Anthony Hargrove never will forget the last time he saw his mother.
He was a 9-year-old boy. His mom, Rosa Hargrove, was in the hospital, her frail body wracked with AIDS. She was paralyzed from the waist down.
"I remember right before she died, the last time I saw her, she was sick and she said, 'I'm probably not going to see you again.' I was looking at her and said, 'What are you talking about?' "
"She said, 'Carry on. Don't let anyone take anything from you. Take care of your brothers and sister. And remember always to keep fighting. Don't ever give up.'
"And that's what I do every day," Hargrove said. "I keep fighting."
The Buffalo Bills' defensive end has taken his mom's words to heart as much as ever this season, because he's fighting to save his NFL career.
Hargrove has been a strong contributor the past five games as a backup on the defensive line and as a special-teams player. He knows he needs to produce for the Bills on the field in order to make up for mistakes he has made off it.
In the wee hours of Aug. 5, Hargrove was arrested following an altercation with police outside a downtown Rochester nightclub. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, was fined $300 and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.
Just six days after the nightclub incident, the NFL suspended Hargrove for four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
It would be easy to conclude that Hargrove's run-ins with authority are signs that he is a negative influence on the team. The Bills say just the opposite is true, that he is a well-liked, positive influence in the locker room.
"When he's on the practice field, nobody works harder, nobody plays with more energy, nobody's more fun to be around," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "When he's in the locker room, he's exactly the same way. Anthony is very charismatic. He is a caring individual. He's a compassionate individual. He loves his teammates. He loves life."
There was a lot of talk among Bills followers this summer that the team should cut Hargrove. The NFL has cracked down on player misconduct. Why bother with such an offender?
"I went to a chat room on one of the Buffalo Web sites after the suspension to see what people were saying," said Phil Williams, Hargrove's agent. "And there were some people calling him a thug and other things. It's easy for people to judge. There's no way people could appreciate where he's come from without being in his shoes."
>Brooklyn's mean streets
Hargrove came from one of the toughest, poorest, most drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
He lived with his mother, his older brother and his younger sister in an apartment building at 485 Alabama St. He relishes the memory of his mom.
"My mom was my best friend," he said. "We were really close. Wherever she was, I was all the time.
"I went back there to Alabama Street last summer, and it was great because I could remember all the things we used to do. I remembered turning on fire hydrants in the summertime and letting water come out and running around. The corner store was still there, but the buildings weren't the same."
One of Hargrove's most vivid memories of his early home was the night it burned down. He was about 5 or 6 at the time.
"We were taking baths in the sink," Hargrove said. "Me, my brother and my sister, Tiffany, were taking baths in the sink that night, and I remember my mom putting me in my favorite, green Ninja Turtles outfit, sweat suit with shoes. The building was in flames and so we were running out of it through the smoke. I remember running down four floors and losing one of my shoes. And the fireman went back and got it and brought it back to me.
"After that, we were homeless and we lived in shelters for a while. We walked everywhere. People ask me, 'How can you run so long and never get tired?' As a kid we had to walk and run everywhere. I remember growing up, bad things happened. People were after us. So we were running for our lives for a while, running from social services, never knowing where your next meal was coming from. But we always knew we had our mother and each other."
There is no lament in Hargrove's voice when he discusses his early years. Even the story about getting his shoe back from the fireman is told with a hint of a smile.
"Even when we were living on the streets, it wasn't that bad," he said. "I know it sounds kind of crazy to say it, but because of my mom, she didn't make it that bad. She did the best she could do. For us that was all we needed."
Rosa Hargrove contracted AIDS from her boyfriend, said Anthony's aunt, Gloria Hargrove. She eventually became too sick to care for the children.
"We got taken away from her when I was 6," Hargrove said. "We got pushed from family to family as I watched my mom die. I don't know if my little sister realized it, but I knew. Every time I went and saw her, it would get worse. That never left me. Even 'til today it haunts me."
After the three children spent more than two years in foster care, they were adopted by Gloria Hargrove and her husband, John Caldwell, who had left Brooklyn years before and settled in Port Charlotte, Fla.
"If they had stayed in the ghetto, their lives would not have turned out so well," Gloria Hargrove said.
Hargrove's aunt and uncle provided a stable home. They had four children of their own. Caldwell worked as a maintenance man at a high school. Gloria since then has become a pastor.
"When they first came to Florida, we got them all into sports," Gloria Hargrove said. "Anthony has been playing ball since he was 9."
Still, the adjustment was not easy for children used to New York City.
"We had a different lifestyle, and sometimes we had to steal in order to survive," Hargrove said. "So when I got down in Florida, I'd go to a grocery store and steal food and take things because that was normal, and I was good at it.
"I remember I got caught one time at a corner store stealing a 2-liter of soda in my pocket. To me it was nothing. I did it all the time. I remember the manager of the store caught me. He said, 'Come here.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'I'm not going to turn you in.' That was when I stopped stealing."
Sports was an outlet for Hargrove, and he excelled at football, basketball and baseball.
"My uncle would always try to be there for me, at every sporting event," Hargrove said. "You start seeing all your friends, and they've got their mothers and dads at the games. My uncle saw that and he knew how bad it hurt for me. Anything I did, he always tried to be there."
>Brief college stint
Hargrove was a 220-pound quarterback and cornerback for Port Charlotte High School. As a senior he passed for 900 yards, ran for 800 and made 160 tackles on defense. He was recruited by Georgia Tech and had the grades to get into the university.
Hargrove expected to play quarterback at Georgia Tech. But when he showed up, instead of being given No. 7, which is what he was told he could wear when he was recruited, he was given No. 44 and told he was a linebacker.
"I was doing that for about a month and they decided to move me to defensive end," Hargrove said. "They said, 'Do you want to play this year?' I said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'We think you can probably start for us at D-end.' I'm like, 'D-end? All right, why not?' "
Hargrove was a situational rusher as a freshman and started all 13 games as a sophomore, making four sacks. Then he flunked out of school.
"He flunked out of school along with a bunch of others during a time when the university didn't have coaches involved at all in monitoring athletes in the classroom," Williams said.
"I got caught in the system," Hargrove said. "I was asking for help and nobody would help me. But in the end it was my fault. In the end it's up to you."
Hargrove also had just fathered a son around the time of his college dismissal.
"So now I was facing one of the biggest decisions of my life," he said. "Should I continue to try to play football or go home and provide for my son? At first I went home. I got a job at a high school working as a teacher's aide and security guard in middle school. Then they offered me a full-time job as a substitute teacher and campus security. I was going to be the head coach of the basketball team at the middle school, and I was going to be assistant coach of the football team at the high school. So I was thinking I was going to take it."
Williams, meanwhile, had sent tapes of Hargrove to some NFL scouts. The consensus was Hargrove had a fair shot to get picked in the 2004 draft, despite the fact he had sat out the 2003 season.
"So I went to my son's mother, Tricia," Hargrove said, "And I asked her, 'What do you want me to do? Do you want me to try to play or should I take this job?' She knew I loved to play football and she told me to go back and try to play football."
Aligning with Williams turned out to be a fortunate break. Williams helped Hargrove get a job slinging baggage for Delta Airlines while working out at an athlete's institute in Atlanta in preparation for the draft.
"When he first came to my house he did something no one else has done," Williams said. "He saw my daughter playing with a jigsaw puzzle on the floor, and he started putting it together with her right on the floor as soon as he walked in. She was 8 at the time. He had a childlike character that was endearing."
He also had what Williams calls "freakish" ability. He ran a time of 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a vertical jump of 40 1/2 inches. For a 265-pounder, those are first-round caliber numbers.
So despite not getting invited to the NFL combine workouts, playing defensive end for about a season and a half and sitting out all of 2003, he was taken in the third round by the St. Louis Rams.
"I was shocked," Hargrove said. "I would have been happy just to have been picked."
Hargrove was three months shy of his 21st birthday. He signed a contract for three years and $1.3 million, with a $440,000 signing bonus.
The first thing he bought was a Lincoln Navigator.
As soon as Hargrove's rookie training camp ended, Hurricane Charley hit Florida. His aunt and uncle's house was badly damaged. So Hargrove took four of his brothers into a new house he bought in St. Louis. He was 21, newly rich, trying to learn a position he still barely knew, and in charge of four siblings, two of whom still were in high school.
"They didn't have a house to live in because of the hurricane," Hargrove said. "They were short on food and money. I had money, so I was able to take a load off my parents [John and Gloria]."
>Adjusting to NFL
Hargrove started for the Rams in his second season, 2005, posting 6 1/2 sacks. However, he was not a consistent performer on the field or off it. He was benched in his third year for skipping some practices.
"My family was struggling, I had to become an immediate adult, and I didn't make a lot of the best decisions," Hargrove said.
The Rams had a new regime last season and in October opted to trade Hargrove to the Bills for a fourth-round draft choice.
Hargrove was happy with the deal because he was reunited with defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who also had come to Buffalo from St. Louis in 2006.
"He's a high-energy, free-spirit type guy," Kollar said. "He has matured. But he has a ways to go to get where you want to end up being."
That, of course, was evident by his arrest and suspension in August.
"Going into this offseason I made the decision I really wanted to try to do things different," Hargrove said. "But then all of a sudden all the controversy started. I had the arrest. I had the violation. So it seemed like I picked up where I left off in St. Louis, which really wasn't the case."
Hargrove's brother Terrence moved up to Buffalo this year, providing the kind of family support that Anthony craves.
"He's been the guy I go to," Anthony said. "We have an apartment. We sit down and we talk. He's only one year older. He's the guy I go to for everything. . . . He takes care of all the daily stuff, booking plane tickets, keeping food in the house, doing laundry. He does all that. He takes a lot of the burden off my back so I can just focus on football."
Hargrove is versatile on the field, subbing at end and defensive tackle in passing situations. He also has been a crowd favorite on kickoff coverage, where his intensity is obvious.
"He really gets people jacked up," defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "He's a big, strong, hard-nosed kid who likes to play football. He gives it his all every down. He'll do anything coach Kollar asks of him -- play inside, outside, stand up. He's just fun to play with because he plays with a lot of emotion."
Fewell says Hargrove's upbeat outlook rubs off on teammates. The sky is blue, not cloudy, for the Bills' No. 93.
"Anthony is not woe is me and why me," Fewell said. "That's part of Anthony being the compassionate person and the upbeat person that he is. He really cares for his family. . . . He's family oriented, and you wouldn't think he would be that way if you were on the outside looking in."
Hargrove is grateful to the Bills for sticking with him.
"Over the last six months I think I've learned a lot," Anthony said. "I've taken more responsibility on myself and I'm trying to be more accountable to not just myself but my team and this organization. I'm trying to just deal with life on life's terms and just not be a knucklehead."
Williams says Hargrove, still only 24, must work hard every day to "get over the hump."
"He's growing up," Williams said. "I pray for him every day."