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Monday, August 28, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:12 PM ET
Comfort Zone

By Rachel Nichols

They tell you football is about X's and O's, because you can draw those up pretty, explain them easily, sell them quickly to the masses. Your team's New Nickel Defense—now with more scrubbing power!

They tell you it's about the glamour players, quarterbacks with their shiny teeth and receivers with their end zone dances, because you can package them, too, wrap 'em nice and neat into 30-second highlights. Less often they tell you it's about rage. Rage is harder to explain and not as socially acceptable, and it raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions. And once you admit that football, the come-Sunday business of football, is all about rage, you might be obliged to ask where all that anger comes from. And who wants to know that?

THE WALLS were bubbling. Anyone familiar with the general characteristics of walls can attest that they are not supposed to bubble. Even 4-year-old Shawne Merriman knew that much. Plus, it was so hot that his skin began prickling. And there were all those grown-ups yelling, "Fire!" Merriman was on his grandmother's bed, watching TV. Then his Uncle Terry came running upstairs, screaming about a trash can in the basement that had caught fire. That's when Merriman saw the walls bubbling. Everyone ran out of the house as quickly as they could, which was a good thing, because a few minutes later the roof fell in.

This was 1988, and Merriman already knew a lot about bad luck. He may be Mr. Fortunate now—the Chargers linebacker with the $11.3M contract, the first-round pick in 2005 who made the Pro Bowl and is the reigning defensive Rookie of the Year, the man who sacked Peyton Manning twice in one game last December—but in 1988, Merriman already knew what it was like to grow up without a father, to live with a mother who struggled to make ends meet, to never be sure what your address would be next week.

On the day the walls bubbled, Merriman and his mom and sister were staying with his grandmother in Capitol Heights, Md. But the fire sent them packing. Over the next few years, Merriman's mother, Gloria, tugged her kids through a series of motels and apartments outside Southeast DC. Merriman remembers sometimes having grass to run on. But he also remembers sometimes sleeping in closets, where Gloria figured they would be safest. "We had bullets ricocheting off the buildings outside the windows," he says with a shrug. "You expected it."

Sometimes, though, bullets do more than ricochet. When Merriman was 8, he lived on the third floor of a white-brick apartment complex in District Heights, the kind of place that looks fine until the sun goes down and the dealers slither onto the sidewalks. One night, Merriman and his sister were trailing their mother around a corner when they saw sparks, saw them before the crackcrack-crack of gunshots reached their ears.

They dropped to the ground, then got up and ran, but not before the scene was seared onto Merriman's brain: the sparks, the noise, the man shot three times. The next day, yellow police tape was strung across the courtyard like streamers at a prom, but Merriman didn't need a chalk outline to know the man was dead. He'd seen the blood.

It was around then that Gloria took her son to the local Boys & Girls Club. Merriman wasn't a kid who was easily influenced, but Gloria wanted him occupied. The club had a football team, and Merriman quickly fell for the sport. It was a living, breathing shield. "For two-and-a-half hours," Merriman says, "you didn't have to deal with anything else." The game kept him from the dealers, from hanging with the boys who roamed until all hours looking for something to steal, but it couldn't protect him from everything, from what happened soon after, while he was at home, watching TV again, minding his business.

Merriman later found out that a neighbor in that white-brick complex, who sometimes babysat for him, had recently witnessed a murder. Those who had committed the crime wanted to intimidate her, so they stuffed rags into a bottle and set it on fire before throwing it through her window—Merriman didn't know that at the time. But that night, when he heard a commotion rising above the TV's blare, he looked out the window and just saw flames. They'd come back for him. He and his mother began knocking on doors, trying to warn people, pounding until smoke clogged their eyes and poured down their throats.

He thought they got everyone, but when Merriman ran around back he saw him: a little boy banging on a first-floor window, surrounded by fire. Neighbors shattered the window and pulled the boy out to safety. But there was a little girl in the apartment too, a toddler, and as she lay on a bed, Merriman saw the flames creep toward her and finally engulf her. "Devastating," remembers Arnethia Buchanan, Merriman's grandmother. "Devastating. You had to talk to Shawne a lot then. Just listen and just, you know, coach him along."

But Merriman remembers how the rage began to well within: rage for the dead girl, rage for his babysitter, rage for his lot in life, his family's lot. Again and again he asked why, especially since this fire left him homeless once more. The family carted itself to another motel, then a shelter. Sixty beds crammed into a room, lights blasting on early each morning and snapping off early each night. They had no control, no space, no dignity.

Merriman tried to make sure no one bothered his mother or his sister, tried to protect the few possessions they'd collected from their charred apartment. At night he tied his shoes to the bed so no one could steal them. By day the family would go to a church or a soup kitchen, looking for help. "This is just temporary," he'd tell his sister, and when his mother scraped together the money to move them into their own place, Merriman was grateful. But he was hardened, too, rage bubbling inside him like his grandma's walls.

J.C. PINKNEY remembers Merriman's first day on the football field at Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro. Merriman was a freshman, and he'd arrived a few days late because his family had just moved again, into a small rental town house nearby.

"What position are you interested in?" asked Pinkney, the JV coach.

"I just want to hit someone," Merriman answered.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Merriman said. "Yeah."

And for four years at Douglass, that's what he did: hit. Teachers described him as quietly sweet, particularly polite. But on the field, he hit so hard and so fast and so severely that his teammates began to fear him—not in a merely respectful sort of way but in an actually scared way. Coaches too started to worry that Merriman might hurt a teammate, so in his sophomore year, they stopped letting him practice with the team altogether, sending him instead to a set of tackling dummies on an adjacent field.

Merriman went at those dummies at least a hundred times a day and often more. But he saved his most severe punishment for opponents. As a sophomore, he once knocked out three players before halftime. His hits earned him the nickname Pepco, after the local power company, a moniker that morphed into the more apt Lights Out. College recruiters went wild for him, but not everyone was amused; at one point, parents from other schools wrote letters to the county, arguing that Merriman was dangerous.

And Merriman? He just kept hitting. It was rage, pure and hard earned. "The anger I had growing up was that I had to deal with these things," he says. "You know it's not happening to regular kids. You know regular kids are not really grateful for even what they have." Pinkney didn't know the particulars of Merriman's situation—the kid didn't talk much about it—but the coach soon realized that this kid required extra attention.

There was Merriman's weight, first of all. It would fluctuate, to the point that Pinkney finally asked if there was enough food at home. When Merriman sheepishly replied that sometimes there wasn't, Pinkney and the other coaches started buying him KFC and Wendy's after practice. They started doing other things, too, like slipping him a few dollars when the team went out after games or driving him home from practice each day.

It helped, but it wasn't enough. One frigid December afternoon while Merriman was a junior, he came into his house and realized there was no heat inside—the electricity had been cut off. It wasn't the first time Gloria had had to choose the rent over the utility bill, so Merriman went to stay with a friend while Gloria stayed behind. She lit candles for warmth, putting one on top of the TV, then fell asleep. At 6 the next morning, Merriman got a frantic call. He ran home, and there they were: more flames. No one was hurt, but one side of the town house was on fire.

"Again? Again? You've got to be kidding me," Merriman told Pinkney later that day, a ball of sadness and frustration and, yes, rage. "Every time I take a step forward, something happens that throws me five or six steps back." Once again he felt he was different, the kid without a home, without anywhere to go. Except this time he wasn't. Because Pinkney said the magic words: "We've got you. Come stay with me."

Living with Pinkney and his wife, Merriman got his own room, help with his schoolwork and a ride to school. He got electricity without interruption. He got all the food he could eat, sometimes gobbling down all of the Pinkneys' cereal. But mostly, Merriman found security. The kid who used to tie his sneakers to the bed now left money he earned from his part-time job out on his dresser. It was a small gesture, but it was everything.

Merriman lived with Pinkney for about eight months, until his mom's house was repaired. By then he was focused on Maryland, where he'd committed early. Who knows? he thought. Who knows what could happen if I keep hitting?

MERRIMAN'S HOUSE in San Diego has a hallway so long and wide, you could herd cattle through it. Just off the kitchen there's a walk-in pantry stocked with snacks and Gatorade, and behind that a room with an enormous TV screen, plush chairs and custom-made wooden doors etched with the words "Lights Out" in neat script. Out back sits a pool with a spectacular view of the hills and a new billiards table, which also has "Lights Out" scrawled across it.

Merriman is popular in San Diego. It didn't start out that way—he held out at the beginning of training camp last year—but as the season wore on, he won them all over, first with his play, then with his heart. He is respectful of coaches, kind to fans, engaging with teammates. And then there's that homeless shelter he helped keep open.

Merriman was reading the paper last spring when he learned that a downtown shelter was having money problems. He called to see how he could help and wound up writing a check for $7,500. But that was the least of it, according to Bob McElroy, who runs the place. McElroy watched Merriman hang out at the shelter, hugging people, talking to them. Most visitors are afraid to touch the residents; Merriman knows better, and he told McElroy why. "This is my house," he said. "This is where I come from."

It's not the easiest admission, even now. Merriman doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for him, doesn't want to make people uncomfortable. He knows life's easier when everything's neat, when it's just X's and O's, when you're a success simply because, gosh darn it, you play hard.

But Merriman also knows that football doesn't work that way. It's about rage, and thank God for that. Because rage made Merriman the player he is, and as he sits in his spacious living room with the fancy orange pillows, he says he wouldn't change any of it. After all, sometimes there are bullets. Sometimes there is fire. And sometimes, when it all hits you, there is a game that actually lets you hit back. Very, very hard.