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pakowitz 05-11-2003 01:16 PM

Fullback, guard, fullback (if u only read one article i have

Prison job helped McCrary refocus on football

By Ron Borges, Globe Staff, 5/11/2003

FOXBOROUGH -- The trip to the prison world for Fred McCrary all started with a tub of ice water and a bad idea. At the time McCrary was throwing unholy water into the faces of a few New Orleans Saints rookies, he had been resurrected by his own hard work. He had come back from being released the summer after his rookie NFL season (1995), having spent a year out of football while rehabilitating both an injury and his resume to win a spot on special teams and as an occasional ballcarrier and blocking back with the Saints in 1997. His was a story familiar to many of the names people don't really know, players clinging each summer to the bottom rung of NFL football. They have talent and grit but they are short of something. Often they're short an opportunity and nothing more.

In 1997, McCrary found that opportunity in New Orleans and he turned it into a job. He made it more than that during the long, hot summer of '98 in Metairie, La., when he finally made his mark. He was competing to become the Saints' starting fullback after a strong training camp performance that impressed head coach Mike Ditka. Finally the road was opening up for him the way he had opened so many roads for so many other backs with crushing blocks.

Then he threw some ice water, and the next thing he knew, he was working in a New Orleans prison wondering where it all had gone.

Fred McCrary stood at the back end of a line in a sweltering dormitory hallway that August evening in 1998, not knowing what to expect but knowing his job. It was to douse a few rookies running a gantlet with pillow cases over their heads. What's the harm in that?

But it wasn't the ice water that chilled his career.

It was what went on before those rookies ever reached him.

It was mostly the sock full of quarters one veteran used to hit those rookies in the face as some of them ran down the raucous hallway. No one could know at that moment where it would end. All young Fred McCrary knew was that professional football players far more senior than he said he was supposed to man the water bucket at the end of the line. So he did.

What he didn't know -- couldn't have known -- was that being at the end of the line would mean the end of the line for him as well.

One player took it too far, turning a hazing into an assault, and a lot of people got hurt. Not the least was the kid throwing water on guys like rookie tight end Cam Cleeland and another rookie who did not even make the team. That guy filed a suit against the Saints. McCrary was not mentioned, but it didn't matter, because somebody had to pay. Sometimes it's not just the guilty. Sometimes it's the innocent and anybody in between.

When the incident became public a day later, Ditka reacted angrily, releasing five veterans. Although he was never sued by anyone, the guy at the back of the line was among them.

Thus began Fred McCrary's odyssey into the Louisiana penal system and back.

''I'd worked so hard,'' the Patriots' newly acquired fullback said last week. ''I busted my butt. I'd earned my spot on the team. Just to have it taken away like that, well . . . I didn't even like football after that for a while.

''I knew some of the guys had taken it too far. It wasn't as bad as some people made it sound, but one guy went too far. At the [team] meeting the next day, I knew this would be trouble. Ditka had talked really well about me up until then, but he was screaming, `I'm getting to the bottom of this!'

''The only thing I did was throw ice water on those guys, but I couldn't say I wasn't there. Ditka came charging up in my face screaming and that was it. You live and learn.''

Fred McCrary learned that night that not all lessons end in one day. Some end only after months spent working as a correctional officer in the New Orleans Parish Prison from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and he has the handcuffs to prove it.

A grim career change

McCrary knew he had to do something.

At first he thought he'd just hook on with another team and make his way through the NFL's minefields on his own, but no one called.

It wasn't at all like it was after the Eagles released him the summer following his rookie season. This time, the hours turned to days and then the days stretched to weeks and the phone remained ever silent.

No one wanted to touch a backup fullback tarred by the brush of an incident that had made national headlines. The longer he waited, the more obvious it became that if he was going to have a future, it wasn't going to be in the NFL.

So McCrary decided to complete his course work for a degree in criminology at Mississippi State, and that required him to get some work experience. He got it all right. He got it the first night he showed up for his shift as a correctional officer at the maximum security New Orleans Parish Prison that sits right outside the city's tough Fifth Ward. As soon as he walked through the iron front gates, he knew he wasn't far from Hades's door.

''They had a big sign over the entrance,'' McCrary recalled. '' `Welcome to a REAL jail.' That's what it said. `Welcome to a REAL jail.' ''

McCrary worked nights, locking the prisoners down at 10, taking some of them to ''the hole,'' listening to cries and whispers in the night that you can't easily erase from your mind.

He saw men shanked with rough pieces of metal that some prisoners with too much time on their hands and too much malevolence in their hearts shaped into makeshift knives.

He saw resourcefulness, too, from the guys who learned how to heat their metal beds with a lighter until they got so hot they could cook a grilled cheese sandwich on them.

He saw a lot of things at the prison, all right. None of them reminded him of the NFL.

''It was a hellhole,'' McCrary said. ''I'd sit there at night and read the Bible.

''I'd pray, `Lord, what am I doing here?' ''

What he was doing were things he never thought he'd do. Like walking a rapper named Soldier Slim to solitary confinement and then hearing him rapping in the dark every day for a month. Or getting to know a prisoner and coming to the conclusion he was a pretty good guy and wondering what in the world put him behind those bars. Then he'd go to the computer and look things up, and it would be ice water in his own face.

''I'd get on the computer to see about these guys because some of them were nice guys,'' McCrary said. ''I'd read their rap sheets. Double murder. Raping kids. Terrible things. Some of those guys were nice, but I guess that was because they had to be. Look where they were.''

And look, too, where McCrary was. He was earning $12 an hour working in one of the most dangerous places in Louisiana while many people he knew were playing football no better than he could for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. At first the bitterness born of that poisoned him to the point where he couldn't even watch the games on Sundays.

He might watch the highlights, and many of the prisoners liked to talk to the guy they called ''Sarge'' about them, but for McCrary, it was an open sore he could heal only one way -- by returning to the fields and weight rooms where he'd worked so hard for so long.

Day after day he'd finish his shift, eat breakfast at the prison, then go out into the world and work with a strength and conditioning coach.

Every day. Same routine.

He was just like a prisoner, except that he could walk out from behind those walls each morning and run in the sun for a while. But, come nightfall, he'd be back on the inside, walking among men he knew would do whatever they thought they could get away with.

He'd seen humanity at its lowest ebb but often its most ingenious, too. One night he went to check out some noise. He found a prisoner on one side of the cellblock slipping a cigarette on a string through a hole in the ceiling, across the room, and down through a hole in a friend's cell on the other side. ''You have any idea how long it would take to figure out how to do that?'' McCrary said. ''How patient you have to be?

''I saw a guy turn a razor blade into a shank and cut a guy from one rib cage to the other. The guy's hollering, `Sarge, come get me! Sarge!' Some of those guys just get lost in there. They forget even when they're supposed to get out.

''I learned a lot in there. I learned patience. I learned humility. I learned you can't put anything past anybody, but I learned they got some talented guys in there, too.''

Talented and tormented, which was the problem for all of them. Among the most tormented was Fred McCrary, an NFL fullback locked in his own cell for five months. Not a prison cell but the kind of cell life can make for you after one lapse in judgment, one innocent night throwing ice water in a hallway.

When McCrary thinks of how one moment can change your life, he remembers a prisoner he knew only as Derrick who had been transferred to New Orleans from the most notorious prison in Louisiana, Angola State Prison. He'd served 18 years there for murder and one night McCrary heard his story. What it boiled down to wasn't a life of crime. It was a night of passion involving two guys, one girl, and a beating after which the guy had his clothes and his car taken from him and was left to walk home naked and humiliated.

When he got home, he couldn't let it rest, so he went to Bourbon Street after a friend told him someone was in his car. He found that person on Canal Street, stopped at a light. A second or two later, a .357 Magnum went off five times and a man was dead in another man's car. You don't forget stories like that.

''He didn't even try to run,'' McCrary recalled, amazement in his voice. ''He felt the guy tried to take his manhood. Shot him in his own car. How crazy is that?

''I wonder to this day if he got out or not.''

Maybe he did or maybe he didn't, but one guy did. Fred McCrary did.

Return to football

It was spring in Hattiesburg, Miss., and large men in shorts were running, jumping, and lifting weights for a bevy of NFL scouts. One of those men looked familiar to Greg Gaines, who was then a San Diego Chargers personnel executive. When that man ripped off a 4.62 time in the 40, Gaines went to talk to him. He figured out pretty quickly that it was Fred McCrary, so he got right to the point.

''He asked me, `What really happened?' '' McCrary recalled. ''He said, `The truth.' That's what I told him, and they signed me right after that.''

McCrary signed a one-year deal and ended up starting in 14 games, posting a career-high 37 receptions and winning the Emil Karras Memorial Award as the Chargers' Special Teams Player of the Year.

He played so well in 1999 that he earned a multiyear contract and in the first year of it finished second on the team in special teams tackles while starting 12 games. He had become a crushing blocker and a reliable receiver with soft hands swinging out of the backfield, things that held him in good stead last season as well.

His sixth season in the NFL and fourth as San Diego's starting fullback was perhaps McCrary's most unselfish. He carried the ball only two times but what he did do he did with crushing efficiency.

What McCrary did was block. All season long he blocked and he blocked and he blocked. He blocked like a man with memories of what a life without shoulder pads is like. He blocked so efficiently that teammate LaDainian Tomlinson ran behind him for 1,683 yards. Ran all the way to the Pro Bowl.

By his own description, McCrary had what he calls ''a pretty good year.'' But in football, sometimes decisions get made that aren't easy to explain. Simply put, then-Chargers general manager John Butler decided he wanted to bring in rugged veteran Lorenzo Neal, who has had a long and successful career as a blocking back. Who knows why a team makes such a decision. A source in San Diego insists the offensive coaches were dead set against it. But Butler was adamant, and for Neal to be brought in, McCrary had to go.

He did, but things were different this time.

This time the phone rang soon enough, and it was the Patriots. Marc Edwards was gone in free agency, and they needed a fullback who was versatile and physical and, well, understood how the world worked. McCrary filled that role on all fronts.

''I look back on it, and everything happened for a reason,'' McCrary said. ''I had my best year in San Diego last year and they decided to go in another direction. That's how life goes. Life doesn't always go the way you think it should, but you persevere.

''I've got a different perspective now. I'm glad I went through the things I went through. I learned a lot about life. I learned to focus on God and to keep believing. Things don't happen on our time. They happen on his time. The day I left the prison for the last time, I promised I'd never go back there. I said I'd do whatever it takes not to, and I did it.''

Yes, he did, but in case he ever forgets all that he's been through on his road back to the NFL, all he has to do is open his closet and look inside. Hanging there, next to his Patriots jersey and his street clothes, will be a blue shirt. It's a correctional officer's shirt from a REAL jail. It's there if he needs it, but he's here to make sure he doesn't.

LordOfEntropy 05-12-2003 12:33 AM

Fullback, guard, fullback (if u only read one article i have
Pak, that is the best post I have ever seen you put up. That\'s the best post I\'ve ever seen anyone put up.

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