Coming down

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MICHAEL DYER waves the smoke out of his eyes and tries to focus on the question: Can we have your gun?

On one side of him, an Auburn teammate is nodding off, too sick and tired from his high to stay awake. Another teammate is holding his stomach and retching while his brain burns.

Dyer, a 20-year-old running back coming off a freshman All-American season in 2010, is celebrating spring break at a friend's apartment, drinking beer and smoking chemically coated leaves that are sold in gas stations under the name Spice. But the mood turns serious when fellow freshman teammate Shaun Kitchens asks: "Man, let me use your strap. We need to go hit a lick."

The "strap" is a .45-caliber handgun with a laser sight stashed beneath the couch in Dyer's off-campus apartment. But Dyer, according to records of his subsequent interview with police, isn't interested in committing a robbery on this night, or any night. Not when he's just two months removed from single-handedly marching Auburn down the football field in the final seconds of the 2011 BCS title game, the school's first national championship since 1957. Not when two more seasons stand between him and a first-round spot in the 2013 NFL draft.

So after he and his friends finish watching an NBA game, Dyer announces that he's leaving to pack for a trip home to Little Rock, Ark. But as he will later recall under oath, Dyer isn't in his apartment long before he's visited by another freshman who was partying with the group earlier. Antonio Goodwin, a wide receiver from Atlanta hoping to work his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore, is usually reserved. But at this moment, he seems antsy, eyes darting. "Come on, man, gimme the gun," Dyer will recall Goodwin saying. For a second time, the star back refuses.

"He had this look in his eyes I hadn't seen before," Dyer later tells the police, trying to put into words what doctors are discovering in emergency rooms across the country: The chemicals in Spice are causing neurotransmitters in Goodwin's brain to short circuit like downed power lines. "I tried to be a man and tell him I wasn't going and, you know, he shouldn't go because, to be honest, Antonio is not really that type a guy," Dyer will later tell a jury.

But Goodwin isn't listening, and in the early hours of March 11, 2011, coach Gene Chizik will awaken to an avalanche of bad news that will eventually reveal what had been successfully kept under wraps during an undefeated 2010 season: Some of the very stars who delivered Auburn a BCS title were using the most devastating synthetic drug sweeping America.

A SIX-MONTH INVESTIGATION by ESPN The Magazine and "E:60" reveals deeply rooted, underlying issues that had ensnared many players on that championship team and threatened the program even as it celebrated its greatest victory.

In August 2010, as the Tigers prepared to kick off the season against Arkansas State, director of sports medicine Joseph Petrone made 600 copies of a newspaper article he'd just read about Spice, a chemically altered incense being sold over the counter at gas stations and mini-marts around Alabama. But Petrone wasn't alone. Athletic departments from coast to coast were just learning of Spice.

Its active chemical is a vestige of research done in the 1980s by a Clemson University researcher named John W. Huffman, who in an effort to help patients with severe pain relief engineered a series of compounds that acted on the same parts of the brain as marijuana. He named the first iteration, JWH-018.

Huffman never tested the compound on humans, and his research never left the lab, getting relegated to musty textbooks. But two decades later, German chemists rediscovered JWH-018 and brought it back to life. They sent the design to Chinese chemical companies, which returned a powder form that could be mixed with a liquid solvent and sprayed onto potpourri-style leaves for a powerful new club drug.

The problem was that no two batches of this "synthetic marijuana" were exactly the same. One group of leaves could be sprayed with higher concentrations of JWH than another, rendering it potentially life-threatening. That became clear when U.S. soldiers, who bought Spice abroad in the hopes of evading military drug tests, started overdosing on it.

By 2009, Spice was sold freely over the Internet, marketed in shiny cellophane packages that looked like candy wrappers, often with the phrase "not for human consumption" written in tiny letters. In the U.S., the American Association of Poison Control Centers found itself fielding calls from emergency room physicians who had no idea what was causing the strange, alarming symptoms they were suddenly confronting. By 2010, 11,406 people nationwide were admitted to emergency rooms with those signs.

"If you take the worst effects of meth, crack and LSD, that's what they were seeing," says Dr. Mark Ryan, head of the Louisiana Poison Control Center. "These people were paranoid, psychotic. For lack of a better term, they were out of their minds."

So after Petrone read about a law passed by the Alabama legislature in July 2010 to criminalize the possession of JWH-018, he went to the copy machine and made enough to place an article in the locker of every Auburn athlete, including freshmen Michael Dyer, Dakota Mosley, Antonio Goodwin and Shaun Kitchens as well as junior Mike McNeil.

FROM 2002 to 2006, Gene Chizik was one of the hottest assistant coaches in the country. He was Auburn's defensive coordinator during an undefeated season in '04, then was hired as an assistant head coach at Texas, where he won a national title the following year. In November 2006, Iowa State threw $1.1 million at the square-jawed former Florida linebacker to rebuild its program. But Chizik never clicked in Ames, Iowa, and his first season was a 3-9 disaster. He ended 2008 on a 10-game losing streak.

Despite his struggles, Chizik drew considerable interest from Auburn when Tommy Tuberville's decade-long run ended after a 36-0 loss to Alabama in the 2008 Iron Bowl. Traditionalists around the program loved the idea of Chizik's power football philosophy, and he persuaded them that the chip on his shoulder from the Iowa State failure would inspire the floundering Auburn program.

Just shy of his 47th birthday, with a 5-19 head coaching record, the Tarpon Springs, Fla., native was handed the head job by Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, along with an $800,000 raise. The hire drew howls among doubters who believed that Auburn needed a heavyweight to counter Alabama's Nick Saban. A Birmingham News columnist reported that a former SEC assistant "laughed out loud" when he heard the news. The Montgomery Advertiser joked that hundreds of people celebrated the hire -- all in Tuscaloosa.

So at his introductory news conference, Chizik was guarded and deferential, insisting, "This is a dream job for me because I understand this place." But he moved quickly to put his stamp on the Tigers, replacing Tuberville's staff with a group of all-star coordinators, including Trooper Taylor, a wily, gregarious recruiter who'd brought receiver Dez Bryant to Oklahoma State, and Gus Malzahn, a deeply religious Arkansas native who was regarded as the best offensive mind in college football after two years of coaching the nation's top offense at Tulsa.

Chizik's first season was unspectacular, finishing a respectable 7-5 and squeaking past Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Then expectations went sky-high the following fall after he signed the nation's No. 4 recruiting class, led by the most sought-after juco quarterback in the country, Cam Newton. All that talent solidified Chizik as a force on the trail, but Malzahn executed a coup on par with Newton, using his deep roots from his days coaching high school ball in Arkansas to pluck the No. 1 running back in the nation, Michael Dyer, from Little Rock Christian Academy.

Even with the rival Tide coming off a BCS title, those close to the program were certain that Chizik was about to become the elite coach Jacobs envisioned when he made the hire.

DYER ARRIVED at Auburn in the summer of 2010, his dazzling smile and shoulder-shrugging humility belying a cast-iron kid who, at the age of 3, lost his father to a traffic accident and was raised with the help of family friends. In a 2010 promotional video for the Tigers, he alluded to the way he used football to get back at the world: "When I run the ball, I'm always lowering my shoulders and thinking, 'Who's gonna go down this play?'" He also conceded that he wasn't certain about Auburn until his best friend and teammate at Little Rock Christian, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end named Dakota Mosley, received a scholarship. "One day he called me and said he wanted me to come to AU with him," Dyer recalls in the same video. "If he hadn't said something, I probably wouldn't have been here."

The two recruits may have hailed from the same state, but their worlds were vastly different. While Dyer walked through life less privileged and angry about the death of his father, Mosley was showered with his father's affection. Harrison Mosley, the backslapping owner of a commercial cleaning service, was so tethered to his son that he left his wife and two daughters in Fayetteville, Ark., so Dakota could play football at prestigious Little Rock Christian. Harrison took both Dakota and Dyer to college games and prospect camps together, "trying to build relationships for them," he says, which paid off when Malzahn made the push to sign both. Once again, Harrison tagged along to keep a watchful eye on his 19-year-old son.

But the son was no match for the temptations found on an SEC campus, which were far stronger than anything Dakota had been exposed to at Little Rock Christian. He got his first taste of Spice during a 2009 recruiting visit, when an older player at a football party gave him a hit. "You heard it didn't show up on a drug test," Dakota told The Mag in an exclusive interview this February. "It was just another thing to do to have fun that everybody else was doing." By the time he was officially on the team, the drug had become so openly used and widely available around Auburn that he just shrugged off the newspaper article Petrone posted in his locker and continued lighting up.

Then a late-summer practice brought his college football career to a halt before it even began. Mosley tore the labrum in his right shoulder, requiring season-ending surgery. He was just a freshman and a redshirt year would likely help his acclimation, but the farther away he got from football, the more isolated he felt, filling his idle hours smoking Spice, not caring about the change coming over him.

He began walking around campus in unwashed Tiger gear pockmarked by cigarette burns. "I would go days sometimes without showering," he recalls. "The Spice just made you really not care about things. But at the same time, if you didn't have it you'd have withdrawal symptoms, like, almost instantly."

According to Mark Ryan of the Louisiana Poison Control Center, the drug's addictive potential comes from the fact that it triggers the flow of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with euphoria. "It's like pain medication," he says. "After a while, you have to keep having more to achieve the same effects."

While Mosley wrestled with a growing addiction, Antonio Goodwin, a fellow freshman and four-star recruit, watched as veterans smoked Spice before classes, film sessions, even practices, and he simply followed their lead. "The older players kept saying it's not gonna show up in your drug tests so it kinda made you feel comfortable smoking," he recalls. Like Mosley, Goodwin noticed the drug altering his mindset and on-field performance. "As a football player, I felt I was starting to slip," he says. "Like passes I would normally catch in practice I would drop. On long runs, I'd begin to slow down a bit. Problems breathing. Stuff like that."

But Goodwin was mostly relegated to special-teams duty, and if the starters were feeling any ill effects from Spice, it wasn't showing. Through October of the 2010 season, the Tigers were 9-0 and had beaten three top-15 teams. Cam Newton was a Heisman favorite and Chizik couldn't go anywhere in The Loveliest Village on the Plains without being mobbed by boosters who suddenly claimed they were behind him all along. Dyer, who'd posted 100 or more rushing yards in three games, was hailed as the second coming of Bo Jackson.

Throughout all that success, though, there was grave concern spreading across Auburn's 88,000-square-foot athletic complex about a budding synthetic marijuana problem. An assistant coach on that 2010 squad, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Mag in February that Chizik addressed it in a midseason staff meeting: "He said, 'We have to get our arms around this thing,'" the coach says. "He was certainly ahead of me in terms of knowledge." Chizik also called a meeting to warn players, saying anyone who was caught using synthetic marijuana would be kicked off the team.

Despite the coach's lecture, Petrone, the sports medicine director, admitted to The Mag this March that he never went to a single student-athlete in search of information and none came to him. Nor was he aware that Redwood Toxicology Laboratory, a drug-testing lab in Santa Rosa, Calif., had widely announced in July 2010, a month before he posted the article on every locker, that it had the first urine test to detect JWH-018.

Instead, Petrone approached Auburn's own drug-testing vendor, Aegis Labs, located in Petrone's hometown of Nashville, Tenn., to ask for its help in creating a test. According to Petrone, Aegis responded with a time frame of three to six months.

That, in hindsight, was the dead zone.

BY LATE OCTOBER 2010, with the Tigers undefeated, Harrison Mosley was completely caught up in the mood on his son's campus: The electricity of Toomer's Corner on Saturday nights, the growing celebrity of Newton and the media hoards descending on Auburn. He could even be found on the sidelines during practices, cheering on other parents' sons while drifting apart from his own.

Having never played beyond high school football himself, Harrison was seduced by being so close to the program. He took players out to meals, eager to soak up all the details of the locker room, and he was a regular at the bar of The Hotel, an elegant campus guest house, where he would give the Auburn sales pitch to parents of potential recruits. He claims coaches spurred him on, particularly Malzahn, whom he still holds in a starry-eyed regard.

"They asked us [parents] to go see players that were close to where we lived and visit with them and visit with their families and do those things," he told The Mag in an interview this March. (A spokesperson for the university denies that Mosley had any official role in recruiting.)

Harrison spent enough time around the program that he was eventually introduced to synthetic marijuana. The first time he heard about Spice was in September 2010, when he ran into one of Dakota's friends at a local barbecue joint and asked what was going on with his son. The player disclosed that Dakota was part of a tightly knit circle of Spice smokers who held regular parties at Dyer's apartment. Harrison went straight to Malzahn.

Although Malzahn declined to discuss the meeting directly with The Mag, he issued a comment through a university spokesperson, saying that the two men discussed Dakota's depression, not Spice. Whatever the case, the coach's promise to follow up on Dakota's troubles calmed Harrison, who took a step back, hoping that his son could work through his demons without jeopardizing his football future.

But Spice was too strong for Dakota to overcome. Through a series of wide-ranging interviews from December to April, Dakota recounted sitting in his dorm room one evening and "feeling like I was in a cartoon land or something. I felt like I wasn't here on Earth anymore. It was wild. It was crazy."

On a weekend visit home to Arkansas, he spiraled even lower. Dakota never showed up on Friday night as planned, so Harrison went in search of his son and found him at a local convenience store. But Dakota was high and refused to go with his father, disappearing into the dark corners of Little Rock. Harrison finally received a call from Dakota on Sunday, saying he was ready to return to school. The two left for Auburn that night with Harrison at the wheel.

Back on campus, Malzahn arranged a counseling session for Dakota, who skipped it. Later, as a result of smoking Spice, the teen confessed to having suicidal thoughts. And the father admitted to being adrift. "I really didn't know which way to turn because I didn't understand what my son had gotten himself into," Harrison says. So the 43-year-old father made a decision -- he decided to try Spice himself.

At a head shop nestled in an off-campus shopping mall, Harrison bought a few silvery packages of the incense, then went to his rented condo and rolled a cigarette. Three puffs later, "My arms started to shake and I felt my heart rate triple, like it was going a hundred miles an hour," he says. "I stayed up until 3 in the morning, thinking, 'I have to come down from this stuff.'"

The next day, Harrison raced to tell Malzahn what he'd discovered. "You've got a serious problem if your players are doing this," he claims he told the coach. "It's the scariest thing I've ever done. You'd be better off handing out bales of marijuana."

IN EARLY NOVEMBER 2010, as Auburn prepared for a weak non-conference home game against Chattanooga, Chizik and Malzahn were faced with much larger problems than a single injured freshman's addiction to synthetic marijuana. ESPN and The New York Times had just reported that Newton's father, Cecil, had shopped his son around the SEC for as much as $180,000 before Newton committed to Auburn over Mississippi State. NCAA investigators descended on the program, launching a probe that included combing through bank records, Internal Revenue Service statements and email accounts for evidence of foul play in the recruitment process.

Reporters camped out around the Tigers' buses before they left for the team hotel in Montgomery, Ala., asking Newton about the burgeoning scandal. "I didn't do anything wrong," he said, shrugging his shoulders. (The NCAA would find no evidence of wrongdoing in his case.)

Newton and the Tigers thrashed their FCS opponent, 62-24, and continued rolling with wins against Georgia and an epic 21-point comeback at Alabama. Dyer ended the regular season with 1,093 rushing yards, breaking the school record for a freshman, set by Bo Jackson in 1982. On Dec. 4, the Tigers drubbed South Carolina in the SEC title game for the school's first undefeated season since 2004.

Meanwhile, in the quiet before the national title game, Dakota's addictions finally caught up to him. On Dec. 20, 2010, he failed a drug test for marijuana and the prescription sleeping drug benzodiazepine. An official memo that circulated to Chizik and Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs triggered a rash of penalties, among them an automatic three-month suspension and a call to Harrison, who says that the notification -- from Petrone, not Malzahn or Chizik -- was his first indication that Dakota wasn't responding to the athletic department's efforts. Remarkably, that still didn't stop Harrison from attending the national title game on Jan. 10, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz., with Dakota's stepmother. "I was there to support Michael Dyer," he says. "I mean, I was part of Mike's life. I was there to support the other kids who I was close to and who meant a lot to me. I was there to support the coaches who were having a good year."

Under the lights at the BCS game, the Oregon defense held Newton to a pair of touchdowns and just 65 yards rushing. With the score tied at 19 and the clock ticking down in the fourth quarter, Newton handed the ball to Dyer, who ran straight into a tackler, waiting for a whistle. But Dyer realized his knee wasn't down and kept running until he'd chewed up 37 yards to Oregon's 23-yard line. Three plays later, he gained another 16 yards, setting up the game-winning field goal.

Dyer, who was named the Offensive MVP, received the lion's share of the credit for Auburn's first national title in more than half a century, but the Tigers' defense was just as stout. One unexpected standout was Mike McNeil, a junior safety from Mobile, Ala., who was raised by his mother and grandfather, Pro Bowl receiver Clifton McNeil, after his father was murdered at age 7. McNeil notched a team-high 14 tackles, 12 of them solo hits, and had every reason to believe he could follow in his grandfather's footsteps to the NFL.

While Dyer and McNeil shined on a national stage, Dakota watched them on TV back at his apartment in Auburn, passing the hours by smoking Spice.

ON JAN. 24, 2011, two weeks after the championship game, Aegis Labs informed Auburn that a test for JWH-018 was ready, six months after the Redwood Toxicology test became available. Players on the 2010 team who were not enrolled in the spring were no longer eligible for Auburn's drug testing pool and therefore couldn't be caught. "I think we were one of the first, if not the first school in the Southeastern Conference to test for it," Jacobs says in defense of the timing.

Three days later, Petrone gave the test to 97 student-athletes and discovered five positives, including one from Mosley and another from an unidentified player on the football team, according to records made available by the athletic department in February of this year. Over the next six months, Petrone administered the test another 702 times and found 13 new cases, 10 more of them from members of the football squad.

One of the Tigers in that group was Shaun Kitchens, a 19-year-old wide receiver from Atlanta. The freshman's mother, Kimberly Harkness, worked three jobs to get her son to Auburn and she did it while caring for two other children, one of whom has special needs. The day she dropped her son off on campus was, she told The Mag, the proudest of her life. "I worked my ass off to get him to this point," she remembers saying to one of the coaches. "Now I'm turning him over to you."

But in late February 2011, she received a call from assistant coach Trooper Taylor, who had brought Kitchens to his office to inform Harkness that her son was skipping classes and coming late to team meetings. "Why, Shaun?" she recalls asking him. "You worked so hard for this. Why?"

Kitchens mumbled an apology, but Harkness says her son was usually so focused and determined. "I couldn't put my finger on it," she says. "Something just wasn't right." The subject of his failed drug test, Harkness says, was never broached.

What Harkness had no way of knowing was that while NCAA investigators pored through Auburn emails and phone logs in the Newton case, the highest-ranking members of the athletic department made a specific choice not to talk about Spice. Jacobs, a folksy, confident executive who played offensive tackle for the Tigers in the early '80s, told The Mag in an interview this past February that the decision not to inform athletes' parents about their positive tests was a matter of legal necessity because the drug had not yet been added to the school's banned substances list.

Based on documents obtained by The Mag, Auburn's 2010 drug policy allows for the banning of drugs also on the NCAA's banned substances list, including a category called street drugs. While the NCAA's list defines marijuana as a street drug (no specific mention of synthetic marijuana), a clause in the Auburn policy would've allowed it to expand the definition to include "related compounds." Yet the school's legal staff concluded that Spice was not a related compound of regular marijuana. "In 2010 and early 2011, using synthetic marijuana was not necessarily a transgression of our policy," says C. Randall Clark, the head of the university senate's drug testing committee.

In other words, the school deemed that the athletic department couldn't discipline students caught using Spice in the same manner as those caught using regular marijuana or cocaine. That meant no parental notification, no loss of playing time and no mandatory counseling. "There wasn't anything we could do except educate our athletes," Jacobs says.

THE FIRST TIME Mosley learned that he'd failed Auburn's new drug test for Spice, in February 2011, he was petrified. "I was scared that I was gonna have to call my parents again and tell them that I'd failed another drug test and I was gonna get kicked off the team," he told The Mag.

Actually nothing happened, even after he'd failed six more drug tests by March 9. Petrone did tell him to stop using the drug, but "it was kind of weird," Dakota says. "It was like you could get in trouble for doing it, but you couldn't get in trouble. It almost seemed like it was OK."

On the morning of March 9, 2011, after he was given the seventh straight drug test he would fail, Mosley was escorted to Chizik's office to talk about his future. Chizik declined to discuss the meeting with The Mag, as did Malzahn, who was also present, but Cassie Arner, an athletic department spokesperson, described it more than two years later as a pep talk designed to help the troubled freshman get better. "Coach Chizik set very specific targets that Mr. Mosley had to meet if he wanted to play spring ball," she said in an interview with The Mag this past March. Those targets included staying clean for six weeks and counseling.

Harrison Mosley, however, recalled it differently. According to him, Malzahn emerged from the session saying that they "had worked it out" and that Chizik was putting Dakota back on the team. Dakota recalled being told he was "probably going to get back on the team."

The particulars may be less interesting than the timing of the meeting. Text messages from March 9, 2011, between Harrison and his son show that Dakota was scheduled to meet an investigator from the NCAA later that very day. According to the Mosleys' texts, the investigator wanted to know about recruiting trips that Dakota took to Auburn in 2009, as well as a photo showing him clutching stacks of bills wrapped in rubber bands. Harrison said the cash was money that his son got from a car sale. But the texts, which Mosley furnished to The Mag, suggest that he was concerned about how it would be perceived by the NCAA. (In November 2012, several media outlets reported that the NCAA was actually looking into the recruitment of players courted by Taylor and running backs coach Curtis Luper.)

"Did you ever visit with the NCAA lady," Harrison asked his son at 7:21 p.m. on March 9, 2011.

"Yea I did," Dakota answered.

"So what was said?"

"Just asked about the trips."

"What about the picture?"

"Just told them it was from my mom selling her car."

"That was it?" Harrison asked. He then followed up with, "Call me for a minute."

There is no evidence that the Dakota's session with Chizik had anything to do with the NCAA meeting scheduled later that day. Dakota, in fact, says it was never discussed. He ended that day feeling upbeat. Despite all of his positive tests for Spice, the program was going to stick by him.

THE NEXT EVENING, on March 10, 2011, with spring break about to start, Michael Dyer waved the smoke out of his eyes and tried to focus on the question: Can we have your gun?

He was staring back at Mosley, Goodwin, Kitchens and a fifth teammate, sophomore receiver DeAngelo Benton, who was hosting them at his off-campus apartment. They were watching an NBA game, passing around a synthetic marijuana joint and complaining about how broke they were. As the result of his three-month suspension for marijuana use, Mosley was no longer getting a monthly stipend from Auburn. Kitchens and Goodwin were getting roughly $350, but it wasn't enough.

After he and his friends finished watching the game, Dyer announced that he was leaving to pack for his trip home to Little Rock, Ark. According to Benton's subsequent testimony, Mosley, Goodwin and Kitchens did the same, but not before "pop[ping] some kind of pill." (Mark Ryan, the Louisiana poison control expert, describes mixing prescription medicine with Spice as "pouring gasoline on a fire.") Benton had his back to the group when he heard one of them say on the way out, "I'm tired of being broke. I need to hit a lick."

Dyer, who turned down interview requests from The Mag, later testified in court that he wasn't in his apartment long before Goodwin paid a visit to ask for Dyer's .45 caliber handgun. But in an exclusive interview with The Mag this past March, Goodwin disputed that account, claiming that Dyer got the weapon himself and carried it to another party, this one at an apartment shared by Mike McNeil and future Kansas City Chiefs corner Neiko Thorpe.

"When we got to Neiko's house there was a little bit more smoking and drinking that took place," Goodwin says. "We were around more females and, whatever, it was like a party scene. We were chilling and Mike Dyer had [the] gun on his waist. Dakota asked to see it."

Thorpe later told police that when he followed his teammates into McNeil's room, he witnessed them passing around a gun and discussing "something about a trailer."

IT'S EASY to get lost in Conway Acres, a trailer park on the outskirts of Auburn filled with identical, connecting cul-de-sacs. The manufactured homes are stacked like dominoes, with similarly trellised porches, fresh cut lawns and pickups parked outside.

Mosley had been to Trailer 437 a few weeks earlier to visit a friend, Tyler Smith, and saw him place an $850 check in a small Walmart safe nestled in one of the bedrooms. McNeil later told police that Mosley decided to "hit" that particular "lick" because "his friend had some money." Goodwin insists, "None of us originally planned on doing anything." Kitchens vaguely recalls, "Some other folks I was in the car with decided to ride over to the trailer." Mosley says robbing the trailer was Kitchens' idea.

Whatever the case, all were still stoned when they jumped in McNeil's white Chrysler 300 sedan, just before midnight on March 10, 2011, for the trip to Conway Acres. McNeil took it as far as the access road, then got out so Mosley could take over as the getaway driver.

The trailer was lit up with several people watching a movie inside, among them a mechanical engineering student named Don Rhoades. When Rhoades heard a knock, he thought it was another friend who promised to stop by. He opened his door to find himself face to face with the barrel of the .45.

"He pushed me down on the couch and pretty much got on top of me," Rhoades testified in court. One of the girls in the trailer ran off to hide in a bathroom, only to be hunted down by an intruder, later identified as Goodwin, with a BB gun. The girl, Ingrid Capps, later recalled that as another hostage starts crying, "The gentleman who had [a] wooden rosary told her to shut the F-word up." A few minutes later, one of the robbers emerged from a bedroom with a black safe. "We got what we came here for," Capps recalls him saying as they fled. (Tyler Smith, Dakota's acquaintance and the trailer's owner, was not present during the robbery.)

Peering out at the tail lights of the white Chrysler disappearing into the dark, a shaken Rhoades told Capps to call 911 on the iPhone she'd cleverly stashed in the couch. Just as the car reached the main avenue outside the development, two Auburn police officers responding to the call turned on their cruisers' patrol lights. Mosley slowed to a crawl and pulled into the gravel entrance of a horse farm. The police pulled up, emerging with their service revolvers drawn, and ordered the men out of the car. A third officer pulled up at the same time and kept his duty rifle trained on the scene.

As the four hapless Tigers stood on the roadside, the police found the black safe along with a .45 caliber handgun and a BB gun. Asked to identify himself, Goodwin replied, "We're Auburn football players."

The next morning Chizik awoke to the news that four Tigers were each being held at Lee County Detention center on $511,000 bail. He huddled with his staff and released a statement expressing shock and outrage. "While we realize the legal process will run its course and these young men have a right for their case to be heard, playing for Auburn University is an honor and a privilege. It is not a right. I am extremely disappointed and embarrassed by the actions of these individuals."

After the statement is released, he picked up the phone in his office and started calling the parents of the players involved. Harrison Mosley recalled the head coach telling him, "I don't like the circumstances I have to call under. I feel like Dakota has stabbed me in the back."

A RECENT trip to Conway Acres this March revealed that all evidence of the crime scene has been swept away. The mobile home on Lot 437 is gone; just a rectangular patch of crab grass where it used to sit remains.

Any evidence of the Chizik era has also been wiped clean. After winning a national championship, only six seniors from the 2010 team returned, and Chizik presided over an 8-5 season in 2011, and a 3-9 disaster in 2012. The boosters who had thrown their arms around him when he was riding high went back to crowing that they were right all along about him being the wrong man for the job.

So Jacobs ate crow in an email on Nov. 25 that announced he was firing Chizik, the man he'd once insisted was perfect for the job. "I apologize to the Auburn Family, and especially our season ticket holders and donors, [who] had to endure a frustrating and difficult season. You expect and deserve better," he wrote.

On a drizzly Alabama morning in February, Jacobs looked outside his window at the cranes heaving concrete pilings for a new parking garage outside Jordan-Hare Stadium and considered the question that has hovered over his athletic department since that night two years ago.

Was his program too preoccupied with winning to confront a drug problem that was slowly destroying its youngest players?

Sipping a Diet Coke, the athletic director avoided the specifics of the case to address the big picture. "We did all we could do to educate our student-athletes until us and the testing lab could understand exactly what we're dealing with. I think just like the rest of the campus and the nation was trying to figure out," he said. The slow-moving world of college drug testing, Jacobs pointed out, is no match for the fast-moving world of designer drugs.

But four lives remain at a standstill: Mosley, Kitchens, McNeil and Goodwin are left to wonder what might have been had Auburn made it harder for them to smoke Spice, and more afraid for their football futures. If you ask Jacobs, they're young adults who ultimately have to take responsibility for their actions.

The two sides of that argument came into sharp relief in April 2012, when Goodwin was the first of the four to face a jury. Over three days, he heard Dyer testify about Spice use on the team, and the students from the trailer recounted their horror at being robbed. But when Goodwin's court-appointed attorney tried to call Chizik to testify, presiding judge Christopher J. Hughes, an Auburn alum, flatly shut the request down. "Auburn is not on trial here," he ruled.

Goodwin's jury took 45 minutes to convict him. In June 2012, Hughes sentenced the once-promising wide receiver to 15 years in prison.

During a phone interview this March from the Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, Ala., Goodwin took full responsibility for his actions. "I'm not trying to hide," he says. But he has also had plenty of time already to consider how his experience at Auburn could have turned out differently. "It wasn't hard to find out we were all smoking," he says. "It got to the point where players were showing up to the meetings high and the performance at practice wasn't as good as it was at the beginning of the season. It took a toll on a lot of people, a lot of players. But we were a winning team getting recognition with a superstar quarterback. So [the coaches] tried to keep stuff like that under wraps. You don't want it to leak out to the media. You try to … hide it."

AS THE THREE other Conway Acres cases wind through the Lee County courthouse, there is certain to be more discussion about whether Spice led to the events of March 11, 2011. On April 8, McNeil is set to be the second Tiger to stand trial.

Harrison Mosley remains adamant that synthetic marijuana is the root cause of the downfall of the Chizik era. "I think it changed personalities and the characters of people," he says. "Look at the retention rate of the players from the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Look at how many are gone."

The number (43 percent) includes Dyer, who was released from the team in December 2011 after his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season. The stated reason was a violation of team rules. But The Mag has learned that Dyer failed six tests for synthetic marijuana between February and June of 2011. After the drug was officially added to Auburn's banned substance list in August 2011, he failed two more tests. A third positive test for regular marijuana on Nov. 29, 2011, three days after the Alabama game, triggered what is known as a Level 3 penalty and resulted in his departure.

Malzahn, who left Auburn after the 2011 season and led Arkansas State to its first bowl win as an FBS school in 2012, gave Dyer a second chance with the Red Wolves. In return, the former star created more controversy after he was cited for going 96 mph in a 70 mph zone, and an unloaded pistol was found in the trunk of his car. Faced with an avalanche of negative publicity, Malzahn released his prized recruit. Now Dyer is studying at a small Arkansas Bible college, a once-likely first-round NFL draft pick reduced to a question mark with two years of college eligibility remaining.

Meanwhile, Malzahn is back at Auburn as the head coach, entrusted with rebuilding the program he helped revive just three seasons ago. Jacobs spent $7.5 million to get rid of Chizik (who has worked briefly as an analyst for ESPN) in the hopes that Malzahn's high-scoring spread offense will restore the credibility of a program that has taken the biggest tumble in college football history.

But more than wins and losses, Malzahn's job now is to try to rebuild the fragile foundations of a reeling program. Answering questions from reporters after a spring practice in late March, he had this to say: "When I first got the job, it was evident we had some players with mental scars. But it's a new day."

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