ATLANTA -- The whirling rush of traffic sounded familiar. The smell of exhaust and damp pavement brought Gene Jelks back to another time.
Walking the streets of downtown Atlanta, the former University of Alabama star felt an old life pulling at him. The concealed alleys and dark underpasses begged his company. The abandoned buildings and boarded-up crack houses offered shelter to a man who once fell victim to their broken siren song.
Eyeing the city's intermittent high-rises, Jelks was lost in a place he once called home, caught between the past and the present, the pain of failure and the hope of redemption. He was searching out the coach he once knew, the man he says stole his future, sending him down a spiral of pain and loss few understand.
Jelks wandered the Georgia State University campus looking for the school's athletic offices. Bill Curry, the former Alabama football coach who is now at GSU, was in there somewhere, and Jelks wanted a word with him.
Tapping on a locked door, he got a secretary's attention. He told her who he was and she passed along a note to Curry, who was in a team meeting.
Caught off guard, Curry went outside to meet Jelks a few minutes later. In the parking lot, the two men embraced, holding on to each other for more than a minute.
Jelks said the feeling was bittersweet as they met for the first time in more than 20 years, thinking back on the day he believes Curry sent his life wildly off course. It was Curry's decision to move him from running back to corner his junior year at Alabama, a choice Jelks feels pain about to this day.
"I tried to medicate with cocaine. I tried to medicate with alcohol," Jelks said he told Curry. "I said, 'I became homeless.' I said, 'Coach, it's not fair. You took it from me.'"
Curry was perplexed. He said he didn't know Jelks was that sensitive.
Jelks put his head down and cried. He couldn't say anything else.
Now 46 years old, Jelks tries to hang on to the good memories. He wears his old Miami Dolphins sweater and dreams of a life in the NFL. There was also the time he played with the band during halftime rather than catch his breath in the locker room. His coach at Emma Sansom High School in Gadsden, Ala., was mad, but truthfully, Jelks was more interested in pleasing his mother, who spent good money on the instrument. He could run from Coach, but not from Mom.
In the beginning, Jelks had fun. The game was simple, and so was life. There was school, football, church and the occasional trip to the skating rink. As he puts it, there wasn't enough to do in Gadsden to get into trouble. Even when a rival high school offered his family a house to come play football there his senior year, he thought very little of it. He politely declined and returned to Emma Sansom, where he would go on to win the state title in 1984.
Then his simple life took a turn before he had the chance to ask for directions. Recruiters swarmed and money started changing hands, though Jelks says he saw very little of it. He claims many people in his hometown profited from his talent.
"People in my city said they knew me, and they were receiving thousands and thousands of dollars while I wasn't getting anything," Jelks said. "You're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars under the table."
Jelks says he did receive "gifts" from schools, ranging from cash to clothes. Without naming names -- he claims to have forgotten specifics -- he says he got close to $1,000 cash from one school alone.
He caught on to the recruiting game and asked one recruiter for a car, which he says he never received.
"It wasn't in the cards," he said. "I never asked for it again."
Asked if Alabama offered him anything beyond a scholarship, Jelks grew tense.
"If they did, I don't know it. All I can say is that I was supported. ... I don't know where the money came from," Jelks said. "To be honest and fair with you, I can't say. I don't know. I received gifts. I don't know where it was from, but it happened."
There was one subject Jelks wanted to be clear on. Years ago there were claims that his parents sold him to Alabama for $2,100. On that point, Jelks let his anger show.
"My mother doesn't deserve that," Jelks said. "My dad never sold me. Coach (Ray) Perkins never did anything wrong. He was persuasive is all."
Jelks is especially sensitive when the issue of money comes up. He claims that while he was busy going broke, everyone else was getting rich.
When pushed for specifics, Jelks balked. The only tacit acknowledgment came in the instance of Jerry Pullen, Jelks' former junior high coach, who rose from the ranks of middle school coach to Alabama assistant, then on to the rare air of the NFL.
Pullen takes issue with Jelks' assessment, pointing to his resume as his biggest defense. While he did coach Jelks in the ninth grade, it was the only time Pullen coached him before accepting a position at Alabama. In the years in between, he had little contact with Jelks and went on to become head coach at a high school in North Alabama. Later, Pullen became an assistant at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Jelks, though, doesn't buy it. When he was ready to sign at Alabama, Pullen was part of the staff recruiting him.
"When I sign at Alabama, he's at Alabama. When I go to Denver, he's in Denver. You do the math, guy," Jelks said.
If Pullen squeezed every ounce of worth from his former player, Jelks did the same to his university.
When Jelks' stint in the NFL and the Canadian Football League was over after just a few years, he returned to Gadsden an embittered man, a substitute teacher barely making above minimum wage. In Jelks' mind, Alabama cost him a career at running back, and he was determined to get even one way or another.
And when a businessman knocked on his mother's door one day in 1992, Jelks got his opportunity. Jelks said the stranger who approached him -- he could remember only that the man's first name was Larry -- had a proposition.
Sitting on his mother's couch, Larry displayed canceled checks written from UA supporter Harold Simmons to Jelks when Jelks was still in school. Larry had proof of the improper benefits that would bring down Alabama, leading to the first sanctions from the NCAA in school history.
"(Larry) said, 'I knew Alabama did you wrong. You were a great, elite running back, and I liked to watch you run.' He said, 'I'm not a fan, not of Auburn or Alabama; I'm a businessman.' He made that distinctly clear. I said, 'What is this about?' He said, 'They did you wrong, and you deserve revenge.'
"And all of the sudden, it clicked. That's when the light came on. That's when the evil side came on me. My mother said don't do it, and my grandmother said to let it go and move on. I didn't. I made up in my mind."
Jelks corroborated the story the checks told. While at Alabama, Jelks worked for Simmons during the summer, earning far more than he should have. Jelks said he made more than $20,000 for what amounted to just two weeks of work.
"Simmons liked to help Alabama football players," Jelks said matter-of-factly. "I worked for him as a salesman in the summertime for Jimmy Dean sausage. But you know it was a draw card, man."
Blinded by hatred, Jelks spilled his guts to Larry, a man he later learned had ties to Auburn University. Jelks said several Auburn supporters pressed him to report Alabama at the time, providing him with a home, cash and anything else he needed. Jelks said he stayed in a townhouse in the suburbs while lawyers spoke to the NCAA.
When the story broke, appearing on the front page of newspapers across the country, the reality of what he had done finally set in.
Scared and confused, Jelks met with a former teammate at Alabama. As Jelks tells it, the former teammate tried to talk him out of turning in Alabama, throwing a wad of money on the floorboard of his car and saying, "I don't know what's wrong with you, Gene. Just take the money and go! Don't do it!"
Jelks recalled another meeting, this time with Pullen at a local body shop sometime later. Jelks said Pullen tried to tell him not to go through with it as well, but his mind was made up.
"I've been holding that in for 22 years," Jelks said of the meeting with Pullen. "He wanted to tell me not to do it. So I met with him, and he begged me not to do it. We met at J&M Body shop off of I-431 in Glencoe. I said, 'Jerry Pullen, you owe me.' He said, 'I know.' I said, 'You've been riding me since junior high.'
"He said, 'Please, don't say anything. Whatever you need, we'll work something out.' He was begging and pleading. I said, 'Coach, you don't understand.'"
That's when Jelks says Pullen got up and barreled across the room at him.
"He tried to tackle me, and I jumped back," Jelks said. "I said, 'What are you doing, Jerry?' He said, 'You're going to tell them!' We actually fought. We were in a tussle. He was so angry and mad."
Pullen disputes the basis of the meeting and said Jelks is exaggerating. Now a 54-year-old former coach living in Tennessee, Pullen claims it was Jelks who called the meeting, looking for more money. Pullen said Jelks was no longer receiving money from his Auburn backers and wanted to meet with him to discuss the possibility of turning them in -- for a price. Pullen said Jelks wanted Alabama to pay for the truth.
By that time, though, it was too late. Pullen walked away from the meeting, and Jelks never again met with the NCAA, which later imposed a one-year bowl ban and scholarship limitations on the university.
The damage was done to Alabama, but it was only the beginning for Jelks.
Things were never the same for Jelks after he agreed to turn in Alabama.
Many of his friends abandoned him, and his mother received death threats. Fearing for himself and his children, Jelks moved from Gadsden to Atlanta, far from the scorched earth he left behind.
He tried to find peace, but it wouldn't come.
"I was scared in the South," Jelks said. "I knew that I had hurt a lot of people, and they didn't deserve that. When I heard rumors of a death threat, I was fearful.
"That was the most scary, uncertain time in my life. Here I am angry, having gone against the university that gave me an opportunity. I betrayed them. I felt I had damaged all my memories, relationships. I was banned for life."
Jelks visited Gadsden in 1994 when his father fell ill.
"Every fan or family member was saying (Alabama) messed my career up, and I felt that pity, so I started drinking," Jelks said. "That demon was haunting me. I was bitter. I didn't feel free. I'm bitter looking at all my friends and Bill Curry and all these guys with contracts and finances that can provide for their families. That wasn't the case for me."
His life soon crumbled under a wave of self-pity.
Hiding in plain sight
Jelks was homeless and lived under a bridge in downtown Atlanta in 1996.
He let go, grew a beard and spent his nights in a camouflage sleeping bag. He went months without bathing and rummaged through trash cans for food.
He lived that way for almost a year. Family members were willing to take him in, but he preferred living on the streets rather than returning to a life where everyone knew him as Gene Jelks, burnout, bust, failure.
Jelks used the money he earned from football and from turning in Alabama to buy beer, liquor and cocaine. He said he would do two grams of cocaine a day, seven days a week during that time. Living out of a makeshift box with a plastic tarp for a door, he wanted out.
"I didn't want to live anymore," Jelks said. "I remember my mama saying to move on, you have to go on and find your way."
One day, Jelks threw in the towel. He tried to overdose on cocaine and found himself in the hospital.
Despite surviving, Jelks was determined more than ever to hide between the high-rises and the glow of the state Capitol.
It wasn't until an unusually frigid winter night that Jelks decided a change was in order.
"I said, 'I can't take this no more, God,'" Jelks said. "I had an old-smelling Army sleeping bag and four cardboard walls. I had a plastic sheet to keep the draft from coming in. I got under there, and it was so cold. Literally everything was still frozen. And I prayed. I asked for a sign."
A week later, a woman approached him about getting into a halfway house to get back on his feet again. Jelks accepted, entered rehab and got clean. He packed up his life and moved to Southern California, far away from the environment that enabled his self-destruction.
There were 12 steps in Jelks' road to recovery.
He returned to Atlanta in 2003 after six years in Southern California, ready to move on from the mistakes that sent him to the other side of the country in search of peace.
Jelks accepted blame for the harm he caused others and even made direct amends. He reached out to former teammates and apologized for his actions.
Kerry Goode, Jelks' former team captain and best friend at Alabama, was the man responsible for reintroducing him to the Crimson Tide family after so many years away. In Jelks, Goode saw a broken man willing to admit his failures.
There was a time, Goode said, when there were more than a handful of guys who "wanted to whip Gene's butt" for turning in the university, but decades later the pain had subsided. When a reunion of all of Perkins' former players came up, Goode thought it was the perfect time for Jelks to re-enter the fold. Jelks played running back for Perkins in 1985 and '86, before Perkins went back to the NFL and Curry took over.
"(Jelks) was very hesitant," Goode said. "I told him, 'Yeah, you did wrong, but if you walk around with this bell on your head all the time, you're going to be this way the rest of your life. If you make a mistake, own up to it and move forward. If people don't want to accept your apology, then so be it, but you have to do your part.'"
Jelks yielded, and Goode accompanied him to the reunion.
An emotional Jelks recalled the thrill of being a part of his team again that day. At one point, he crossed paths with his former offensive lineman, David Johnson. Suddenly, it was like the 1985 Iron Bowl all over again: Jelks scoring on a 74-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and jumping into Johnson's arms in celebration.
"(Johnson) held me and said, 'What are you doing young'un?' For five or six minutes we were hugging and crying," Jelks said. "I jumped up in his lap, and I knew right then I was home."
By owning up to his mistakes, Jelks completed his 12 steps. But there is one more for him to consider. For all the forgiveness he has received, Jelks still has yet to truly forgive one man.
Curry wasn't prepared to have Jelks show up on the Georgia State campus three months ago. When he received word Jelks was there, he expected to see a happy former player, one of the perks, he said, of being an old coach.
The hits are so hard that it's like life amplified at an exponential rate. Maybe it does take on more significance than it should.
”-- Former Tide coach Bill Curry
But Jelks wasn't smiling that day. Before long, he was distraught and weeping, telling a blindsided Curry how much pain he had caused him.
Listening to Jelks unload years worth of trauma at his feet, Curry began second-guessing his memory of the day he told Jelks to move to defense. Curry said he "humbly apologized" and attempted to make things right. The two parted on good terms, but Jelks admits he hasn't yet come to an understanding with Curry.
"I love him, but there will always be that thing," Jelks said. "He forced me to move. It was like an open-and-shut case. ... He may tell you it was a misunderstanding, but that's a lie. My childhood dream since I was 6 is not a lie."
Jelks is bitter, and there's little room for reason in that. The fact that Curry's decision propelled him to the NFL as a defensive back is totally dismissed. He is obsessed with the day he sat down in Curry's office and had the ball ripped from his hands.
As Goode puts it, no player leaves the game willingly. In Jelks' circumstance, he became absorbed with it, so sure he would have had a long career in the pros as a running back had it not been for Curry.
"There was no question he was consumed by football," Goode said. "That was his dream, his only dream from the day he left Emma Sansom High School to the day he left Alabama. He had no other priority, no other nothing. That's what he focused on."
Added Curry: "The speed of the game is so stunning. The hits are so hard that it's like life amplified at an exponential rate. When you think back on it, maybe it does take on more significance than it should."
Curry can sympathize. It took a man lying on his deathbed for him to understand how to forgive and forget. For years he was obsessed with former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, loathing him for the way he spoke to players and for cutting him from the team in 1966. It took until the final months of Lombardi's life for Curry to let go and apologize, an action he says changed his life.
With Jelks, Curry is trying to be that understanding. He knows the pain Jelks is feeling and wants to be there whenever his former player is able to come to grips with it.
Until that time, Jelks knows where to find him.
Jelks has wandered Atlanta looking for Curry once, and when he's comfortable, he will do it again.
"Right now I'm happy, but on the down side I have that thing with Coach Curry," Jelks said. "But I don't have closure. I have forgiven, but I haven't forgotten."
Wearing a crimson Alabama shirt proudly, Jelks looks the part of a man unburdened. But tucked behind his dark eyes and bright smile is the pain kept hidden all those years, the bitterness that sent him down a road of destruction that took him and a university with it.
When he cries, a little of the past falls away. The tears roll down his cheeks and a smile breaks through. The pain hasn't left him, but now there's hope to see him through.