First Person: Odell Thurman
By David Fleming
Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman sits in a green velvet chair 16 floors above the street with his back to Cincinnati's Fountain Square, or what's left of it, as construction workers below loudly tear apart and rebuild one of the city's most famous landmarks. In effect, the same thing has been happening to Thurman this preseason.
While growing up in an impoverished part of rural Georgia, Thurman overcame the deaths of both of his parents to star at UGA. Several off-field incidents in college caused him to fall to the second round of the 2005 draft. But in Cincinnati Thurman emerged as the Chad Johnson of the resurgent Bengals defense. From his Mike 'backer spot he led the team with 148 tackles (46 ahead of the second-place tackler) and led all NFL rookies with five picks while his Tasmanian Devil style of play drew comparisons to Ray Lewis and restored the team's defensive swagger. "The sky's the limit with Odell," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
Those expectations, however, all came crashing down around him this summer when Thurman's second violation of the NFL substance abuse policy led to a four-game suspension to start the 2006 season. He says that missing tests while out of town this summer, as well as appointments with his NFL mandated counselor, are what caused the violation -- not another positive drug test result. (The NFL considers them the same thing.) And he denies, flatly, the notion that he skipped the tests because he was going to test positive. Now Thurman says he'll be tested several times a week and his next violation would result in a yearlong suspension.
Thurman, 23, was allowed to participate in all preseason activities but on Sept. 4 he will no longer be permitted to practice or be with the team on game days. As he neared the isolation of that cutoff date, Thurman, dressed in a striped Coogi polo shirt and sporting a massive chunk of tobacco in his right cheek, sat down after the Bengals' MNF triumph to clear the air with the first in-depth interview of his tumultuous preseason.
He began by placing one finger on the corner of the dark wood coffee table in front of him, saying …
"If this is the edge right here then I got one foot over the edge, I got one whole leg over the edge and the fall would be … I can't even see the ground. A one year [suspension] for me, if I were to make that mistake, it would be like committing suicide.
"I just want people to know I wasn't out there using all types of drugs. Basically, it was me missing a test. To be honest it was my first NFL offseason and I was out doing too much during the summertime, being irresponsible about the whole thing and not taking it real serious. I made a mistake. And I'm living with that mistake. And now I'm refocusing. I just worry that the fans have gotten the wrong impression on me, that they think I'm an addict with real problems with using drugs. I've heard some wild stuff, rumors about crack, methamphetamine, people saying I came into camp 50 pounds underweight. When the main thing to all this was me missing a test -- not failing it, missing it. Even though if you miss a test in this system, it's the same as having drugs in your system. That's the way they see it.
"I'm not the kind of person that's been portrayed by the media, a bad guy or a drug user. I'm not. That's not the case at all. I want people to see the situation I'm in and how critical this is for me. I know some people will still believe whatever they want to believe. But the people around me, they know what kind of a person I truly am. Missing the test is not on the same pedestal as using. Missing the test is irresponsible. Using drugs is stupid. I blame it all on myself, I was just being irresponsible about the whole situation. In some ways I look at it like, man, I didn't really mess up but I still come across in all of this looking like the real bad guy. I'm not perfect but I'm not on meth or crack cocaine, either.
"I knew for a couple of months, I was just waiting to hear back from the league what the punishment would be. The biggest problem was around camp, when the news came out, I was embarrassed and scared and I separated myself from everyone. Coach called me like five or six times but I was in denial. I didn't want to face it. I didn't want to handle it. I was worried how everyone would treat me. I mean, I used to be the happiest guy in the building coming into work. And I wondered if guys would still follow me on this defense. But my teammates welcomed me back with open arms and the Bengals didn't turn their backs on me either. They're, like, 110 percent behind me. Coach is like a father to me. It's that simple.
"Looking from the outside in, I don't get mad at people when they say that [the Bengals have character issues] because there has been a lot of stuff going on with this team. But there's a lot of people in that locker room and coaches can't control everyone. The Bengals organization can tell people, 'don't do this, don't do that.' But they can't control everyone in that locker room. They can't.
"When I finally came back to camp I sat down with coach and he basically said this to me: 'You're mine. I drafted you, I'm not pushing you away, I'm still behind you 100 percent. Just stay focused from here on out. Don't get down. Don't mess up again. Just get back on the field.' I think he knew that I had heard enough how bad I had messed up. I know what I did and that I had to take full responsibility for what I did. So the team said to me, 'we still love you around here, we're still your family, we're not going to push you out the door because of one mistake.' [Coach] called me every other day making sure I was okay, asking if I needed to talk or if I needed anything. I had tried to push him away at first, I thought I should deal with it on my own, but that was the wrong thing to do. I was really just hiding.
"I feel like I came in as a rookie and I made a statement right away. I may have made some mistakes but I made them at a 100 miles per hour. As a rookie on the field, I could be a tiny, half step out of alignment and coach Lewis would jump down my throat. Like, 'GET UP AND GET OVER THERE, RIGHT NOW ODELL!' And I'd move one tiny step over and that's how far off I was, a few inches. That was the kind of small stuff he stayed on my back about and that's why I had a great rookie season on the field.
"I think coach Lewis is doing the same things with me, only now it's with my life. If I'm two minutes late for a meeting, he's gonna get on me. If I'm not dressed properly for practice, he's gonna get on me. All the small stuff, he's gonna get on me. And I appreciate having someone in my life like that and I know I need it. Being young and being in the situation I'm in right now, I can't make any more mistakes, not one more slipup.
"Missing the test for me was like one more eye-opener or another kick in the butt for me. Like, it's time to get focused again. I've got goals set higher than just being in the NFL. I really do feel like I can be one of the best. But I can honestly say, too, that I haven't worked like that. I haven't worked like I'm the best. I lift weights. I do this. I do that. I run. But there are times when I slip and I don't want to work out and I'm just being young and irresponsible. I've always had that in the back of my mind: that I'm the best, I'm the greatest. What I found out was everyone thinks that. But not everyone prepares to be the greatest.
"But now that I have this mistake on me, the magnifying glass will always be on me. I gotta work. I can't slip. I can't falter. All I have to do is make sure I don't hang myself. I gotta live my life more organized. I gotta plan ahead. And I gotta see the big picture of my life, which is football has gotten me everything I have. That's the main reason for where I'm at: football.
"Looking back on my whole career, this is how it's always been for me. Like at Georgia. I got suspended, I messed up and I knew that if I made another mistake I was out of there. And I went straight. Now I messed up in the league at an early point in my career. I have no more errors I can make. So now I have to make this a 10-year run -- at least.
"I know it doesn't seem like it because I almost blew it all, almost let it all go, but I appreciate what I got now, especially after where I came from. I don't think everyone out there truly understands where I came from. The way I grew up, I had an elbow in the back of my neck my whole life. Like, 'you're gonna do right, you're gonna be the one who makes it.' But 90 percent of the people out there, if they had been through the stuff I've been through in life, they wouldn't be where I'm at.
"I lost both parents at a young age. Basically I came from nothing: I mean 15, 16, 17 people in a four-bedroom house, sharing clothes with my cousins, four people in a bed, man if you came home late you had trouble finding a spot to sleep. I'm serious. We were rich with love, though, we were rich with love.
"My dad's death was much harder to take than my mom's. Being at such a young age when she died [in a car wreck when Odell was in the fourth grade] I kinda didn't really understand it. It hurt but I didn't understand it. When my father died [of liver and kidney failure three years ago] it came at a key point in my life -- when I really needed him he was gone. I was 20, had just had a kid of my own [Odalyus, now 4] and it was the week before my first college game. At that point I didn't have a parent to support me. Nothing. I had uncles and family and my grandma but there's nothing like having your parents behind you.
"My dad came to watch me in the Red-Black scrimmage before my sophomore year at Georgia. I had a good game. We celebrated. Three or four days later my auntie calls and says, 'You need to come see your daddy.' Now, I had just talked to him earlier in the day and when I came home to see him in the hospital, he was already like a vegetable. A few days earlier he had been complaining about a stomachache. But it was kidney failure, they said. He was dying from kidney failure from drinking too much. But he wasn't a drunk. He went to work, sober, every day for eight, nine years. His body just couldn't take it any more.
"What I remember the most was the doctor's wording when I asked him a question about talking to my dad the next day. And he said to me: 'If he makes it through the night.' If? I caught that. I remember that. If? My family was hiding from me how bad it was. But I remember that word: if. I left the hospital and drove back to campus and in the hour it took me to get back to Athens, he died. He left me too early. That's what I think. He left me too early. I played that week. I didn't start. But I played a good game. I needed to get back around my teammates.
"And that's what I need now. It's gonna be a long month, I'm not gonna lie about it. But I think I'll be alright. Watching games, being close but not being able to get in there with my teammates, that's the worst punishment right there. Not playing, I've been looking at this team like this: Damn, they're good, but now imagine if they had me too? What if I was out there? I really do believe that I play a key role on this team. Then I look at our offense and it's like, they can just score whenever they want to. Most teams talk about the Super Bowl this time of year but for us, it's a realistic goal to set.
"Man, we could be like the Colts last year, winning 13, 14 in a row. That's not even thinking outside the box with this team. It's not. We've got a great team that can really do something like that this year. We're stacked at every position. Most teams this time of year are like, 'we need a quarterback, we need a running back, we need a safety.' But I can't name one position in that locker room that we don't have guys who are the best in the league at their position. This is a team full of Pro Bowlers.
"And I'm still a part of this team, I'm still a Bengal. That's what I need to stay focused on right now. I've still got a job to do when I get back. I know I have to do the right thing now, so I'm not scared. It's all up to me. I control it. And in my mind I think I'll be a Bengal forever. It's gonna take time, I know, but I think I can be one of the most beloved players around here.
"Once I step back on the field I'm hoping all of this stuff will diminish. People will see that I'm still focused, that I'm still the player I was last year, that I'm still the Bengal they used to love. I think this will pass over. That's what I'm hoping.
"I just want everyone to see the truth: that I made some mistakes but that doesn't make me a bad person. I did make some mistakes. I'm not denying that. I did get in the program to begin with. And to get in you had to be doing something. But I'm not the first and I won't be the last to deal with this type of stuff. I just want people, however they looked at me beforehand, that's what I want to go back to.
"I just don't want to end up a sad case, you know? I don't want to look back one day and have to say, 'coulda, shoulda, woulda been.' I want to be able to look back in 10 years and say I was one of the greatest. I want to be a success story. I want people to say he came from nothing and made it all the way to the Hall of Fame.
"From nothing to the Hall of Fame. That's the story I want. A success story.
"I don't want to end up no sad story."
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book, "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter" (Baywood 2006) was hailed by grief educators as a "deeply touching, insightful, fresh and credible voice on the complex journey of grieving and healing." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at mailto:Dave.Fleming@espn3.com