CORTLAND, N.Y. -- They are the oddest of couples, a 32-year-old wide receiver and a 62-year-old former FBI agent. They're from different worlds and different generations, linked by one moment -- a moment that changed the receiver's life. And maybe, in a small way, did the same for the former G-Man.
Laveranues Coles was bad news coming out of Florida State in 2000, so talented but so risky because of a rap sheet that frightened NFL teams. Steve Yarnell was the New York Jets' security director -- still is -- and he performed the background check on Coles.
After digging into Coles' past, Yarnell gave a thumbs-up to the Jets' front office. This is a man who investigated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other high-profile terrorist attacks for the FBI, so you can imagine the depth and quality of his check on Coles. But on draft day, Yarnell was challenged by Bill Parcells, who ran the football operation at the time.
It sparked a legendary draft-room exchange between Parcells and Yarnell, who once played under Parcells -- a former Army assistant coach -- at West Point. The room got loud. The language turned salty. Parcells wanted -- no, demanded -- to know if Coles was worth it. Would he embarrass the organization by getting into trouble?
Parcells interrogated the interrogator, prompting an animated rebuttal from the usually stoic Yarnell. Jaws dropped.
"I remember Steve, his voice rising, saying, 'This is our [expletive] guy. I guarantee he'll be a good pro,'" recalled current Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, a fledgling executive at the time. "He refused to blink. He basically said, 'Hold me accountable if it doesn't work out.' Very rarely does anybody speak like that in a draft room. There was silence."
The Jets wound up drafting Coles in the third round. You might say it worked out.
Ten years and 8,609 receiving yards later, with nary a hint of trouble off the field, Coles is back with the Jets for the third time. After stints with the Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals, he's finishing his playing career where it began, appreciating the nostalgia.
Coles feels indebted to the Jets for giving him "a great start on life," and he'd like to remain in the organization when he retires. That, he said, will happen when his current Jets gig is over. He ultimately hopes to work in the front office, but he's willing to climb the ladder.
"I'll start with anything, even if it's getting them coffee in the morning," Coles said during a break at training camp.
Coles used to be guarded, even surly to those outside his inner circle, but he has softened over the years. He has turned out like Yarnell imagined a decade ago, when he wrote in his report on Coles, "He does have a likable side, and seems to realize that he is on the edge of a cliff. I strongly believe he can be worked with."
If it weren't for Yarnell, the Jets probably wouldn't have drafted Coles. The organization places its faith in Yarnell's ability to uncover the truth and make judgments. Each year, he vetoes dozens of character risks -- draft-eligible players with even fewer blemishes than Coles. But there was something about the introvert from Jacksonville, Fla., that made him believe.
"I just had a good feeling about him even though he had those clouds," Yarnell said in a rare interview.
Ah, yes, the clouds. There was a simple battery charge for an altercation with his former stepmother, and, of course, the infamous shopping "discount" with former Florida State teammate Peter Warrick that resulted in a felony theft charge. He was booted off the team. The NFL treated him as if he were radioactive.
"That was the era of Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth, and character had become a huge issue," Coles said. "At the time, it made things iffy for me. For me to go on the first day [of the draft], it was a blessing because a lot of teams didn't want to deal with guys like me."
Yarnell flew to Jacksonville and did his thing, interviewing everyone from law-enforcement officials to family members. The offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, met Coles over dinner at an Olive Garden, and he passed along his impressions -- positive -- to Yarnell. Yarnell wrote a two-page report on his findings, but the ultimate call came on draft day, when Parcells put Yarnell on the spot.
Recalling that moment and his out-of-character reaction, Yarnell revealed an almost-smile.
"I was emphatic," he said. "I believed what I was saying."
The former FBI agent was sitting on a golf cart at training camp, wearing sunglasses and his usual poker face. He opened up and became emotional as he talked about Coles' journey, including his 2005 admission that he was molested as a child by his stepfather.
"I'm just really happy for him," Yarnell said. "I've gotten to know him even better over the years."
He paused, the next few words catching in his throat.
"I mean, he was sexually abused," Yarnell added, almost whispering. "I didn't know that. No one knew that. He's a real man. To come out like that, so that he could help somebody else in the same situation … that's a real man."
Coles is aware of what Yarnell did for him, and they have forged the unlikeliest of friendships -- the former street kid from Jacksonville with a West Point man from the postcard town of Key Biscayne, Fla.
Yarnell came to the Jets after 17 years as a special agent for the FBI, where he was responsible for the security of the highest-paid terrorism informant in the history of the Bureau. He knows stuff -- lots of stuff -- about national security. Imagine the kind of tell-all book he could write.
Despite a career of distinguished service for his government, Yarnell derives great pleasure from the relatively small victories, like seeing someone like Coles make something out of his life. Coles has made more than $40 million in the NFL, owns a 25,000-square foot mansion in Jacksonville and has achieved his wildest dreams.
"This organization had faith in me," Coles said. "They gave me a chance, and I'll never forget it."