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WHEN WORDS GET IN THE WAY

Greg Miller

[For more on this story, check out Bruce Feldman's BEHIND THE STORY.]

Linebackers aren't supposed to be sentimental. But Patrick Trahan can't help himself.

Ask him about the highlights in his life, and he drifts back to March 17, 2007, an afternoon that could have passed for a sun-kissed September Saturday. It was A-Day, the annual Auburn spring game, and the first time the Tigers faithful saw the player that Trahan had become. The 6'2", 210-pound once-shy project was now 230 pounds and a commanding presence on the field—and he still had his 4.4 40 speed. Coach Tommy Tuberville said that spring that Trahan had had one of the best off-seasons he'd ever seen from a linebacker.

Still, it isn't the roaring crowd or a helmet-rattling hit that stands out now. Trahan's favorite moment from A-Day came long after the final whistle as the players walked off the field. While signing his name for Sharpie-clutching fans, he looked up and noticed his mom, Patricia Baranco, in the distance, a smile stretching across her face. He'd never felt more proud. Not when he signed his letter of intent, and not when Tuberville said he'd be a "special" player before his campus days were done.

Few on that field—certainly not Tuberville, Trahan or his mom—thought Patrick's time at Auburn was already running out. Nobody thought that in two months he'd be gone, declared academically ineligible and off the team he loved.

But before you sigh deeply, assuming this is just another story about a gifted athlete who blows his big chance, hold your breath. In fact, Trahan's tale is something more, something bigger, something at the heart of what may be the most misunderstood issue in college sports. Trahan, like an increasing number of student-athletes, is classified as learning disabled, or LD. These players might have ADHD, dyslexia or—as in Trahan's case—dysgraphia, which makes putting thoughts on paper difficult. On some college football teams, as many as one-third of the players are LD. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that just 5% of public-school students are classified as learning disabled.

College gridirons have always been filled with borderline students, some certainly with learning disabilities. Decades ago, it was easy enough for teams to shuttle kids through school with a menu of cake courses. (Rocks for Jocks, anyone?) Then, in the early '90s, when the NCAA started to pay closer heed to enrollment practices, more athletically gifted, academically challenged players went to junior colleges to improve their grades.

The game changed again in 1998, when a learning-disabled college prospect named Toure Butler won an Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit against the NCAA, which wouldn't recognize high school courses modified to accommodate LD students. The NCAA feared that permitting note-takers, extended test-taking time and specialized tutors would create an environment ripe for abuse, especially at schools where the overriding priority is getting—and keeping—top jocks on the field. Such fears were justified: Many college teams test for learning disabilities, but some blur guidelines by purposely misdiagnosing LD in some players. Although unless reported, these transgressions are impossible to police. "If it's something bogus or fraudulent then obviously we'd look into it," says the NCAA's Diane Dickman.

These spurious diagnoses may help roster depth, but they hurt kids who are truly learning disabled. Says one college administrator, "Many people think LD is just another term for lazy."

Trahan believes his own treatment may have suffered because of that misperception. "I try not to judge," Trahan says, "but I'm sure some use it as a crutch. I can't let it affect me but I do believe everybody's gotta answer to a higher power someday."

That kind of thinking is how Trahan, his brother, Kenny, and their mom survived life in the rough part of Baton Rouge, La. Two turns off the I-10 exit is the simple redbrick house where the Trahan brothers were raised. It's the same home in which Patricia grew up. The neighborhood, pocked by boarded-up buildings and abandoned lots, is known as the Bottom. When Patrick was a boy, he was twice held up at gunpoint for his bike. This is not the kind of place you'd think a dentist might live. But Baranco's home is only a block from the practice she took over from her dad, one made busier by her crisscrossing the U.S. to examine troops before they ship overseas. It doesn't take more than a few minutes in the presence of this petite woman with her warm smile to see she is as territorial and strong willed as any linebacker. Asked about her son's struggles in school, she quickly says that Patrick once scored a 130 on an IQ test.

Trahan was in fifth grade when his teachers first noticed that he was falling behind classmates. He read well, but when he tried to write down what he was thinking, the words in the sentences were out of sequence. That's still true today. "It comes out different when I write it than when it's in my head," he says. "And then I'll have to retype it and figure out what pieces I've left out." Even signing autographs can be daunting if a fan asks for an inscription. When that happens, Trahan tries to focus, buy time and not feel pressured. "You can ask them how to spell their name," he says. "Because lots of times there are different ways to spell names."

Diagnosed with dysgraphia, Trahan spent the rest of fifth grade at a school for gifted LD students. He learned not only about his condition but also that he could focus his thoughts if he had time, proper assistance and few distractions.

Sports came easier for Trahan. He starred for a local track team as a sprinter. At St. Augustine High, he used his speed to force an astounding 19 fumbles in his junior and senior seasons. UCLA and Colorado bird-dogged him, but he chose Auburn, the first school to send him recruiting letters, because he felt most comfortable with the coaching staff. It helped that his mom loved the gameday scene and believed the coaches' promises that they'd help her son with his learning disability.

The family, though, says that didn't happen. In his first three semesters, Trahan did well in classes that did not emphasize writing but flunked those that did. Whenever Baranco asked how he was doing, Trahan, never one to upset his mom, would simply tell her "okay." She never pushed the matter and didn't know to what degree he was struggling until fall 2006. Trahan told her that he didn't have the grades to pledge a fraternity, that he hadn't been getting proper help, that he had a reading tutor when he needed a writing specialist. "It is so humiliating, because they don't know what you're dealing with," Trahan says. "It was like I got a spellchecker, not a personal tutor. They'd go, 'This is wrong. This is wrong.' But they wouldn't tell you why it's wrong."

He pauses. "I'm not just a dumb football player," he says, using the word humiliated eight times in the next three minutes. He knows that his perspective is difficult, maybe impossible, for many to grasp. He wishes he didn't have to lean on others. He doesn't want to be vulnerable. He's a linebacker.

Student-privacy laws prevent Auburn officials from commenting about Trahan's situation. But Baranco says she never got any anwers from the school's academic support staff. "I was just trying to find out what was going on," she says. "I thought they were supposed to keep up with his grades. If something was physically wrong with Patrick, they would've been all over it."

Last May, eight weeks after A-Day, the situation bottomed out. Trahan had been put on academic suspension after getting a B in political science, a C in organizational theory and F's in computer applications, speech and English composition. He tried to get the suspension revoked, but his appeal was denied. Baranco questioned the explanation she was given—that Trahan was not doing his work and not asking for help—so she asked to see Tuberville. She and Kenny made the six-hour drive to Auburn to join Patrick for a sit-down with not just the coach but five assistants, as well as the head of Student Athlete Support Services, Virgil Starks, and his staff.

Before they entered a conference room in the Auburn Athletic Complex, Kenny, a manager for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, coached his mother and brother not to lose their cool. Just hear Auburn out. That wasn't easy after an Auburn official pointed at Trahan and said, "It's his fault. We asked how you were doing, and you said fine. You lied!"

The accusation initially stung Trahan. He knew he could have been more proactive, but how could the support staff put this all on him? When cooler heads prevailed, the coaches assured Trahan that he could sit a year, get his GPA up and win a starting job in 2008. Trahan liked the idea of staying with his team, believing he could still make the grade with proper help. After all, a teammate, David Irons Jr., was LD, had graduated with a sociology degree and was working on a master's. But after the meeting, Baranco had other ideas. She wanted her son out of Auburn. When asked what sense it makes for Auburn to let her son, a starter, sink into an abyss, she searches for an answer. All she can come up with is "I don't think they liked me asking a lot of questions."

Trahan was torn. Leaving Auburn felt like leaving family. Baranco disagreed, saying she and Kenny were his only family. Trahan didn't know where to turn. "There's no 1-800 help line for this," he says. "My mom never played NCAA football. My brother never did. They're not experts."

Even before Trahan made up his mind, Kenny called every junior college in Mississippi hoping to find his brother a new home. Northwest Mississippi CC offered first. Defensive coordinator Blake Frazier told Trahan that if he had a good year—on film and on his transcript—other SEC schools would recruit him. It took another week for Trahan's family to convince him to transfer. And it took Trahan all of one game at Northwest last fall to get offers again. Ole Miss coaches saw tape of him flying into the backfield and running down plays from behind and thought they'd found the next Patrick Willis. As his highlights grew, more colleges called. West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Arkansas all gave chase. Auburn even said it had made changes in academic support, without saying what they were, but Baranco wasn't buying. Trahan didn't know whom to believe; he just wanted to make his mom proud.

Schoolwork, though, was still an issue. With even less academic support in junior college, Trahan struggled. Worse, Northwest required four English courses for graduation, more than some JCs. And in his first semester, Trahan failed that subject a third time, putting potential scholarships at risk. But now he wasn't going to wait until his poor grades morphed into a real crisis before telling his family. Kenny and Patricia met with Patrick's teachers to make sure he got extra assistance. Because of that help, Trahan is passing all his classes and is confident that when he gets his final grades in late June, his playing days will continue. He'll be back in the SEC at Ole Miss, where he signed in February.

On a sunny day in April, Trahan made the 30-minute drive from Northwest to Oxford for the Rebels' spring game. He met Eli Manning, talked shop with Patrick Willis and pumped up fans who kept asking if he was on track to enroll this summer. But Trahan isn't getting caught in the hype. Not this time. "Last spring I was on top of the world," says Trahan. "I can't forget that.

"I just have to stay focused."