A Life Resumed
POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. -- Genarlow Wilson is lounging on his bed, watching a college football game. An old high school buddy has come over to watch it with him. They don't talk about prison. They talk about much more important matters.

"I really don't think any team is gonna go undefeated," Genarlow announces. "I think the team that had the best chance was LSU. They have a lot of talent."

His cell phone rings. He has had it for only, like, half a day and already everyone seems to have his number. He talks quietly for a second, promising to call back later.

Who is it?

"A friend," he says, grinning.


Tracy Smith for ESPN.com
As deputy warden Dwayne Johnson, right, escorted him to the gates, Genarlow Wilson finally walked out of Burruss Correctional Training Center on Friday.

It has been about 21 hours since Genarlow was released from Burruss Correctional Training Center, and as each additional hour passes, he seems a bit more like the homecoming king and less like inmate 1187055. When he left for good, a guard told him, "Don't look back." He's trying not to, though that will be impossible for a while. In his pocket right now, he has a photo ID card that reads "Correctional Release Identification." When he got it Friday, he knew he was really going home. Then he waited on his mother to make the 90-mile drive from suburban Atlanta to pick him up. First, she went to get his sister out of school. He waited. She got stuck in traffic. He waited. And waited. And waited.

"I was like, 'Dang, mom!' " he says.


After she finally got him, they stopped to get some food. He wasn't picky -- anything but cold cuts or ramen noodles; he has had enough of those the past 32 months. They settled on chicken wings and fries. His mama, Juannessa Bennett, loved watching Genarlow and his sister, Jaiya, eat. They were a family again. "She was hogging the fries," Juannessa says, "and he was hogging the wings. It was back to normal."

Well, sort of. On Friday, he peeked out the window of his bedroom, watching the last satellite truck pull away. At 11:30 p.m., he laughed. It was lockdown time back at the prison. He stayed awake, getting up every hour or so to raid the refrigerator. "I stayed up as late as I could," he says. His mother was up, too, listening to every little noise. "I guess with the nerves, it's overwhelming," she says. "He only slept two hours. He stayed in his room. He watched the news all night. He was flipping it to every channel. I couldn't tell him to relax. At 4 o'clock, he was still going back to the refrigerator."

At about 5 a.m., he finally fell asleep. In prison, guards would have gotten him up 30 minutes later, screaming, "Shift change!" On his own, he managed to sleep until 7. Now he's still sitting in bed. After 32 months, he's free. "It's like a dream," he says. "As the days go away, it will seem more real to me." He leans back. The house is full of noise. Until Friday, he'd never been here; his mom moved after he went to prison. When friends call, he has a hard time giving directions. But he's now sure what makes a home. It's the sounds you love. This place is alive with them.

His mother's cleaning up. The television hums with announcers oohing and aahing at West Virginia's Patrick White. The doorbell rings. It's his grandma and the rest of his family, who drove over from Mississippi. There is laughter in the house, a noise that didn't exist much in prison. He soaks it all in.

"It sounds like happiness," he says.


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
Flanked by his mother, Juannessa Bennett, left, his 9-year-old sister, Jaiya, and his attorney, B.J. Bernstein, Wilson discusses his release.

BACK TO HIS FUTURE

There are so many things to do.

Genarlow has a slate of media interviews in the next few days, so first he wants to get a haircut. And he wants a professional to do it. In a real barbershop. He missed that while he was locked away. He and his buddy, James, leave the football game in progress. First, he goes into his mother's bedroom and sticks his hand out. In the real world, haircuts cost money. The living room is filled with family, so he says goodbye.

"I'll see you later," he announces. "I'm gonna get a haircut."

"Go ahead, boy," one of them calls.

He yells toward the back of the house: "Hey, Mom, you gonna be here?"

She assures him she'll be home when he returns. Then they're off. He leans back in the passenger seat of James' Monte Carlo, turns the music up a bit, cracks the window just so.

When Genarlow went to prison, his mother left Douglas County. As he rides toward the barber, he's back. This is where he went from high school student to disgraced 17-year-old who got a 10-year sentence for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old.


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
At the barbershop, the talk is more about football than life in prison.

James points silently at the Douglas County sign.

"I ain't gonna lie," Genarlow says. "I'm petrified."

When they arrive and he sits down, the barber, Eric, starts asking about the future. Is he gonna play football again? Outside Douglas County, he is a cause. Here, he is a former athlete.

"I'm gonna try to be back out there this spring," he says.

"Were you a wide receiver?" Eric asks.

"A DB," he says. "I'm trying to see who all's interested. Weighing my options."

What is he going to do with his life? That, of course, is the most important question. Everyone has asked him that. He took on the system, and he won, with the help of a lot of important people. Atlanta politicians. Georgia politicians. Former President Jimmy Carter called on his behalf. Democratic Party leader Howard Dean put in a word. Jesse Jackson made it an important issue. Genarlow's attorney, B.J. Bernstein, had to downsize her firm and move to a smaller office because she worked so many hours on his case for free. Now he feels this tremendous pressure to prove to everyone that he was worth it. "It is real important to me," he says, "because so many people put their reputations on the line for me. I don't want to disappoint them. "

The only sounds in the barber shop are the smooth R&B and the buzz of clippers. He shuts his eyes. He's approaching 24 hours of freedom now, and there's a lot to think about. Numerous colleges have offered scholarships, wanting to help someone who was wronged. The clock on his life is ticking. It's ticking loudly, and fast, too. That's why he got Bernstein to bring him SAT prep books in prison; he didn't want to waste any more time. The kids he graduated with from high school are almost done with college. Sometimes, he wonders whether he missed too much. He's 21 years old. Can he still reach his dreams?

"I feel like it's really gonna be hard for me to catch up," he says. "When I get a chance again, I'm gonna grab it with both hands, where it can't get away from me."


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
An all-league defensive back in high school, Genarlow is now focused on resuming his football career in college.

Decisions press down on him. Even picking a college is causing him stress. Does he go small? Big? Should he start at a junior college and try to play ball? Should he get into as prestigious a school as possible now, taking advantage of the attention and the support? Soon, he's going to start running and getting in shape. Before his life was taken away, he wanted to be a college football player. That will be the first test. Can he pick up where he left off?

"I plan on being ready by the spring," he says. "I don't feel like I've lost anything as far as the sense for the game. I still have a love for football. It's something I definitely want to see if I can take it to another level. I have to see if someone will actually give me an opportunity."

As he's getting the finishing touches put on his haircut, the women in the waiting room are aflutter. Someone has figured out who he is. Even Eric the barber wants his picture taken with him. Genarlow's a celebrity in Atlanta, and his mom is scared that even with his time in prison, he's too trusting of people. "My biggest worry is the vultures," she says.

Those are all real concerns. His emotions go up and down. He says he's not bitter about his time in prison, and he sounds as if he means it. He refuses several opportunities to take shots at the prosecutors. Mostly, he's just on edge. "I'm so alert," he says. "I'm aware of everything around me. I feel like bad stuff can happen at any time." But he's starting down the road. He stands up, the haircut complete, and thanks Eric. The barber gives him this one on the house. A welcome-home present.

Genarlow and James pile back into the Monte Carlo. On the way home, they start laughing about Calvin Johnson, the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft back in April. In high school, Genarlow covered Johnson. Limited him to four catches in two games.

"Sixty-four-million-dollar man," Genarlow says, shaking his head. "Four catches in two years."

"Shows you how life is," James says.

"I'm coming to get him, though," Genarlow says. "I'm coming to get Calvin."


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
While kicking back with his friend James, Genarlow was able to resume the life of a normal 21-year-old.

CATCHING UP WITH LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE
Not every concern is about his future. There are also immediate needs. Sure, Genarlow is technically 21. In many ways, he's a lot older than that. But in other ways, he's the high school senior he was when this mess started. Which means he had to have a cell phone. Immediately.

He thinks it's so he can reconnect with his old friends.


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
Once he secured a cell phone, Genarlow was able to reconnect quickly with his new surroundings.

His mom laughs. "I went on and got him a phone," she explains, "so I could keep track of him."

Whatever. Day Two is all about restoring lines of communication. Phone Day, it shall forever be called in the Wilson family history.

It rings almost constantly. And if someone isn't calling him, he is calling someone else. Sitting in James' car, he finds out a girl he used to know was asking about him. He dials her number. She picks up. "What's up, stranger?" he says.

They talk for a bit, then he has to go. "You got my number," he says. "This is my cell phone."

A minute or two passes. The phone rings again. "Who is this?"

Pause. His face lights up. "Oh, hey, how you doing?"

The friend on the other end asks him the same thing. "I'm great right now," Genarlow says.

In between calls, he programs numbers. When he went to prison, his old cell was lost. So he goes about rebuilding the first key to a life: saved numbers. It is not like riding a bicycle. He goes slow. "I haven't done this in so long," he says, working the keys. "I gotta get back a feel for it. Dang, I messed up."

His work is interrupted. Another call. A female friend asks, "Why aren't you on the way to see me?"

"What happened to that letter I was supposed to get?" he cracks.

The afternoon is an endless parade of laughter, programming, ringtones, followed by more laughter and more programming. He's methodical, going down his incoming and outgoing call logs, saving each number. Most of his boys have nicknames, like J-Dub. The women have names. Ashley. Tina. He saves a number and types in Lauren. Then he remembers. He hits the edit button and adds a "P." Lauren P. A minute later, he saves another number and taps the name into his phone: "L-a-u-r-e-n. A." Lauren A. That's freedom, man. Having two Laurens in your phone.

Wait, wait. Another call. "What's up?" he says.

The person asks what he's doing.

"Just enjoying the free life," he says.

It rings again. It's his attorney. "Hey, B.J.," he says.

He listens for a bit, his voice different than when he talks to his buddies. He's very adult. She tells him the next day's schedule: He is going to speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church. That's where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Genarlow's nervous about it. He hangs up and turns to James. The day before, he woke up in prison, preparing for an inspection. Now he can only shake his head.

"CNN is picking me up in the morning," he says.

IN THE HOUSE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Sunday morning, Day 3 of freedom, Genarlow Wilson gets dressed for church. He makes sure his tie is on straight and his hair is neat. He doesn't know what he's going to say. He calls Bernstein and asks for advice.


Jonathan Enck for ESPN.com
"It's like a dream. As the days go away, it will seem more real to me."

"This is your moment with God," she tells him, "to give thanks on a Sunday morning. Not at a prison ministry but at the house of Martin Luther King. As corny as that sounds, this is an extraordinary thing that God has given you. A chance to give thanks for freedom in the house of a man who fought for freedom. This is real."

When Genarlow and his family sit down together -- his mother, his grandmother, his great-grandmother, aunts and uncles -- the church embraces them. Genarlow's 9-year-old sister is next to him. Jaiya is quiet, as usual. One of the reasons Genarlow refused to accept the label of sex offender was so he could be near her. They have become, in just 36 hours, inseparable.

The place is packed. Rev. Raphael Warnock welcomes the crowd. "I say this every Sunday," he says, "but it is especially true today. This is the day that the Lord hath made. ... We're pleased and blessed to welcome Genarlow Wilson."

There is truly no noise like the full-throated welcome of Ebenezer Baptist Church rising to greet you. The Hammond organ rumbles, a deep soulful, guttural moan, and the ride cymbal sounds like a bell ringing. The music and the words seem to fill the room all the way to the arched ceiling. The church stops as the congregation comes, one by one, to hug Genarlow and Juannessa. Tears roll down Bernstein's face.

Warnock stands at the pulpit and reads Psalm 124. The last four lines are perfect:

    We have escaped like a bird
    out of the fowler's snare;
    the snare has been broken,
    and we have escaped.

"Young Genarlow," Warnock says. "You escaped like a bird."

He walks down to the second row, where Genarlow is sitting. This is the moment Genarlow was nervous about. "I'm gonna ask a person who knows what it's like to escape like a bird," Warnock says, "to come and tell us what it's like to have slept last night in his own bed."

The sanctuary goes quiet. Genarlow grips and regrips a microphone. "I'm really at a loss for words," he says.

Grip. Regrip. There is a pause. Grip. What do you say after 32 months of prayers are answered? Regrip. How do you explain the joy of the first weekend of freedom?

Finally, he speaks: "In the Bible, it says there is a time of the season for everything. I guess that time finally came. I want to thank Reverend Warnock and the whole Ebenezer Baptist Church for giving me such a beautiful homecoming."

The congregation replies, simply: "Amen!"

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

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