Anthony Hargrove remains in football exile years after Bountygate scandal
He was was only nine when Anthony Hargrove first considered that things might not go his way in life. This was in 1993, many years before he would become, in order, a pro football player, a drunk, a drug addict, a washout, a janitor, a reclamation project, a Super Bowl winner and, notoriously, a man the NFL accused of scheming to intentionally injure opponents for money. It was report-card day at Parliament Place Elementary, in North Babylon, Long Island. Months earlier, as Anthony’s mother lay sick in a hospital bed, he had presented her with mediocre grades: a B in one course, a D in another, nothing but C’s in between. Rosa Lee, who by then had been indisposed for a year and a half with what was believed to be asthma, proposed to Anthony, “If you get straight A’s, I’m coming home.”
Home was a misnomer, though. Anthony lost contact with his father shortly after his mom became sick; he and his brother Terrence, and sister, Tiffany, had grown up mostly homeless or in shelters. The only home they knew was a foster-care facility on Long Island. Still, Anthony applied himself to his schoolwork, staying late after school with a tutor until, finally, a new report card arrived. His grades were nearly all A’s.
From the school bus that day, Anthony dashed down the street with news of his improvement. Life, he believed, would soon return to normal. This was Jan. 26, 1993—Hargrove remembers because it was on that day that he learned his mother had died from complications of what would later be revealed to him to be AIDS.
“I sat in a tree, and I cried and cried,” Hargrove remembers of losing the woman whose name is tattooed across his right biceps. “I was yelling at God, screaming, ‘How could you do this to me? Now it’s me against the world.’ ”
Now, at 31, Hargrove lives in Port Charlotte, Fla., near the town of Deep Creek where he was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle following his mother’s death. But to find him near the end of last year you had to drive 90 minutes southwest of Nashville, toward the heart of Tennessee. Hargrove was spending the holidays among the rolling hills above the Duck River, at the rural home of his agent, whose family has become a primary source of comfort as Hargrove’s own family has slowly been taken from him. There, in a darkened living room, was a man in football exile.
The game had always been Hargrove’s release, his way of channeling aggression pent up from a childhood lived close to drugs, crime and prostitution. Since he was 10, he’d held the dream that unites many boys: He wanted to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He dreamed it first as a quarterback, but coaches convinced him he’d make his money on defense. Besides, Hargrove adds, “I liked hitting people.” After two seasons playing defensive end at Georgia Tech, however, Hargrove was ruled academically ineligible and lost his scholarship. He spent the following fall and winter working at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, parking planes and heaving luggage, standing in the exhaust of airliners just to stay warm. But as he worked, he trained, too, and in 2004 the Rams used a long shot third-round pick on him.
In his second year with St. Louis, Hargrove had 51 total tackles and 6.5 sacks—but he also failed his first NFL drug test, the result of excessive drinking, as well as marijuana and cocaine use. Often he would show up at practice high or smelling of alcohol. His mother, had struggled with addiction; now it had found her son. Early in the 2006 season Hargrove disappeared for two days, retreating, he says now, to a basement to snort cocaine. Three weeks after he emerged, he was traded to the Bills, and there his addictions continued. In total, Hargrove violated the league’s substance abuse policy three times. Finally, in ’08, the NFL banned him for an entire season.
Hargrove says he used heavily during his suspension, spiraling further into addiction. Maybe I’ll go back to McDonald’s and get my old job back, he says he thought. Instead, his brother talked him into treatment. There he cut a deal with his AA sponsor, who worked as a fitness instructor: In lieu of a gym membership fee, which he couldn’t afford, Hargrove would clean the gym, earning access to weights and kickboxing classes. While he was sweeping the parking lot outside the building one afternoon, an old friend recognized him. His eyes well at the memory. “The look she gave me, it was like I was a piece of crap,” he says. “I’ve never felt so low, [like] I was a homeless bum.”
On Feb. 23, 2009, Hargrove was reinstated by the NFL. He wrote letters to all 32 GMs, pleading with them for their trust, and heard back from just two. One of them, the Saints’ Mickey Loomis, worked him out and offered a contract. “I knew I was home,” Hargrove says of his first morning in New Orleans’s locker room. “God, there was no better feeling.”
The 2009 Saints’ defense was a sturdy if unspectacular unit, and Hargrove fit in well on the line, where he slid inside to tackle. New Orleans rolled to a 13–3 record behind the highest-scoring offense in the league, but it edged past the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game thanks largely to an attacking D that caused six fumbles and two interceptions. (Three Saints players, including Hargrove, were later fined for unnecessary hits on quarterback Brett Favre.) At Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, the city where Hargrove had gone through rehab a year earlier, his story appeared to enjoy a fairy-tale ending: Saints 31, Colts 17.
But just as Hargrove was finding his place, he became embroiled in one of the most troubling scandals in football history. By February 2010 the NFL was reportedly investigating an alleged cash-bounty system within the Saints organization. Worse, the league fingered Hargrove as a source—he was said to have told a Vikings player about the system after that ’09 playoff game (the Minnesota player has since denied this account)—and claimed it was his voice on a sideline video saying, “Bobby, give me my money” following a nasty high-low late hit of Favre by defensive end Bobby McCray and tackle Remi Ayodele. (The voice clip has become widely disputed as Hargrove wasn’t even on the field when that play took place.)
In May 2012, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended four players for their alleged roles in the program: Hargrove (eight games), linebackers Scott Fujita (three games) and Jonathan Vilma (the entire 2012 season), and defensive end Will Smith (four games). Hargrove had left the Saints in '11 for the Eagles and then Seahawks before signing with the Packers in March '12. Green Bay would release him in August. In December, NFL appeals arbitrator Paul Tagliabue would vacate all the Bountygate players’ suspensions and single out Hargrove’s discipline as “unprecedented and unwarranted.”
To this day Hargrove maintains that there was no bounty system and that he never blabbed to anyone on the Vikings about such a program. He claims that his punishment was based on what he told an NFL investigator in 2010 but that the league didn’t seem certain what was discussed in that interview, who was present or who had done the questioning. (When asked about the interview, the NFL declined comment to SI.) Recalls Hargrove’s agent, Phil Williams: “I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.”
To many, Tagliabue’s reversal was a victory. To Hargrove and those who worked to clear his name, it was something different altogether. “I can have the lawyer’s satisfaction that we ultimately won the arbitration,” says David Greenspan, who represented the player on behalf of the NFLPA. “But Anthony lost his career in the process.”
Hargrove gave the NFL one more shot, signing in the spring of 2013 with the Cowboys, but he felt he was allowed no more than a token chance to make the team. As he rehabbed surgeries on both knees, he was cut before training camp, and it was there that his fire extinguished. “If it didn’t work in Dallas . . . it was going to be over,” he says.
Though he would love to be remembered as a good teammate and a Super Bowl champion, Hargrove has not been able to escape the infamy of scandal. On visits back home in New York he hears people joke, “Pay me my money!” Playing flag football, opponents kid, “Ain’t no bounties out here!” He once coached a youth team in Port Charlotte, where he has lived since 2011, but he had to persuade parents that he won’t teach their children to play dirty. “That bounty thing trickled down to my personal life,” Hargrove says. “I can’t go anywhere [without] people referring to that.”
But while this may have seemed like another cue to relapse—“could send me back out there snorting cocaine, drinking or even possibly committing suicide, because . . . it hurts so bad,” he says—Hargrove insists that he has stayed clean due to the strength he developed in the NFL’s drug treatment program, in which he participated from that second season in St. Louis through the end of his career in 2013. “I’m not going to play a victim,” he says. “I’m not going to use this as an excuse to mess up my life again.”
None of that has come easily. Hargrove has three children whom he wishes he could see more often. His dream of starting a business with his brother ended when Terrence was stabbed to death in North Port, Fla., in June 2011. Instead, Hargrove shares his story as a motivational speaker; he’s had gigs in Georgia, Virginia and Florida, one of which was paid. He loves golf and has found good work as a marine carpenter in Port Charlotte, where he crafts boat lifts and docks from lumber. Hargrove has always been able with his hands. As a kid he used to help his uncle install satellite dishes, pave driveways and build churches, and last winter he stayed a few weeks at his agent Phil Williams’s Tennessee home and helped around the property, fixing up an old shed and nailing together a guinea coop.
But he no longer watches football on Sundays; the pain and embarrassment are still too great. (He has, however, started following NFL news over the last few weeks.) In recalling his public castigation, he appears at once bitter, hurt and confused. In the end, disproving a bounty program may be a tougher task than proving one, because the Saints’ defense during those years embraced a culture of extreme machismo. (Not that the Saints were alone in this.) Crude, seemingly incriminating language was often used in meetings; sometimes dollar amounts were used as rah-rah talk after big, legal hits, according to multiple Saints defenders. But up and down the roster, on and off the record, Saints players deny the NFL’s interpretation that they were out for blood.
“We don’t talk like the corporate world,” says Vilma. “When we talk, it’s to get ourselves motivated, not anything literal [like trying] to break someone’s leg.”
Adds Fujita: “It’s easy to make a case [for a bounty program] on paper, even though it doesn’t match up with reality.”
Goodell’s harshest critics maintain that he might been well-intentioned, but his judgment was clouded by a desire to appear vigilant on player safety. “My sense is that he comes to a quick conclusion on what he wants the bottom line to be,” says attorney Peter Ginsberg, who represented Vilma in the bounty case, “and then in a very myopic fashion tries to view the facts through a lens that will get him to where he wants to be.”
As he was called a liar and a cheat in the press, Hargrove remembers, he cried many nights, asking God why the work he’d to done to correct past mistakes was not enough to keep him in the game he loved. He says, “Why is my heart torn away from me again?”