NEW ORLEANS -- Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove keeps the reinstatement letter hanging from his locker, so when he dresses for practice each afternoon, the commissioner's signature hovers just above his right shoulder. "I see it," Hargrove said, "even when I'm not looking."
The letter reminds him of the drug tests he failed, sure, and the 13 months he spent in rehab, of course. It reminds him of the friends he made in AA, the confessionals he sent to every team in the league, and the cab rides he hitched to training camp once a GM finally gave him a call. But more than that, the letter is a symbol of his whole unfathomable odyssey, from an apartment building in Brooklyn that burned down when he was 5 all the way to the Super Bowl in Miami.
The moment he charged out of that burning building -- along with his mother, Rosa; older brother, Terrence; and younger sister, Tiffany -- he began a life on the run. He spent more than a year shuttling between various apartments and shelters with his family. Then Rosa became too sick to care for her children, so they were moved into foster care. "I remember being with a Puerto Rican family," Hargrove said, "and then a black family."
Rosa died of AIDS when Hargrove was 9, and shortly thereafter he was adopted by his aunt and uncle and moved to Port Charlotte, Fla. He found refuge on the football field at Port Charlotte High, where he became the biggest quarterback and cornerback many had ever seen. When he went to Georgia Tech, he converted to defensive end, but he failed out of school after two years. He returned to Port Charlotte and started working as a teaching aide and security guard, only to be coaxed back to Atlanta by an agent named Phil Williams, who convinced Hargrove that he could still make the NFL. Williams helped Hargrove wrangle a job at Hartsfield Airport, handling luggage for Delta Airlines, which at least enhanced his upper body strength.
Hargrove missed a year of football, was not invited to the NFL combine, and yet was drafted by the Rams in the third round in 2004. The move was baffling to anyone who had not witnessed Hargrove's individual workouts, in which he ran the 40-yard-dash in 4.5-4.6 seconds, stunning for a man weighing nearly 300 pounds. Hargrove was a starter by his second season, racking up 6.5 sacks, but he began drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs. He went AWOL two games into the 2006 season and later recalled sitting in somebody's basement in St. Louis doing cocaine. He looked in the mirror and saw lifeless eyes staring back at him.
"I think [the addiction] was with me all along," Hargrove said, "but as I got to the NFL and had more success it was easier to allow myself to do whatever I wanted. I was able to be my own man and do my thing and didn't care what anybody thought. It was a reckless attitude."
He was traded to Buffalo, where he was arrested in a confrontation at a nightclub, suspended four games for violating the NFL's drug policy, and then suspended for the entire 2008 season. "At first I thought it was just an excuse to party harder and do whatever I wanted," Hargrove said.
Williams would leave him messages -- "Tony, if we can get you healed you can still play" -- and Hargrove would not return them. In March 2008, it finally dawned on Hargrove that he was not allowed at mini-camp, and he headed back to Atlanta. "I needed more out of life," he said. "It couldn't be what it was."
Williams was scheduled to take his family to a Young Life retreat in Jasper, Ga., and he invited Hargrove to come along. When they returned, Hargrove checked himself into a medical rehabilitation facility in South Carolina for three months and then another drug rehab center in Miami for 10 months.
The NFL reinstated him last February, but no one wanted him. "Why would they?" Hargrove said. "I showed I was a negative influence. I couldn't keep it together." So Williams set up a tripod in his living room, aimed it at Hargrove, and started asking the tough questions. "We walked through his whole story," Williams said. "We went through all of his problems. I told him that he lied to me. He admitted that he hadn't even been honest with himself. Then he talked about what he had done to fix his problems."
When they were finished filming, they sent the DVD to every team. None called except the Saints.
They fashion themselves a collection of castoffs, with low-round draft choices like Marques Colston and Jahri Evans, undrafted free agents like Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, New York exiles like Jonathan Vilma and Jeremy Shockey. When Hargrove showed up to training camp, he had no car, so he had to take a taxi every day to practice. He also took the taxi to his AA meetings on off-days and Friday nights. This Super Bowl features two coaches who are reluctant to discuss the most innocuous details of their game plan -- and a defensive tackle eager to share the most intimate details of his life. When Hargrove spoke to a high school football team in Atlanta recently, one player approached him and said: "My uncle lives in our basement. He's an alcoholic." The next day Hargrove was over at the boy's house, down in the basement.
Now that Hargrove has played an entire season for the Saints, starting six games and totaling five sacks, it is impossible for him to maintain anonymity, either in his meetings or anywhere else. Dominant storylines at next week's Super Bowl will include the legacy of Peyton Manning and the impact of Drew Brees, but the journey of Anthony Hargrove is more than a footnote. Six days after the game, he and Williams will leave on a mission trip to AIDS-riddled areas of Africa. There may be no better way to honor the mother who hustled him from that burning building 12 years ago.
"I just wish she was here," Hargrove said, "to see her baby."