COVINA, Calif. -- Plastered to a wall in the football office at Charter Oak High, a photo of Adam Muema stands out among dozens of others featuring former and current players. It's grainy, and the details of the photo -- time, score, opponent -- have been lost on Charter Oak coach Lou Farrar over the years. Still, Muema's pure athleticism is obvious even in a two-dimensional image.
In the picture, Muema hurdles a 6-foot-3 lineman on his way to the end zone, leading the Chargers to a win. Maybe it's one of the victories that helped Charter Oak clinch two of the CIF championships it won during Muema's high school career. Farrar believes it's from Muema's junior season in 2008. Look at that, Farrar says, shaking his head. Deciphering coach-speak is easy in this case: You can't teach that.
Fast-forward five years and Muema is nowhere to be found. The 2014 NFL draft has come and gone, and, predictably, Muema's name was never called.
Two months ago, Muema catapulted into the national spotlight during the NFL scouting combine. Word spread that the former San Diego State running back would not participate in drills on Feb. 23 because, according to Muema, God told him the Seattle Seahawks would draft him if he left Indianapolis. He disappeared, finally resurfacing in the Fort Lauderdale airport on Feb. 28. Shortly thereafter he became increasingly active on Twitter, telling his 3,600-plus followers that he believes in a man who calls himself "Lord Rayel," and claims to be the Messiah. Muema changed his Twitter bio to "God f1rst | Seahawks #8," (he has since deleted the Seahawks part) and never showed at San Diego State's pro day.
Since the week of March 17, multiple people say Muema has not been in regular contact with anyone except his aunt, Trina Washington Powell, who raised Muema. For the last two months, he has tweeted about traveling to Mexico, where Rayel has summoned his followers, the Rayelites, to gather in anticipation of the world ending. Based on his social media posts and brief interview with the San Diego Union Tribune this week, Muema appears to be there now.
Through Twitter, Muema declined to be interviewed for this story. On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that Muema planned to quit football in favor of boxing or ultimate fighting. The following day Muema denied the report.
Worried and bewildered by the situation, one person who spent time around Muema at the combine says this stopped being about the draft a long time ago. "This goes way beyond, 'Will he ever play football again?'" the person said. "This kid needs some serious help."
So, is Muema troubled, as his former "agent" suggested in mid-March? Or is he a kid playing games with thousands of readers and media members? Does Muema even know?
The timeline of events from the day Muema declared for the NFL draft to the day his public life spiraled out of control is well-documented and very strange. In early January, Muema decided to forgo his senior season at San Diego State, where the Aztecs were coming off an 8-5 campaign, which culminated with a win over Buffalo in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Muema, a 5-10, 205-pound prospect, finished 2013 with 1,244 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns (including 229 yards and three scores in the bowl game), though he was hampered by an ankle injury for much of the season. He opted to leave school after climbing to fourth (2,955 yards) on the Aztecs' all-time rushing list, despite protests from San Diego State coach Rocky Long. "I think he should have stayed, but I think they all should stay through their senior year," Long said. "It's best for programs to have seniors, and it's good for them to have a degree."
However, Long told SI.com he was not surprised by the decision: Before the 2013 season, Muema told coaches he planned to enter the NFL draft if he had a good year.
Muema made his choice official on Jan. 2 and told a reporter from the San Diego Union Tribune that he would likely be "one of the top running backs" in the 2014 draft, per the evaluation he received from the NFL draft advisory board. He traveled to Miami to train for the combine and stayed at an apartment complex with two other draft hopefuls, including former Oklahoma linebacker Corey Nelson. The three players lived in separate apartments, but shared a car to commute to workouts.
Early in the draft process, those close to Muema say he seemed normal: quiet and introspective, but happy. One person who spent time around Muema in Miami described him as "a loner," though the label wasn't meant negatively. Farrar, his high school coach, says Muema had "one of those knockout smiles; he could just light up a room," but noted that Muema often kept to himself. "He was always the strong, silent type," Farrar said, "but not in a standoffish way."
In Miami during pre-combine workouts, Muema did not express fervent belief in any religious sect. But on Feb. 23, according to one person at the combine, "the switch flipped."
Suddenly, Muema didn't want to participate in combine drills. He said he couldn't work out on the Sabbath. Then he declared that God had told him the Seahawks would draft him; later, Muema explained that he communicates to God through numbers and wrote on his Instagram account that No. 8 was the first number he ever wore playing organized football. (Running backs are not allowed to wear No. 8 in the NFL.)
Muema left the combine and fell off the grid for four days, eventually reappearing at the Fort Lauderdale airport wearing his combine-issued apparel. He called Nelson, his former training partner, to pick him up.
With help from the Miami Dolphins security personnel, San Diego State coaches persuaded Muema to board a plane back to San Diego on Feb. 28, and Aztecs strength and conditioning coach Adam Hall met him at the airport. "Our strength coach picked him up and said he seemed fine and I'm thinking, 'Boy, there's some weird stuff going on for him to seem fine," Long said. San Diego State coaches did not press Muema on what happened in Indianapolis.
"We didn't ask," said Long, who declined to elaborate on private conversations with Muema, but implied his staff mostly left Muema alone after he declared for the draft. "We thought he was in a fragile state of mind, and wanted to make sure he was fed and get him home to his aunt. We didn't want to badger him; we're not detectives, we're not cops. We just wanted to show him some love and make sure he got home."
The next day, Long says Trina Powell showed up in San Diego to retrieve Muema. Powell has not responded to the staff's repeated subsequent attempts to contact her.
Muema has mostly dodged the media since leaving the combine on Feb. 23, giving a brief interview to the San Diego Union Tribune on Feb. 28, and agreeing to a Facebook chat with a writer from The Raw Story, an independent progressive news website that frequently investigates hoaxes, which was posted on March 17. When SI.com reached out to Muema on Twitter and expressed interest in speaking to him for a story, Muema responded, "What story? Born in the 'hood' found God, Amen." Asked if he believed the Seahawks would draft him and what his reaction would be if that did not happen, Muema said, "Okay I'm give (sic) you want you want to hear. If another team picks me let's play ball. Oh & I'll declare myself crazy publicly."
Shortly after the combine, Muema's saga took another twist. On March 15, FoxSports.com published an "exclusive" statement from Rob London, who was identified as Muema's former agent. Only one problem: London is not -- and never has been -- a certified agent with the NFL Players Association. According to the NFLPA, Kelli Masters of KMM Sports represented Muema during the combine. Masters confirmed to SI.com that she was once Muema's agent, but terminated the relationship on Feb. 25. She declined to speak further about Muema.
According to two current NFL agents, London is under investigation by the NFLPA for being a runner. (The NFLPA doesn't comment on whether an agent or prospective agent is being investigated, the NFLPA's Mark Levin said.) London has not returned multiple phone calls from SI.com.
With the draft approaching, Muema told his college coaches he would attend San Diego State's pro day on March 19. Leery of the media frenzy that might be waiting, Long says the school put provisions in place so Muema could work without distractions.
Muema never showed. That evening, he posted a picture of himself on Twitter, wearing a disguise that included a San Diego State stocking cap, glasses, a fake nose and fake mustache. His text accompanying the photo: "I hope this pics makes one of my articles. Caption 'I heard you were looking for me.'"
Spend a few minutes on ra-el.org, and it's clear why this story is so layered and bizarre.
The homepage declares "the Messiah has arrived," and plays a video that shows Lord Rayel "arriving" in Jerusalem, "exactly where and how the Holy Scriptures predicted." On his website, Rayel has issued "a call to priesthood," explaining to his followers that he has "revoked the authority and privileges of the entire Christian priesthood, and told the world that he would 'raise a new priesthood.'" Those who agree to serve Rayel "will be a full-time priest, wherever you are located" and "paid very well," according to the site.
The Bible cautions to be aware of false prophets at multiple points of scripture. It says to "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have" (Hebrews 13:5).
Rayel's site also warns of the impending end of days. For many Christian Evangelicals, this speaks of a time when believers are raptured to heaven and nonbelievers are left behind to experience tribulations before the second coming of Christ. Based on his tweets, Muema believes that time is near. On March 28, after an earthquake rocked southern California, Muema tweeted, "5.1 earthquake in Brea, yes! :) hahaha I can't wait to reign with @LORD_RAYEL ..."
As similar messages have increased, many have begun to wonder if Muema has become part of a cult. Steve Hassan, a mental health professional who has spent nearly four decades counseling victims of mind control, has worked with thousands of former cult members. An expert in the field of brainwashing, deprogramming and undue influence, he says there is a misconception that people who become victims of mind control are stupid, gullible or mentally weak. "It's just not true," said Hassan, who has published three books on the subject. "There are absolutely brilliant, talented people who become victims of mind control. Celebrities, athletes ... it's underreported in the media, but it happens to millions of people."
Hassan says there is no particular profile for someone who might be susceptible to mind control, but people who fall victim are often going through what is considered a "normal, life-cycle event." The death of a loved one, illness, losing a job, moving to a new place and graduating high school or college are among the times when people could be particularly vulnerable, and some are more at risk than others. "Some people are genetically gifted to be highly hypnotizable," Hassan said. "Those people are able to go into a very concentrated state to reach high levels of excellence."
One group that frequently tries to reach that concentrated state: athletes. In 2003, SI.com profiled Divine Madness, a running group based in Boulder, Colo., that believed spiritual enlightenment could be achieved through ultra-running.
"Athletes are more susceptible than the average person because they have this drive to be excellent," said Hassan, who has worked with several ex-members of Divine Madness. "And if someone comes along and says, 'I have the magic cure to help you be excellent [all the time],' well, people believe what they want to believe even if it's not that logical or rational."
When Muema was 2, courts decided his mother could no longer care for him and placed him in the custody of Trina Washington Powell, the sister of Muema's mother. He was raised in her home and grew close with his cousin, A.J. Powell, who doubled as his best friend and confidant. A.J., who played receiver at Portland State from 2010-12, is now in the Army, stationed in Georgia, and could not be reached for comment.
Muema's high school experience was hardly conventional, either. In May 2010, months before his freshman year of college, Muema stepped in the middle of a fight in Covina and was clubbed in the head with a baseball bat. The damage required 36 stitches, and, when the vision in his left eye began to rapidly deteriorate, surgery that led to months of rehab. With help from Trina, Muema recovered and enrolled at San Diego State, utilizing his redshirt year to settle in to college football.
Trina, Muema's legal guardian, now lives with her sister, Tracy Washington, in Moreno Valley, Calif., about 40 miles east of Covina. When an SI.com reporter visited the home on April 29, Trina was not there. But Washington seemed baffled by her nephew's social media activity. "He hasn't talked about any of that," Washington said. "He's just Adam." She shook her head and laughed at the notion that anyone -- Rayelites or not -- would be spared from the end of times. She was also unaware that Muema missed his pro day.
When a reporter told Washington that SI.com wanted to speak with Muema to get his version of events and an explanation for behavior, Washington said, "Maybe he feels he's telling his story online ... when I see him, he's fine."
In a phone call on April 15, Trina said she talks with Muema regularly. "I'm not concerned one bit ... I don't feel like there's anything to worry about," she said. "Believe me, I would be the first to say something if there was something to be concerned about." Powell also said she knew "nothing" about Muema's posts regarding Lord Rayel. "I don't do none of that social networking stuff," she said.
Others seem wary about Muema. Since his disappearance after the combine, no one knows what to expect.
Long, who said he saw Muema walk out of the San Diego State football office with graduate assistant Lynell Hamilton on April 30, expressed worry. "Yeah, we're concerned," said Long, who estimates that Muema now weighs around 185, down almost 20 pounds from his playing weight in 2013. "We've reached out to him a lot of times, we've had teammates reach out, all our coaches reach out to him, our minister, there's a lot of people ... there are a couple of guys he responds to once in a while, but it's not consistent."
Keith Smith, the former San Jose State linebacker who played with Muema in high school, said in mid-April that he had seen Muema around Covina and Anaheim. "I haven't noticed any difference in him," said Smith, adding that he was surprised when Muema surfaced in the news during the combine. Still, Smith doesn't worry about Muema's mental state.
"I know he's going through a religious change in his life," Smith said. "It is what it is. He's more into his faith right now. ... If you know Adam he's kinda vague as a whole, kinda introverted, quiet, doesn't say much. That's why I don't think he's expressing everything to the media, and that's why everyone sees him as being crazy [because he won't talk]. I'm sure he has some type of logic, and a reason, for what he's up to."
Since the conclusion of the NFL draft last Saturday, Muema has taken to Twitter to talk about Mexico, though his tweets about Lord Rayel have been less frequent. His social media timeline implies his religious beliefs haven't changed. On May 10 he wrote "One God!" before linking to a news report of an earthquake in northern Thailand." On Tuesday he told his followers, "I did cross the border with no passport. So does that mean Im stuck?"
Muema's story has gone from weird to weirder, from the cusp of the NFL to a potential retreat in Mexico. Amid it all, those around him pose different variations of the same question: What is going on with Adam Muema?
But that, too, is complicated. Muema seems to present two different versions of himself, the one in person and the one online. According to Hassan, that's normal if someone is a victim of mind control.
"It's a dual identity," Hassan said. "People observe them switching it like a light switch, from 'real self' to 'cult self.' It's a dissociative disorder, but the 'cult self' doesn't erase the 'real self,' it just suppresses the 'real self.'"
It is a sad, strange story for an NFL hopeful. A cautionary tale, says one person close to Muema, of how the deep, dark holes of the Internet can completely distort a naive young man's worldview. Above all else, there is a lack of consensus about how serious this might be, and how to deal with it.
One person who spent time around Muema during the combine believes he needs to be left alone, because attention to him merely draws attention to Rayel, which might be what Muema wants. Others believe he needs immediate professional help.
Hassan doesn't think anyone should write off Muema -- or anyone exhibiting this type of behavior.
"There's hope for this young man," Hassan said. "I would hope that if he gets out, NFL owners and GMs wouldn't turn their back on a potential asset because they think he's mentally weak. If they really understand undue influence, they'll understand that if he's counseled he can get out of it and it's never going to happen again. Trust me -- one time is enough."
What has happened to Adam Muema? Nobody seems to know, perhaps not even Muema himself.