ATLANTA -- Justin Gatlin knew he'd be labeled a cheat after failing a drug test and being banned from track and field. He just didn't know his orange Escalade would be branded, too.
The sprinter awoke one morning in his native Pensacola, Fla., shortly after being disgraced to find his truck scarred.
"Steroid user," it read.
"In my hometown, that happened in my hometown," Gatlin said last week, still with a sense of disbelief four years later. "That really broke me down because I felt like my home, my neighborhood, my parents' neighborhood was a safe haven for me."
Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, one-time world-record holder and world's fastest man, saw his kingdom crumble after testing positive for excessive testosterone in April 2006. He kept his medals, and litigation reduced an eight-year ban to four years, which ended July 24.
Shunned by major European meets because of his tainted rep, Gatlin returns to competition this week with two 100-meter races in tiny Estonia, the first one on Tuesday. One organizer said he was glad to have the American sprinter so somebody could break the meet record of 10.28 seconds. Gatlin, now 28, beat that time when he was a freshman at the University of Tennessee.
He returns to a track world turned upside down since he ruled it. Usain Bolt owns the throne now, and Tyson Gay is the new American king. Gatlin can't hang with either at this point and perhaps never will. So why come back?
"I couldn't let my career end on that note," said Gatlin, who still can't reason why he tested positive in '06, but accepted the accuracy of the result and cut ties with then-coach Trevor Graham.
Consider all the sprinters who faded away after steroid scandals. It won't take much for Gatlin's comeback to be successful in comparison. Gatlin won't say what it will take specifically, but he knows he can reclaim some sort of place in elite track and field.
Gatlin hopes that one race will lead to another and another as he continues to claw back into the sport. The 2011 world championships and the 2012 London Olympics surely run through his head.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and USA Track and Field offer support. USATF CEO Doug Logan said Gatlin is a unique case for the organization, which is working to find a way to assist athletes transitioning back into competition. He met with Gatlin before the comeback to make clear certain expectations. To Logan's knowledge, they've been met.
Logan, like many, is intrigued at how the plot will unfold.
"It's almost like a three-act play," he said. "Athlete strives. Athlete meets adversity. Athlete either overcomes adversity or is overcome by it. You can almost put every athlete's story on a vignette that you can put on a stage."
Gatlin's time away from the spotlight brought a kaleidoscope of emotions.
At first, denial. Then frustration and determination. He shed a track suit for a collared shirt and tie, spikes for dress shoes and reached into his wallet for six figures' worth of legal fees to try to clear his name.
"Go sit in a room with no windows -- all day -- and listen to people argue about me and what my character is," Gatlin said. "I've never seen these people before in my life, being bombarded with people trying to end my career and my lawyer trying to save my career at the same time."
He was thrown a life preserver when the ban was cut from eight years to four with the opportunity to return in his 20s. He turned to the NFL and passed time by trying out as a wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gatlin was left with no contract offers and 20 pounds of extra muscle that many men may envy, but not track athletes. Enter Loren Seagrave, an Atlanta-based track coach who might know better than anybody how to get Gatlin back.
Gatlin was Seagrave's second major rebuilding project. Twenty years ago, Seagrave agreed to guide stripped 1988 Olympic gold medalist Ben Johnson's return from a two-year steroid suspension.
Seagrave and Johnson split a couple weeks after his comeback race, reportedly so Seagrave could move back to the U.S. and spend more time with his wife. Two years after that, Johnson failed another test and was banned for life.
Seagrave cautions expectations for Gatlin's comeback, just like he did with Johnson. The closest thing to a specific prediction he's given for Gatlin is a possible sub-10 in Estonia, if the conditions are right (10.0 would have placed seventh at the 2008 Olympics, and 9.77 was Gatlin's best time wiped out by the suspension).
If there's any similarities Seagrave sees from Johnson's case to Gatlin's, it's this: "Forget about the things that you used to be able to do," he said. "Keep moving and keep trying to re-engineer the athlete."
Gatlin required plenty of physical tweaks. He puked his way through the first day of training with Seagrave's group as he ramped up the comeback last fall.
"It was like carrying a military backpack [while running]," said Gatlin, who works out with Olympians Angelo Taylor, Dwight Phillips and Travis Padgett, among others.
His nickname in training was "pork chop" until the weight started to come down. He's at 190 pounds now, still a few more than his peak shape a half-decade ago. Financially, he looks fine going by his wheels, a black Maserati with a "J GAT" plate. Personally, he finds perspective from 3-month-old son Jace Alexander.
Gatlin said he was drug tested once in the last four years. He puts the same supplements and vitamins into his body as before the suspension, but he also keeps a list of banned substances handy. In that sense, he's learned from 2008 gold medalists LaShawn Merritt and Shelly-Ann Fraser, who blamed positive tests on not reading fine print and failing to declare dental painkillers, respectively.
Any slip up on Gatlin's part would kill his career, so he treads carefully.
"Even words you can't pronounce, you look for it [on the list] and you try to match it up," Gatlin said. "Even when you think [you can eat or drink something], you're still skeptical. It's almost like, don't [try anything new] at all. That's what you feel like."
Gatlin receives aid and inspiration from several sources, even those superstitious and spiritual. The man has 11 tattoos, the freshest of which is a quarter-sized four-leaf clover on his right wrist from a couple years ago.
"I felt then like I needed some luck," he said.
The bio on his Twitter profile reads, "from heaven to hell and back," and just last week, Gatlin dreamed he was burying his old self. He remembered placing a lily on fresh dirt at the grave and moving on.
"I'm a new person," Gatlin said. "I'm a new Justin."