Learning from an expensive lesson
Eight months after punching a foe, RB Blount tries to rebuild image, draft prospects
LeGarrette Blount tried to control his breathing, but the former Oregon running back struggled.His heart raced. His pulse quickened. His eyes darted into the stands inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where all those intense scouts waited for him to run the 40-yard dash at the recent NFL scouting combine. Blount had never felt such anxiety before this drill. Now he thought, One of these teams could pay me a lot of money, and I can't handle my nerves. Blount's jitters shouldn't have been surprising, and his disappointment with a respectable 4.62-second time was predictable. He was the most infamous man in Indianapolis that week, a player who had lost nearly all of his senior season after punching Boise State defensive end Byron Hout after a season-opening loss. Every other prospect at the combine was trying to showcase his speed. Blount was trying to create more substantial distance from that ugly night on Sept. 3, one that included his clashing with Boise State fans and needing security to escort him from the field.
LeGarrette Blount file
Scouts Inc.: Aggressive runner who keeps feet moving after contact. Rarely goes down with the first hit. Needs to show more patience. Marginal instincts and doesn't appear to have a great feel for cutback lanes. Complete report
The media bashed Blount so ferociously after that game that his father, Gary, said, "They made my son out to be some kind of beast."Some analysts even claimed Blount, once projected to be a second- or third-round prospect for the 2010 draft, was undraftable. But here he stands, a 23-year-old preparing for Oregon's pro day on Thursday after trips to the Senior Bowl and the combine. "I just want everybody to know that I don't have character issues," Blount said in a recent interview. "A lot of people who met me at the combine and the Senior Bowl didn't know me. All they knew is what happened on Sept. 3. They thought I had anger issues." So Blount patiently has listened to all the predictable questions. He smiled when his Senior Bowl teammates jokingly dubbed him "The Hitman." He didn't flinch at the combine, back when a coach asked him why a player who constantly smiles in games suddenly couldn't harness his anger when provoked by an opponent. Blount knew this came with the territory. Such scrutiny wouldn't vanish easily. Although Blount won't publicly say what set him off -- his family and friends say it was a combination of Hout touching his left shoulder and shouting at him -- the bottom line is Blount lost control. "Everybody had high expectations for that game -- including myself," he said. "And when we lost, I let my emotions get the better of me and I overreacted." He thinks his message is starting to sink in. "I had two or three teams ask me about it at the combine, and that was it," Blount said. "Everybody else just said the same thing -- they knew what happened, so they wanted to talk about something else. I know they get tired of hearing the same answers, but you really can't explain what happened. After people stopped asking me about it, I started feeling like we were getting somewhere."
Fatherhood and newfound maturity
What Blount would rather talk about is all the work he has put in since that fateful day. He sees himself as a rare commodity in this year's draft, a 6-foot, 241-pound power back in a class filled with smaller, quicker runners.Blount showcased his hard-charging running style at the Senior Bowl, where he scored one touchdown and nearly carried a couple of defenders into the end zone on another. That week was a nice first step in Blount's hopes of becoming more than a middle-rounds pick, but he still needs to impress more scouts. An AFC personnel director said Blount "is a big back who runs strong and is elusive for his size" but added that "not playing last year hurt his ability to show what he could do. He only averaged eight to 10 carries the year before, so [his senior year] would've been his chance to prove himself as lead runner." Added an NFC personnel director: "He certainly runs with an attitude, but he's a little sluggish. If somebody has a scat-back starter, then he could be a short-yardage guy or a change-of-pace runner. Right now, he's probably going between [rounds] five and seven."
Blount might gladly accept that fate if it's the worst-case scenario. He spent the first two weeks after that Boise State game wishing he could go back in time and walk off that field without any incident. The birth of his son, LeGarrette Jr. -- only two weeks after that loss -- has made him thirst for any opportunity to continue his playing career. Blount also has a newfound hunger, focus and appreciation for the game.
The hard part for Blount is that millions of people got to see the biggest mistake of his life. And that night defined him in ways he's hoping to shake."People always ask me what LeGarrette is like," said Roger Carr, who coached Blount at East Mississippi Community College and who played 10 years as a wide receiver in the NFL. "And I always say the same thing: He's not a problem kid." Carr can remember only one time that Blount lost his cool in junior college. That moment came when an opponent hit Blount late on a running play and Blount responded by swinging at the defender, a retaliation that led to a one-game suspension. Blount's divorced parents -- Gary and Barbara -- also stressed proper values to their son. LeGarrette didn't drink or smoke, and when he attended high school dances at Taylor County High School in Perry, Fla., they made a point of picking him up afterward. The only major issue Blount had was discipline. When numerous Division I programs courted him out of high school, he didn't have the grades to qualify for a scholarship. When a high ankle sprain sidelined Blount for his first season of junior college, he went home and returned for the spring weighing nearly 275 pounds. And after Blount gained 1,002 yards and scored 17 touchdowns for Oregon in 2008, he thought he could blow off some offseason workouts. That decision led to a suspension that lasted from February 2009 until the beginning of spring practice in mid-March.
Earning his way back
Blount is considered an amiable type. Former Ducks tight end Ed Dickson said, "LeGarrette was friends with even the quietest guys on the team."But Blount was immature, and the Boise State game incident so incensed first-year Ducks coach Chip Kelly that Kelly suspended Blount for the season. "At that time," Kelly said, "there was no chance for him to get back on the team. We weren't going to tolerate that kind of behavior." As Blount sobbed in Kelly's office upon hearing that news, the coach encouraged him to think carefully about his options. You can leave school and run away if you want, Kelly told him after explaining the suspension. But if you do that, you'll just be giving people a reason to think what they already think about you. Because Blount could keep his scholarship and still practice with the team if he stayed, he didn't see any other options. "I knew I wasn't going to leave," he said. The next two weeks were the hardest time for Blount. He spent a lot of time hanging out with Dickson, who encouraged his good friend to finish school and get a degree. Blount also kept telling his girlfriend, Merissa McCullugh, that things would work out, but others saw a different reality.
"At one point, he did feel like his career was over," Gary Blount said. "He thought he was through."There were three important factors that saved Blount. The first was his contrition -- he apologized to Hout, Boise State, his Ducks teammates and the entire University of Oregon. The second was his son. As soon as Blount became a father, he said, "I realized I couldn't keep dwelling on what happened. I had to give my attention to him, and I had to do right by him."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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