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Former top recruit Callahan Bright seeks second chance in NFL

PAISLEY, Fla. -- Two young giants, moving in opposite directions, collided in May 2004. Video of the collision (at the 1:17 mark) survives, and upon first viewing, it seems obvious which giant won.

The behemoths shook the earth for a moment at the Elite College Combine in the practice bubble just outside Giants Stadium. The blue-chip defensive tackle from suburban Philadelphia blasted off the line. The blue-chip offensive tackle from Plainfield, N.J., dropped into a pass-blocking set. Within a second, it was over. The defender, dressed in black, invaded the blocker's personal space before the white-clad protector could extend his arms. Fast-twitch fibers in four massive thighs engaged. For a moment, the blocker applied the brakes on his roller skates. That's when the defender swung his left arm and smashed a paw into the blocker's chest. The blocker, who weighed 330 pounds, sailed through the air and landed on all fours.

So who emerged victorious? Was it the blocker, who obviously needed to hone his technique? Or was it the defender, who tossed a 330-pounder the way the rest of us would toss a soda can?

The blocker, Eugene Monroe, played four years at Virginia. Last year, the Jaguars selected Monroe with the eighth pick in the NFL draft, and he signed a five-year, $35.4 million contract with $19.2 million guaranteed. If he invests carefully, Monroe's children's children's children will be assured comfortable lives.

The defender, Callahan Bright, signed with Florida State, but he never made it to Tallahassee. He went to prep school and then junior college. He worked on a garbage truck. He spent a few days in jail. In 2009, he played one season at Division II Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Now, Bright chases his football dream at a training facility in Middle-of-Nowhere, Fla., where his concentration is more likely to be interrupted by a mooing steer than by a cell phone call.

So what happened? How did Bright, one of the most heralded players in the recruiting class of 2005, wind up here trying to break into the draft's final round while Monroe, the player he chucked aside in 2004, wound up a wealthy NFL starter? Simple. "That's a guy," Bright said, "who went through and did everything the right way." And Bright? "I just made it more difficult," he said.

Bright, 23, has spent the past six weeks living in a bunkhouse at All-Star Sports Training in Paisley, a map speck situated about an hour north of Orlando on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest. Imagine Field of Dreams. Now replace baseball with football and cornfields with cow pastures, and you have All-Star Sports. In a stretch of pastureland broken only by the occasional palm tree sits a perfectly manicured football field surrounded by low-slung buildings that house state-of-the-art training equipment. Here, Bright and about a dozen other hopefuls will try to make themselves fast enough and strong enough to impress NFL general managers to risk a draft pick on them in April.

The last time Bright was about to ascend a level, he didn't need any help impressing scouts. As a senior at Harriton High in Bryn Mawr, Pa., in 2004, Bright rose as high as No. 5 in the nation in the Rivals.com rankings, and on National Signing Day he was ranked No. 14 overall and No. 2 at defensive tackle. He was a 6-foot-2, 315-pound blocker-destroying beast who also happened to be fast enough to play attack on his school's lacrosse team. He was among the first invited to play in the 2005 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. "He's built like a bulldog -- low to the ground," said Rivals analyst Mike Farrell, who covered Bright in high school and prep school. "He was so powerful. He always had great leverage and got under taller players, and he had one of the best bull rushes I've ever seen."

The first sign that Bright might not be mature enough to make a smooth transition to the next level came late in his senior season. For reasons he hasn't discussed publicly, he was briefly suspended from school, causing him to miss his school's final football game. The suspension also cost him his spot in the U.S. Army game. Harriton coach Hal Smith lobbied game organizers to keep Bright on the roster, but to no avail. Rumors of maturity issues didn't stop college coaches from pursuing Bright. He had more than 40 scholarship offers. He narrowed his options to Florida State, LSU, Purdue -- where his older brother Eugene played defensive end -- and Texas A&M. Bright had always dreamed of going south and playing at a Florida school, so he signed with the Seminoles.

When Bright announced his decision live on ESPN News on National Signing Day in 2005, he had everything planned. He would feast on ACC blockers for three years at Florida State. Then he would skip his senior year. In April 2008, he would stand on a stage in New York and shake the NFL commissioner's hand. Several recruits ranked below Bright did just that in different years. Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, ranked nine spots below Bright, wore a three-piece suit to shake hands with Roger Goodell as the Oakland Raiders' pick at No. 4 in 2008. Michael Oher, Mr. Blind Side himself, was ranked 34 spots below Bright and went to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 23 in 2009. In two months, a player at the same position who ranked 37 spots below Bright will shake Goodell's hand. His name? Ndamukong Suh.

Except for his official visit, Bright never set foot on Florida State's campus. He had a 2.5 core grade point average, meaning he needed to get at least an 820 on the SAT to meet the NCAA's minimum eligibility standards. He never could. Even after a year at Hargrave Military Academy, Bright still couldn't make a qualifying score.

Next, he tried junior college. He enrolled at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan. Bright went through spring practice, but before he played a down, he headed home. At 19, he was about to become a father.

To pay his bills and to support little Xavier Christopher Bright, Callahan Bright took a job as a garbage man in Radnor Township, Pa., so he could also take night classes at Delaware County Community College. Ask for horror stories from the back of the truck, and Bright will offer none. What he will say is that people should have a little more respect for the men and women who pick up their trash. "It's just like any other job," Bright said. "Actually, it's better than other jobs. You work from 7 to about 11, but you get paid until 4. The sooner you get done, the sooner you go home. You get full benefits -- dental, health."

Bright made about $700 a week hauling trash, but on Saturdays, he saw players he had dominated at camps in high school playing in front of 80,000 screaming fans. "It always motivated me," he said, "knowing I played with these guys or knowing that there was a particular guy I ran over or ran through. It kept me in the loop." After less than a year, Bright left the sanitation industry. He couldn't give up on football. Not yet. "The garbage truck wasn't forever," he said.

One of Bright's mentors recommended Shaw, a small, historically black college in Raleigh, N.C. Bright would get his next shot there, but not before another mistake put him behind bars.

Bright said he was "dropping something off for a buddy" on July 26, 2007. According to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bright delivered marijuana to an informant assisting police in an operation called Clean Corners that resulted in 125 arrests. Only the "former high school football standout" was mentioned by name in the story trumpeting the collars.

Bright was charged with five crimes, including a felony count of possession with intent to deliver, and held on $50,000 bail. It wasn't until Bright's bail was reduced to $15,000 a week later that his family could afford to post it. He pleaded guilty to the count of possession with intent to deliver, and he was sentenced to time served and two years probation.

Bright can't forget his time in the county lockup. He stayed long enough to know that he'll never do anything to merit a return visit. "It was just like TV," he said. "Jumpsuits. Bars. Small beds. It's somewhere you don't want to be. It's almost like somewhere animals should be kept."

During an interview last week, Bright insisted that any discussion of his mistakes include the following disclaimer: He didn't screw up because he came from a bad neighborhood or because of his upbringing. He screwed up because he screwed up.

Bright wanted to make clear that his mother, Denise, did a fine job raising him and his two siblings. Those siblings, older sister Tireca and older brother Eugene, each hold a college degree. Eugene Bright, who finished last season on the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster, said Denise always worked two jobs. Both positions involved assisting mentally ill young people. "She still works two jobs to this day," Eugene said. "Even with a son in the NFL."

Because Denise worked so hard, her children lived in a safe area and attended good schools. Callahan Bright knows he put his mother through plenty of anguish, but he hopes he can make her proud with the choices he makes from this point forward. That includes returning to college and finishing his degree once he establishes himself in professional football. "I definitely want to finish school," Bright said. "Football doesn't last forever. You've got to have that paper just to get a job in this economy."

Most of Bright's credits are at Shaw, where he spent two seasons on the scout team before he finally gained his eligibility in 2009. But five years after he climbed the recruiting rankings, Bright didn't play like a blue-chipper who once rag-dolled future first-rounders. He finished 2009 with 48 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and half a sack.

Bright could have played another year at Shaw, but he elected to turn pro because he wants to support Xavier and 1-year-old Makenzey, whom Bright fathered with a different woman.

When he isn't training, Bright often sits in the bunkhouse with his laptop open and a wide smile on his face. On his screen, Makenzey smiles back from her home in Pennsylvania. There isn't much cell phone service at All-Star, but the wireless Internet in the bunkhouse is fast enough for video chats. "You've got to use Skype," Bright said. "It's the best."

Mostly, Bright tries to make up for lost time. He never received elite coaching, and unlike the classmates who played at big-time schools, he never had a six-figure strength coach shadowing his workouts in a multimillion-dollar weight room. When Bright arrived at All-Star in January, he stood 6-foot-2 ½ and weighed 347. Trainer Todd Robinett marveled at Bright's natural strength when he banged out 31 bench-press reps at 225 pounds on the first day. In agility drills, Robinett saw glimpses of the quickness and raw power that so enthralled college coaches five years ago. "More than anything," Robinett said, "his gut was just getting in the way."

Robinett made it his mission to shrink that gut. As of last Friday, Bright had shed 16 pounds. All-Star owner Steve DeLuca and his staff are working to set up workouts for NFL scouts. By the time those roll around, Robinett hopes to have Bright closer to 320, and he expects Bright to be closer to 40 reps on the bench press.

While Robinett handles the measurables, Andy Cox handles the football-specific skills. Cox, a former assistant at Central Florida, the XFL and Canadian Football League, is trying to squeeze five years of coaching -- hand placement, pass-rushing moves, reading offensive linemen -- into a few months. "This kid has a shot," Cox said. "But he's never been coached."

For moral support, Bright leans on Eugene. He calls his big brother after every workout. During a phone interview Tuesday, Eugene answered a call-waiting beep. It was Callahan calling with another report. Every call makes Eugene a little prouder. He said his younger brother has matured tenfold since his days as a reckless recruit. "Callahan is a completely different kid," Eugene said. But is he ready?

Last week, DeLuca brought in Mike Hagen, a former scout for the Falcons and Chiefs, to put Bright through a mental and physical workout similar to the one he would have gotten had he been invited to this week's NFL scouting combine. First, Hagen peppered Bright with the sort of uncomfortable questions he'll get from NFL teams. "I asked him about some stuff he didn't think I'd know," Hagen said.

Then Hagen took Bright to the field, where he measured his 10- and 20-yard times as well as his 40-yard dash. Hagen said that while Bright's 40-time (5.25 seconds) won't put him on anyone's draft board, NFL general managers will notice if he repeats his 10-yard split of 1.82 seconds. In agility drills, Bright exploded from his stance, and he cut like a much smaller man. In one drill, he looked like an all-star shortstop as he effortlessly scooped up a tiny soccer ball on the run.

That natural ability is the good news, Hagen said. Now for the bad. Because Bright isn't in optimum condition, and because he doesn't have the X and O acumen of the players who spent four years in major college programs, NFL coaches are less likely to take a chance on him. "There's no sympathy for you right now," Hagen told Bright. "You're making a lot of people work really hard right now because of all the things you haven't done right. So, from this day forward, you have to do everything right."

Hagen told Bright he must be honest, humble and appreciative if he wants NFL coaches to give him a chance. Hagen believes some team will either late in the draft or with a free agent contract. NFL people simply cannot resist the siren call of a 320-pounder who can move. "These are God-given things," Hagen said. "Can they be improved upon if you're willing to work at it? Hell yes. ... But guys like him aren't just running around free."

Is Bright strong enough to toss aside his past mistakes and make a better life for himself and his children? He believes he is. Reminded of that long-ago collision with Monroe, he couldn't help but grin. Indeed, Bright took the more difficult path, but he has neither the time nor the tolerance for regrets.

"Hopefully," Bright said, "we'll meet again."

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