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Means making a name for himself on the field

Albert Means used to be all about big numbers, none of which did him any good.

Big money. When is a high school defensive lineman worth $150,000? When two of his Memphis high school coaches can allegedly strike a deal for that much with an Alabama booster, in exchange for his signature on a letter-of-intent. That, according to grand jury testimony, was the tawdry price tag for the Crimson Tide to sign an unwitting Means, who trusted the guidance of the coaches who sold him out. It was probably the most shocking pay-for-play revelation in college football history.

Big scandal. Five years probation. Two-year bowl ban. Twenty-one lost scholarships. Spurred by the stunning dollar figures surrounding Means, that's how hard the NCAA slammed the Crimson Tide for major rules violations. The ripple effects are still being felt, including a Tennessee-Alabama feud now running so hot that it had Volunteers coach Phil Fulmer skipping SEC Media Days and dodging subpoenas in Birmingham.

Big pounds. The world figured that the six-figure tackle would immediately be the next Mean Joe Greene. Instead he was the next Fat Albert, at one point weighing 370 pounds. A then-pachydermal Means was out of shape and/or academically adrift in his one year at Alabama and, after transferring, his first two years at Memphis. Which led to big expectations unfulfilled.

But there is less to Albert Means these days. And the downsizing has been a blessing.

Today Means is a relatively trim 319 pounds. The fifth-year senior could be poised for a breakout season at defensive tackle for the Memphis Tigers, who last year went bowling for the first time since 1971.

(Poised to break out if his balky back will let him, that is. Means injured the back in the weight room during the summer, and Thursday was the first time he's participated in drills with the Tigers this camp -- and even that wasn't full contact. Means did some light agility work, as coach Tommy West brings him back cautiously.)

Most importantly, Means is ready for his name to do something other than live in infamy. He'd like it to resonate for reasons beyond being bought and sold.

"That's behind me," Means said. "That's been over years ago."

It doesn't take exceptional intuition to see that Means would rather not talk about those times. Who'd want to live his life as the poster boy, however naïve, for cheating in college football? In fact, Memphis sports information officials warned that he simply wouldn't submit to an interview that focused on his recruiting controversy.

Fair enough. These days Means would rather talk about life as the only married Tiger, about the giddy hopes for this Memphis season and about a professional future that grows more promising with each lost pound.

Means said he ran a 5.2-second 40-yard dash last April, when he weighed 335 pounds. Today he's optimistic that he could run 4.9. Combine that kind of athletic ability with a productive senior season, and Means' football future could be worth a whole lot more than Trezevant High School coaches Lynn Lang and Milton Kirk told authorities they got for shopping their star.

"I knew I had to lose weight to play like I wanted to and like I needed to," Means said. "I've been working hard this summer, doing everything right in the weight room. Now I'm feeling light on my feet."

Memphis fans are feeling light-headed about the upcoming season. This is a program that seemed perennially stuck in park until last season, when the Tigers surprisingly won five straight games, nine overall and had just their third bowl victory ever, beating North Texas 27-17 in the New Orleans Bowl.

With everyone back on offense, led by school career passing leader Danny Wimprine and All-America candidate running back DeAngelo Williams, Memphis actually popped up in a few preseason Top 25s. Season-ticket sales have topped 15,000, a 25 percent increase over last year's total.

"We can have a greater year than last year," Means said. "We just have to play harder and smarter."

They have to be smarter off the field as well. An array of offseason disciplinary problems has tempered some national expectations of the Tigers.

Means could help provide some of the missing maturity. He's been married for two years to childhood friend Lavitta, also a Memphis student. That gives him a different perspective than his teammates'.

"They see me as a more mature person, which I am," Means said. "I don't go out all night or anything. I go home."

Getting married young never seemed like a big issue to Means. It simply was time.

"There wasn't no use in playing little kiddie games," he said. "It was time to grow up, so I did. You can't be a kid once you get out in the world."

If any college football player had reason to grow up early -- and grow up jaded -- it's Albert Means. But now the big numbers that once weighed upon him have been downsized, and controversies are starting to fade. Now he can have fun playing the game.

"This is what I love," Means said. "This is why God put me on Earth. I just think people can look at me and say, 'Good fellow, good hard worker, never gave up and never quit.' "

Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.