David E. Klutho

What ever happened to Joseph Randle?

Fifteen months ago Randle, not Ezekiel Elliott, was the Dallas back ripping off chunks of yards behind that awesome O-line. Then came a possible concussion, an array of off-field misdeeds and massive confusion about it all

By Dan Greene

Just before 3 a.m. last Feb. 1, police in the Dallas suburb of Irving received a 911 call from a woman complaining that a man, whom she believed to be her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, was ringing her doorbell. When officers arrived at her ranch-style home, they found a lone male sitting in the driver’s seat of a four-door sedan parked at the curb. An officer approached and asked the driver if the nearby house was his residence.

“Well,” said the man in the car, “I’m trying to see if [she’ll] let me in so I can sleep, so I can go home in the morning.” Home, he explained, was a five-hour drive away, in Wichita, Kans.; he’d traveled to Irving to see if the mother of one of his children had taken one of his cars to the house outside of which he was now sitting. The officer was skeptical. The car was not there.

In the meantime, a second officer ran the driver’s name for any outstanding warrants. There was a hit: Joseph Randle was wanted for an unpaid speeding ticket in nearby Coppell.

“I already paid that ticket,” pleaded Randle.

“I’m telling you that we just called them, and they said, ‘Yes, please bring him in,’ ” said one of the officers. “That’s what’s gonna happen, O.K.? So go and step out.”

Randle prepared to open the door and be placed under arrest. This night’s encounter was before the alleged dustups with casino employees and partygoers, before the chaotic scene in which he mowed down three people with a car. But he was already far along that dark path. “This,” he muttered in an aside picked up by the police cruiser’s dash cam, “is the end of my career.”

Fast-forward 10 months. Around midnight on Dec. 11, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott stands in the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium, wearing silver football pants and a blue crop-top T-shirt; he’s already shed his number 21 jersey (the league’s top seller) and swapped it for the one off Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s back in a friendly postgame meet-up of rising stars. Blessed with an offensive line that includes three Pro Bowl starters, Elliott churned out 107 rushing yards on the night, further padding his NFL lead in that category and further bolstering his case as Offensive Rookie of the Year, maybe even league MVP. Despite losing, Dallas still sits comfortably atop the NFC, leaving the young back room for optimism. “We can regroup,” he says, flashing the maturity of a 10‑year vet. “I know we’re gonna bounce back from this.”

Fourteen hundred miles to the west, at the Sedgwick County Jail in Wichita, sits a man who may be beyond the point of bouncing back. Randle, the last Cowboys running back to don number 21—the previous focal point of the Dallas backfield, the guy who was supposed to be running through those gaping holes—is awaiting a court appearance the next morning on charges including aggravated battery, property damage and criminal threat. Sixteen months earlier Randle’s own career had appeared ascendant. At 23 he entered the 2015 season—his third in the NFL—as the starting back for a playoff contender that was laden with offensive talent. That campaign began promisingly enough: Despite sharing carries and despite a passing game that sputtered after Tony Romo broke his clavicle in Week 2, Randle was on pace through five games for more than 900 yards and 13 TDs. It was not hard to imagine Randle, once the offense returned to full strength, converting his line’s ample blocking into gaudier numbers.

But by that October he had begun his quick and strange tumble out of football. In rapid succession he would lose his starting job, and then his roster spot altogether. He would be arrested four times for an array of increasingly serious and worrisome crimes. As the charges and incidents accumulated, a familiar and tidy narrative took hold, that of the young athlete who simply lost control and “let the whole situation [get] bigger than him,” as one family friend put it.

“This,” Randle muttered, “is the

End of my career.”

“It was like watching the Dow Jones drop f‑‑‑‑‑‑ 300 points in two minutes,” says a Dallas-area acquaintance. “He went from the top of the world, being the f‑‑‑‑‑‑ starting running back, to [being] Johnny Manziel.”

“To get up one day, and then all of a sudden to go left for no apparent reason,” says David Wells, a former bail bondsman who works as a sort of fixer for the Cowboys, “it’s just one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.”

But many close to Randle suggest there were warning signs, if not easy explanations for the spiral. A closer examination of the running back’s tumultuous career reveals a complex and troubling narrative, one complicated by issues ranging from mental health to potential head trauma, from the disposability of the league’s players to the inherent tenuousness of those players’ support systems.

“People perceive [Joseph] as this kid who just went crazy and started . . . doing all this bad stuff,” says Avina Rodriguez, the ex-girlfriend Randle was looking for in Irving. “But there’s a reason behind it. It’s much more than that.”

Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

The Boys & Girls Club of South Central Kansas sits at the head of a looping Wichita street appropriately named North Opportunity Drive. The 42,000-square-foot facility boasts an array of modern amenities—a black-light science lab, a Barre dance studio—and a football coordinator who has been a staple of Wichita youth sports for as long as anyone can remember. Over four decades as a coach Larry Allen has watched the city’s finest young athletes achieve the full spectrum of potential outcomes. In the early 1980s he tutored a shifty jitterbug named Barry Sanders. Before and since, he has coached too many could-have-beens to name. “I’ve got 50 [former players] on my wall who could be in the Hall of Fame,” says Allen. “I got one out of 50, which I guess is O.K.”

None of those kids came closer to matching Sanders than Randle, a star at Wichita Southeast High from 2006 through ’09, when Allen was the Golden Buffaloes’ running backs coach. As the progeny of a local football dynasty, Joseph had entered high school with an unusual level of expectations. His father, Larry, a former semi-pro player, has been a Wichita youth-league coach for more than three decades. Larry Jr., 10 years Joseph’s elder, was a cornerback at Division II Emporia (Kans.) State. John, older by seven years, ran for 2,600 yards and scored 30 TDs at Kansas and Southern Illinois. The boys’ sister, Jaleen (second oldest of the four), ran track at Wichita State. “When you heard the Randle name,” says Jeremiah Plowden, a high school teammate of Joseph’s, “you thought about records being broken.”

Wouldn't have been able to do it without him #blessed 🙏 #ManWithThePlan

A photo posted by Joseph Randle (@josephrandle_1) on

Randle (left) with his dad, Larry

The youngest Randle’s football career began early. At three, before Joseph was out of diapers, Larry had his son practicing with a team of second-graders. (“I played way-, way-back safety,” Joseph would later tell the Tulsa World.) At home John would get on his knees and trample Joseph in one-on-one football games. Later, when John began attracting college recruiters, Joseph would steal the show during in-home visits, regaling coaches with highlights of his own exploits as a youth-league QB. When it was finally Joseph’s turn at Southeast, he was named the varsity starter as a freshman.

One Buffaloes teammate remembers Joseph as a “poster boy” athlete, a locker-room jokester with a star’s easy swagger. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, he impressed coaches with his film study and endeared himself to teammates by dancing on bus rides. In the locker room he delivered fiery, impassioned speeches in the vein of Ray Lewis. He also proved headstrong and stubborn, especially when aggrieved. “If you say things to him derogatorily, he’s very aggressive,” says Allen. “But he always took it out on the field.”

When Joseph rushed for 1,733 yards and 22 TDs as a sophomore, the comparisons with John were easy to draw: Here was another Randle dominating from Southeast’s backfield—same slender-legged gallop, same smooth hip swivel, seemingly destined for big-time college football like his brother. In 2003, Rivals.com had named John the No. 3 in-state prospect of his class, and that promise landed him at Kansas, where as a sophomore he led the Jayhawks in rushing and earned All–Big 12 honorable mention. “I didn’t think nobody was better than him,” Joseph told The Dallas Morning News last year. “Even when he was playing against Adrian Peterson [at Oklahoma].”

“He went from the top of the world, being the f------ starting running back,” says an acquaintance,

“to being Johnny Manziel.”

Then came four arrests in 18 months. John was dismissed by the Jayhawks in March 2005 and transferred to Southern Illinois, where he finished out his college career. Those close to Joseph say he was reluctant to discuss his brother’s troubled past, but they hoped it would serve as a lesson. “That was a great tool for Joe,” John would later tell the Morning News, “that it can be here—and in a flash it can be gone.”

For his own collegiate career, Joseph chose Oklahoma State, where Sanders had won the Heisman Trophy in 1988. Randle thrived in coach Mike Gundy’s high-powered spread offense, rushing for 2,633 yards and 38 TDs over his sophomore and junior seasons. But, like John, his time in the Big 12 would be abbreviated. Against the advice of his parents and coaches, he declared for the 2013 NFL draft following his junior season.

Randle at Oklahoma State in 2011
Brett Deering/Getty Images

Despite his gaudy numbers, Randle wasn’t selected until Day 3, when Dallas plucked him in the middle of the fifth round. The destination seemed fortuitous: Randle’s father was a longtime Cowboys fan, and Rodriguez, the college sweetheart with whom he’d had a daughter that January, grew up in the area. Still, one Wichita acquaintance who saw Randle shortly after the draft recalls him being fixated on the fall all the way to No. 151. OSU’s coaches, he believed, had depressed his stock by exaggerating the extent of an existing hand injury. (OSU officials declined to comment.) Another friend remembers seeing Randle, unprompted, show a liquor-store clerk his ID shortly after the draft, hoping that his name would impress the cashier. These observations seem in line with a change that some people around Wichita had noticed after Randle left for Stillwater—a bit cockier and more entitled, with a streak of paranoia. But no one foresaw the changes and trouble to come.

“The Joseph Randle I know is not the guy you are asking me about,” Allen says now. “I don’t know that guy.”

James D. Smith/AP

The first public glimpse of the other Joseph Randle came on Oct. 13, 2014. One day after rushing for 52 yards in a headline-making win at Seattle, Randle visited a Dillard’s department store in a Frisco, Texas, shopping mall. There, security cameras spotted him lingering at a rack of Polo underwear before grabbing a $39.50 double pack and slipping it into his bag as he walked casually toward the exit without paying. Once he passed through the doors and into the parking lot, a security guard stopped Randle, who had also swiped a tester bottle of $84 Gucci cologne. Randle complied resignedly, reentering the store while security called the police. When officers arrived, Randle explained that he hadn’t paid for the items because he didn’t want to take the time.

At the Frisco jail he turned flippant. Briefly left unattended, he reached across a counter to grab his confiscated cellphone. He asked one officer if she would give him a massage for $100. He brought up the names of Cowboys teammates who’d previously been arrested—receiver Dez Bryant and nosetackle Josh Brent—and noted how they’d been welcomed back to the team after legal entanglements of their own. When Randle posed for a mug shot, he asked why the picture didn’t include his height and weight. “This is not a damn trading card,” one officer told him.

Randle eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft (resulting in six months’ probation) and was fined an undisclosed amount by the Cowboys. Bryant, seemingly bothered by Randle’s invoking his name at the jailhouse (security footage of which aired on the local news), confronted the running back at practice in what one reporter called “a snit.” But the Cowboys’ brass, according to a team source, dismissed the arrest as an anomaly. Those who know Randle say he deflected questions about the incident with jokes. “It didn’t seem like he thought it was that serious,” says one friend. It didn’t help when an L.A.-based underwear company, MeUndies, announced it would help pay Randle’s fine (and ship him some swag) in exchange for his becoming a spokesman. “It ended up being a plus for him,” says another acquaintance. “They were blessing this kid for stealing.”

Unfazed, Randle appeared poised for the next level in 2015. With incumbent starter DeMarco Murray headed toward a departure in free agency, the job was Randle’s for the taking, and his friends began pressing upon him the significance of this make-or-break season. He had two years remaining on his rookie contract, but not even $100,000 of it was guaranteed; a monstrous raise could loom. Even then, Randle lived fairly modestly, in a rental house so close to the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch practice facility that the goalposts were visible from his cul-de-sac. Neighbors remember Randle as a quiet father, often seen playing with his and Rodriguez’s daughter, Aubrielle, on their front lawn.

But that promising picture was quickly punctured by another brush with the law that went public. According to friends, Randle was attending a Wichita bachelor party in the early hours of Feb. 3 when, around 1:30, police were called to the Hotel at WaterWalk by Dalia Jacobs, a woman with whom Randle had also fathered a child in late 2013. In her 911 call Jacobs claimed that Randle had pointed a handgun at her and their 13-month-old son, and that Joseph was carrying marijuana. In a subsequent request for a court protective order, Jacobs wrote that Randle had also punched and shattered her car window, sending glass shards onto the child and onto Jacobs’s friend. (Randle’s only charge, for marijuana possession, was ultimately dropped; Jacobs declined to speak with SI.)

William Purnell/Getty Images

While the NFL investigated the incident, the Cowboys signed Darren McFadden to compete with Randle for playing time—but even then, Randle still appeared on track to start. “He was making noise,” says Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox, Randle’s closest friend on the team and an off-season training partner. “He finally got [his] chance.” In July, owner Jerry Jones publicly endorsed Randle as having the potential to be the No. 1 back.

Randle seemed inclined to agree. In May he had made waves by suggesting that Murray, who rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 rushing yards in 2014, failed to fully take advantage of his line’s generous blocking, telling the Morning News, “I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone.” Among friends in Dallas, Randle referred to himself, Bryant and Romo as “the new Big Three.” Back home in Wichita he is said to have offered two women jobs as his assistants, promising he would make them famous.

Once the season began, though, that path proved less clear. Randle opened 2015 with two unremarkable games. In Week 3 against the Falcons he racked up 92 yards and three TDs on 10 first-half carries, but in the third quarter he lost five yards over his first four rushes, and he didn’t touch the ball again. The next week, at New Orleans, he was reportedly rebuked by coaches for leaping over a goal line pile and recklessly extending the ball on a short TD run. He had been scolded for the same thing against Atlanta.

Randle tries to go over the top against the Falcons
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Randle’s friends, meanwhile, were growing concerned. In the months leading up to the season, several say, the running back had begun drinking more frequently. One friend recalls him downing a “tall glass” of Crown Royal whiskey while sifting through his mail, shortly after waking up. (Rodriguez disputes that Randle ever had a drinking problem.) Others say he developed an unusual tic. “He would roll his eyes up top, then to the side,” says a longtime friend. “He did that a lot.”

Randle also began acting paranoid. At one point he stormed out of a room when he noticed a friend was using Snapchat; he believed the friend was taking clandestine photos of him. According to one Cowboys source, this kind of unpredictable behavior was nothing new. “One day he’s nice, one day he’s quiet, one day he’s hyper,” the source says. “He was like that since he walked through the door [in Dallas].”

Several friends speculate that Randle was growing stressed about finances, given that he was supporting a child in Dallas and another in Wichita, and without much guaranteed in his contract. They say he began making frequent trips across the Texas-Oklahoma border to the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, sometimes during weekday afternoons, all by himself. One friend remembers Randle being short on a payment for an associate’s session at a recording studio. He said he would have to make a trip to the casino to cover the rest. “That was his mentality: ‘I’m gonna go flip this $300 to $3,000 real quick.’ He had done that a few times,” says another friend. “But toward the end he was losing it all.” (The Morning News would later report that the Cowboys were concerned around this time about Randle’s sports gambling habit. A team source says the reports were investigated but revealed no evidence of sports gambling; those close to Randle claim no knowledge of any such activity.)

Al Tielemans/AP

Most concerning to Randle’s friends was how he handled his second-half benching against the Falcons. He and several teammates, according to a person present, spent that night surrounded by bottles in the VIP booth of a club they frequented. Amid the revelry Randle was despondent. “At one point he sat on the side, drunk, not talking to anybody, straight-faced,” says the fellow clubgoer. “He sat there for a good hour, just looking straight ahead. That’s it.”

Then came a Week 7 trip to New Jersey to play the Giants. On the Cowboys’ opening series Randle took his first carry for a 13-yard gain. Two plays later he turned a delayed handoff into 11 yards before being tackled from behind by defensive end Kerry Wynn. As Randle fell forward, his head appeared to collide with the ground. He lingered on the turf for a moment before tackle Tyron Smith helped him to his feet. McFadden tagged in, and moments later TV cameras found Randle on the sideline with his helmet off. Fox’s sideline correspondent, Erin Andrews, reported the official word from the Cowboys: a “rib/muscle strain.”

Randle would not return to the field for the rest of the game. His friends and family, watching from home, thought that was very unlike him.

James D. Smith/AP

Back in Dallas, that thought became recurrent. At the airport Randle embraced Rodriguez and Aubrielle as if they’d been apart for weeks, not days. At home he paced as if wired on caffeine and peered frequently out the window. He abruptly abandoned conversations. He confided in Rodriguez that he’d been forgetting plays. He repeated the same questions, often regarding Aubrielle’s whereabouts; other times, questions asked of him would seem to drift right past his consciousness.

“I asked him multiple times: Did you pass the concussion test? Do you have a concussion?” Rodriguez recalls. “And he would kind of gaze out—you know when people daydream? It felt like he was daydreaming a lot. I’m like, Joseph, what’s going on?” On the Tuesday after the Giants game, Jones announced that McFadden, who had run for 152 yards in relief, would get the next start. On Wednesday, Randle sat out practice with a reported oblique strain and left Valley Ranch early. At 12:35 p.m., Irving police received a 911 call from Randle requesting that they check on Rodriguez at his house. He believed someone had broken into his home, but he couldn’t contact Rodriguez because she’d left her cellphone in his car. “I’m paranoid,” he told the dispatcher.

He paced and frequently stared out the window. He abruptly abandoned conversations.

He forgot plays.

Authorities arrived to find no one inside. Rodriguez was at nursing school; Aubrielle was at day care.

Rodriguez returned home around 3 p.m. to find a cul-de-sac cluttered with cars. In addition to the responding officers, the Cowboys had dispatched their head of security, Larry Wansley, and their in-house mental health specialist, Jacqualene Stephens. Also present was Wells, the well-connected problem-solver. When Randle arrived 30 minutes later, the gathering crowd urged him to pursue psychiatric counseling. Wells describes Randle as having been “standoffish” and “rambling.” “We were all like, Just go—you need to go!” says Rodriguez. “But imagine six people all telling you something. . . . He was very overwhelmed.”


As Randle drove off in a huff, Rodriguez pressed Cowboys reps about whether her boyfriend had been evaluated yet for a concussion. “They said he didn’t have any signs in New York,” she recalls. “I was like, Well, was he checked out today? Monday? They said no.”

Randle returned home 45 minutes later to find the crowd had dispersed. The next day he went briefly to Valley Ranch but, Rodriguez says, was told to stay away from the facility for a while. (Around this time, the team also received word that Randle would soon be suspended for violating the league’s conduct policy in relation to the alleged domestic-violence incident in Wichita.) This time the Cowboys dispatched to Randle’s house Charles Haley, a Hall of Fame defensive end turned player liaison. “I talked to him about how he doesn’t have to fight this battle alone,” says Haley, who as a player was notorious for erratic behavior and was diagnosed in retirement as bipolar. “I told him my story, about all my ups and downs, how I had a chance to be a better man.”

Jason Garrett (right) with Randle during training camp in 2015
LM Otero/AP

According to friends and family, as well as one Cowboys source, at some point around this time Dallas brass—including Jones and coach Jason Garrett—also sat down with the running back and offered to help facilitate treatment for mental health issues. Several people close to Randle say he planned on accepting the offer, he just wasn’t ready yet. Others, including the team source, say he turned down the help. Randle instead spent the next few days after his 911 call working out at a local gym. While friends and family implored him to pursue treatment, and while Stephens, the team doctor, called frequently to check in, Randle appeared ambivalent about his future. “He told me, ‘You know what—I don’t know if I wanna play football right now,’ ” Wells says. “I go, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And he goes, ‘I dunno. God’s got a plan for me.’ ”

One person who spoke with Randle during this time says he “had no reasoning ability.” Another close associate says, “I’d look him in the eye, and he just wasn’t the same guy. I was looking into his soul like, Joe, where’s the guy I know?” Rodriguez recalls Randle receiving a reassuring 30-minute call from Jones. “I remember him getting off the phone—‘Everything’s gonna be O.K.; he understands where I’m coming from.’ ” But that Sunday the Cowboys left Randle off their active roster for a home game against the Seahawks, and the running back was left to watch the 13–12 loss from his living room sofa, alongside his daughter. After the game Jones finally addressed the situation head-on, telling reporters that he was “concerned” about Randle beyond the oblique injury. “It doesn’t deserve a real knee-jerk reaction as to [the] roster,” he said. “[I’ll] be patient relative to just the sensitivity of anybody that’s going through some trying times. Then we want to really be supportive and help when we can. . . . It’s up to me to . . . let him work through these other issues.”

One person who spoke with Randle during this time says he

“had no reasoning ability.”

On Monday, Randle finally acquiesced, traveling with Haley to see a psychiatrist. “They had a really long, good talk,” says Haley, who sat in a waiting room while Randle spoke with the doctor. “He came out a different guy.” Afterward, Haley reported back to the Cowboys about the appointment.

The next morning, between her nursing classes, Rodriguez received a call from Randle. “Well, I guess we’re gonna be moving,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Rodriguez asked.

“They just cut me.”

James D. Smith/AP

Randle’s experience highlights one of the myriad ways in which an NFL locker room makes for an unusual workplace. A player may share a particularly close bond with his coworkers, around whom he spends an inordinate amount of time during the season and upon whom so much of his personal safety is dependent. But he may also be abruptly cut off from those relationships and that support system altogether for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with his job performance.

In Randle’s case, it’s unclear how much he leaned on his teammates. Friends and family say he rarely socialized with other players. “He did his own thing, but that’s not unusual,” says a team source. Asked to describe Randle, Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar, one of the few teammates Randle’s friends saw with him away from the team, smiles. He says Randle was “a character” and “funny in some ways.” Funny how? “We’d laugh at him, some of the stuff he said. Just crazy stuff, stuff he shouldn’t be saying.”

Randle celebrates with Cowboys teammates, 2015
Brandon Wade/AP

In the end, whether or not the Cowboys released him, Randle would have soon been separated from his teammates. On Nov. 10, 2015, a week after being cut, he was officially banned for four games by the NFL for the alleged incident at the hotel in Wichita. But the sudden loss of employment in the midst of his personal turmoil was a jarring fissure. “The kid never really got a chance to try to put his feet around [the mental health stuff] before he had to deal with not having a team,” Haley says. “After that, it’s like his whole life just went to crap.”

Speaking to the media on the day of Randle’s release, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones referred to the running back’s “personal issues” and said his “full body of work” factored into the decision. Jerry Jones declined to address whether Randle’s looming suspension played a part. Asked about the sudden shift from his supportive comments two days earlier, he cited the “best interest of the entire team.” He continued: “We’re in good shape at running back, or we wouldn’t have made this decision.”

Those close to Randle found the quick reversal perplexing. “If Jerry was really concerned about [Joseph’s] mental health,” Rodriguez says, “he would have helped him along instead of just releasing him and saying, I can wash my hands of it.”

SAYS HALEY: AFTER RANDLE WAS CUT
“HIS WHOLE LIFE JUST

WENT TO CRAP.”

Friends describe Randle in the days following his release as being “lost.” He hoped to be claimed on waivers—particularly by the Texans, so he could reunite with former Dallas and OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden—but when no one came calling, reality began to set in. “Joe was on his own,” says a friend. “He’s a kid—how much can you ridicule him for not having guidance?”

Randle moved back home, settling himself into a rental apartment owned by his father, 10 minutes from the house where he grew up. He returned to a familiar off-season routine, training twice a day in case a team came calling. But friends and family worried about his homecoming; they saw little awaiting him in his old haunts aside from detours and trouble.

Three weeks after Randle’s release, those warnings began to prove well-founded. While playing blackjack at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane around 10:40 p.m. on Nov. 24, Randle became “belligerent” and was asked to leave, according to a source with the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission. Following an alleged physical altercation with security, he was arrested and charged with criminal trespass, interference with a law enforcement officer and two counts of disorderly conduct. Two weeks later, representing himself in court, he told a judge that he planned to plead not guilty and asked for a 30-day continuance to find an attorney, which was granted.

Randle with ex-girlfriend (and mother of his child) Avina Rodriguez
via Facebook

When Rodriguez’s nursing school semester ended in December, she joined Randle in Wichita. By then, she says, his paranoia seemed tempered, though he still had good days and bad ones. He gave up drinking completely for a period in January and began regular visits with a psychologist. “The first two [trips] he felt a sigh of relief,” Rodriguez says. “He was relieved that he didn’t hate it.” He continued working out regularly, running stairs with John at Wichita State’s Cessna Stadium, telling people around town that he’d received feelers from playoff-bound teams.

But the NFL postseason would pass without a contract, and Randle’s continued unemployment began weighing on him. “He would be like, ‘What you up to? Come over,’ ” says Gregory Hawkins, a friend from college. “I’d be like, ‘All right—but you know I gotta work first.’ He’d be like, ‘Man, at least you got a job.’ ”

In late January, Rodriguez returned to Dallas to resume nursing school. A month later came Randle’s 3 a.m. arrest at Rodriguez’s mother’s home for the unpaid speeding ticket. He secured a quick release and returned to Wichita, where, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, he stopped by the Boys & Girls Club to chat with Allen, as he often did. Randle mentioned two or three NFL teams as being interested in working him out. “He was still positive, still hopeful,” says Allen. The old coach reminded Randle to be mindful of trouble in town; his return to the league was already an uphill battle. “You know guys are gonna be hating,” Allen warned him. “Don’t be in the area where these kinds of guys are.” Randle seemed to be in agreement.

His actions would suggest otherwise. That evening, according to an eyewitness, Randle visited a bar in Wichita’s Old Town district. Inside, he ignored the staff’s repeated requests to remove his sunglasses—a violation of the dress code—before grudgingly complying. When he ordered a drink, he threw his cash at the bartender. A short time later, the witness says, security guards kicked him out.

Randle’s mug shot after he was arrested outside Rodriguez’s mother’s house
Irving Police Department/AP

Around 2 a.m., at the invitation of a friend, Randle made his way to a housewarming party across town. And that, according to eyewitness testimony, is when the night devolved into chaotic violence. Randle quickly got into an argument with a man at the party over the rules of a game of beer pong; shortly thereafter he objected to the same partygoer (who is half black and half white) using the word “nigga.”

The party’s host intervened, following Randle onto the balcony and pleading with him to calm down. But back inside Randle engaged in another altercation, this time taunting the host’s 5' 7", 20-year-old younger brother. The host asked Randle to leave, and Randle complied, walking down a front set of stairs toward the door. But then, according to several witnesses, he tried dashing back up the steps, and both he and the host were sent tumbling down the staircase in a heap. At the bottom, as they pulled themselves from the fray, the host was able to push Randle out the door while party-goers leveraged the host’s back.

The host followed Randle outside to make sure he left. In his black Honda Accord, Randle backed out of the driveway as if he was leaving, then accelerated forward onto the lawn, striking the host in the legs and sending him over the hood. Witnesses say Randle then drove across a neighbor’s yard and looped back again to strike the host and his sister, who’d come to his aid, sending them onto the vehicle’s roof. (Both suffered bruises and abrasions; the sister was concussed.) When those two managed to retreat inside, Randle used his car to strike the first partygoer with whom he’d argued. When everything seemed to have finally settled and everyone was inside, Randle kicked in the locked front door and began pointing at people, demanding, “Who else wants some?!”

Randle drove across a neighbor’s yard and looped back to strike the host and his sister, sending them

onto the vehicle’s roof.

Police arrived soon after and placed Randle under arrest, charging him with criminal threat, criminal property damage, unlawful possession of a controlled substance (he was carrying marijuana), aggravated burglary (for kicking the door in) and four counts of aggravated battery. (He would later tell his family that his car had been surrounded, leading to the collisions while he tried to drive away, and that he’d been defending himself during the physical altercations. He later told a judge, “I don’t recall ever driving that car.”) At a subsequent hearing he unsuccessfully petitioned a judge to lower his $100,000 bond to $5,000 so that he could “go work out” and receive “alcohol treatment” in California.

Randle spent nine days in jail, then posted full bond and was released on March 1. Five days later, after he failed to appear at his court date, a police officer arrived at his home to serve an arrest warrant. Instead, Randle took off, hopping a chain-link fence in his backyard and leading authorities on a lengthy chase down the block. Once the K-9 team arrived, Randle finally surrendered. “Hey,” he called out from behind a car, “I’m right here!”

He would run no more.

John W. McDonough

On a June afternoon in Wichita, Joseph Randle takes a seat in the visitation room of the Sedgwick County Jail, a Brutalist concrete block that partially surrounds the Kansas African American Museum. Prisoner number 413484 is clad in an orange jumpsuit the color of an end zone pylon, his hair a bit longer than usual, as he prepares for a video conference call, the only type of visitation an inmate is allowed. “Who’s this?” he asks into the camera.

He’s told that his visitor is a reporter from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED; he’s asked how he’s doing. The connection is spotty and intermittent. Randle is calm and cordial but hesitant to talk. “I’ll have to get back with you when I get out,” he says. After four minutes of this, Randle disconnects and leaves. He will decline three more such calls, choosing not to lend his voice to this story.

A Cowboys spokesman, citing club policy against discussing issues personal to players, also declined to offer any comment or to make any team executives available for this story. A good number of current and former Cowboys who played alongside Randle opted not to discuss their former teammate. After one practice this season, Bryant (who played at OSU right before Randle) grew visibly agitated when asked in the locker room if he had been in contact with the running back following his release from the team. “Why?” Bryant asked combatively. “Why are we talking about Joe?”

Dez Bryant celebrates a Randle touchdown run in 2014
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

Randle, meanwhile, has been not even a footnote in the story of the Cowboys’ return to greatness. In March, after his then lawyer requested that Randle receive treatment at a mental health facility, District Judge Kevin O’Connor set Randle’s $45,000 bail as being conditional upon his transportation to such a facility under the custody of either the NFL or the NFLPA. “The league,” says an NFLPA source, “is not touching this at all.” (The NFL declined to comment for this story.) Three months later, on Father’s Day, Randle’s family paid a $4,500 bond so that Joseph could be transported by the NFLPA to a 30-day stay at an East Coast mental health facility before returning to Wichita to stand trial. He had a plane ticket, and an NFLPA caseworker had traveled to escort him—but Randle refused to board his flight. Those present struggle to explain exactly why. (One source says Randle was concerned about the treatment center’s workout facility.) At his request, Joseph was transported back to jail. Unable to fulfill the conditions of their son’s bond, the Randles lost their $4,500.

The life Joseph returned to has been a turbulent one. He was held for most of the summer in an “agg pod” for aggravated offenders, where inmates are housed individually. Among his pod mates have been men charged with capital murder, kidnapping and rape of the mentally deficient. His family relays stories, passed on from fellow inmates, of Randle’s having been picked on by guards, though they declined to put SI in touch with their sources. (SI was unable to corroborate these claims independently.)

One guard, who spoke anonymously, says Randle is “very known” among the staff. “When he came in, it was like, Holy s---, that’s Joseph Randle.” Another guard recalls being told by a colleague that one day during linen exchange, Randle “came out like a running back and grabbed [the linens]. He turned around and said, ‘I just wanna see if I still got it.’ ”

Randle allegedly threatened a guard, saying, “I swear on my life and everything that I have,

I will kill you when I get out.”

Not every interaction inside has been so friendly. Randle has spent multiple stints in disciplinary detention, remaining in his cell for 23 hours at a time. It was during one of these periods in May when a guard denied Randle’s requests to make a phone call. According to the guard’s court testimony, Randle told him over an intercom, “I swear on my life and everything that I have, I will kill you when I get out,” resulting in a felony criminal threat charge. In a separate July incident, Randle ripped a TV from a wall and was charged with criminal property damage.

One regular visitor says that Randle’s engagement and approachability have fluctuated wildly in jail, where the strain of the environment has exacerbated his fragility. A source also says he has been prescribed anti-anxiety medication but has taken it only sporadically. Though he has twice passed mental competency exams, some close to him worry that his psychological and emotional states have further deteriorated behind bars.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Randle’s family and his current lawyer, Steven Mank, have expressed frustration at their inability to provide him with further treatment given the judge’s bond conditions. His NFLPA caseworker was let go by the union in September, and Larry Randle says the replacement has been less involved.

Wells, along with representatives for the NFLPA and a source with the Cowboys, all contend that Randle has been offered every resource necessary to address his issues. Members of Randle’s inner circle, meanwhile, feel he was too easily cast aside, a casualty of the league’s machine-cog mentality. Larry Randle says he hasn’t heard from anyone with the Cowboys since Thanksgiving 2015, when running backs coach Gary Brown called to offer Joseph encouragement. An NFLPA source claims no knowledge of the team’s attempting to help Randle after releasing him. Even Wilcox, the safety who was by all accounts Randle’s closest teammate, said in September that while he was “still kind of devastated and hurt” by his friend’s situation, he had not spoken with Randle since he returned to Kansas in the fall of ’15.

“That organization and that team preached so much about how they were a family,” says Rodriguez. “We had to go to all these dinners and meetings. . . . How can [they] preach so much on [family] but be about it so little?”

Tim Sharp/AP

On Jan. 9, Randle is scheduled to go to trial in Sedgwick County for four cases, on 11 of his 15 different charges. He has been jailed now for 10 months, his bond still tied to the cooperation of his former employer or union. All along, Mank says that his client’s intent has remained steadfast: “All Joseph wants to do is get out and play football.”

That sentiment may be hard to swallow for those closest to the now 25-year-old. Mank says that he’s never heard Randle blame head trauma for his actions, but many of the people who knew the running back before and after his final game are convinced that it played a role. Even Wells offers this blunt, unprompted deduction: “I think Joseph Randle is suffering from some kind of concussion-type mental s---, man.”

“How can the Cowboys preach so much on family,” asks Rodriguez,

“but be about it so little?”

A number of academic studies have found links between mild traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, and the onset of mental illness and personality changes. Several people who know Randle also point out that he’s right around the age when many psychiatric disorders typically reveal themselves on their own.

All of which is to say: A legal verdict will offer very little to satisfy those still grasping for answers. “Maybe there was something going on that I could not diagnose,” says Allen. “Maybe he was crying out to me, and I just wasn’t smart enough to [say], Let’s get you some help. But there’s no way I could have known.”

Instead, Randle’s trial will commence next Monday, and in a few days’ time he is likely to learn his fate, which includes the possibility that he spends further months, possibly even years, behind prison bars. The following weekend, the top-seeded Cowboys will host a divisional playoff game, two wins away from a long-awaited return to the Super Bowl.

Number 21 will hope to find some daylight and run free.

SI True Crime, an ongoing series from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, dives deep on stories of sports crime and punishment through in-depth storytelling, enhanced photos, video and interactive elements.

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