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The Road to Redemption

Posted Nov 9, 2009

The journey has been a long and winding one for Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove. A journey that has been sidetracked many times by demons that have grabbed him and reeked havoc on him throughout his lifetime.

Hargrove, just 26, seems to have lived a lot longer than that.

Yet he makes no secret of the pitfalls, because they serve as a testament to his climb out of darkness and into the light.

Hargrove’s story, truth be told, is about a one-time athlete who was so phenomenal on the football field that he was once ranked as one of the nation’s top-ranked dual-threat quarterbacks in the football-rich southwestern portion of Florida to suddenly a baggage handler and plane parker on the concrete tarmac of Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.

Hargrove, the son of a mother who passed away when he was nine years old due to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), had lost both parents before ten, as just four years earlier he and his siblings had lost their father. It turned Hargrove and his siblings into wards of the State of New York. At times Hargrove was homeless, separated from his brothers and sisters, and then divided up into foster homes. That was until one day when his aunt came and collected them from Brooklyn and offered them a safe home and family environment in southwest Florida.

Somehow, through it all, Hargrove mustered the intestinal fortitude to become a celebrated high school quarterback and a highly sought after recruit. He elected to attend Georgia Tech in Atlanta and converted to defensive end, and despite enjoying great success on the field for two seasons, was kicked out of school after failing grades doomed his once promising football career.

“I just kind of didn’t know what I was going to do,” Hargrove said of the time he was kicked out of school. “I got kicked out of school. I knew I wanted to get to the NFL, but in all honesty, that door was pretty much closed at that point in time.”

But a man named Phil Williams entered into Hargrove’s life and served as a mentor and an adviser to the youngster that he had seen firsthand demolish opposing offenses. Williams’ advice to Hargrove was simple, “Stay out of trouble, get a job and work hard at it.”

“A lot of NFL people disagree with that,” Williams said. “I said, ‘You need to get a job. And if you have free time, then you need to be working out and training.’ It was my belief that holding down a job shows people that you have discipline and maturity.”

Thus it was off the airport for Hargrove. He duties included parking planes, unloading bags and taking tickets. All the inglorious work that goes on underneath planes that shuttle in and out of one of the busiest airports in the world was the center of Hargrove’s universe.

Williams’ wisdom somehow paid off for Hargrove, who despite not being in school and was nearly a year away from the football field, somehow was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, the Saints’ opponent this week, with their third-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Thus, on his 21st birthday, Hargrove landed a contract in excess of a million dollars and suddenly was on the cusp of realizing his childhood dreams, despite taking what indeed would be considered the road less traveled.

Life was good for Hargrove. That is, until one week into his rookie training camp and a hurricane named Charley swept over his hometown, which displaced his family and in Hargrove’s words, “uprooted my life, again.”

“My home was destroyed,” he said. “I came back there trying to find the place I lived and I couldn’t find it,” he said of his house. “We were trying to find hotel rooms in Sarasota and Venice, rooms anywhere, and they were telling my aunt that they weren’t giving out rooms anymore.”

Eventually someone recognized the one-time local prep star and finagled enough rooms to house his entire family. After making sure his family was safe and taken care of, he decided to bring them all to St. Louis, where they stayed with him.

“There was nothing better because I was with my family,” he said. “Things were stable. We were cooking dinner and hanging out and spending time together. It was a dream come true through adversity.”

Things were going well for Hargrove on the field, as well. He played in 15 games as a rookie, making 36 stops and also played in the Rams’ playoff game that season.

Hargrove then bought a house in Orlando for his aunt and uncle, and in the process, watched as his extended family that he had come to rely upon so heavily return to Florida. His life as an empty-nester soon started to unravel.

“I consider myself a family person. I love my brothers and sisters,” he said. “I wanted them there with me. But when they were gone, I started to go out and make friends and made friends with people that I shouldn’t have been hanging out with.”

Yet even as his life was picking up steam on the field, so too was it brewing storm headed into the wrong direction off of the field, Hargrove kept his act together on the football field and in 2005 made 16 starts, racked up six-and-a-half sacks and 82 tackles. But things were getting blurry for Hargrove, days and nights blended together and trouble was once again beginning to set into his life. The good times on the field equated to boozy nights and benders and without the ability to make sound decisions that a player in the NFL needs to make in order to have a successful career.

Hargrove and his riches brought him plenty of new friends who gladly partook of his generosity of propensity for picking up hefty bar tabs. The Rams were aware of the troubled life Hargrove was leading and one morning after four games in 2006 and informed him they had traded him to the Buffalo Bills.

Hargrove viewed the trade as a fresh start, but took his considerable baggage with him to upstate New York. “I thought new people, places and things would benefit me, but all along I was bringing myself and my problems,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before I feel into the same crap.”

He failed a drug test and paid the consequences with a suspension. Upon his return he ended up in a well-publicized incident outside of an upstate bar and was arrested. Once again the NFL suspended him after another failed drug test. He failed to show up for his court-ordered community service and as a result, on January 24, 2008, the NFL banned Hargrove for a year.

The one-time pass rush specialist found himself right back to where he was years earlier at Georgia Tech, without the game he loved playing when he was straight and not under the influence of binge drinking and recreational drugs.

Hargrove left Buffalo and shamefully returned to southwest Florida. Staying at a friend’s house he somehow found himself staring at himself in front of a mirror and looked himself in the eye and asked, ‘What the hell are you doing?’

His fall from grace, the suspensions and the arrest hadn’t deterred him from his self-destructive ways. But apparently rock bottom, in his words, was where he needed to end up before he could begin his redemptive climb out of the hole he had dug himself.

“I had to admit to myself that I had a serious problem,” Hargrove said. “I went back to Port Charlotte (Fla.) and told myself I was going to get my act together.”

A stay in a rehabilitation center was an obvious choice for Hargrove, a mandatory step if he had any aspirations of getting back to the place he wanted to be. “Life doesn’t stop because you quit something,” he said. “Everything in my life needed to change. People, the places I went, and the decisions I made. I had to change as a person. I learned you can’t say one thing while living another way. I stopped lying to myself. I had to match up my talk with my walk.”

The first step for Hargrove after he exited professional counseling was mending and forging relationships with his son and daughter.

“I had to fix some relationships, especially with the mothers of my children,” he said. “I had to confront other issues with my family. Just getting a lot of stuff off my chest. I admitted to a lot of things. Faced everything I did. And when I did that, I found out it wasn’t that bad at all and maybe I wasn’t the bad person that I thought I was. I realized there was hope.”

Hargrove admits through the rehabilitation process that he was drawn to a strong belief in religion and entered into a relationship with God. “I had to give myself to something greater than myself. I had to let go of ego and acknowledge that I am not Superman. I’m human. I’m flesh.”

During his year away from the NFL, Hargrove slowly and meticulously started to pick up the pieces of his broken life. Even though the calendar year on his suspension had ended and his could re-apply for reinstatement, Hargrove knew he wasn’t ready yet to make the move.

“I needed more time,” he said. “I needed more time to make sure I was straightened out.”

When the time came, Hargrove ventured to New York City to meet with the NFL, and for the first time in his life when he was called to the carpet, he came clean. “I felt I didn’t have to go in there and prove anything, so I was completely honest. I told them to whole truth of where I was, what I had done, and outlined to them where I was going and how I was doing it.”

On Valentine’s Day Hargrove was reinstated by the NFL. “It was just another check off of the goal sheet,” he said. “I know I can’t go to clubs and do things a lot of guys can do, and that’s fine. I don’t want to do anything to embarrass my family anymore.”

Although he was reinstated, Hargrove did not have a team to report to, as the Bills had long ago quietly parted ways with him.

Williams, the agent who had stuck by Hargrove through all the tribulations, came up with the idea of making a video to send to the NFL teams. “The main thing I wanted the video to do was to say, ‘Look at this guy,’ Williams said. “This was not some name or number. This is a real person. You can see him. The video showed that Tony is a well-thought, real person.”

Thus letters and video were sent out to all 32 NFL teams, and in Hargrove’s words, “the silence was deafening.”

“People obviously were really scared to give someone like me a second chance because of relapse,” Hargrove admitted.

Finally, the phone rang. It was the Saints.

“This is the last city you’d think I’d want to go to,” Hargrove said. “It’s a party city and people like to have a good time. But, you know what? I don’t have to drink or need to drink. I know that. I can live with that. In fact”

Bill Johnson, the Saints’ energetic and demanding defensive line coach, was aware of Hargrove from his time in Atlanta. Johnson had been the defensive line coach for the Falcons when Hargrove was playing at Georgia Tech and had been impressed with the athleticism Hargrove displayed.

“The thing that impressed me most when we talked to him, knowing all the problems… it wasn’t that he said, ‘I’m going to do better.’ He had a plan of how he was going to live his life. He’s got a routine and he’s worked hard to change his life,” Johnson said.

“Bless his heart, I’m so proud of him it’s unbelievable,” Johnson continued.

Saints Head Coach Sean Payton has also been a strong figure in Hargrove’s continued development and an advocate that Hargrove can talk to when he has questions or something is bothering him. And in return, Payton and the coaching staff reap the benefits of Hargrove’s athleticism on the field. “He’s doing well,” Payton said. “He takes things day-to-day off the field, which he has to do, and he has a support system around him. On the field he’s in very good shape, he’s an active and disruptive player and a pain in the neck to block.”

On Sunday Hargrove turned in one of the biggest plays of his career. Late in the game and with the Saints clinging to a 23-20 lead and with Carolina in possession of the ball at the Saints’ two yard-line, Hargrove fought off a block, grabbed RB DeAngelo Williams and ripped the football free and jumped up and ran into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown. “This is crazy. Honest to God,” Hargrove said after the game. “Just making a play like this once a week, it’s a blessing. It’s crazy. I come out here and O just try to play. For me, it’s a blessing. I don’t think I’ve played this well, this consistent.”

Since filling in for injured starter Sedrick Ellis as a starter after Ellis was injured at Miami two weeks ago, Hargrove has responded with three sacks and two fumble recoveries and been a hustling and energetic figure along the interior of the defensive line.

Off the field Hargrove is pleased with the way things are developed. “I am writing a new chapter in my life. I’m happy. I wake up each morning and feel blessed. I know the other side. This is much, much better and I am a much better person now.”