This story appears in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
IT STILL LOOKS LIKE A PLACE to get what you want, if what you want is cheap or illegal. Shaded by pecan trees, magnolias and the occasional palmetto in deepest South Georgia, young men, who all appear no older than 20, are hugging a curbside fire and hungrily eyeing anybody who drives through Valdosta's west side, ready to hustle some dope or to run.
Same as when Stan Rome showed up there in 1988. That day a dealer dropped a little something cheap and illegal into his palm. Stan -- the greatest athlete Valdosta High had ever seen, a two-sport star at Clemson, an NBA draft pick and an NFL player a decade earlier -- didn't have a dime. So he simply closed his hand and took off running, toting the $5 rock of crack cocaine as if it were stitched and bound in pigskin. He left that dealer in his dust the same way he had left a thousand sorry cornerbacks.
Stan was 32 by then and hadn't caught a quick out in years, but the instant he accelerated and made his first cut down the nearest dirt road, the suckered dealer didn't stand a chance. So he did what a thousand beaten corners probably wished they could've done when lined up opposite Stan Rome: He pulled a .22. Spotting Stan as he sprinted over a bridge that crossed a nearby canal, the dealer lifted his gun and fired. Head shot -- the end of another ghetto fairy tale gone wrong.
Twenty-two years later. A rainy Friday night in November 2010. Time has run out on the Valdosta Wildcats' pursuit of their state-record 24th championship. Jay Rome stands on the sideline of an emptying Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, tears in his eyes. Despite Jay's six receptions for 102 yards, including one balletic catch in which he spun away from tacklers twice and left them grabbing at the damp air, Valdosta was shut out 22-0.
At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Jay, an honor student with premed ambitions and the yes-sir, no-sir demeanor still standard in this part of the world, was courted by some of college football's best -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, Michigan -- before deciding to stay home and become a tight end for the Bulldogs.
But none of that matters to Jay Rome on this lousy night. It's his final game for Valdosta, the winningest high school football program in the United States, with six national championships and 40 regional championships to round out those 23 state trophies. Teams here have won so often, for so long, that Valdosta could lose every game for the next 65 seasons and still stay above .500. Wherever a Wildcat goes on to play -- and a dozen have played on Sundays in the League -- wearing the black and gold remains as good as it gets. Just not tonight.
"It hurts. I know it hurts," Stan Rome tells Jay, one arm draped over his shoulder. The man who long ago epitomized what it takes to play and win on this rarefied landscape, who had been left for dead, stands on the sideline, consoling his son. Then Stan lights up. "That pass you caught, all that spinning and turning," he says, referring to one of Valdosta's few highlights. "You looked like ... me." A quick smile creases Jay's face. "Now go out and shake hands," Stan tells him, clapping his son's pads. "Show some sportsmanship."
In a team photo from 1971, the young Stan Rome, almost a head taller than everyone else, is a dead ringer for Jay: same alert eyes, same soft, open face, same sure-of-himself posture. Even the same number: 11. These days, however, Stan's body is bent; he stands almost a head shorter than his teenage son. The dealer's bullet left one side of his face partially paralyzed. His voice sometimes catches on a word, like a needle stuck on scratched vinyl. A constant reminder for Jay, now beginning his workouts in Athens, Ga., of the traps and temptations that lie ahead.
That's why no one is a closer reader of the Stan Rome story than 18-year-old Jay. In a region where football is king, the Rome name is royalty. Old-timers often look at Jay and see "the Stan we knew when he played for the Wildcats," says longtime Touchdown Club board member David Waller, who has missed just five Valdosta games since 1947. "But I think his daddy is going to be awfully cautious with Jay. He knows what happened to him. He understands what can happen to anybody."
Jay doesn't dodge the comparisons to his father's greatness, or the warnings embedded in his near-death experience. His Facebook
handle: Jay HeirToTheThrone Rome. His Twitter account since he moved this summer to Athens: @KingStan87 -- 87 being the number Stan wore as a wideout with the Kansas City Chiefs. It's now Jay's number at Georgia. "Knowing what my dad's been through, his upbringing and everything, it tells me anything is possible," Jay says. "He's teaching me from his mistakes. I know everything he went through made him a better man, and him being a better man is making me better."
What Stan went through starts where a lot of black kids' stories began in the segregated South of the '60s: raised in a narrow "gun-barrel" house by a poor single mother with a seventh-grade education, utterly isolated from the wider white world. While Valdosta was becoming high school football's national gold standard, many blacks living on the south side of town didn't even know where the school was. "There were imaginary boundaries you didn't cross," says Roger Rome, Stan's older brother by three years who was also a star athlete.
Stan barely knew his biological father, but with a formidable mother who stood 6'3'', he grew in her image and excelled at every sport. As his
athletic reputation spread across town, white coaches soon found him. Stan started on Valdosta's varsity football team in ninth grade -- the first freshman in anyone's memory to do so. In his sophomore year, Valdosta won the title, with Stan setting school and state records for catches and yards. But his life was already starting to go off the rails.
"I started drinking at parties, smoking a little pot," Stan says. "I thought, When is everybody going to wake up and find out I'm not all that?"
By his senior year, he was both a football and basketball Parade All-America who chose Clemson, where he continued his two-sport career. He also developed a fondness for cocaine.
Still, the NBA's Cavaliers made Stan a fourth-round pick, though he was cut before the season started. A year of semipro basketball later, he signed as a wide receiver with the Chiefs. In the NFL, his drug habit swelled. Four years later, the Chiefs, weary of his missed practices and erratic play, released him.
Once back in Valdosta, he got a job selling clothes and married a girl from nearby Clyattville. But every time the newlywed LaVerne Hargrett-Rome came home, she found that Stan had hocked something else for drugs: the TV, his wedding ring. So she fled. Just a few months later, Stan was shot.
"I remember being in that hospital saying, 'God, why don't you let me die? I ruined my life, all this God-given talent you gave me,'" Stan says. That was the bottom. Stan cleaned up, worked as a drug counselor, opened two halfway houses and became an ordained minister. Meanwhile he and LaVerne reunited and started a family, raising Jay and two other children.
Jay understands that his dad's life is different from his -- beginning with having the loving father Stan never had. But he also knows their stories are inseparable. "Every time I turn around, somebody asks if I'm going to be better than my dad," he says. Jay remembers listening to Stan talking openly and honestly about his ordeals: "I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8. I asked a lot of questions. He answered them."
As Jay got older and Stan drove him to summer basketball tournaments up in Atlanta and outside the state, the talks turned longer and deeper. "And I remember thinking how proud I was that he could come from all that and talk about it and help people," Jay recalls.
With an NFL settlement for a degenerative disk condition from his playing days -- the reason he uses a cane -- Stan and LaVerne moved their family just outside of town into a sprawling house in a gated, virtually all-white community. By design, it was physically and psychologically about as far as Jay could be from where Stan grew up.
"I never stayed in the hood or ran the streets," Jay says. "But I understand what you can and can't do."
That's because his father is always around the Valdosta team, whose coach estimates that 75 percent of the players come from homes with one or no parents. Stan has helped kids in situations he had been in, let them stay at his house when they had nowhere else to go, bailed them out of jail.
"I think Stan is really sorry for the life choices he made," says Roger Rome. "And he wants to do everything he can to help every kid here. He's trying to redeem himself."
The evidence of his effort is seen in Jay, last season's top-ranked tight end recruit, according to ESPN.com. "He's a very smooth athlete for a big guy," says Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "He looks effortless compared to other guys his size, and he's a very intelligent kid. There's this kind of charisma about him."
"I see so much of myself in him," says Stan. "Some of it scares the daylights out of me."
He steers his Escalade down a Valdosta alley and slows where he palmed that $5 crack. This is where he made his first cut after bolting
with the drugs; this is where he headed toward the bridge. Then he stops. This is where he went down. There's a sign now: "No Loitering on
Bridge." Stan keeps rolling. "I just want him to do better than I did."
Drew Jubera is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.