For this firefighter, football is more than a game

Originally Published: July 16, 2007
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Todd DeLamielleure has a story to tell, but he wonders if now is the right time. He's a fireman in Charleston, S.C., and they just lost nine good men, men with wives and children, men with a lifetime of dreams to chase. In the face of so many dreams cut short, wanting a second shot at pro football just seems trivial to him. Seems meaningless when weighed against those nine men, who all had stories, too. It's never been clearer that games are just games.

"I don't want to seem selfish," he says. "Me playing football, even when I think about how important it is to me, it's so minor."

Football's always been in his blood. His father, Joe DeLamielleure, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a tough man who opened up holes for O.J. Simpson. Joe and his son have always spent hours together, though the other children joke they have a hard time telling who's the father and who's the son.

"He's my best friend," Joe says. "The guy's conscientious. He works his ass off. He's not a wise guy. All my kids, I got six kids, they all say, 'I hope you grow up to be like Todd.'"

South Carolina Firefighter
AP Photo/Alice KeeneyTodd DeLamielleure's love affair with football is a good tale, but the real stories belong to his firefighting friends who lost their lives.
Todd played linebacker at Duke and at Hofstra, where he carried on the hard-nosed family tradition. Then an injury in the Colts' camp, another in NFL Europe, and it was over. Just like that, Todd DeLamielleure wasn't a football player anymore.

Most jobs seemed boring to him. What could he do? Where could he find the same camaraderie he found in a locker room? In a firehouse, that's where. Todd signed up. Some wondered if it maybe wasn't the best use of his Duke degree. Don't say that to a DeLamielleure.

"It's the most noble profession I've ever known," Joe says.

Todd loved his new job. He felt like he'd been there forever. He found the familiar bond of a football team. But he never stopped working out. He ran shuttle drills and practiced hitting.

"When I try and explain it to people," he says, "some of my friends are like, 'Why don't you just let it go?'"

When he heard about the All-American Football League, which is scheduled to start next spring and features only players with college degrees, the plan became clear. He called up a former teammate. Once, they were warriors together. Now they were inching toward 30 together.

"You wanna go play in this league?" Todd asked.

"I'm a regular guy now," his friend said. "I go to work and come home and maybe jog three times a week. What do you do?"

"I go sprint up hills," Todd told him, "and then I go hit dummies"

"Well," his friend said, "you're crazy."

Todd didn't care what people thought. He waited for news from the fledgling league, which still isn't a lock to get off the ground. He had the usual simple problems that seemed big.

Then, on June 18, everything changed.

Around 7 p.m., a call came in from the Charleston Sofa Super Store. Engines 10 and 11, and Tower 5 rushed to the scene. Soon, Engine 15 joined them.

Firefighters went toward the heat. That's what they do. They go forward when all logic says go back. So many awful things can happen in a fire. The building can collapse. There can be a backdraft or even the feared flashover -- when everything in a place suddenly and almost without warning bursts into searing hot flames. From the beginning of training, firemen chant the telltale signs. Mostly, that just makes them feel better. They have only two seconds to react. Say it out loud: "One Mississippi. Two Mississippi." That's the difference between dying and hugging your wife again.

On this day, 17 minutes after the first units were dispatched, a flashover instantly turned the building into an oven. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Flames 30 feet high towered above those still outside. Inside, most of the men didn't stand a chance. Two dived through windows. The rest had time for just a few words. Several called for help. One prayed. Another said, simply, "Tell my wife I love her."

It was like you were watching something that wasn't reality. It was like you were waiting to wake up from a nightmare. It was disbelief. It was raw emotion. It took 'til the memorials to realize it actually happened.

Todd DeLamielleure

They were gone. Nine fathers, sons and husbands, the people Todd wants you to know about: Mike Benke, Melven Champaign, Billy Hutchinson, Brad Baity, Earl Drayton, Mark Kelsey, Michael French, Brandon Thompson. And his good friend, Louis Mulkey, who coached football. He'd been a fireman for almost 12 years. Louis had just gotten married. That night, the newspapers reported, the players he coached went to his house to comfort his wife, Lauren. Sometimes, games are more than games.

Across town, Todd's phone rang: a fellow fireman. It was a short conversation. Todd jumped in his car, trying to go help. Before he could get close, his phone rang again. The interstate was shut down. He couldn't get there. Instead, like so many of his brethren, he went to the only place that made sense: the station. Together, they watched on television as the death toll rose. Men wept. Firefighters showed up all night, each asking the same question: How can I help?

There was nothing to be done.

"It was like you were watching something that wasn't reality," Todd says. "It was like you were waiting to wake up from a nightmare. It was disbelief. It was raw emotion. It took 'til the memorials to realize it actually happened."

Twenty-eight-year-old Todd DeLamielleure went to six funerals in four days, best as he can remember. The grief runs together in one long train. The men tried to go on with their lives. The first shift after was hard. They sat around, wondering what it would be like. But the bell rang and their training took over.

They are trying to get back to normal, for the greatest tribute to the dead is to live. So those who fished fish. Those who barbecued barbecue. And those who dream of playing football keep dreaming.

That how Todd found himself in Florida the first week of July, actually wearing football gear again, going up against other people who still had something to prove, men who were gone but had not forgotten. College football fans would have loved seeing so many familiar faces.

"I had a couple of those moments at that workout," Todd says. "'Hey, there's Dez White! I remember that guy.' Everybody has a story. What happened? Why didn't you make it?"

When it was over, Todd discovered something amazing. His 40 time was better than his best time in college. He lifted more weight more times. He did everything better.

"If it's up and running, I think he's got a chance," says Pete Kuharchek, who coached Todd in Europe and attended the workouts. "If I'm a coach, I'd try to get him on my team."

There's no guarantee the league will take off. There's no guarantee Todd will make the team or, if he does, that it will lead to anything else. That's OK. He's not thinking about trying to get another shot in the NFL. He's thinking about that first game, and the pain of the first hit and the sweat stinging his eyes. He's thinking about righting an old wrong, about the importance of having a dream, and maybe someday he'll understand that his story has everything to do with those nine firefighters and that now is the perfect time to tell it. When he does this thing he loves, he honors brave men named Mike and Melven, named Billy, Brad and Brandon, brave men like himself, named Mark, Michael and Earl. He honors his friend, Louis, who left behind a wife named Lauren.

That's what his dad believes, that the past month has given urgency to all unfinished business. A few days before the fire, Joe was watching Joel Osteen, a popular television preacher. The theme of the sermon was not leaving any regrets. So Joe wrote his boy a note. Just in case, you know. He said, "I know it sounds crazy, but I think the girls are right. I should grow up and be like you."

On Father's Day, the day before the fire, Joe gave the letter to his son.

"Man, I'm glad I gave him that note," he says. "What would have happened if he would have been in there? I think that's why he's playing football. He doesn't ever want to have any regrets."

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

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.