When you are 21 years old, and have arrived at that defining number despite a series of self-inflicted setbacks and poor judgments, traveling a road where most of the potholes were jackhammered out by the guy you eyeball in the bathroom mirror every morning, past indiscretions don't negate the right to still dream a little bit.
So it is that every night, before he turns out the lights in his Indianapolis apartment, Adrian McPherson stares at the note taped to the wall several months ago, then drifts off into a reverie that includes a trip to Madison Square Garden on draft day, a handshake from commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and raucous cheers from the gallery. And when he awakens, the first thing McPherson sees is that hand-lettered motivational reminder which simply reads "New York."
Truth be told, it might be more appropriate had McPherson, the rookie quarterback for the Indiana Firebirds of the Arena Football League, jotted down New Life on the note card taped to the wall. Because that is precisely what McPherson is reconstructing from the rubble of a life that took a treacherous detour.
It remains to be seen whether McPherson, who has redirected his football career and his life after nearly squandering away forever an estimable skills set, will ever make it to New York for the draft. Or whether he ever is drafted, period, by any of the several teams quietly keeping tabs on his AFL exploits. But certainly the dream of playing at the highest level of the game, rekindled by McPherson's emerging maturity as an athlete and a person, is more realistic now that he has dealt with the nightmare of his recent past.
"Who knows what will happen?" said McPherson, rhetorically, earlier this week. "The football stuff, I'm kind of taking it as it comes, trying to get better every day. And as a person, well, you try to get better every day with that, too, you know? I made a mistake and that's on me, no one else, and I accept that. But now it's time to move on. And that is what I'm trying to do."
The weighty transgressions committed by McPherson, whose potentially brilliant college career ended when coach Bobby Bowden dismissed him from the Florida State roster in 2002, have been well documented. Credit card fraud. Forgery. Cashing a stolen check. Perhaps most notoriously, on-line gambling, typically on college football games.
After a "no contest" plea to all charges, after being sentenced to jail time, community service and 30 months of probation, McPherson was a pariah of sorts in the college game. For a variety of reasons, some of them academic and others related to the sins of his past, attempts to resurrect his football career at Murray State and Tennessee State failed.
Enter former Firebirds coach Steve DeBerg, the longtime NFL quarterback, who offered McPherson a shot at redemption. DeBerg left the Firebirds after five games, with the club winless at the time, but not before predicting that McPherson will play in the NFL.
McPherson is now ranked as the No. 8 passer in the AFL, having thrown 50 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Reflective of the overall athletic skills that made the former Bradenton (Fla.) Southeast High School star the first prep player in Florida history to win the prestigious "Mr. Football" and "Mr. Basketball" titles in the same year, he is also the league's No. 3 rusher, with 225 yards.
"An interesting guy, raw but still young, and there's something there that makes you keep watching," said one NFL scout whose job description entails creating and maintaining files on possible prospects from "alternative" leagues. "Everything I've seen is either on television or tape, and I haven't really done a 'hard' study on him yet, so it's difficult to give you a really good read on the kid. But it looks like he's got size and athleticism and can make some plays. I know this much: I'm going to keep track of him because, at some point, you could be sitting in a [draft] room discussing him."
Just how McPherson stacks up to the quarterbacks expected to be top prospects in the '05 draft -- players like Andrew Walter of Arizona State, Connecticut's Dan Orlovsky and Purdue's Kyle Orton -- is tough to gauge. But it is pretty likely that, by next spring, NFL scouts will have to have answered that question.
McPherson has matured not just mentally, demonstrated by the manner in which he speaks of his past with an undeniable gravitas and remorse to his voice, but also physically. He has sprouted to 6-feet-4 and his weight, listed at just 175 pounds when he was playing with the Seminoles, is up to 208 pounds. But even as his frame fills out, he has lost none of his quickness, and the AFL has enhanced his arm speed and release.
Because he is three years removed from his high school graduating class, McPherson technically could have petitioned for inclusion in the 2004 draft. But since he felt he needed to get his life back in order and to get back onto a football field, even the smaller playing surface used in the AFL, he never filed the pertinent paperwork. McPherson will not be in any supplemental draft this summer but certainly will consider the 2005 lottery.
He signed a two-year contract with the Firebirds, for more than the AFL minimum base salary of $25,000, but has reached enough predetermined performance levels to void the second year of the deal.
"Really, I would like to come back [to Indiana], and I really do owe the people here a great deal, since they took a chance on me," said McPherson, who is ardently pursuing a degree in sports management. "We'll just have to see how it goes. I'll sit down with my agent after the season and try to set a course. But at some point, definitely, I want that shot at the NFL. I mean, everybody here does, right?"
That may be the case but, as recent history has indicated, the AFL hasn't recently been a fertile breeding ground for quarterbacks seeking an invitation to an NFL training camp. It may well be that the league which helped produce Kurt Warner doesn't churn out many more prospects. But if there is a current AFL quarterback with NFL potential, it probably is McPherson, in part because of his age.
At 21, McPherson is the youngest starter in the AFL, and by four years. The average age of the starters outside of McPherson is 30.6 and there are six starting quarterbacks in the AFL who are 32 or older. Those demographics alone mean NFL personnel departments have reduced the priority on scouting the quirky, indoor league.
But with his obvious physical talents, and the potential he exudes, McPherson clearly is a viable guy and one who bears watching.
Some skeptics could suggest, and likely would be justified in so doing, that some of McPherson's rehabilitative rhetoric is simply a well-rehearsed rap. But even a brief conversation reveals that he is both engaging and intriguing.
In a short time, he addresses questions about his past ("The most important thing for me is to make things right for my family, because those people suffered even more than me") and about how his present can set up his future ("What most people don't understand about the indoor game is that it's more about touch than velocity") with equal candor. He has been well received by teammates, championed by AFL officials who see him as the poster boy for how they can help rehabilitate a player, touted as a young player who can reposition the league with the NFL and in the public eye.
That is a lot of weight to impose on a 21-year-old player. Then again, when you are 19, and for eight months your name has been linked in newspaper headlines most of which included the word "scandal," you don't have much choice but to shoulder the load. In the end, McPherson emphasized, his past has steeled him for the future.
"In every way possible," McPherson said, "I'm a much stronger person. It's [ironic], but I think everything that happened will make me better. I'm ready now for whatever comes."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.