This NFL season has been about redemption. Just ask Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger or (Seattle's) Mike Williams. They're the compelling, flawed, perfectly human second-chance stories that sports have become the perfect platform for telling.
One such story is of a man who went from hyped to hated to forgotten within a year's time. It's the story of someone whose career was thought to have been tossed away in one impulsive moment. It's the story of someone who's been working tirelessly since, desperate to regain the respect of those around him.
It's the story of LeGarrette Blount.
"I'm just doing everything I can to get on the football field," he said.
Talking to Blount now, it's easy to overlook his troubled past. He's amiable as can be, laughing as he chats about his terrific rookie experience. He briefly mentions his preseason stint in Tennessee after going undrafted and marvels at his present situation with the Buccaneers, who picked him up when the Titans cut him. He's now a model of happiness.
And why shouldn't he be? Things have been nearly ideal since his arrival in Tampa. He's rumbled for 941 yards and six touchdowns through Week 16, leading all first-year backs in both categories. He's developing a reputation as a dynamic power-runner. His team is still in contention for an NFC playoff bid with a surprising 9-6 record.
Still, Blount's name remains inexorably linked with one thing -- the punch.
That story has been told by now. Coming off a 1,000-yard junior year campaign, Blount entered his senior season at Oregon with lofty expectations. He was supposed to rip through Pac-10 defenses, to cement his spot as one of the top running back prospects in a class that featured C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best. After an opening week loss to Boise State -- in which Blount rushed for negative five yards -- he snapped. He clocked Broncos' defensive end Byron Hout across the right jaw (Hout is accused of instigating the attack after taunting Blount), instantly dropping him to the turf.
"I just want to apologize to anyone watching that," Blount said in his postgame press conference. "That's something I shouldn't have done. I lost my head."
The next few months were a blur. Head coach Chip Kelly suspended him for the remainder of the season, then reinstated him eight games later. His draft stock plummeted, jeopardizing his entire football future. His every move was scrutinized.
Blount, temporarily, was a man without a place. He was forced to rapidly mature, in part because of his suspension, in part because of something else: he had a son.
"That definitely put everything in perspective," he said. "I have to take care of another human being. That started making me work harder at everything I do."
Just two weeks after his controversial right hook, on Sept. 17, 2009, he was the proud father of LeGarrette Rashon Blount. His son's middle name is a tribute to his cousin, whom he lived with growing up. Blount tried to serve as a father figure to him, hoping to motivate Rashon, now a college student in Arizona, through his own example.
"I want to let him know, with us coming from what we come from, we can still make it," he said.
That's the side of Blount that most people don't know, the family man. His mom and dad attended every one of his football games from Taylor County High School to his brief tenure at East Mississippi Community College. They traveled to as many Oregon contests as they could, and have been to every home game that he's been a part of at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. They helped him stay focused as he rebounded from suspension.
His family values also drive him to keep working. Both of his grandmothers, who he credits for much of his success, passed away within a few months earlier this year.
"Both my grandmas are like my backbone," he said. "Them passing away was really hard for me, but I have to continue to go out there and play in their names."
He keeps them in mind with every carry for the Bucs, who've embraced the embattled youngster since he joined the team in September. He trains with running backs coach Steve Logan to improve his blocking and pass-catching abilities, and to understand the complex blitz schemes he consistently faces. He's proving himself with the time-honored first-in, last-out of practice mentality.
That commitment has earned the players and coaches' trust. Veterans Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham have taken him under their wing, teaching Blount how to conduct himself both on an off the field. They've begun molding him from a college standout (and eventual castoff) to an every-down NFL back. Perhaps most importantly, the team thinks nothing of his highly publicized scuffle in Boise.
"That whole incident might have been a paragraph in a newspaper 30 years ago," says Logan. "But now it's a YouTube world. Everybody's mistakes are exaggerated to places no one ever dreamed possible. He's just like everybody else. He made a mistake. His was just very public."
His resurgence almost never happened. Blount, nearly unthinkably, punched defensive end Eric Bakhtiari's helmet during summer training camp with the Titans. The local press trumpeted the flare-up, though Blount apologized and then-coach Jeff Fisher attributed it to his competitiveness. The episode was quickly dismissed as a nonissue.
Now Blount's getting publicity for a more desirable reason -- winning. Tampa's roster, from Josh Freeman to Arrelious Benn to Blount, is excelling at a startlingly young age. They're on their own road to redemption of sorts, reversing the fortunes of a franchise that went 3-13 last season.
"This is a huge turnaround for our team," Blount said. "I'm hoping we can go deep into these playoffs. Hopefully, we have a chance to get us a Super Bowl win."
That'll be a challenge, as the Bucs need help and a win Sunday at New Orleans to earn a playoff spot, but he's overcome bigger hurdles in the past. He plays with a chip on his shoulder from his perceived draft-day slight, eager to silence the doubters that call Tampa Bay too inexperienced. He still takes note of their criticisms, but instead of fuming about them, uses them as motivation.