Monday, August 13, 2007
Updated: April 15, 6:00 PM ET
Fanning the FIre
By Seth Wickersham
The neighbors' gardens are in full bloom, but something is decimating the bed that traces the walk to Thomas and Mica McAfee's door. The damage has arrived in a steady trickle over days: a dead rose here, a wilted daisy there. But on this April day, as Mica goes in and out of their Searcy, Ark., home, running errands with their 18-month-old daughter, the flower bed seems strange. Unnervingly strange.
Every time Mica glances at the garden, another bloom has keeled over. Or bent in half. Or been uprooted. By the time she retrieves the mail at 4 p.m., the bed is eviscerated, torn apart like wrapping paper. And on the front door hangs a handwritten note, her husband's name above the fold.
At his Alltel office, Thomas' cell phone chirps the opening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and its screen flashes a heart, as it always does when Mica calls. Thomas hears panic in his wife's Brooklyn accent. Breathing heavily, she reads between gulps. "Did you notice your flower bed dying? It's not an accident. You'll be next and your fat bitch Yankee wife and little girl too."
"Oh my god," Thomas says. "Call the police. Lock the doors." He hangs up, and his head falls into his hands. Eyes red and soggy, he wonders: What in the world have I done?
WHAT HAD he done? Well, some might say he had committed the most outrageous act ever by a college football fan. Or the most courageous. Or maybe the most na´ve. Thing is, McAfee, a lifelong Arkansas fan, doesn't look particularly courageous. He looks … well, you can't describe how he looks, because then those who threatened his life would know. He's someone who has logged on to message boards at home and work, during the morning and evening. He can't afford season tickets but has spent hours and hours away from his wife and baby to dissect every facet of the program on Woopig.net or Hogville.net or Oinkville, a private, exclusive message board. When the 29-year-old talks about his Hogs or explains why he took up a cause to get coach Houston Nutt fired, his blue eyes narrow, his voice deepens and you realize he's cocky and caring, maybe too much of each.
It wasn't the Razorbacks' record that sparked McAfee. He loved seeing Arkansas go 10—4 in 2006 with Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden at tailback. In fact, when Nutt was named SEC Coach of the Year in December, McAfee could never have imagined he'd be causing sleepless nights for Nutt or opening letters from Nutt's attorney in March.
The drama started with an e-mail, of all things. In mid-December, McAfee logged onto Oinkville under the user name SonOfMud, and read a post. It contained an e-mail originally sent Dec. 7 from a booster named Teresa Prewett to Razorbacks freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain. Subject line: "Hello Mr. Interception King."
Mustain, despite being a star at nearby Springdale High, where he had been named National Player of the Year by Parade, USA Today and Gatorade, wasn't universally liked in Fayetteville. Local media had just revealed that he'd called Nutt a "dork" and his schemes "the same old boring offense" in an upcoming book. McAfee actually agreed with those assessments, although he was hopeful Mustain would become a star after going 8—0 as a starter in '06. "The future looked bright," McAfee says.
But as he read on, McAfee couldn't believe what Prewett wrote. She called Mustain a "fag" who needed "breast-feeding" and his "diaper changed."
She said he was a "cancer" who ought to take his "letter jacket off." Seven times she urged him to transfer, writing that if she were Nutt, she'd have the equipment manager "sew lace around [his] jock."
When McAfee finished reading, he was confused. When Mustain announced in January that he was leaving the Hogs, confusion became concern. And when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette arrived on Feb. 15, concern became anger. McAfee read that Prewett wasn't just a booster; she was a close friend of the Nutts, a physical therapist who in 1998 had worked seven days a week with Houston's brother, Danny, as he recovered from brain surgery. She'd been so proud of her rip job on Mustain that she'd immediately forwarded it to 14 others, including an address registered to Houston Nutt's family.
McAfee kept reading, expecting admonishment from Nutt and contrition from Prewett. But all he saw was contradiction. When Arkansas chancellor John White first called Nutt in January about the e-mail, the coach told him he was unaware of it. But later in the story, Nutt seemed to reveal that he'd known much earlier: "Even without the chancellor getting a call, I was going to do something."
McAfee was livid. How could Nutt let his quarterback be treated like that? McAfee did the only thing he figured he could: vent on Oinkville. But then he received a private message on the site, which suggested he file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about Nutt, a public employee. "I didn't know I could do that," he says. "I thought it was something just the media could do."
McAfee e-mailed a reporter at the Democrat-Gazette asking how to file a FOIA request. He received a reply with an attached template. On Feb. 28 at 2:21 p.m., McAfee wrote to Scott Varady, associate general counsel for the school, seeking "any correspondence that Houston Nutt and Danny Nutt had with booster Teresa Prewett between Nov. 1, 2006 and Feb. 28, 2007 … including e-mails, letters, records of phone calls, text messages."
He got more than he asked for.
McAFEE SAYS he didn't have an agenda. Not at first, at least. Mostly, he was curious. So when he received a shipping box a week later, containing 546 pages of phone records, he plopped the box onto his kitchen counter and, highlighter in hand, began to cull its contents for an answer to one question: When did Nutt know of the e-mail?
As he sifted through four months of records, McAfee counted 2,104 texts exchanged between Nutt and one number, including: 56 on one day, 32 between midnight and 2 a.m.; 16 on Thanksgiving Day; 50 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; and one sent just 19 minutes before the Capital One Bowl. It had to be Prewett, McAfee thought. When he called the number, he got the voice mail of … Donna Bragg? The local news anchor? Why was Nutt calling her?
Now McAfee had an agenda. He recalled message board gossip alleging an affair between Bragg and Nutt. Seeing her number over and over "opened a lot of questions I thought needed to be answered," says McAfee. So on March 15, he decided that posting his findings on Oinkville wasn't enough. He wrote the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, citing the "disturbing things" he found, specifically Nutt's constant communication with Bragg. He wrote that Alabama's Mike Price had been fired for a "lesser offense" than Nutt's apparent affair and concluded that he couldn't support a coach with "such lack of integrity and character."
As SonOfMud, McAfee had been just another griping fan. But when he stepped outside the competitive commune of the message boards—where anonymity inspires rumor-mongering and a mob mentality—by signing his letter, he suddenly had a very public grudge. "I decided these things concerned me and needed to be addressed," he says. "Who'd be better to address these findings than his bosses? They could question him. I couldn't."
But having his grudge considered, having the trustees actually fire Nutt was a fantasy, right? "I just thought the trustees would say, here's some fan asking questions," he says. To his surprise, McAfee received an e-mail from trustee Jane Rogers, saying the board would look into his allegations. Soon after, McAfee saw a press release in which Nutt denied any prior knowledge of Prewett's e-mail and said, "No matter how many unfounded rumors are initiated by piecing together time lines and phone numbers, the truth remains that I have not had an inappropriate relationship with Ms. Bragg."
Then, McAfee received a letter from Byron Freeland, Nutt's attorney. By implying an affair, the lawyer wrote, McAfee had "crossed the line from legally permissible criticism to defamation." Nutt was demanding a face-to-face meeting.
And that's exactly when McAfee knew he was in over his head.
HE SHOULD have been proud. Beaming, even. Writing to the trustees had raised McAfee to iconic status on the message boards—and inspired a band of imitators. Seven others filed FOIA requests, seeking Nutt's e-mails, expense reports and phone and credit card records. "Thomas was the only one man enough to put his name on it," says Ryan Jones, a.k.a. Susserofa. "We followed him."
With documents obtained by one request, Dustin Sahlmann (user name: TAFKAP) and Jeremy Hannum (Cousin Eddie) retraced Nutt's life by calling every number the coach had. Others pieced together a 48-page document detailing Nutt's text messages and calls. A Fort Smith attorney named Eddie Christian—who won't confirm or deny that he logs on as AltaHog—filed suit against the university, claiming Nutt and others breached their state-issued contracts when they didn't investigate Prewett's e-mail.
One fan confronted Nutt directly. In early April, Mike Campbell (Pork Rind Jimmy) snuck into practice to accost the coach, asking why Nutt had texted Bragg from the bowl game. Nutt recoiled like he'd walked into a glass wall, before ordering an assistant to find out who the trespasser was. Campbell and Mike Lyon, a message boarder who drove from Washington, D.C., to film the scene for a documentary, ran for their cars and hightailed it from Razorback Stadium, just ahead of campus security.
The campaign was a disgruntled fan's dream, and it visibly rattled its target. In one interview, Nutt vented, "If you told me, 'Okay, you're going to win 10 games. You're going to go to the SEC championship game. You're going to be SEC Coach of the Year,' I'd say, 'We're going to have a great, great, great time.' It's been one of the toughest times in all my career. The hardest."
Neither Nutt nor the message boarders knew that McAfee had already moved onto another cause: keeping his family safe.
"THEY'RE WATCHING me," Mica said at Searcy's police station. McAfee held his wife's hand as she told how someone knew when she was home and when she wasn't. She described how every time she left the house on April 12, she'd returned to a more savaged garden. And she recounted that she answered the phone to the piercing scream of a fax machine, and when she hung up, it redialed.
McAfee handed the cops 10 threatening letters he'd received in the previous weeks, including one from Texas and one from Alabama. He'd tried not to fret over them, he said. But calls from fax machines were new. The destroyed flower bed was new, too. Then there was the note, scribbled in awkward lettering, as if the writer had used his off hand to eliminate any trace of familiarity. The McAfees had changed their phone number three times. On the drive home, as Thomas apologized over and over, Mica was furious: "You better not do this again!"
On May 3, when McAfee and his lawyer, Nate Coulter, met Nutt in Coulter's Little Rock office at 4 p.m., he didn't know what to expect. He sat on one side of the conference room's football shape table, Coulter next to him. Freeland, Houston Nutt and his wife, Diana, were on the other side. Everyone wore suits except McAfee, who donned a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt.
Freeland said Nutt was "very upset" about McAfee's letter, adding that if McAfee knew the content of Nutt's texts, he would know there wasn't an affair. Nutt pulled out his phone and, flipping it open, said he'd asked Cingular for printouts of the messages but couldn't attain them.
"Well, why don't you give us the SIM card?" Coulter said.
Nutt declined. Snapping his phone closed, he turned to McAfee and said, "You don't know me. Who put you up to this?"
"I did it on my own."
"Have you ever communicated with Mitch Mustain?"
"No, never," McAfee said, incredulous at Nutt's conspiracy theory.
Nutt leaned in, took a deep breath and gave his best glare, the one usually reserved for a quarterback who'd just been picked off. "I'm ready to go all the way with this," he said. "You wanna know how you can fix this? Issue an apology to everyone you sent this e-mail to, and apologize for what you said."
"What do you want me to apologize for?" McAfee replied. "Asking questions? I don't have to apologize for that."
Nutt sighed and rose from his chair. "Well, I don't know what we're going to do. If we do something, we're going all the way."
As McAfee watched Nutt exit, he couldn't have cared less that he still didn't know the truth about Bragg or Prewett's e-mail. All he knew was that he was well within his rights, even if he told Mica that night: "I just hope this goes away."
HE RISES as his name is announced. The rest of the room—700 strong—does too. They applaud and whistle, a few even cry. Houston Nutt takes the podium to accept the Easter Seals' Arkansan of the Year award, and as the spotlight hits his face, his posture is perfect, his teeth are straight and bright, his eyes are in a joyous squint. He has the inarguable look of a man vindicated.
The crowd is warm, despite the fact that some wish it were someone less controversial accepting tonight's award. Apparently, so does Tyson Foods, a perennial big donor that sponsored only a small table when told of the recipient. But in a speech moments earlier, Herren Hickingbotham, who's known Nutt since childhood, focused on the character issue: "Houston's got great character. The most important thing to him is his family. And he's got the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known."
Houston doesn't say much, just a few thank-you's and a pledge to keep sweating for those in need, before working the room, shaking hands or hugging those who offer support. He says his family is "stronger than ever," despite the motives of "extreme" fans. "What have they done, at the end of the day?" Nutt says with a shrug. "They haven't done anything."
Something has been done to McAfee. He hasn't apologized—still feels like he's done nothing wrong—but fears legal action from Nutt. So when he tunes into the Hogs' opener against Troy on Sept. 1, and the camera finds the coach, he'll recall the threats from across the table. "Every time I see him," he says, "I'll question his character." But to whom? He hasn't logged on to Oinkville in months and was out of the loop in late July, when a few boarders fired off more rounds of FOIA requests, hoping to dig up something, anything on Nutt. McAfee admits he's still curious—but only as a spectator. "I won't take part in anything like that anymore." After all, Mica just replanted their garden.
And the flowers haven't been touched.