the Bucs in his first NFL contract is long gone. So is the money he made in subsequent deals.
Those aspirations from 1990, so real and vivid, at the time, have morphed into an ugly picture. McCants is down-and-out, broke and broken, his dreams reduced, it seems, to a page of badly wrinkled newsprint.
What the game has done to McCants certainly isn’t pretty. What McCants has done to himself is far worse.
The Falcons never did draft McCants, shipping off the top pick to Indianapolis for a package that included offensive lineman Chris Hinton and wide receiver Andre Rison, and the Colts chose quarterback Jeff George. Years later, in a move that validates that the NFL is a strange place, indeed, George was dealt to the Falcons.
McCants ended up as the fourth overall choice in the draft, plucked by Tampa Bay. On the morning of the draft, the Journal-Constitution ran a short, front-page news story detailing McCants’ knee problems.
The paper and yours truly were criticized for intentionally delaying the story until the morning of the draft, in an effort to subvert McCants’ stock, and to sensationalize the tale. In truth, we were waiting for another element that’s become extinct in journalistic circles these days, a second-source confirmation. In retrospect, the story got considerable play, and a former boss, who suggested to us a few years ago that "driving traffic" is more important than content anymore, would be proud. But the upshot was that McCants underwent surgery two days after the draft for a badly torn cartilage.
It was the first of numerous knee surgeries McCants encountered on an NFL career than lasted just six seasons, and 88 games, for three teams.
In addition to the knee and other surgeries, McCants, by his count, suffered six concussions. The career that was supposed to have been so brilliant consisted of 184 tackles, 13.5 sacks, just one interception and six fumble recoveries. The celebrity meant to allow McCants to escape that tiny, cinderblock home in Mobile served its purpose in one respect. But it also led McCants to a lifestyle The Tampa Tribune described as "fast and hard."
"It’s a sad story," McCants told Johnston, "but a true story."
And a sobering parable that the prospects from the 2011 draft, with time on their hands right now because of the lockout, might do well to read.