A man, a photo and the long search to find the person in it
See that guy? The one in the photograph. Worn work boots, yellow construction hat, hooded sweatshirt, purple winter jacket, broad shoulders, serious face, slumped forward, hands clasped, eyes locked on the stranger's camera pointed at him.
That guy, who is he?
The photo provides a vague clue. Its caption reads: "I was Defensive Player of the Year."
That could mean anything. High school. College. Professional. From 20 years ago. Ten. Five. Played linebacker. Defensive end. Cornerback.
That's the genius in Humans of New York, a blog that features portraits of New Yorkers, so many hipsters and bankers, couples and their children and their grandparents, natives and immigrants, homeless and rich, tattooed and bearded and costumed. The portraits come with short descriptions, sometimes one sentence, sometimes four, just enough information to light cauldrons of speculation, to begin an exercise in collective fiction writing done by strangers on the Internet. The captions provide the beginning of the story. What you see in the picture is the rest of it.
Humans of New York has nearly six million likes on Facebook. The Twitter page of its creator has more than 76,000 followers.
The picture of Mr. Defensive Player of the Year sparked varied, frenzied, often contradictory reactions. Some saw work ethic; others laziness. Some saw certain retired NFL players. Some saw a fallen, humbled star; others, a depressed, older man; still others, a proud husband or father, a provider, a man who made the most of whatever happened to him.
"His hands and his boots look rough, worn and used. My husbands hands and boots look the same way. I know how physically hard you have to work to accomplish that. Back breaking, knuckle busting. Day after day."
" ... then I tore my ACL."
"This looks like my cousin!"
"Love the composition -- a football player on the bench."
From one photo, all of that.
That guy, the one in the photograph, who is he?
HONY seemed like a logical place to start. SI.com emailed the founder, twice, and the founder's assistant, also twice. No response.
We tried to reverse image at tineye.com. We tried Google Images' similar image search. We tried techverse.net and facesearch.com, two sites with suggestions on how to find a random person in a photograph. Nothing. Not even a lead.
This felt a bit like stalking, all this time spent trying to find a stranger in a photograph. It became an all-consuming task. What was his story? Why did people see his picture and feel like they knew him? Where did he work? What did he do? Was he a foreman? An architect? A worker? Did the hard hat foretell hard times or hard work or both?
"Looks like Corey Moore of Virginia Tech. Defensive player of the year in 1999."
"It's also his birthday today, happy birthday dude, haha."
Corey Moore did play for Virginia Tech. He did win Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. He won that award twice. He played in the NFL, for Buffalo and Miami. Except the man in the photograph didn't really look like him.
Dave Smith at Virginia Tech shopped the photo around the athletic department. "If that is a recent picture, there is no way that is Corey," Smith wrote in an email. He mentioned that Moore worked at Michigan State.
We found Moore there, employed as an academic advisor for student affairs. "That is most definitely not me," he wrote back. "That's really funny but this was the first time I have ever seen the photo or heard anything about it. I love to visit New York City but I've been living in East Lansing, Michigan since 2006."
Research came next. Unscientific grunt work. The method: scan defensive player of the year lists for every major college conference dating back to 1995, look for an African-American male, a bigger guy, maybe a defensive lineman, and someone definitely out of football, his once-promising career cut short in some fashion or another. Try and match those qualifications with the picture. We tried the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the Big East. So many pictures started to blend together. White players were eliminated. So were smaller players. So were current NFL players. It was easy to determine who was not in that photograph. David Pollack, for instance. Patrick Peterson. Greg Romeus. But as for who the photo actually featured ...
"Rolando Marquise McClain is an American football linebacker ..."
Interesting post. McClain, once a first-round draft pick, was out of football. He had played linebacker at Alabama, then for the Oakland Raiders. The man in the photograph at least resembled him. So I emailed Seth Wickersham, the ESPN scribe who penned an excellent profile of McClain in retirement last fall.
Not McClain, he said.
That guy, the one in the photo, he is ...
"He wasn't Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL. He could have been, but he thought it was more important to be tough and stupid and act like a thug. He wasted his golden opportunity there."
"Player of the year requires passion and talent. Sounds to be like you can accomplish anything in life you want."
"The fact that anyone has something bad to say about a man who achieved his dream and played a game at the highest level possible ... that is an achievement most of us will never understand or reach."
"I like the confidence in his eyes."
"Half of you pansies couldn't hold his jock on or off the field. You hide behind a keyboard ... Bravo, young man."
"To all of you Pollyannas: Does this look like he's got his eye on the prize? Like he's fully engaged and performing at peak levels? Like he's even vaguely happy?"
"We idolize millionaire athlete. But there's a sense of pride and integrity in the working man that is seldom seen in millionaires. Those are the ones we should be looking towards. There is no shame in being a working man."
"Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it tugs at my heart strings when someone so young conveys the sense that his best years are behind him."
"I love this story! There's so much to explore in it."
"The working man Rocks ..."
"Powerful, important photograph."
"Cunning and powerful use of symbolism; weary young guy sitting at top of a marble staircase with gold handrails, one sentence caption and so many people assume they know the subjects whole life story."
That guy, the one in the photograph ... "It's not Corey Moore," wrote a poster who went by the name House Boogey. He seemed certain of that fact. He said he knew the man so many had guessed about. He said they were all wrong.
He received a Friend request on Facebook.
The next week, an email arrived. Its subject header read, "This is The Construction worker from H.O.N.Y. I heard you wanted to do a story??"
We scheduled an interview. He sent over a link to his Facebook page. The main picture showed a football player wearing a nondescript blue jersey, No. 97. The player was making a tackle. In the "about" section, "CEO of taking your money" was the job description. The man finished work most days at 4 p.m.
One Tuesday, he called.
The one in the photo
He turned 39 in January. He never expected to be photographed, let alone photographed inside Penn Station for a blog he had never heard of. He wasn't even supposed to be there that day. He was supposed to meet his girlfriend at Port Authority, before she departed back to Virginia. He went to the wrong place. "Chance meeting," he said.
The man with the camera asked him a few questions. Would he mind if the man took his photograph? What was his proudest moment? He knew that one right away. His football days. No doubt about that.
He didn't tell the man with the camera much about his background. How he grew up in Hollis, Queens (like Run DMC), across the street from Henderson Park. How he veered toward baseball at first. How he first tried football in 1990, as a sophomore at the now-defunct Andrew Jackson High, with Bob Cousy and 50 Cent and LL Cool J among the notables who attended there.
That guy, the one in the photograph, he loved football, mostly how competitive it was, the aggression sanctioned and legal, expected, even. He was good at football. He played on the junior varsity as a sophomore, and in his first game, he said he registered two sacks. He played defensive tackle, nose guard, defensive end.
"The next year, I played varsity," the man in the photograph said. "I was rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, this and that."
He next went to Nassau Community College, from 1993 to 1995. The (NY) Daily News wrote in 1993 about Nassau's coach, John Anselmo, now a special teams assistant with the Buffalo Bills. The story posited that Anselmo wished to recruit the New York City area, which he called "an untapped goldmine." The man in the photograph was among the players listed that Anselmo recruited from New York. "DT Jackson Second string; 1-AA scholarship," it read after his name.
(Anselmo and Nassau CC did not return requests for comment.)
The man met a girl around the time, a woman, actually, 10 years his elder. He moved away from home. He developed -- his words -- an attitude problem. He fought with coaches. He distanced himself from teammates. He played in big games, like the one against top-ranked Mississippi Delta. He worked security to pay the bills. "I was hotheaded," he said. "I would have made better decisions if I knew then what I know now."
He started to play semi-professional football in 1998. A friend made the introduction. His first team, the Queens Vikings, rolled up opponents by an average of 40 points. They went undefeated that first season. He kept playing. For the New York Panthers and New York Falcons and, now, for the New York Kings. He won defensive player of the year twice more.
He took up boxing in 1999. He said he trained under the late George Washington, who first tutored the heavyweight Riddick Bowe. (Washington's gym, the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, did not return phone calls seeking confirmation.) There was a mention, also in The Daily News, in 1998, of a boxer who "needed only 18 seconds and one solid right hand to end the hopes of ..." none other than the man in the photograph. He liked to fight, though. He had always hated the running part of football conditioning. He won a few bouts, competed in New York's Golden Gloves three times.
He also needed to make money. He worked as a security guard. He considered becoming a personal trainer. He found a school for that, on 14th Street in Manhattan.
Mostly, he did construction. On the day the stranger took his photograph, he had laid brick in the Bronx for a company called Structure Tech, on an apartment building nearby where he lives.
He never checked on the photograph, never looked at the Web site created by the stranger who had snapped it. A teammate posted the link on Facebook. "Oh, s---," the man in the photograph said. "That is me." Then he read the comments. They made him laugh, about the world and the people in it, about human nature and speculation, about truth and crazy fiction. He liked the creativity. He wondered what Corey Moore thought about all this. "I thought it was tight," he said of all the comments the simple photo had produced. "If people want to look at me and judge me or think they know me, they can. I've never had that many likes or comments before."
"I am a working man," he continued. "I'm proud of that. I'm proud of my life and what I've done."
That guy, the one in the photograph?
His name is John Davis.
He was defensive player of the year.