Game Of Chance

Adrian McPherson just wants to throw.

Standing on the 50-yard line of an empty football field in Irvine, Calif., McPherson stares at the snowcapped San Bernardino Mountains and anxiously twirls a ball on his fingertips. He asks his trainer, Doug Hix, to play catch. But the last time Hix threw around with McPherson, the trainer's wedding band was bent flat. He politely declines. McPherson then asks his training buddy, San Diego State linebacker Kirk Morrison. Surely the 240-pound All-America can handle a light toss. Okay, nods Morrison, who slips on a pair of receiving gloves. They aren't much help. Neither is the 25-yard cushion Morrison gives himself. The ball explodes out of McPherson's compact throwing motion, traveling with no discernable arc directly to the target. Morrison lasts 10 passes before he peels off the gloves to blow on his raw paws.

The last time most people saw Adrian McPherson was in June 2003. But they weren't watching him play. Back then, the scrawny (6'4'', 180) former Florida State signal-caller was on Court TV, fighting allegations that, a year earlier, he had stolen a check to pay off gambling debts, including bets he made on the Seminoles. A month later, after enduring a hung jury and facing another trial, McPherson pleaded no contest to felony theft and forgery charges and an illegal gambling misdemeanor. One of the greatest prep players in Florida history then disappeared into football's version of no-man's land.

But now, just weeks before the 2005 NFL draft, McPherson is finally reemerging. And anyone wondering where he poured his humiliation and pain over the past two years need only stand in front of one of his passes. He's bulked up to 218 pounds. His back is cut like a yield sign and his shoulders would impress TO. "I have one chance to make a statement, and I need to be perfect," McPherson says. "I have to be so good, teams have no choice but to take me."

After two failed attempts to get back into the college game and one sensational season in the AFL, McPherson has left nothing to chance. Since October, he's been preparing six hours a day for his predraft workouts. He has a passing coach and a running coach. He has a trainer, a masseuse and a sports psychologist. He's studied film. He's taken a physical and a Wonderlic test, and aced both. He's done mock team interviews, examined the tapes, then run through them again to make sure he comes across as open and direct about his past. He flew cross-country to the Senior and Super bowls so he'd be more comfortable speaking with owners and coaches. "All we need is one team to fall in love," says his agent Leigh Steinberg, who did his own extensive background check of McPherson.

McPherson understands that this will happen only if his life and skills are laid bare. While most quarterbacks don't do full workouts at the NFL combine, he did so with enthusiasm. He ran an acceptable 4.69 40, showed off his arm strength during passing drills and ripped off 22 bench-press reps at 225 pounds. (He was followed on the bench by Auburn running back Carnell Williams, a likely top-10 pick, who managed just 19 reps.) As the week progressed, McPherson became the combine's anti-Clarett: a guy with a questionable past who showed up, quietly did the work and changed most people's opinions about him. Tampa Bay and New Orleans have been interested in McPherson for more than a year, and 23 other teams were intrigued enough with his combine workouts to interview him. "Physically, he's the kind of guy you'd create if you could build an athlete from scratch," says one NFC South scout. "Character-wise, the kid has been so clean since he got in trouble, he's squeaky. But that still may not be enough for some people."

Which is why McPherson needs to win over the NFL one interview at a time. He wants scouts and coaches to see the kid who still calls his father "sir." But he also wants them to know the confident athlete who, in the days leading up to the combine, broke the tension in Steinberg's Newport Beach office by launching into a horrendous rendition of Ray Charles' "Georgia on My Mind." McPherson is humbled but not broken, and is mature beyond his 21 years. Still, with just weeks to go until the draft, he epitomizes the classic quandary for NFL GMs: do his freakish physical gifts and potential outweigh a checkered history? "People say I have character issues?" McPherson asks. "Character is what you do when you're down. And I was all the way at the bottom. And I kept fighting."

MCPHERSON ENDED his four years at Bradenton Southeast High in Florida as a schoolboy legend. In a state famous for prep prodigies, he is the only player to be named both Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball. He threw for 86 career TDs in high school, third all time in the state. As a hoops player in his senior year, he was one assist per game shy of averaging a triple-double. He had good grades and good parents-Floyd, a supervisor at a window company, and Henrietta, a sales rep for Verizonwho gave him and his two younger sisters a good life. But for all she and her husband pro-vided, Henrietta worried about Adrian's naïveté. "He hadn't learned people yet," she says.

As a Florida State sophomore in 2002, McPherson quickly became the most popular player on campus, simply because the Seminoles' starting QB, Chris Rix, was playing so badly. After a 34-24 loss to Notre Dame dropped FSU to 5—3, Bobby Bowden named McPherson his No. 1 QB. Over the next three games, the Seminoles went 3—0 as McPherson threw for 654 yards, eight touchdowns and just one pick. He played with the kind of smooth, clean, effortless power and control that prompted Bowden to say he had as much athletic potential as anyone he'd coached.

It didn't take long for McPherson to believe his own hype. Soon he was overdosing on a toxic mix of immaturity and hero worship. "I was a kid, starting at quarterback for Florida State, living a dream," he says. "And I felt like I could do anything I wanted to."

On Nov. 18, two days after McPherson led the Seminoles to a 40-14 win over North Carolina, he and two friends, Melvin Capers Jr. and Otis Livingston, were checking out rims at R&R Truck & Auto Accessories in Tallahassee. The shop was owned by a man named Dale Acosta, who invited McPherson and his friends into his office. Left alone for a moment, McPherson reached over and tore off a blank check from the store's checkbook. He then made it out to Capers for $3,500, signing Acosta's name. To this day, McPherson can't explain his actions. "So many times I've run it through my head." McPherson says. "Afterward I wished I had dreamed the whole thing. But it was too late."

That afternoon, Acosta called police to report the stolen check and offered McPherson as a possible suspect. A week later, after McPherson completed just eight of 20 passes for 80 yards and an interception in a 17-7 loss to North Carolina State, Capers was arrested, and all of Tallahassee seemed to know McPherson was next. Bowden kicked his quarterback off the team and, on Nov. 27, McPherson was arrested and charged with felony grand theft.

After the arrest, many speculated that McPherson had stolen the check to pay off a gambling debt. Although his lawyer called it "a rumor run amok," the story created headlines across the country. McPherson skulked back to Bradenton and put himself under house arrest. Since he had first picked up a football, he'd dreamed of playing in the Florida-Florida State game. On his first weekend home, he watched that game on television, locked inside his bedroom. Too embarrassed to face his friends, he stayed indoors for a month. That left his parents and sisters to take the brunt of the backlash from FSU fans in the community. "People say they know what I've been through," McPherson says, voice cracking. "But to see the hurt on my parents' faces on a daily basis, the sadness and pain, and to know I was the one who put it there-people have no idea."

In March 2003, prosecutors charged McPherson with illegal gambling. And at the June trial, Capers (whose stolen-check charges were later dropped) testified that McPherson bet on sports, including FSU football games, through several Internet gambling accounts. Livingston even told jurors that McPherson had placed a $1,000 bet on a Miami-West Virginia game from the FSU locker room.

Still, none of the state's physical evidencewire transfers, computer records, information from the gambling websites-connected McPherson's name to the accounts. "I know him as well as anybody," says ex-Seminole teammate Greg Jones, now a running back with the Jaguars. "And he didn't do anything like that." McPherson was, and still is, adamant that he never gambled. The jury deadlocked and the trial ended without a verdict. A month later, eager to end the ordeal, McPherson pleaded no contest to the theft, forgery and gambling charges. He was sentenced to 90 days of work camp, 30 months' probation and 50 hours of community service, and was ordered to pay more than $4,000 in restitution. TV crews from all over Florida taped the former Mr. Everything picking up trash in prison stripes. "I wouldn't change his punishment if I could," says Floyd. "This path made him the man he is."

The gambling charge made McPherson untouchable as far as other D1 schools were concerned. So, in the fall of 2003, he enrolled at D1-AA Tennessee State and took classes while hoping the NCAA would reinstate him. The time in Nashville was a welcome relief. Although underwhelmed by the facilities and competition-he didn't play with the Tigers but worked out with the team-McPherson was nonetheless grateful to be out of Florida, back in school and once again mixing with people his age. His mood got even better in November, when Steve DeBerg called. The former NFL quarterback, in his first year as head coach of the AFL's Indiana Firebirds, was putting together his training camp roster for the 2004 season. A Florida resident with a son McPherson's age, DeBerg remembered the former phenom and gave him a call. On a cold, rainy November day in Nashville, McPherson had his first pro tryout.

McPherson hadn't picked up a ball in more than a month. But after just four warmup passes, DeBerg waved his arms. He'd seen enough. "You've got to come play for me," DeBerg said. "You're a $10 million quarterback." McPherson, with Floyd acting as his agent, settled for $32,000 and moved to Indianapolis.

At first, playing indoors on a 50-yard field made McPherson feel as though he were passing the ball in a phone booth. He struggled to complete a pass during his first two weeks of practice. But even as an AFL second-stringer, he stayed focused. Every day before leaving for practice, McPherson tapped a piece of paper he'd taped to the wall of his apartment. It read: New York. The site of the NFL draft.

By his third week, McPherson's throwing form had returned and he'd adjusted to the speed of play in the AFL. After the Firebirds started 0—3, DeBerg named McPherson his starter. In his first game, after a 15-month layoff, McPherson threw for 236 yards and 4 TDs. He finished the season with 3,297 yards, 80 touchdowns (61 passing, 19 rushing) and just five picks, and was named the league's top rookie.

On May 7, with his parents in the stands on the night before his 21st birthday, McPherson scored nine touchdowns (six passing, three on the ground) as Indy beat Detroit 68-59 in overtime. The game ended at 11 p.m., but the team and McPherson's family waited at the Conseco Fieldhouse until midnight to celebrate. Not just McPherson's birthday, but his return. "My parents had light in their eyes again," McPherson says. "That's when I realized my spirit had come back. I was me again."

HE HAD one more stop to make. This past June, back in Tallahassee to continue his community service, McPherson found himself parked across the street from the Seminoles' practice fields. He sat and watched his former team run through a summer workout, feeling a need to reconcile his past. He opened the car door and walked toward the field, then he went back. He called Floyd. "I'm watching them on the field, Dad," Adrian said.

"Well, son," replied Floyd, "just go out there and tell them how you feel."

McPherson left his car again and, this time, he went through the metal gate. Walking across the grass toward his former team, his heart beat so hard he began to sweat. No one said a word until, finally, someone recognized him and yelled from the sideline, "Hey look, AD's back!"

After briefly catching up with the players, McPherson marched to where the coaches stood at midfield. He looked each in the eye and apologized for embarrassing the Seminoles and squandering his college opportunity. Bowden was blown away, not just by the apology but by McPherson's physical changes. The coach barely recognized the skinny kid he had kicked off his team. He patted McPherson on the back and said he'd be pulling for him to make it big in the

NFL. McPherson exhaled, his body suddenly drained of all tension. "Coach Bowden told me I would always be a part of the FSU family," McPherson says. "It just felt so good to finally be accepted back."

Later, Adrian told his mom about the encounter. Like Bowden, she too could see that her son had grown. "I felt like the kid I had been trying to raise into a man had finally arrived."

Now he's ready to throw.