Anthony Hargrove will have plenty of reason to feel proud today when he walks onto the Ralph Wilson Stadium field for the New Orleans Saints.
Hargrove is back from a year's suspension from the NFL, back from the depths of drug addiction, back after almost throwing away his pro football career.
Yet the 26-year-old defensive lineman also feels some regret about his return to face the Bills, for whom he played 10 games in 2006 and 12 in 2007.
Before the start of the 2007 season, he got himself arrested for a fight outside a nightclub and then got a four-game drug suspension from the NFL. The Bills gave him their full support and welcomed him back. But he violated the substance abuse policy again and was forced to sit out the entire 2008 season.
"I want to apologize to the entire Buffalo Bills organization, from Ralph Wilson to Dick Jauron and to everyone else associated with the team, including the fans," Hargrove said in a statement he prepared this week for The News. "They believed in me and gave me every opportunity to succeed. I just was not healthy enough at the time. It took me reaching the bottom for me to look up and ask God to start helping me through the mess I had made of my life."
"I am on a new journey, and part of that journey includes manning up to the truth," Hargrove said. "I am the one solely responsible for the issues that led to my suspensions. The truth is that I let people down along the way, and all I can do at this point is say that I am sorry. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Bills organization and am thankful in my heart that they cared about me."
That Hargrove has been given yet another NFL chance is hardly an injustice considering his story. He came from one of the toughest, poorest, most drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods in Brooklyn. His mother contracted AIDS when he was young.
He lived on the streets of New York, bouncing from shelter to shelter, stealing for food and running from social workers. He was shuffled from foster home to foster home. He watched his mom, paralyzed from the waist down near the end, die in a hospital when he was 9.
After two more years in foster care, he was rescued by his aunt and uncle, who became his adoptive parents and moved him to Florida.
That was a lucky break in his life. Another came when he was chosen in the third round of the 2004 draft by St. Louis, even though he had bounced out of Georgia Tech after two seasons.
Hargrove was not mature enough to handle his newfound fortune. The Rams couldn't handle him and shuffled him off to the Bills. He was well-liked in Buffalo by his teammates and coaches for his fun-loving, charismatic nature. Hargrove has an ability to draw people toward him. His energetic play on special teams drew the notice of appreciative fans.
However, even after his four-game suspension in 2007, Hargrove says he went back to using cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
"I was still in denial at that point," he said by phone from New Orleans this week. "I wasn't honest with myself. I guess at that point football really wasn't the most important thing to me because if it was I wouldn't have made the decisions that I made. That's something I've rectified."
The NFL's substance abuse program placed Hargrove in a rehabilitation facility in South Carolina for three months. He graduated and went to a facility in Miami to continue his recovery and stayed about 10 months, through April 2009.
Hargrove missed football.
"There wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't thinking about it," he said, "especially when the season started and I was watching the games, seeing some of my friends making plays and missing the camaraderie with the guys. It was hard but at the end of the day it was worth it."
"I had a chance to sit down and really look at where I was at in my life, the things that I'd lost," Hargrove said. "I saw people who I knew in these programs die. I saw people relapse. I saw peoples' lives getting worse. I realized at one point when I'd been there three months that I can do it. But I had to learn how to manage life at the same time, too."
Hargrove voluntarily stayed at the Miami center two or three months longer than required.
"I had nothing but time," he said. "I was trying to learn as much as possible. Once I got into real recovery, I realized there was a lot of people who needed help. I wanted to take a part in trying to get other people to come back. But it was a safe environment for me. I could really focus on getting as much out of the recovery as possible."
After passing frequent drug tests for a full 12 months and completing his required rehab program, Hargrove was reinstated by the NFL in February.
A warrant for his arrest that had been issued in Rochester in 2008 was lifted. That stemmed from the fact he hadn't done required community service after his nightclub arrest. A judge in Rochester ruled he had gone above and beyond that obligation by doing so much community service in Miami, visiting schools and mentoring others.
The Saints signed him in May.
Hargrove wears No. 69. He's up about 20 pounds from his Bills days, to 295, and the Saints are playing him mostly at defensive tackle. He played 48 snaps against the Eagles.
If Hargrove can stay straight, he's a poster child for what the NFL wants out of its substance-abuse program; effective testing, compassion, quality treatment. The year's suspension was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Hopefully, he takes advantage of it.
"It's a brand new life for me," he said.
One key injury at the wrong position can be devastating. The Panthers are 0-2 and struggling on the defensive line due to the fact nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles in the first 30 minutes of the first training camp practice.
Carolina traded for Cleveland backup Louis Leonard just before the season. He was looking promising then broke an ankle against Atlanta last week. Carolina this week signed journeyman Antwon Burton, who is on his sixth team in four years.
The Panthers' lone credible defensive tackle is Damione Lewis. Their others are Burton, Nick Hayden and Ra'Shon Harris, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh.
Another NFC South team, Atlanta, also suffered a big DT loss last week. First-round pick Peria Jerry went down with a season-ending knee injury. He'll be replaced by Houston castoff Thomas Johnson.
Prairie View greats
Bills tackle Jonathan Scott has good football bloodlines. His father, Ray, was a ninth-round draft pick of the New York Jets in 1967.
Ray Scott was part of one of the great college football teams of all time, the Prairie View A&M squad that won the national NAIA titles in 1963 and '64. That team included Pro Football Hall of Famer Ken Houston, a great safety; Kansas City all-time great receiver Otis Taylor; cornerback Jim Kearney, who played 10 years in the NFL; tight end Alvin Reed, who played nine years in the NFL; and defensive end Allen Aldridge, who played for the Oilers.
Prairie View, located near Houston, could have played with national powers in the decades before the Southeastern Conference started recruiting black players. Prairie View saw 29 players drafted between 1955 and '74.
*Peyton Manning is tied with Johnny Unitas at 119 for fifth on the NFL career QB wins list. Next on the list: Manning needs six more to tie Fran Tarkenton for fourth.
*The Browns cut 2008 fourth-round pick Martin Rucker, the former star TE from Missouri, as coach Eric Mangini cleans house from Phil Savage's regime. Rucker would be a worthy pickup by somebody.
*Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler completed 27 passes against the Steelers, but only eight of them covered more than 10 yards.