BLACKSBURG, Va. -- For more than three years, a father sat behind iron bars in a maximum security prison in Virginia, wondering whether the son he hardly knew would ever forgive him.
Virginia Tech senior Aaron Rouse barely knows Roosevelt "Tim" Newby, who was in and out of his life while Rouse, his mother and his siblings grew up in the tough housing projects of Virginia Beach, Va. What Rouse remembers most is his father not being there after he had promised his young son he would never leave again.
"It's not like I can forget growing up without a father," Rouse said. "But being a man, I forgive him.
I grew up without a father, but look at where I'm at now."
Rouse, 22, isn't exactly where he wants to be this season. The unranked Hokies already have lost two games, to Georgia Tech and Boston College, and enter Thursday night's game against No. 10 Clemson (ESPN, 7:30 ET) at Lane Stadium needing a victory to stay in contention for the ACC's Coastal Division title.
Rouse, a hard-hitting safety, returned to school for his senior season after nearly entering the 2006 NFL draft. But after the way the 2005 season ended, with the Hokies being criticized nationally for their off-field problems and poor behavior on the field, Rouse felt the team needed a leader. He wanted to lead Virginia Tech back into the national championship race and wanted to show its younger players how to do things the right way.
"I had to put that part of my life on hold," Rouse said. "I couldn't leave Virginia Tech after the things that happened with Marcus Vick and Jimmy Williams. I thought Virginia Tech needed a savior. I wanted to leave a legacy and be a leader. It's something I'm proud of."
"It's not like I can forget growing up without a father. But being a man, I forgive him. I grew up without a father, but look at where I'm at now."
-- Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse
Rouse always has led by example, even when he never had someone showing him the way.
That is why Rouse is determined to become the father he never had. His girlfriend, Jacina Thornton, still lives in the Twin Canal Village housing project in Virginia Beach with their son, Isaiah, 3.
"I know I'm going to be there for my son," said Rouse, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in sociology. "I'm always going to be there for him."
Newby was never there.
On Dec. 26, 1999, the day after Newby missed yet another Christmas, he fatally shot a man in a Virginia Beach crack house. Newby and two other men were arrested and charged with murder; Newby claims he shot the man in self-defense after the man tried to rob him of money and cocaine.
Newby, four years into a 43-year prison sentence for the shooting, has no chance at parole, and if he lives until the end of his sentence, he will be 92 when he leaves prison in 2045.
It was the second time Newby had been accused of killing someone. In 1983, when Rouse's mother, Nadine Rouse, was pregnant with him and caring for infant twin daughters, Newby left his family and moved into his mother's house in Virginia Beach.
One night, Newby's older brother, Michael, showed up drunk at the house and the brothers fought in the front yard. Roosevelt Newby went inside, returned with a handgun and shot his older brother dead while their mother watched.
Roosevelt Newby claimed self-defense and served less than one year in prison.
"Tim died when Mike died," Newby wrote in a letter he sent to this reporter in January. "I'm not arrogant, selfish, boastful or a [violent] person. I never go looking for trouble or start it, things happened that [were] out of my control with my brother. The other thing in that house, I [was protecting] myself. That life I took came to me to do harm. I could have been him."
"It was tough growing up without a male figure to look up to. I've kind of been the underdog my whole life. I had to go out and make a name for myself."
-- Aaron Rouse
Roosevelt Newby said he became a crack addict when he was younger, and his criminal record shows he was arrested more than a dozen times and charged with crimes ranging from larceny to trespassing to drug possession. Newby served a three-year prison sentence from 1995 to '98 for conspiracy to sell cocaine.
"I didn't rob, steal or do anybody harm to get my drugs," Newby wrote in the letter. "I worked for different drug dealers and was a runner and got paid well for the things I did. I didn't need to do the other things junkies did to get their drugs of choice. I would make money selling crack to crackheads from the drugs I got from the dealers. I'm saying these things because I want you to know everybody that smokes crack isn't violent. You just see the bad things of the world. I never hurt anybody or took a life for crack."
Once Newby was released from prison in 1998, he returned home and swore to Rouse, then 14 years old, that he wouldn't leave again. Four months later, he was gone and never returned.
"It was tough growing up without a male figure to look up to," Rouse said. "I've kind of been the underdog my whole life. I had to go out and make a name for myself."
Rouse did that last season, when he led the Hokies with four interceptions and was third on the team with 77 tackles. He led Virginia Tech to the ACC championship game, in which the Hokies were upset by Florida State 27-22 at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. He came into this season regarded as one of the country's top defensive backs and was considered a potential first- or second-round pick in the spring 2007 NFL draft.
Newby watches his son play when the Hokies' games are televised. He said most of his fellow prisoners in Buckingham Correctional Center know Rouse is his son. Newby said he keeps a scrapbook of photos and newspaper stories about his son.
Still, Newby often wondered whether he would ever get a chance to tell his son how proud he was.
Aaron Rouse never visited his father in jail. Not until this past April, when he finally mustered the courage and forgiveness to meet with his father.
"We just talked and listened and cried," Rouse said. "I thought he wasn't going to have anything to say, but we talked for a long time. I just wanted him to know I'm a man now."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.