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He never heard the cheers. Not one of the shouts that came washing down onto the field after he slammed through the guard-center gap and splattered the ball carrier, drawing the loudest roar at Memphis' spring game. While the rest of his new teammates toed the sideline and rooted each other on, the mammoth 19-year-old defensive tackle sat slumped on the bench, his head bowed, his heavy-lidded eyes transfixed on a small patch of turf. Huddled there by himself, the 6'4", 340-pound giant looked almost meek. The sweat streaking his bulging cheeks might as well have been tears, the fans who'd come to get their first look at him might as well have been ghosts.
It's hard to distinguish one voice from the next in a 62,000-seat stadium, but on this afternoon only 450 people dotted the stands, making it easy to pick up snatches of breakfast-table talk or tall stories from last night's kegger. Not for this kid, though. See, when you're lost in your own world, you have a constant barrage of static buzzing through your head. It's like trying to tune into a radio station in the middle of nowhere. This is how the world sounds to the loneliest man in Memphis.
He knows Tiger fans are there to see him. And honestly, he doesn't know what to make of that. He has morphed from star to spectacle in less than 100 days and, for crying out loud, he didn't do anything to set it all in motion. He's not Monica, or Puffy. He's just a guy named Albert Means who plays football. He has as much passion for the game as he had in eighth grade, he says. Only now, he can't help but wonder which game he's playing.
Around Memphis, the flashy river town best known for Elvis' rise and MLK's fall, he has become a legend of sorts. For the past few months, investigators from the SEC, the NCAA and the FBI have been scouring the city, responding to the lurid allegation that a teenage football star was auctioned off for $200,000 -- sold by a man the kid considered a father figure. Means is searching too. He can't tell you what he's looking for or whom he can trust to help him find it. All he knows is that he needs shelter from a terrible storm, the ugliest recruiting scandal to hit college football in over a decade.
Five miles up the hill from the melodious charms of Beale Street lies the Frayser section of north Memphis. It's a beat-up neighborhood, the perfect backdrop for the city's famed blues sound. About 200 yards past the Piggly Wiggly, on the opposite side of Watkins Avenue, sits a small redbrick house. A weathered backboard lies flat in the middle of a driveway, and shades in the small front window are drawn shut. Welcome to the Means home.
Big Albert was the neighborhood legend. The second of Lisa Means' six children, he was always the biggest, fastest kid around. But being twice the size of your peers has its drawbacks. Albert was the dude everyone talked about and no one talked to. He was guarded, reluctant to open up to anyone.
All that changed when Lynn Lang, the football coach at Trezevant High, stepped into his life. In his late 20s, charismatic and street smart, Lang was a big bull of a man, too. Albert was instantly drawn to him. The child of a single mom and a dad he barely knew, the boy desperately wanted someone to believe in him. Lang was the first male to reach out to him. "He wasn't just a football coach," says Albert's younger brother Eiland. "He was always around. He was like a father figure to us."
In the summertime, Lang would pack up his car and take his protégé on a tour of football camps in Nebraska, Texas, Georgia and Kentucky. To pass time on the road, they would talk about attitude. Lang lectured Means on the power of belief, the benefits of a warrior mentality, ways to get inside an opponent's head. After his sophomore year, Means overwhelmed the best linemen at three different positions in the Texas camp. UT coach Mack Brown pulled Lang aside and told him the boy could be something special. Soon thereafter, the campers at Nebraska were treating Means like a celebrity.
After logging more than 100,000 miles on the star's behalf, Lang joked about the sacrifice. "My car is fine," he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Albert is worth it." By then, Lang was shepherding Means in every phase of his career. Lang decided which coaches the player talked to and where, which schools he visited and when. If anyone asked for Means' number, Lang jotted down his own. He kept reminding young Albert that he had his back. The shy teen never knew at what price.
Logan Young II and Roy Adams used to be drinking buddies. The two Memphis-bred millionaires are such old money, you could easily imagine them sitting in big cane chairs out on the veranda, swapping stories while downing their cocktails. Next to money, their favorite topic was football. Young is a Bama man by choice. He graduated from Vandy, but after a few vodka-and-cranberries with Bear Bryant, he quickly switched his allegiance to the Tide. Young inherited a family fortune built by his daddy during World War II on the booming sales of soft drinks and margarine. A onetime owner of the USFL's Memphis Showboats, he likes nothing better than to brag to his buddies about Alabama's rich pipeline into the Memphis talent pool. And, according to an ex-SEC coach, the starched 60-year-old is the primary reason, though Young himself denies doing anything improper. "Logan is the go-to guy," says the coach. "He's their sugar daddy, and he knows the people he takes care of love SUVs."
Because of his school pride, Young's relationship with Adams was ultimately doomed. A Tennessee alum and lifelong Vol booster, Adams served as a Senate page to Al Gore Sr. before making his millions in real estate and restaurants. "Logan loves to buy people," Adams says. "He feels like he can buy anyone, and he holds poor people in contempt." Young counters: "Roy's an idiot. He's jealous because Alabama's won more SEC championships than Tennessee. I know that just kills him."
In '98, Bama won a huge Memphis recruiting battle for Parade All-America defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead. In '99, the school landed the next great tackle, David Paine. But whenever Tide recruiters visited Memphis to check on those two players, it was Means they came away whispering about. The city's all-time best prospect, Big Albert had become a startlingly flexible, pocket-crushing force with so much agility he sometimes played at linebacker, even though he weighed well over 300 pounds.
People whispered about him for other reasons, too. In the spring of Means' junior year, says former Trezevant assistant Milton Kirk, he and Coach Lang hatched a plan to auction Means off to recruiters. The asking price: $50,000, two Ford Expeditions (one for Lang, one for Kirk) and a house for Means' mother. According to Kirk, Young's bid for Means was $200,000. Adams says he was approached by Lang too. He later posted detailed notes on the auction on a UT fan site known as gridscape.com.
Young and Lang firmly deny Kirk's story. "If it's too good to be true," says Lang, "it is." And yet there is one indisputable fact in all of this: If Lang wanted to, he could have convinced his star to go anywhere. Says the ex-SEC coach, "If he told Albert, 'Play at Vandy because you look good in black,' well, Albert would've been a Commodore." Sure enough, on Feb. 2, 2000, Means signed with Alabama. When asked why, he simply stated: "That's where I was told to go."
He was never truly happy in Alabama -- he struggled with homesickness and with his fitness -- but Means started three of the Tide's last four games at defensive tackle. A few days before Christmas, he got a phone call. That's when the bombshell hit.
Kirk told him that a Bama booster had paid Coach Lang $200,000 in four installments for Means' signature, and that Lang had kept that money for himself. As Means listened silently, he struggled to make sense of the story, to understand how the one man he trusted most in the world could sell him like a prized bull.
Kirk claims he went public because Means' family never got a penny. Others suggest he was coaxed forward by Adams. Adams admits to meeting with Kirk -- and even told an AP reporter that Kirk had asked him for a car -- but denies making any offers for Kirk's story. Regardless, neither Kirk nor Means understood just how big the story would be. Both figured it would be confined to the local papers. They were wrong. In the days following the Jan. 10 report in the Commercial Appeal, the story was broadcast nationwide on network newscasts.
Shell-shocked and under siege, Means retreated to Memphis to be with his family. "He came home a different person," says 17-year-old Eiland. "He wouldn't say anything. He wouldn't even raise his head up to look you in the eye." Feeling betrayed, Albert turned to Memphis coach Tommy West. The two met for an hour in West's office. West did all the talking. "I have never seen anyone who was as crushed as Albert was that day," he says. "I felt, 'We have to help this guy, because this isn't about a football player any more. It's about a person.'"
Means soon announced his decision to transfer to Memphis, but the spotlight didn't fade. "Every day, on TV and in the papers, Albert was the news," says West. "It's hard for a 350-pound man to blend in, so his class attendance was sporadic at best."
With the approach of spring ball, Means was more relaxed, and his schoolwork improved. Teammates, well aware of his talent, did their best to welcome him. Last season, the Tigers led the nation in rushing defense, with two rugged tackles, Marcus Bell and Calvin Lewis, who have since departed, anchoring the middle. Means could plug that hole all on his own -- if he drops 30 pounds and pulls his life together. But that last part isn't so easy, not when you're afraid to let anyone help.
As the sunlight faded on Memphis' spring game, his Tiger teammates mingled with family and friends at midfield. Means stood quietly with his own family near the visitors' sideline, 40 yards away. "I have been so confused by everything," he said softly, playing with the tape on his hands. He has cut all ties to Bama, but he's still struggling with a range of emotions -- embarrassment, dejection, fear, confusion. Above all, there's the awful pain of isolation. "I don't know where to turn," he says. "I feel like I am very alone."
He has not spoken to Lang, his onetime champion, since that shattering phone call from Kirk. The coach was fired by the local school board in February. Through his lawyer, he refused numerous requests for an interview. Kirk was dismissed in March. Even Young couldn't care less about Bama's once-prized recruit. "I don't feel bad for him at all," he says. "I'm the one being persecuted."
No one knows when the clouds will part -- Albert and his mother recently testified before a federal grand jury and the NCAA is conducting its own probe -- but Memphis is praying for a quick resolution. If Alabama is in any way at fault, Means won't have to sit out the season as a transfer student.
In the midst of all this madness, it came to light that Means' mother owed more than $3,500 in back rent. She fell short because she had bought clothes for her son and a car to carry her to Tuscaloosa to visit him. When a local radio station started a fund-raising drive to help out, the NCAA warned that any "extra benefit" Lisa Means accepted could cost her son his eligibility. That's when another Memphis businessman stepped up.
A former federal prosecutor, Arthur Kahn of Arthur's Wine and Liquor, created the Lisa Means Recovery Fund to collect donations only from people who have no affiliation with the school. If the NCAA wouldn't allow the Means family to accept the money, Kahn said, he would file a federal lawsuit. The NCAA relented and, in two weeks, the $3,500 was raised. "I'm not saying it put my faith back in people," Albert says. "But it was nice to see that there are some people out there with good hearts."
Means knows Memphis hopes to use him too, as the cornerstone for a fledgling football powerhouse. After he signed with West, an avalanche of local talent tumbled into the coach's lap. But Means also is relieved to be so close to home. Brother Eiland, a 6'5", 250-pound defensive end, is entering his senior year at Trezevant. Almost every big-time school in the country wants to sign him. Big Albert is ready with some sage advice.
"Make your own decisions," he says, as his tired eyes grow wide. "You can't trust anybody."
This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.