You can see the arc of one man's life by the lights in the hills. There's a small glow in the hillocks of South Carolina, then a great burst behind the Appalachians where they peter out in central Georgia, and then this huge explosion in the low rises of southern Massachusetts, where the trees are incandescent now anyway, as they run toward the sea. ¬∂ But how does this man find his way to this place: the opening night of the NFL season, with fireworks and championship banners and the Boston Pops and with rings being handed out that look like something Montezuma got out of his gumball machine? There's Toby Keith! There's Elton John! And, of course, there are the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions. And there is a football game, same as it ever was, at the center of a life that began in a place where the brightest lights were the ones at the stadium.
The lights don't shine just at night. They shine in the mind during the high-summer days of training camp and through all the tedious, grinding practices. The lights are the payoff. They are there on the day of the game, when the stadium is filling and the bands are playing. Make a life in this game, and, even in the middle of the day, the lights shine for you.
"I was talking with my kids about this the other day--I don't think you ever come home from practice thinking, Boy, that was a great football practice," muses Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has been more successful than anyone recently at understanding the people who play this game. "I played lacrosse, and I used to love practice because you got to play. Football is preparation, preparation, preparation, and then you get one chance to play. It's all about that: the game itself. It's a big social event in many places, and it's center stage."
Richard Seymour plays for Bill Belichick as a defensive lineman. He's 6'6" and weighs 310 pounds, and he has made the Pro Bowl twice in his three seasons with New England. He is broad-faced and soft-spoken, at 25 still youthful in his face and in his walk--he is not yet afflicted by that orthopedic list that eventually comes to almost everyone who plays in the NFL--and he is incontrovertibly of the American South. "I got a place here," he says of New England, "but I'm still a Southerner. I'm a country guy. You come up here, and it's, I don't know, a little bit ruder. Everyone's honking the horn. Everything's in a hurry. I'm more laid-back. When I have to do it, I can get rowdy."
He has been a star everywhere he's played: at Lower Richland High School in Hopkins, S.C., and at Georgia and now in New England, where he anchored the defense that edged the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl in Houston last February. Moreover, he's been a captain everywhere he's played--as a Diamond Hornet and as a Bulldog and as a Patriot. When Seymour's stats fell off a bit at the beginning of this season, Belichick, who hands out public compliments sparingly, leaped to his defense. "I feel like, if I have a problem, I can go to him, and if he has a problem, he can come to me," says Belichick. "He's one of the captains. He's part of the decision-making apparatus on this team."
"I always had talent, but I was always a work in progress," Seymour says. "The thing was, when I went out there against good competition, I was one of the guys people could count on."
So let's walk through the places where he built his résumé, the competitive c.v. of Richard Vershaun Manning Seymour, on one weekend as autumn begins the slow bend toward winter. One weekend: a high school game on Friday, a big college game on Saturday and an NFL matchup on Sunday in which Seymour and the Patriots will try to win their 19th consecutive game, more than any other team ever has won. Walk toward the lights in the hills and see what they illuminate.
FRIDAY, Oct. 8
Richland Northeast 34, Lower Richland 0
Corey Wright knows that they still talk about the old days here, when coach Mooney Player and the Diamond Hornets ran the table on the rest of the schools in and around Richland County, S.C. There was the undefeated 1965 team and another one two years later and the 1972 bunch that finished No. 1 in the state. Nobody called it Lower Richland High back then. Everybody called it the Creek. "Can't beat the Creek!" they'd chant, despite the fact that there is no creek anywhere near the place.
That's all long gone. "Now," says Wright, in his first season as Lower Richland's coach, "it's just a matter of trying to rebuild."
The Diamond Hornets played for the state title in 1991, but that was their last great team. They won only one game last season. And in August they were dealt the most devastating blow imaginable. Shortly after practice, a 15-year-old freshman named Darryl Cornish collapsed on the way to his mother's car. Firemen from the station across the road got there as quickly as they could, but it didn't matter. The autopsy showed that Cornish died of heatstroke complicated by an enlargement of his heart. "He was showered and dressed," says Wright, picking his words as though they might shatter as he spoke them. "He fell, right there, right in front of me."
Darryl's number was retired before the first game of the season, in which Lower Richland beat Dreher 19--13. It was the Diamond Hornets' first win in more than a year. A few weeks before the game Richard Seymour had come down and spoken to them. "It was important for these guys to see him," Wright says, "and to know that he'd walked these halls and that if they have dreams, they have to persevere. I think the team pulled together well. We've had a lot of near misses where we could have turned a corner and didn't."
The team bus rolls out of the parking lot behind the field just as dusk begins to fall. Darryl Cornish's number stays behind.
It all starts with education, and with the days when separate was most assuredly not equal. Back then the black families in Richland sent their children to Hopkins High School, where they ran into Mr. William Manning Seymour. He taught all of them math and science whether they wanted to learn it or not.
Seymour even taught his own grandson, Richard, a high-spirited youngster who would marry a schoolmate named Deborah Wider. In 1979 they had a boy whom they named Richard Vershaun Manning, after his grandfather and great-grandfather. Deborah remembers her only son as a gentle child who was born at 10 pounds and never stopped gaining. In fact, by the time he wanted to play football, Richard was too heavy for his age group and too young to play with kids his size.
"I really wanted to play because my father and all my uncles had played," Seymour recalls, "but I couldn't play until my ninth-grade year." He played basketball and even took up karate for a while. Mostly, though, he stuck with his parents. Even though his father and mother separated when Richard was in grade school, they made it a point to be around together. Richard and his father grew inseparable. In the summer Richard worked for his father's construction business.
When he got to Lower Richland in 1992, he was still chubby, but during his sophomore year he sprouted up and was finally ready to play football for the Diamond Hornets, who were at the beginning of the long post-Mooney slide. "We didn't have a very good record when I was there," Seymour says, "but just to go there, you know? Friday nights at the stadium were such a big deal."
No matter how the team was playing, Mary Kirkland, who'd learned her math and science from William Seymour and who was now the assistant principal of Lower Richland, always was at the games. She became particularly fond of the great-grandson of her old teacher. "Young Richard was very studious and focused," she recalls. She also remembers how close Richard was to his parents, how his father and mother came to the games together and how more than a few people thought they were still married.
Richard became a star his senior year and played well in the annual Shrine Bowl between teams of graduating players from North and South Carolina. His father handled the college recruiters who came to call. The two Seymours became most fond of Rodney Garner, a former Arena Football League player who was Georgia's defensive line coach. For his part Garner was amazed by the closeness of the father and son. "I've never seen a relationship like that between a young man and his father," he says. "I never had that kind of relationship. Tell you the truth, I was a little envious."
But then everyone loved the older Richard Seymour. He was happy and bubbly, and he bragged about his son almost as often as he bragged about his own cooking. "He always said he was the best cook in South Carolina, and he said he'd have to be the best cook in Georgia, too," says Deborah Seymour. Both parents were present when Richard made the commitment to the Bulldogs in the media center of Lower Richland. Mary Kirkland was there too. "We all posed for pictures," she recalls. "It was such a happy time."
Near the end of the game, a freshman running back named Lucas Archie, a classmate of the late Darryl Cornish, is belted by several Richland Northeast Cavaliers, and he has to be helped off the field. Then, as time runs out and the Diamond Hornets gather under the goalposts for Coach Wright to chew them out, Archie falls to his knees.
They all look in his direction, and you can see them freeze--the coaches with the initials DLC on the sleeves of their golf shirts and the players in their uniforms and the kids in the DLC 77 FOREVER Tshirts. They all stand motionless in the middle of Harry Parone Stadium until the freshman rises again.
"I got a ninth-grader over there, and I hope he can get through his black-and-blue tomorrow," Wright says, and there is a deep resonance to the phrase ninth-grader on this struggling football team.
Northeast is one of the best teams in Lower Richland's area, and the Diamond Hornets have actually played the Cavaliers even since a horrific first quarter in which they fell behind 20--0. Everything that makes high school football coaches nuts has happened to Wright. Six times quarterback Travis Malloy has gone deep down the sideline, and six times the ball has slipped through his open receiver's fingers. His team has been on the wrong end of two ghastly interference calls that resulted in first downs for Northeast and then in scores. But the pivotal play comes with 7:52 left in the game, when a Northeast wideout lines up as the punter, catches the snap on the hop and runs through the entire Lower Richland team for a 61-yard touchdown. "It just seems the craziest things happen when you're struggling like we are," Wright says after the game. "That's going to happen until we learn to take advantage of our opportunities."
Robert Dinkins plays where Richard Seymour used to play for Lower Richland. He's a wide receiver and a defensive end, and three of the near-miss long passes went off his fingertips. He also made a clean open-field tackle of the Northeast quarterback. "Coach put me in a place where I can rush," he says. "I like to rush." All the while, his eyes keep cutting over to the bench, where trainers are attending to Lucas Archie. Dinkins was at practice the day that Darryl Cornish died. The tragedy, he says, has marked the team.
"That just took the heart right out of us," Dinkins says. "We're young. That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to us yet." On the sideline Archie gets up slowly and climbs onto a small truck that will take him to a team bus, and something serious leaves the place with the Diamond Hornets as the buses disappear into the night.
SATURDAY, Oct. 9
Tennessee 19, Georgia 14
When the bulldog dies, they put him in a crypt in the southwest corner of Sanford Stadium, just below the bridge that bustles with traffic three hours before Georgia comes out to play Tennessee. These days Georgia is on UGA VI, and UGAs I--V are entombed there in marble vaults with their epitaphs written on bronze plaques. You can say all you want about the romance of the Arch, or the Chapel Bell, or the Redcoat Band, but this is the essence of football at Georgia. Not only do they number their mascots as though they were popes, but they bury them that way too.
It's a pivotal afternoon for the Bulldogs. A week ago they stunned defending national co-champion LSU here in Athens, 45--16. Georgia is ranked third in the country and is aiming higher than that. It has a brutal stretch later in the season when it plays four straight games on the road, including at Florida and Auburn, so beating Tennessee today is essential. The tents come out early along Lumpkin Street, which is raucous and jammed long before kickoff.
"Someday," Kedric Golston said earlier in the week, "I'll bring my grandchildren here and show them everything. I mean, 90,000 people. How can you not want to do this?" Golston, a 6'4", 300-pound junior, plays defensive tackle for the Bulldogs, as Seymour did. Garner is his position coach. Golston is broad-faced and soft-spoken, so he reminds everyone of Seymour. "They call me Little Mo," Golston says, "because I guess I favor him a little bit."
When he visited the university from Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Ga., Golston saw Seymour practice, along with Marcus Stroud and the rest of a formidable Georgia defense. "I'd go out and watch him do drills," Golston says. "I saw him work, and that's one of the main reasons I decided to come here. I hung out with him a few times. He was so much older than me, but even now me and a couple of DTs, we'll go in and watch his films, see if we can pick anything up."
Mainly, though, Golston came to Georgia to play on afternoons like this one and to learn from Garner. "Like they say, the proof's in the pudding," Golston says. "You got to listen to what he says when you see the success Richard's having up there in New England."
Garner, the father of six girls, looked at Richard Seymour as the son he never had, and Seymour looked at Garner as a big brother. "Every Thanksgiving that Richard was here," Garner says, "the Seymours came to my house. We'd always be around, because we play Georgia Tech that weekend every year."
Seymour's career at Georgia did not begin well. The week of his first game, against South Carolina, he discovered that the team had no game shoes that fit him. "I just figured, you know, this was college, and the trainers would have some," he recalls. "I'd been wearing some shoes from high school all during summer camp." The staff managed to borrow a pair from the South Carolina team, but those were the wrong shade of red. "They were more of a burgundy," Seymour says.
"He had such a big foot that we didn't have any that fit," says Jim Donnan, now an ESPN college football analyst, who coached Seymour at Georgia. "And he didn't want to wear a pair that didn't look like all the other players'." So they spray-painted the borrowed shoes Georgia red, and, at 17, Richard Seymour's college career began.
He took to college life almost as enthusiastically as he did to college football. He was still dating Tanya Winston, whom he'd met when they were juniors at Lower Richland, and he was becoming a star in a place where it is a very good thing to be a football star. He stayed the full four years, even though people told him that he could have been drafted as a junior.
"I wouldn't trade my college experience for anything," he says. "I even enjoyed going to class, and I enjoyed the atmosphere. You know, you're on your own, but you're not really on your own. It's not like 'Welcome to the real world,' but it's a good prep test."
He developed a coterie of friends including Demetric Evans, his roommate for four years, and an offensive lineman named Jonas Jennings, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills. (On Oct. 3, when Jennings was knocked cold in a game against the Patriots in Buffalo, Seymour stayed with him, talking to him, until Jennings left the field.)
Seymour stood out even on a team that featured future NFL players Stroud and Champ Bailey, and he worked as hard as any of them. "He was such a young guy coming out that we thought about redshirting him," Donnan says. "He was very mobile for a guy that big."
"He always showed unbelievable character," Garner says. "He wanted to be the best, and he showed that from Day One."
Truth be told, during the four years that Seymour played at Georgia, the Bulldogs underachieved. Their best year was Seymour's first, when they went 10--2, but his postseasons comprise two Outback Bowls, a Peach Bowl and an O'ahu Bowl. The Bulldogs won them all, but that was still not good enough to keep Donnan from getting fired after Seymour's senior season.
One of Richard's parents made every game, and they went together to every game but two, even though Deborah never has made peace with what football can do to the boys and men who play it.
"Every game, still, there's the nail-biting, and your heart hurts," she says. "Every game he plays, we always put it in God's hands. Last thing I always say to him is to play safe."
The Seymours never ceased to amaze Garner. On the road they were the first people he saw in the lobby of the Georgia hotel, and after home games, outside Sanford Stadium, it was their tent to which all the Georgia players flocked. Richard's father had not been lying about his cooking. The Seymours were so omnipresent that Evans never realized they were separated. "Demetric told me, 'All that time, I never knew. When y'all came here, you were a family,'" Deborah says. "These are the sacrifices you make for your children. You put all that other stuff aside."
With 24 seconds left in the third quarter and his team trailing 13--7, Golston goes to his hands and knees. He's not hurt, but he is determined to buy some time. "That was just, you know, technique," he'll explain later.
They are playing in a din that overwhelms even the startlingly strange repertoires of the competing marching bands. (Tennessee's has a weakness for the more obscure pages of the Led Zeppelin catalogue, while Georgia's rouser is a variation on The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which first came here as the fight song of the Union army that burned down the state.) But for all its boisterous home field advantage, Georgia has spent most of the afternoon stuck in neutral.
The Bulldogs gave up enough big plays early to fall behind 19--7. But they rallied behind freshman tailback Danny Ware to cut the lead to 19--14, and their last drive takes them all the way from their own 13 to the Tennessee 19 with one second left. But David Greene's pass is batted down in the end zone, and an undefeated season vanishes into the ether. Almost to a man, scattered all over the field, the Bulldogs drop to their knees.
"Too much, too early," Golston says as his teammates drift away and out of the stadium. "We'd stop them on first and second down and then break down on third. There's nothing much we can do now except take care of Georgia. We can't be worrying about anyone else."
Somewhere, out among the tents that have fallen quiet in the narrow streets that wind through campus, Golston's family is waiting for him. "It's hard, but it's all right," he says. "They understand, you know? They're family. They understand."
SUNDAY, Oct. 10
Patriots 24, Dolphins 10
Still rather new to success, New England is in its third season of unbridled giddiness over this football business. An operation once so threadbare that it played a home game in Alabama is now the NFL's signature franchise. The stadium in Foxboro, Mass., is always full, the fans are several levels above adoring, and even the notoriously sour Boston sports media seem to be in a permanent swoon. And on this cloudy afternoon, facing the crumbling remnants of the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots are trying to do something that no other team has done.
Richard Seymour's season has begun slowly. Now a recognized defensive star, he's faced double and triple teams, and his statistics don't measure up to the standard he set for himself in 2003. In the team's first three games he managed only three tackles and one sack. He was sufficiently invisible that Belichick made a point of defending him publicly. "Not everybody gets the same number of opportunities every week," Belichick said. "He's our best lineman, and he's playing well. His production will come." What Belichick didn't mention--but what everybody around the Patriots knew--was that this season is different from any other season Seymour has known. There is a dark place deep in its heart, and the people who know it understand how fragile everything about him has become.
Last April 25, almost three months after he and the rest of the Patriots got to hoist the unwieldy silver andiron that the NFL bestows upon its champions, Richard Seymour was getting ready to marry Winston, his longtime girlfriend. The wedding was going to be in Orlando, and it was going to be huge.
Seymour had arrived as a pro. He'd come to the Patriots as the sixth pick in the draft. He'd had only 11/2 sacks as a senior at Georgia, but Belichick and the Patriots are known for looking deeper than the numbers. "When you watched him, you could see he was a good player," says Belichick. "But when you spent time with him, you could see his maturity. He was just a real solid kid, professionally and personally."
Over his three seasons in New England, Seymour had done more than justify the faith the team had shown in him. By 2003 he was a defensive captain, and in the Super Bowl it was he who'd fallen on a crucial fumble by Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. His mother still came to every game she could, even though she wasn't that big a fan of football in the northern latitudes. His father, however, was as much a presence as he'd been at Georgia games.
But on April 25, as Seymour was planning his wedding, Lynn Mack was on the back porch of a house on Traveler Lane back in Columbia, S.C. She was watching over the beer for her friend Coretta Myers, 36, who was having a cookout. It was a loud and rowdy time. At one point a guest walked in on a blazing row that Myers was having with the older man she'd been seeing, Richard Seymour. He stormed out of the house. "I thought he'd gone home," says Mack.
At about one o'clock in the morning, a Ford Explorer came barreling down the street. Standing in front of the house with Myers and another friend, Valerie Wilson, Mack thought the police were coming to bust the party. Seymour got out of the truck. Something shone in his hand.
"Oh, my God," said Wilson, "he's got a gun."
"I was in a state of shock," Mack recalls. "Coretta started running away from him. Valerie was going, 'Run, Coretta, run!'"
Seymour and Myers disappeared down the street. Mack heard gunshots and then silence. A few houses away, the police found Richard Seymour and Coretta Myers dead in the backyard. Seymour had shot Myers several times and then turned the gun on himself.
The event was unfathomable even to the people who knew Seymour best. "Not in a million years did I expect that from him," Mack says. "I knew she asked him to leave, but I never expected that."
"I could not believe it when I got the call," Garner recalls. "I talked to Richard a couple of times a day, just trying to be there for him. I mean, he was planning his wedding."
Richard was devastated by the loss of his father. Gradually, though, the community that had formed during his career, all the people who had laughed with his father at all those games and in all those hotel lobbies, gathered around him. At the funeral, a huge delegation from Lower Richland came, as did Garner. Jonas Jennings, Richard's friend who plays for Buffalo, was there. And not only did Richard's Patriots teammates come down, but so did Belichick, team owner Robert Kraft and most of the front office. "It helped Richard so," says his mother. "As he told me before he left for camp in July, he's not questioning God. He knows everything happens for a reason, but right now he just doesn't understand the reason yet. It's going to take some healing. Won't be today. Won't be tomorrow."
He plays this season with a survivor's pain. It's like a radio signal in the mountains, wavering in its intensity, from an ache to an almost unbearable scream. "It changes you," Seymour says, his voice low and his words excruciatingly precise. "It's day to day. That's progress, because some days are better than others. Game days, though--game days are tough."
The game is put away. The Dolphins are put away. In fact, in the final two minutes, both Miami quarterbacks are put away in quick succession. Patriots safety Rodney Harrison sends Jay Fiedler to the sideline, and then linebacker Roosevelt Colvin smacks A.J. Feeley amidships. Not long after that, with their 19th consecutive win in the bag, Harrison and Seymour, in a decidedly un-Patriotic move, dump a bucket of Gatorade on Belichick's head.
The game was a rock fight from the start. Seymour tackled Fiedler deep in Miami territory for his second sack of the season, and that led eventually to the first New England touchdown. But given all that's happened this year, the most striking moment of the day comes when Seymour helps douse his coach in that silly ritual, and joy bursts upon his face like the sun through the clouds.
"Football is a part of my life, but my life is also part of the lives of the people I know, and their lives are a part of mine," says Seymour. "It's all together, and that's a good thing. That's the way it's supposed to be."
You can see how it works if you trace a life given to this game. You can see pep bands give way to orchestras and concrete bleachers give way to luxury suites. You can even see titled canines give way to aging rock stars. The stage gets bigger, and the crowds get louder. But you can see how the lights draw power from the shadows.
Garner, the Georgia assistant, was amazed by the closeness of Richard and his dad. "I've never seen a relationship like that between a young man and his father," he says. "Tell you the truth, I was a little envious."