As fire swept through his palatial home, climbing high above the black shapes of trees, taking every dream, Andre Rison did a curious thing. He went for a walk. He lowered his eyes to the ground and willed his legs to lead him.
He needed this: to make sense of the nonsensical, to feel his body work, to inhale a different air.
It was June 9, 1994, the day he would later call the worst of his life. His $2 million estate in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta was lost, and now the woman he loved was facing arson charges for allegedly setting the blaze. That morning Rison had returned home at the odd hour of 6:30 a.m., after a night on the town with friends.
Police said that Rison had an argument with his girlfriend, Lisa Lopes, after which she retreated to a second-floor bathroom and ignited some cardboard in a whirlpool tub.
"I don't care anymore!" a witness reported hearing Lopes shout as the flames leaped skyward. According to police, Lopes also smashed the windshields and damaged the bodies of three of Rison's luxury automobiles.
Firefighters racing to the Wellington Road site could see the inferno lifting 200 feet into the sky. The mythic had been reduced to ruin.
Lopes, 23, is a rap star with a popular girl group called TLC, and Rison is the All-Pro receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. Even before this flay Lopes and Rison were a favorite item for celebrity watchers: the pretty, hip-hop singer nicknamed Left Eye, because she usually wears a packaged condom affixed to a lens of her eyeglasses, and the flamboyant football star who some believed was destined to be among the best ever to play his position.
All Rison was able to rescue from the 15,000-square-foot house was an armload of souvenir footballs. He had the clothes on his back. And he had a head crammed with memories: big, clean rooms, walls of glass, all the pretty furniture.
As he walked, he let himself cry, but not for the loss. It was for something less obvious. It was for being in the hole again, and for having to climb back up.
It was for having to convince everybody that Andre Rison wasn't the person they thought he was.
Four months have passed, and Rison is sitting on the driveway leading to his friend and teammate Vinnie Clark's house. Practice ended less than an hour ago, and Rison is sipping from a 16-ounce can of beer. A woman in the manse across the way keeps calling for him to come over and eat. But Rison doesn't move. He is content to sit and watch day bleed into night.
"Know what I am?" he is saying. "I'm misunderstood—that's me. The most misunderstood guy in the world."
He pauses, seeming to try this all-too-familiar lament on for size. Remarkably, he manages to keep a straight face. Then after a time he expounds on the theme, saying, "It's true, man; I see myself as a victim. But I've also got so much pride that I don't feel sorry for myself. If I start feeling sorry for myself, then I won't be able to get out of the tank. They can say what they want about me. I know who I am, I know me. I've got a kind heart. I'm good to people, I respect them, I treat them right. I went to a high school football game in Atlanta, and you should've seen the little kids mob me. But to the older crowd I'm not a role model. I'm a rebel. Or I'm crazy. Or I'm wild. I'm this and I'm that. Man, I ain't none of that."
Rison has been ducking this interview for days, not wishing to cover the same old ground. The fire, for instance. Why won't people just leave him alone about it? He says he's tired of trying to explain personal problems that do nothing but detract from his accomplishments as an athlete and contribute to his reputation as a hell-raiser. And as much as he would like to set the record straight, Rison today has drawn a line: Don't even bother to ask any questions about the past, especially personal ones.
He has every reason to be sensitive. It was Rison, after all, who as a rookie in 1989 was ticketed for driving 128 mph in a 55-mph zone. And it was Rison who two years later was stopped for driving 111 mph and cited not only for speeding but also for driving with a suspended license. And Rison who since 1991 has had to defend himself against paternity and child-support actions, both of which were settled out of court. And Rison who, little more than a year ago, fired a pistol outside an Atlanta nightclub after two men tried to stop a quarrel between him and Lopes (assault charges were dropped). And Rison who continues to taunt opponents by guaranteeing victories before games, as he did against the Los Angeles Rams earlier this year.
It is also Rison who can run his mouth with the best of them: "I see these so-called, quote-unquote superstars, I see them all the time. And their attitudes are so——, man, so incredibly——. But I'm not like them. I mean, I went to the Pro Bowl, and I saw so many——attitudes it was unbelievable. Arrogant, cocky. And I'd say to myself, Now that's what arrogant and cocky is. And they say I'm arrogant and cocky! But guess what? I'm the one always portrayed as this——who'd just as well turn his back on you and go the other way."
"When I first met him, I'd heard so much I thought he was going to be a gangster," says his pal Clark, a cornerback who came to Atlanta from the Green Bay Packers before last season. "But the truth is, Andre is a kind person, and he's sweet. He's like—well, he's like a puppy sometimes, a little, soft poodle. You spend time with him and it's like, Hey, 'Dre's the nicest guy in the world."
"I see Andre as a young kid who just needs some direction," says Falcon coach June Jones, apparently forgetting that his receiver is only five months shy of his 28th birthday. "I admit that if he wasn't such a great player I wouldn't be as persistent in trying to help him, and that if he were just an average player he would have been cut, probably a long time ago. But my belief is, anybody can coach the overachievers, or the kids who do everything right, who try their hardest. I get paid to coach the guys like Andre. The great ones, they're just different from everybody else."
Different hardly begins to describe Rison. When he was a teenager, his behavior gave evidence that an uncommon soul had entered the scene, not to mention one whose athletic brilliance would lead to a rich future. Rison grew up poor on the streets of Flint, Mich. He says that he and his family "lived in about 15 different houses, moving around a lot." Asked about siblings, Rison says he'd rather not give a number since he "classifies cousins along with the others in my family, since everybody stays with everybody."
As point guard of his high school basketball team, Rison was called Doctor by his fans. He made all-state and led his team to a 55-1 record. I le also starred as a pitcher and an outfielder in baseball and as a long jumper in track. In football he played no fewer than eight positions. Ram cornerback Todd Lyght, himself a Flint native, recalls that as a junior varsity player in high school he used to skip his own team's varsity games and travel across town to watch Rison's team play.
At Michigan State, where Rison toiled in the shadows of running back Lorenzo White and tackle Tony Mandarich, he says he sometimes felt so unappreciated that he would sit at his locker and cry. He remembers his Michigan State days "only with bitterness," he says. "I averaged about one catch a game, and they let Lorenzo run the ball 55 out of 60 plays." Rison did see the ball enough to set school records with 146 receptions and 2,992 yards, and to score 20 touchdowns.
Upset that teammates were "driving brand-new Corvettes and brand-new this and brand-new that," Rison says he went to a car dealership one day in his junior year and told a salesman that he was bound for the NFL and wanted a truck. According to Rison, the man let him drive off with one, but Spartan coach George Perles phoned Rison that same day and ordered him to return the car immediately. Feeling slighted yet again, Rison says he walked two miles in the snow from his apartment to practice. Somebody stopped and offered him a ride. Sulking, he said he didn't want one and continued on his way. "That's my pride," he explained later.
The Indianapolis Colts made him a first-round pick in the 1989 draft, the 22nd player taken overall. But Rison wasn't completely thrilled. Oklahoma State's Hart Lee Dykes, a consensus All-America, was selected before him, as were other players whom Rison regarded as inferior to him. He said at the time that he was equal to or perhaps even better than San Francisco 49er receiver Jerry Rice, a case he still makes today. While Rison is quick to call Rice "the greatest player in the game, hands down," he says Rice's name with a mocking, effeminate tone. Coming from Rison, it's "Jay-ree."
"There's nothing [Rice] could do that I couldn't do," Rison says. "What do you play this game for? You play it to be the best you can be. You can't tell me Michael Irvin don't lay his head on the pillow at night and think he's the best wide receiver in the NFL. You can't. Sterling Sharpe? You can't. Jay-ree? You can't. But, listen, I can do the things he docs. Just give me the opportunity. Give me a Joe Montana. Give me a John Taylor on the other side to pull double coverage. Give me a Roger Craig in the backfield where the linebackers can't get up under you. Give me a tight end like Brent Jones, who can go up the scam. Give me some Ronnie Lotts on defense so I can have the ball back. Now you tell me! Now you——tell me!"
No, different doesn't come close to explaining Rison. After only one year in Indianapolis, Rison was traded to Atlanta, part of a deal that gave the Colts a shot at drafting Illinois quarterback Jeff George, who himself now plays for the Falcons. Rison groused about the trade but promised "to bring smiles and joy to the people of Atlanta."
One night after he made $4,000 cash for appearing at a car show, he proved this by giving an elderly parking lot attendant $500 and telling him to take a few days off. "He looked like he was freezing," Rison recalls. "He just looked at the money like he didn't know what to do with it. I think he thought I was a dope boy."
Rison lists other small, unpublicized acts of charity as proof that he isn't the ne'er-do-well people make him out to be. One time, for instance, he picked up a homeless woman and her child and fed them bacon and eggs at his aunt's house at one o'clock in the morning. He gave a cab driver $200 to take them to a police station. People need something, he says, and he gives it: money, cars, time, advice, whatever. And yet he says he can't read about himself anymore without seeing the words turmoil and trouble attached to his name. He resents having his many kindnesses overlooked while less deserving players are treated as if they were the second coming of Mother Teresa.
"It's like those United Way commercials," he says. "I watch TV, and they've got these [NFL players] on these commercials, and it makes them look like they're all-American-type people, when the truth is, I'm just as good a person if not better than they are."
Says Jones, "Andre takes care of his mama, his brothers, his sisters and his cousins. If you or I were making the money he's making, we might invest it, but in Andre's eyes it's, What can I do to get what I want and also take care of these people? He's living for now."
Rison's notoriety has never been greater, but whether he's ever been as popular depends on where you live. In Atlanta, Rison appears to have replaced Deion Sanders as the city's most-beloved showboat, though on Sunday, in Sanders's first visit to Atlanta since his free-agent defection to the 49ers, he got the best of the heralded matchup with Rison. The two former friends brawled to a draw early in the second quarter, but Sanders returned an interception 93 yards for a touchdown, while Rison was held to five catches for 32 yards by the Niner zone.
In most NFL cities he is despised. After the Detroit Lions beat the Falcons in the season opener, reporters stopped by Rison's locker and he guaranteed a win against the Rams the next week. His prediction proved accurate; Rison caught 12 passes and scored two touchdowns against double and triple coverage, and Atlanta won 31-13. Two weeks later when the Falcons traveled to Los Angeles for a rematch, a loud, angry crowd awaited him. "This is what they were saying," Rison says, then he unleashes a torrent of epithets. "[Falcon receiver] Lenny Harris said, "That's when you know you're large, when the whole stadium acts like that.' "
After the game, which the Falcons won, Ram safety Anthony Newman said, "The fans get all over him, but what they don't know is that out on the field Rison doesn't talk. He doesn't say a word. I've been playing against him for years, and I've never heard him say anything. He might get excited and mouth off beforehand, but once the game starts he's quiet. I guess he's too busy playing catch-me."
The Ram game was not the first time Rison had problems with fans. He used to perform a frenzied dance after scoring each touchdown, but he quit when racists sent him letters calling him "a nigger nigger nigger," he says, and reminding him that "Knute Rockne and Bart Starr didn't dance." Rison has settled on a less conspicuous way to bring attention to himself. He glides across the end zone now. He spikes the ball. All eyes are on him, but he's careful to show that it isn't a fancy two-step that put him there.
"Any crucial situation," Jeff George says, "and Andre's in the huddle asking for the ball. I'll say, 'Coming to you.' And he says, 'Good. Just get me the ball.' When he says that, you know you'd better get it to him. He can be intense."
The mosaic of tattoos on Rison's arms reflects this intensity, this proud, determined core. The imprints run from wrist to shoulder, and it's difficult to distinguish one image from the next. Is that a cat? A falcon? A number 80? Is that BAD MOON, the favorite of his nicknames?
Once before a game, Rison, rubbing his painted flesh, leaned into a teammate's face and said, "My skin is hard. Look at this. My skin is hard. Your skin ain't hard. Not like mine is hard."
Hard, too, seems to be his love for Lisa Lopes, who awaits a hearing in the criminal case that resulted from the fire. Rison says they're still an item. He says he loves her more than ever and would like to marry her and start a family. He knows people are having a hard time with this. Why, even his mother, Merdice Brown, once told a reporter that Lopes was "either going to jail or a mental institution."
"At first everybody couldn't understand how he could stay with her," Clark says. "There were even times when I sat back and said, 'How, 'Dre?' My first impression was, I'd have killed her. Or somebody in my family would've killed her. And that's how everybody in his family was thinking too. I'm close to his mother and stepfather, and we'd talk about it. "Why?' his mother said, just like I did. But they all love 'Dre and so they love Lisa because he loves her. It's powerful, man."
"It's going to be a helluva tandem, me and Lisa," Rison says. "I guess when you fall in love, it's just a vibe, you know. It's just a feeling like when you cry is just a feeling, or when you laugh is just a feeling. The relationship is even stronger now. She's doing great, she's doing fine. She's a great person, a great individual, an incredible woman. I guess things happen in life. Look how they happen to me."
Rison, who caught more passes in his first five seasons than anyone else ever had to begin an NFL career, is in the final year of a contract that pays him $1.44 million a year. He recently moved into a condominium, but for weeks after the fire, his existence was nomadic. He kept a room at the Falcon Inn, a hotel next to team headquarters in Suwanee, Ga., but he spent most nights in the homes of friends. Jones offered to let him stay in his basement, but Rison declined. Teammates also offered to put him up. "Thanks," he told them. "But I'm straight...I'm fine." When he went out at night, strangers walked up to him and asked if there was anything they could do. "Don't worry about me," he told them.
Among the casualties of the fire was a music studio where Rison had worked to build a career as a hip-hop artist. By last month he had replaced it with a new studio in a building downtown. He would go there after practice and on days off and stay late in the night, oftentimes past dawn. "Music is where I find peace," he says. The beats drummed in his head, and the words followed. Through music he was telling his story, letting it go. He wanted to speak the truth, no matter what.
"I used to be the neighborhood hero," went one of his lines. "Now I'm zero."
A month after the fire, when camp opened for the new season, Rison worked harder than he ever had in his life, knowing that the game would be his way back up, anticipating the big contract he was certain to win as a free agent at the end of the year. He bought a piece of property and started planning to build a new house. Some days he hopped on his motorcycle and went wherever the road took him. "I would ride from one o'clock to one o'clock," he says. "I would think about everything. I wouldn't stop."
Too often, when Rison considered his place in the world, it was not without confusion. He couldn't help it. People didn't know him, they would never know him. They saw him and saw a house on fire. Or they saw him and saw him standing in line behind receivers with half his talent. Or they saw him and saw the bad. Why didn't they see what else was there? Where was the good when they looked?
The sun is gone. The night is cold and ripe with autumn. Rison lifts the can of beer to his lips and takes a final sip.
"I like to get out and breathe the air when it's fresh," he says. "Because—let me tell you something, man—when I'm dead and gone, nobody on this earth is going to give a damn about Andre Rison. All the stats and all I did,——. If somebody were to say to you, 'Name the greatest players in the NFL,' you'd leave one out. Well, I always felt that I would be the one left out. So really, man, really...I just don't think about it."