Turning Around a Life Adrift

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Deep in the Delta, across a four-lane road from a field of sheep, Josh Jarboe stood on a windswept stadium floor in mid-March, naked from the waist up.

Virtually every inch of his torso, back and arms was inked: an angel, a scorpion, the Grim Reaper; the names of his mother, grandmother, little sister; the motto Live Now, Cry Later. His dreadlocks were pulled back and faded orange at the ends. When he smiled, as he did often, his mouth gleamed with gold.

It was pro day at Arkansas State, one of dozens of last-look auditions around the country before this month’s N.F.L. draft. At least 16 scouts huddled around Jarboe with stopwatches and clipboards, examining him with the inscrutable gaze of county fair judges eyeballing a prize calf.

jarboe1-articleInline-v2Yet the men there to time, test and measure Jarboe, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver, seemed less interested in how fast he ran the 40 than in answering the same question people have asked the last five years.

Was Josh Jarboe a thug, or did he just play one on YouTube?

The fallout from a freestyle rap video that Jarboe performed before his freshman season at Oklahoma — about assault rifles, sex and shooting somebody — has tailed him through four colleges in five years.

Since leaving his sketchy neighborhood on the eastern edge of Atlanta, a hip-hop incubator where he played in strip clubs during high school and regularly ran into rap stars like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka, Jarboe has landed in a series of decidedly un-urban outposts: Norman, Okla.; Troy, Ala.; Boonesville, Miss.; and now Jonesboro. It is one of the strangest, most circuitous routes of any player preparing for the draft. It is a path crossed by rap and guns — then rapping about guns, recorded in a dormitory lobby on an Oklahoma teammate’s cellphone and posted on YouTube. The video ignited an early national debate on privacy and social media. It also nearly extinguished Jarboe’s career.

That was followed by an expulsion in Alabama, a rock-bottom stint at a junior college in Mississippi, and then resurrection in Arkansas by the coach at the center of the book and movie “The Blind Side.”

Justified or not, Jarboe became the thug-life face of every talented college player who was ever kicked out of college and never heard from again.

Except that he never quite went away. Many scouts and draft handicappers now predict that Jarboe, a big, physical wide receiver with uncommon quickness for his size, will be a late-round draft pick, or at least will be invited to an N.F.L. training camp. For the son of a single mother and a father who was a pimp, the initial payoff could be as much as $500,000.

“I told him: ‘There’s a lot of money out here. Make sure you pick it up,’ ” said his agent, Chris Martin, a former N.F.L. player based in Chicago who flew in for the workout.

But alert to the New Puritanism of sorts ushered in by Commissioner Roger Goodell, the scouts here wanted to be sure Jarboe was worth the risk.

They grilled him for hours in private interviews. Most had talked with his many college coaches; Hugh Freeze, the “Blind Side” coach, who had Jarboe for a season at Arkansas State before moving to Mississippi, said about 10 N.F.L. teams had called. He told them what he tells everybody: “Josh is truly one of my favorites. He’s proven the last two years a change occurred.”

Jarboe’s senior day escort was Freeze’s 14-year-old daughter. Last December, he also earned a degree in psychology.

“Character is a big thing with N.F.L. scouts and teams,” said Jon Carr, a national scout for the Houston Texans. “You want to see if he’s matured and can handle being a pro. I think he’s a young man who knows he’s made a lot of mistakes. A lot of guys in the league have done that. But if he repeated those mistakes before, will he repeat them again?”

Carr added: “Then there’s the video in Oklahoma. I haven’t watched that yet.”

A Video’s Repercussions

It lasts just 74 seconds. The lighting is bad. It’s hard to tell if Jarboe’s dyed dreads are more red or fuchsia. Other students walk past and pay no attention. Somebody nearby can be heard playing pool.

It was just a bunch of teammates, white and black, at the end of summer classes taking turns rapping into a phone camera inside “the Bud,” an athletic dorm named for the former Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson. Jarboe went last. The lyrics, off the top of his head, are an almost cartoonish mix of violence and profanity — standard issue from the American hip-hop songbook.

Jarboe, whom some recruiters rated the third-best incoming freshman receiver in the country behind A. J. Green and Julio Jones, never gave the rap another thought. He flew to Atlanta the next day to visit family before the Sooners’ 2008 fall camp.

A week later, the video had become a sensation. Jarboe had no idea what was going on when Coach Bob Stoops called and told him to take it down. It was too late: Jarboe’s hard looks and rough words had been shared and seen by tens of thousands of fans, alumni and boosters in Oklahoma and beyond.

Stoops initially supported Jarboe. He said that the Internet had intruded on what previously was private space and that nobody could live up to that level of scrutiny.

But Jarboe entered college on thin ice. That spring, before a high school track meet outside Atlanta, he was arrested in a friend’s parked car with a stolen gun. Jarboe contended that it was not his, and felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors. Cedar Grove High School expelled him; he graduated after completing his courses online. Oklahoma stuck by him but put him on a zero-tolerance leash.

A day after Stoops’s public support, as pressure swelled from the news media, alumni and administrators, the coach called Jarboe to tell him his career at Oklahoma was over. Jarboe broke down.

“It was the first time I saw football can be taken away,” he said. “Before, I was getting away with things. Then I saw it could all be shut down.”

Sports columnists, bloggers and educators debated his exile. Some saw Jarboe as caught in a modern mash-up of street culture, technology and teenage cluelessness.

Ray Bonner, Jarboe’s coach at Cedar Grove High, defended him as a victim of a cultural divide.

“My players rap,” Bonner told The Oklahoman. “To Josh, he didn’t do anything because he wants to be a rapper.”

Bonner later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Bet he won’t do a video again — unless he’s being paid by Interscope Records.”

A Tough Path

Atlanta produces rappers the way other cities make cars or movies or software. So even as his football reputation spread as he grew up, Jarboe wanted to rap.

“Where I come from, you didn’t see any football players; there were no Tom Bradys you’d run into,” Jarboe said. “Rappers and strippers were all I knew. I’d end up at a party and see T. I., Ludacris, Crime Mob. I wanted to be just like them.”

Jarboe held an essential street credential. His father, Jerry, always around but in and out of his life, was a pimp with all the accessories: cars, clothes, and 19 children with six women. Jarboe knows all his brothers and sisters — like him, they have first and last names that start with J.

(Jerry Jarboe referred to his job as “life and money management,” and said that he was out of the business.)

“That’s deep,” Bonner said. “He’s seen things most 16- or 17-year-olds don’t see in a lifetime.”

Jarboe’s mother, Sheila Dudley, who had two children by Jerry Jarboe and worked as a data processor, tried to shield him from his father’s life by keeping him busy with sports. He started playing football when he was 4 and soon was so good that opposing teams demanded to see his birth certificate. By his senior year in high school, he was named to the all-state first team. Gucci Mane watched one of his practices.

Yet for most of that time, rap was Jarboe’s first love. He joined a group called Black Mobb, and local high school students downloaded its raps to their phones. On weekends, Black Mobb performed at clubs for teenagers and fought rival groups.

Jarboe lost some teeth one night in a fight with Waka Flocka’s crew. That is how he wound up with a gold grill — “my golds,” he called them.

Some patrons would hide guns in bushes and garbage cans around the parking lot before entering, then race to retrieve them as soon as they exited. (Jarboe said that he did not carry a gun, but that others in his group did.)

“Winning the fight isn’t who wins,” he said. “It’s who gets out the door first.”

One night, by the time Jarboe and his friends left a club, another group had lined up in the parking lot, guns aimed at the door. Somebody pushed Jarboe down just as a bullet grazed his neck. One reason he never cuts his dreads is to hide the burn mark.

“I feel so lucky,” he said one afternoon in Atlanta, sitting in the parking lot of the now-deserted club. “There were so many shootouts. Lot of people died.

“That was supposed to be me. Dead.”

Days after Jarboe’s departure from Oklahoma, a parade of colleges promised to resurrect his football career. He chose Troy, a Division I program with a reputation for rehabilitating athletes.

“We went on the word of the Oklahoma coaches who recruited him — they liked him,” said Neal Brown, then Troy’s offensive coordinator and now at Kentucky. “He was a risk for us. We had to take guys like that at Troy.”

It did not work out. Jarboe sat out as a freshman — the year Oklahoma played in the title game — and with his red dreads and Atlanta swagger, he attracted the wrong kind of attention. Even during his rapping days, he had always been a good student and hard-working athlete, but at Troy he cut classes, skipped training, broke team rules. His sophomore season was uninspired.

Off the field, the university police arrested him in January 2009 after an altercation with a former girlfriend in the cafeteria. The charge of misdemeanor harassment was dismissed. He was arrested again as a sophomore during an Alabama snowstorm when a campus security guard charged that Jarboe threw a snowball at him during a mass student snowball fight.

The coaches had had enough. But they did not cut him loose until they found another place for him to play: Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Within hours of Jarboe’s being booted from his third school in two years, as he toted everything he owned in a single bag, a graduate assistant drove him from Troy’s campus to a truck stop in Birmingham, Ala., where a coach from Northeast Mississippi picked him up.

“He got in the car, and from that moment, I knew this kid realized this is rock bottom,” said Brad Boyette, the Northeast Mississippi assistant. “That was the point at which he rebounded and came back.”

“Within 15 miles, tears started running down his face. He must’ve told me 10 times during that 195-mile trip: ‘Coach, I’m not going to let you down. Thank you for the opportunity.’ ”

Jarboe’s memory: “It was like going to jail.”

If Troy was Rehab U., this was the Mississippi School of Last Chances.

“He was open about the mistakes he made; he wasn’t going to hide it,” said Patti Ann Webb, then the team trainer, who became what Jarboe described as a surrogate mother to him. “Not only did he feel like a failure, he was embarrassed. He knew he had to change. We were his only way out.”

Jarboe flourished in the small-college, small-town (population 8,700) atmosphere. While many of his Atlanta friends were being jailed or shot, he would call Webb to brag that he had made honor roll.

On the field, playing Thursday nights in front of small but enthusiastic crowds against teams from community colleges like Coahoma and Itawamba, he finally showed the potential he never reached at Troy.

“His talent is unreal,” said Coach Ricky Smither, comparing Jarboe to Julio Jones, whom he had coached in high school.

Jarboe was tested more severely off the field. Boyette contended that the campus police singled him out, often baiting him to get a reaction.

“They really put the heat on him,” Boyette said. “They wanted him off campus. They thought he was a threat. It goes back to the way the kid looks; he has a criminal look to him. But he’s the furthest thing from that.”

Webb added: “They tried to antagonize him, and he rose above it. It’s when he grew up. Before, he would’ve reacted to those people’s actions.”

Jarboe appeared ready for his last move. Major colleges, including Pittsburgh and Southern California, called but waited to make offers. Jarboe’s coaches called Freeze.

Freeze had a reputation as a fair and compassionate coach from his days aiding a homeless Michael Oher in high school. But Arkansas State was Freeze’s first college head coaching job, and although he liked Jarboe’s talent, he did not know about his head.

“My first response was, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” Freeze recalled. “ ‘I’m a new coach, and I’m not sure how that will go over.’ ”

But Freeze met Jarboe in Mississippi. He drove there with an assistant and the university chancellor. Freeze said it was the most emotional recruiting interview he had ever conducted.

“It was one of those moments in recruiting where you’re convinced after a kid looks at you and says, ‘Coach, please give me a chance to rewrite my story,’ ” Freeze said. “I grilled him pretty hard. It wasn’t me having to draw stuff out of him. He went through the whole story. He didn’t try to cover up.”

Freeze added: “Thank God I took the time to hear his heart. I had the history of Michael Oher behind me, and they were so much alike. Sometimes you should take chances.”

Fighting for a Future

Pro day in Jonesboro wound down. Jarboe finished his sprints and slipped into the blue sweats he got in January at an all-star game in Montgomery, Ala., where scouts interviewed him continually. Some of those scouts now tugged at their jackets at Liberty Bank Stadium. They were a grizzled, gimlet-eyed bunch, but Jarboe was used to the scrutiny.

“I been doing this all my life,” he said. “Every team I played for, I had to do it for them all over again. They’d say: ‘We heard about you. Can you do it?’ ”

He was back in Atlanta the next day, spending most of it watching his sister, a sophomore at Clark Atlanta University, compete at an outdoor track meet. He sat in the stands for hours with his mother, his father and two of his high school coaches.

“I told him you just got to recreate yourself,” said Dudley, who hates tattoos, hates rap, but loves her son. “I’m always going to be in his grill.”

At the end of pro day, that grill gleamed even in the weak Delta light.

“Yeah, I’ve surprised myself,” Jarboe said. “I’ve seen myself change into a good, sane-headed person. Someone who knows what the word future means. This is my last chance, and I know it. I do this right, it can turn me into what I need to be.”

He added: “I know I can handle it. I been through so much.”

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