MIAMI -- I was at a friend’s house and I walked past a mirror. The person I saw, I didn’t recognize. Dark eyes. Looking bad. I realized I had to do something different. Everybody has their moment when they say, "Man, I have to do something different."
For Anthony Hargrove, that moment came on April 4, 2008. A promising but troubled defensive end in St. Louis and Buffalo from 2004-07, he had been suspended from the NFL for multiple violations of its substance abuse program. It was time to get help.
What happened between that moment and today is one of the most compelling storylines of Super Bowl XLIV. Hargrove is now an important part of the New Orleans Saints, the only team willing to sign him last summer. He's a havoc-wreaking defensive tackle and a 300-pound cover man on special teams. He has spoken openly and eloquently about his journey, and so it seems appropriate to let him tell most of this story himself.
When you have the kinds of problems I did, you feel like you’re locked in a closet. You’re hoping someone will come by and let you out. Finally, somebody did.
Hargrove lost his mother to AIDS at age 9 and spent his childhood bouncing between family members and foster care. He believes God compelled him to see the ravages of drugs and alcohol when he looked in the mirror on that day almost two years ago. It directed him toward the Miami-based Transitions Recovery center for what turned out to be 10 months of rehabilitation.
When you go through a period like that in treatment, you see so much. I saw a lot of different things. I saw death. I saw people just giving up on life.
So you switch. You turn over. You say to yourself, I don’t want to get to that point where I just give up on life, or I just throw in my cards and say, "I’m done with this." I’m always telling people, we can always do stuff with time. It’s not over until we see 0:00 on the clock.
He watched the Super Bowl last year from Transitions.
It’s quieter, I can tell you that. It’s a lot quieter to watch a Super Bowl from rehab.
It was hard to watch the game because I wanted to be there. I was coming in and out of the room, doing laundry and whatever else. I really didn’t want to watch it because I hadn’t played that season. You get caught up thinking about all the stuff I did wrong to keep me out of the game.
While that game was going on, it was a reminder of all the stuff I did wrong to keep me out of the season and a reminder that I might not get back to it.
Days later, he met with NFL officials about reinstatement. His indefinite suspension was lifted after one year.
But now the hard part: How to convince a team to sign him? Playmaking defensive linemen are rare and valuable commodities. But who would want a player that two organizations already had given up on?
Hargrove’s agent, Phil Williams, had an idea. They filmed an 8-minute video that featured Hargrove speaking directly into the camera in front of a black background, acknowledging his past struggles and explaining how he had left them in the past.
Williams sent the video to all 32 teams. Only the Saints responded. They met with him, worked him and interviewed him several times. He signed in late spring, shortly after his release from Transitions.
“We felt good enough about where he was in his life to at least take the chance,” general manager Mickey Loomis said. “He was just so sincere and so open about the mistakes that he had made. He wasn’t trying to hide behind them or make excuses because of his background. It was just, ‘I did this. I made mistakes and I’m not going to make them again. Here’s my support system and I know it will be a challenge for me every day when I get up.’”
Hargrove had been a quarterback at Port Charlotte (Fla.) high school, a linebacker at Georgia Tech and a defensive end for the Rams and Bills. Now, the Saints wanted him to play defensive tackle and special teams. Teammates were skeptical about his aptitude for that position and the impact he might have on their locker room.
So just before training camp, Hargrove decided to demonstrate his faith.
Normally the conditioning test we do is three 300-yard shuttle runs. You have to do each of them in under a minute. I had just arrived in New Orleans and I was trying to get these guys to trust me. Charles Grant said, "I bet you can’t run six of them in under a minute." I said, "I bet I can." So they challenged me and I went out and knocked them all out.
After that, we had a defensive meeting. I stood up and said that the point of me doing that wasn’t showing off or anything. It was this: If I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. That’s what I tell myself every day: That I’m going to do this.
Even as a part-time player, Hargrove got in on 63 tackles this season and recorded five sacks. He had three tackles on kickoff coverage. As a defensive tackle, his quickness makes him difficult to block.
In between, he made regular Friday night visits to AA meetings in New Orleans.
“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” defensive tackle Will Smith said. “He’s always, always positive. I’ve never seen such a positive person. When you understand where he’s come from, you think, ‘Why is this guy, of all people, so positive?’ He gives us all motivation. No matter what I go through I know I can manage it.”
When you come out of rehab and come into a situation like this, it’s hard not be optimistic.
I remember one meeting we had. I had been sober about four or five months. Another guy in there asked if anyone was struggling or felt they were at a turning point. I raised my hand. It’s hard. So he gave me his medallion he got for being sober for one year. I carry it everywhere -- in the car, in my bag or in my pocket.
It has the Serenity Prayer and I say it all the time. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
At that time, I realized what the program was all about. It’s about giving to myself, and then to others.
Near Christmas, Hargrove got a chance to put that segment into practice. A man approached him in a Wal-Mart parking lot asking for money to buy diapers for his child.
It seemed like a real situation. I looked at him and he seemed sincere, so I trusted him. That’s what the Saints and so many people have done for me. So I gave him a couple bucks.
“A couple bucks” was actually $300.
I feel like I need to share my sobriety. If you get it and don’t share it, you won’t keep it.
As the playoffs began last month, Hargrove addressed defensive players in a team meeting.
I just put a point of emphasis on capturing the moment and enjoying this and just trying to take it all in. I just told them about where I was last year at this time and said: "If you don’t do this for anybody, go out and fight for me. Because I’m going to fight for you."
Safety Darren Sharper, a 13-year veteran, listened in awe.
“He was locked up and now he has a chance to play in the Super Bowl,” Sharper said. “I don’t know any story that is more dramatic, tragic, positive or heartwarming. Everything he has gone through in his life just kind of shows you what kind of guy he is. He wants to fight for himself and for us.”
And so we’ve come full circle. Hargrove returned to Miami with the Saints this week. Fully aware of the high-profile incidents in recent Super Bowls, he wrote down his daily plan for the week.
It’s about understanding boundaries, limits and plans. I had to have a plan of action of what I was going to do each day. And then I had to stick to that plan and had to have people around me that was going to keep me to that plan.
One of the reasons they gave me an opportunity to be part of this franchise was that I had a plan for what I was going to do here. That plan has gotten me through the season so far with no drama.
I wrote down where I was going to be, what I was going to do, when I was going to eat, what I was going to eat. What time was I planning to do get done [and] get to bed? I’ve got to get to bed because I have to get up the next day and start all over.
Another part of the plan: Visiting Transitions, where he spent Tuesday afternoon after completing his media day obligations.
It was incredible. It was really incredible. They allowed me to speak to their clients there. The feelings I got there were unbelievable.
I remember being in there and alumni coming back and speaking. They called me an "alumni" yesterday, something I was very proud of.
I can remember being in treatment and alumni coming back with all these success stories. And you’re sitting there and wondering, man, when am I going to have my success story?
I don’t know if I’m a success story, but I’m finally doing something with my life. I’m finally living a good life. They gave me a GotSober.com shirt. It was incredible. It is really difficult to put into words. You’ve got so much going on this week. But it was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Later this month, Hargrove will accompany Williams, his agent, on a mission trip to the nation of Swaziland in southern Africa. Swaziland has the world’s largest per-capita infection of AIDS. Hargrove considers it part of his mission to share sobriety.
I’ve laid my head at night in a lot of places, in a lot of beds and a lot of cities. Sometimes at night, when I look at the sky and just sit in that moment, I realize how wonderful life can be.