Ronald Ollie maneuvers atop a black mat, his arms twisted one way, his legs rotated the other. The yoga instructor begins to speak softly, whispering almost. "What is peace, really? Balance? Understanding?" she asks. "Relax. Just start to sink. Deeper and deeper."
Ollie found yoga only recently, after becoming famous unexpectedly, then deciding to train for the NFL draft. He's living and working out in Houston, 500 miles from home, a 6'2", 292-pound defensive lineman, a long shot, surrounded on this March morning by sweaty college students home on spring break, middle-aged men and myriad flexible grandparents.
"Just breathe," the instructor says.
If anyone in the class recognizes Ollie, they keep it to themselves. Three years ago he gained a measure of celebrity as the unexpected breakout star of Last Chance U, the popular Netflix series that changed his life. It was Ollie's sense of humor and endearing slackerdom that made him a favorite among fans of the show, turning him into a football star before he'd enjoyed any meaningful football success.
"What is bliss?" the instructor asks.
Ollie, 22, isn't sure. It certainly wasn't his childhood, which was steeped in poverty and tragedy. It hasn't always been football—he's quit the game several times and threatened to many more. It's not fame either, at least not the kind he gained through reality TV. Ollie desperately wants it all to be based on something real. And now, it's NFL or bust, his dream while long, closer than ever before.
The yoga instructor draws the blinds and the room goes completely dark. She places a scented towel by Ollie's head. "Some of you must come over your barriers," she says. "They will make you stronger."
Ollie bends forward, trying to decompress his spine. He is, in a larger sense, trying to close the gap that dominates his life, to bring who he is closer to what people assume he is. He has 77,000 Twitter followers, but no car. He signs autographs for pro football players but would rather call them teammates. He's all in on both the NFL and bliss. One will lead to the other. Of that he is certain.
He closes his eyes. Opens his chest. "Breathing is healing," the instructor says. "But it starts not from what we feel but from what we see."
"And what we see," she says, "can be very deceiving."
Rain falls in sheets outside the gym of Ollie's trainer, Justin Allen, in the Houston suburbs, turning the parking lot into a giant puddle. Ollie leans forward, ready to tell his whole story for the first time. He starts in his hometown, Shubuta, Miss., population under 500, a town so small there's a convenience store, a stop sign, and the per capita income is under $15,000.
Ollie lived with his mother and two older siblings in the poorest neighborhood. An aunt, Rachel Barnett, lived nearby. She'll never forget the neighbor who banged on her door early one morning in April 2002. "He shot her!" the man was screaming.
Police found Brenda Ollie, 35, slumped over in her car at 5:30 a.m. She had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle and was dead before the ambulance reached the hospital. Witnesses fingered her estranged boyfriend, 30-year-old Ronald McFarland, as the shooter. McFarland stole an Oldsmobile after the murder and after a brief chase with the police, he crashed into a ditch and shot himself.
Ollie was five years old. Awoken by his older sister, Take-sha Arrington, who had heard gunshots and couldn't stop crying, Ollie went outside and saw bullet holes in the car window and "a lot of blood." The family gathered around the ambulance, praying. As it pulled away, Ronald asked his sister, "When is Mama coming back?"
Barnett took in the boy, who was known as Head to relatives. They lived in trailers and broken-down apartments, as many as 12 relatives crammed into the same space. Head often slept on the floor and missed meals.
Head signed up for as many football and basketball leagues as he could find. Anything to escape. He felt as if his half-siblings resented him because it was his father who had killed their mother. So he buried his grief in basketball practice and NBA fandom and enough bluster to mask how he really felt: abandoned. "It was all I thought about," he says. "I just couldn't wrap my head around it."
In 10th grade at Wayne County (Miss.) High, Ollie flashed enough promise on the football field to make varsity. In high school, he was more than 300 pounds, a force on the line. The next year he gave up basketball to concentrate on his perceived ticket out of town. He also moved in with an uncle, his dad's brother. That man, Ray Charles Gray, was often summoned for teacher conferences. He tried, they all tried, to keep Ollie out of trouble. But Gray thought his nephew leaned on the tragedy he'd experienced as a crutch for his poor behavior—an excuse for classes missed and weed smoked. Gray told Ollie he had to stop feeling sorry for himself. "You're almost a man," Gray told him. "You're fittin' to be 18. It's time for you to figure out what you're going to do with your life."
Ollie thought he had an answer: football. But his grades were so bad that only community colleges offered scholarships. He took three of those offer letters, shuffled them up and picked the one on top. East Mississippi Community College. At that point he didn't know that EMCC had sent hundreds of football players to Division I schools, from Ole Miss to Auburn to Texas A&M. "I didn't know what was possible," he says. "I'm looking at these people who came before, other athletes, people who made it out. I'm thinking, What the hell makes me so special?"
Ollie arrived in Scooba, Miss., to find a rural town much like Shubuta—except sympathetic teachers had been replaced by drill-sergeant football coaches. He wasn't ready to do the work, on the field or in the classroom. He clashed with coach Buddy Stephens and his academic adviser, Brittany Wagner.
As teammates got to know Ollie, they saw his insecurities. He tried to hide that in bluster, joking and posturing. He had a fear of flying and refused to take off his headphones on the first plane ride of his life. He wore them, he told Wagner, to tune out gunshots; he felt as if they kept him safe. By the middle of his first season, in 2014, Wagner became even more aware of Ollie's past. She realized he had been probing, gauging if he could trust her. "That was his insecurity coming out," she says.
In his first season, EMCC won the National Junior College Athletic Association championship. Because he remained a key cog on one of the nation's top defenses, Division I powers started to show interest. Southern Miss reached out. So did Memphis, Ole Miss, Louisville and Cal. In hindsight, that was the worst thing that could have happened to Ollie, because all those phone calls recalibrated what he thought possible. He wanted nothing more than to play for Auburn and pictured himself at a top 25 school within a year.
He took teammate Marcel Andry to visit his hometown after the season. It struck Andry how his friend didn't seem to have a place to stay. One night they bunked with Ollie's uncle, another night with a cousin, another with a friend. Out of nowhere, Ollie stopped outside some dilapidated apartments. "This is the spot where my dad wound up killing my mom," he said.
When Ollie returned to Scooba in January 2015, after Christmas break, Stephens broke some news. A documentary crew wanted to follow the team throughout the next season and delve into the players' backstories. The show would air on a platform that Ollie had never heard of: Netflix.
At first the cameras made Ollie uncomfortable. They trailed him into his dorm room and the few classes he did actually attend. Over time he grew relaxed around them, and they captured him casually talking about smoking weed and threatening to quit football and drive home. One memorable scene showed Ollie being punished by his coaches, who forced him to roll from one goalpost to the other.
This footage became Last Chance U, and Ollie developed into the most likable character in the first season. He cringed at some moments, like when he took part in a brawl that forced an EMCC forfeit in the last game of the season, keeping the team from the playoffs. Mostly he came across as endearing, a good kid with bad luck who wanted to do better and needed Wagner as an adviser and confidante to help him realize his SEC dreams. "He became not just the epitome of that show but of college athletes everywhere," she says.
Ollie finished that season with 30 tackles, three fumble recoveries, an interception and a defensive touchdown. But he also missed two games due to lingering concussion symptoms and his year had ended in the brawl. The schools that had courted him the previous fall vanished.
So Ollie ran back home to Shubuta rather than finish his degree. Then, in July 2016, the show came out. Wagner received an advance copy and as she sat there, watching their lives on screen, she knew nothing would ever be the same again. "None of us had a clue what we were doing, and that's why it was so real and so raw and so good," she says.
Wagner went from 171 followers on Twitter to more than 10,000 within a month. Netflix assigned her a p.r. person. There were press junkets in L.A. and something neither she nor Ollie ever expected: fans. Andry heard from strangers all over the world. "After a while, it became weird, then uncomfortable," he says of the fame tsunami.
Ollie heard from relatives, distant cousins, friends who assumed he was swimming in cash. He tried to explain that all he'd gotten from Last Chance U was notoriety. That he didn't know how to handle everything. That he needed help. Everywhere Ollie went, strangers pointed, took pictures, asked for autographs. He felt like a phony. Famous for no reason. Even worse: famous for his struggles. Asked now if there were moments when he regretted being part of the show, he nods his head, yes, then changes his mind, saying the series did more good than harm for him. Ollie can say that, now that he's found a purpose.
"If, at your core, you're a good person, you don't take fame lightly," Wagner says. "He stepped away and said, I want this to mean something."
"What are you doing, bro?" Andry asked Ollie in the spring of 2016.
"Ain't doing s---," Ollie responded. The premiere of Last Chance U was still several months away. His fame had yet to hit.
Andry suggested Ollie come meet him at Nicholls State, a Football Championship Subdivision school that plays in the lower level of Division I. Andry offered to put in a word with the coaches. Ollie said he'd think about it, then accepted the next day. It's not as if he had another option.
In 2016 Ollie played his junior season at Nicholls, making 41 tackles and scoring a defensive touchdown. When the Colonels played ninth-ranked Georgia that September, Ollie had four stops and helped limit future NFL back Nick Chubb to 80 yards on 20 carries. Nicholls nearly pulled off an upset. That game, along with the notoriety he had gained now that Last Chance U was streaming, reinforced Ollie's belief that he belonged in the SEC.
Looking back, he realizes he approached that season with a warped perspective, after hearing from those who said they'd never heard of Nicholls, who wondered why he didn't always start or why he wasn't at a bigger school. What other Nicholls players signed autographs in class? "Hard as hell, hard as f---," he says of that adjustment.
After the season ended, Ollie walked away. Again. He decided to take a year off, told friends he might join the preferred walk-on program at Alabama and entertained delusions that he could declare for the draft after one solid but unspectacular season at an FCS school.
Instead, Ollie moved to Houston, even though he knew no one there. He had no job. No plan. But he did need money and eventually filled out applications for Target, Walmart and Academy Sports, a sporting goods store. The latter hired him to stock shelves, starting each day at 4 a.m.
On his first day Ollie realized he didn't have it that bad at Nicholls. "Just seeing what the hell I had to do," he says. "Like, damn, I see why motherf------ stay in school."
One weekend Ollie went to get a haircut. His barber did fades in the same space as Justin Allen happened to train football players. Allen had never heard of Ollie, but he Googled the defensive tackle and reached out. Allen suggested they start training the next day.
Ollie showed, but five minutes into the warmup he vomited, then collapsed. Allen saw promise anyway: the athletic ability, the coordination, how Ollie, who at the time weighed 350, moved with uncommon grace for a man his size. Allen saw what college coaches had witnessed back in 2014. "If he had the right resources, if he had applied himself, he would have been a first-round pick," Allen says. "Easy."
Allen saw through all the bluster. Allen's brother, Dwayne, plays tight end in the NFL, but most people didn't know the hell they had survived. Allen's family had lived in shelters and out of cars. His father was a disabled veteran. Justin called 9-1-1 after watching his mother slit her wrists and found his dad after a drug overdose. (Allen's parents are both still alive.) "That's the biggest reason I was able to understand him," Allen says. "Because I've been at that point."
Ollie showed up to work one morning, and his bosses told him to go home. They didn't have anything for him to do. Just quit, Allen told him. Then he offered a suggestion that stunned Ollie. He told him he needed to return to Nicholls.
The hardest part? Accountability. Realizing that, yes, he'd experienced plenty of trauma and bad luck, but also that he, Ronald Ollie, had made bad choices. He was at Nicholls, not Auburn, because of Ronald Ollie—not because of his childhood. "He had to learn that he was no longer affected by his environment because he was out of it," Allen says.
Ollie surprised his trainer. He kept showing up, kept working out, kept shedding weight. Ollie went from almost 350 pounds when he first arrived in Houston, down to 320, then 310. He moved better but also retained strength.
He called his coaches at Nicholls in December 2017. He started with an apology, moved into a full psychological evaluation of his life, then asked for another chance.
The coaches didn't answer him immediately. When they did, they set conditions of their own. Ollie had to take courses to regain his eligibility. He had to show up to class, do his homework and push toward his degree. When Nicholls finally acquiesced, he celebrated with another workout. "He came back a totally new person," Andry says.
That season Ollie played the best football of his life. He even blocked a kick. More telling? He tore the labrum in one shoulder in fall camp, lost reps to his backup and ... he ... stayed. He played well against Kansas in the opener, then pulled a muscle in his back against Tulane. He sent Allen a text message. Bro, maybe this s--- is just not supposed to happen. Maybe it's me.
Get out of your head, Allen typed back.
Ollie missed one game and helped lead Nicholls into the FCS playoffs. He had finally learned, Wagner says, that Last Chance U and fame and Twitter followers wouldn't solve any of his problems. Only work would. "He learned that in reverse," she says. "Here's a guy with almost nobody in his corner, and now he has millions of people rooting for him." Including her. "I don't give a flying flip if he ever plays football again," she says. "I want him to have a productive life."
Ollie lives in a house with other NFL hopefuls located 25 minutes northwest of Houston. A picture of the MMA fighter Conor McGregor hangs on the wall, near the kitchen stocked with eggs and protein powder. He's at once like any prospect and not like any of them.
Ollie is a long way from finished and still down to perhaps his best and, ahem, last chance to make an NFL team. He did well at his pro day, at 292 pounds, running a 4.87-second 40-yard dash, and with a 35-inch vertical and a 9.5-foot broad jump. He had a tryout with the Saints. He should, at minimum, get a chance to play professional football.
Wagner, Uncle Ray Charles and some of Ollie's closest confidants worry what might happen to him if the dream doesn't work out, leaving him with no place to live and no plan beyond the gridiron. They're also proud of him and believe that the work he's done on himself in recent months will help him should he fail.
Ollie says if he can't play football, he wants to start a rap career or enter the entertainment sphere, doing acting or hosting, capitalizing on his Netflix stardom. He says that he's ready now, that he's built to handle whatever disappointments may arise. And he says that while on his way home to the house filled with draft hopefuls, in the town called, of all things, Humble, Texas.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.