WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The carpet was cream-colored, and, mercifully, shag. And when Aaron Curry crawled down there at night, with his pillow and blanket on the floor, he was usually too tired to care. Someday Curry was going to laugh at this: that he'd gone from temporarily homeless and sleeping on the floor of a buddy's bedroom to the NFL. Someday he'd get someone else to believe it.
It's a two-hour drive from Curry's hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., to Wake Forest, and you can tell you've arrived on campus by the smell of tobacco and success. Guards in tiny shacks keep strangers away at night, and at daylight, serious-looking scholars walk briskly up the hills to one of the best educations in the South.
That Curry survived here, got his bachelor's degree in sociology while his mom struggled to raise three boys on her own, is a Horatio Alger story in and of itself. That he's attracted 41 NFL scouts to the campus could be considered an even bigger feat. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe tells reporters that they normally have to beg to get a guy with a clipboard down to the practice field to watch. But now the place is buzzing.
Curry walks out onto the field, in his black warm-ups and neon-lime cleats and gloves, and the scouts immediately start to scribble. He glides through a bag drill; he sticks around to give a few unknown hopefuls who didn't even play for Wake Forest some pointers. And when pro day is over, the All-America linebacker drifts away from the circus and takes a seat near his friend, John Fuller.
They've known each other since grade school, when Curry was an awkward kid with thick glasses, big hands and a wiry body that would have frustrated even Charles Atlas. Three summers ago, when Curry's mom was evicted from their rental home in Fayetteville, he made an early-morning call to Fuller and asked if he could stay for a night. The one night led to three months; the friendship transcended social classes. Fuller's mom bought Curry some jeans and a couple of shirts for Christmas, just so he'd have something to open.
Now Curry is considered possibly the biggest prize of the 2009 draft. It's a $60 million leap, but draftniks say Curry is a safe bet, a combination of speed, power and plain old gumption. He's listed as the top athlete on many draft boards. He's mindful of the precipitous climb.
"I ask Aaron, 'How are you taking this all in?'" Fuller says. "Because it's hard for me to take it all in. We're coming from nothing, but he's about to have so much."
It starts, inevitably, with "The Mama-ger." Chris Curry has been calling herself that lately, in jest, as her youngest boy's stock continues to rise. She is stubborn and hard-headed, but then again, so is he. She knows when he doesn't answer his cell phone late at night that it usually means he's gone to the tattoo parlor to get inked again. She forbade him to get a tattoo of her, and meant it. "This face," she says, "is copyrighted."
His older brothers, Christopher and Brandon, generally didn't want to play football with the scrawny kid. So Aaron spent much of his younger years tagging along with his mom to the mall, to the grocery store, to buy his beloved Jujubes. "Canley" is what she lovingly called him, because he couldn't pronounce "candy."
Whenever Aaron Curry got in trouble, it generally had to do with his schoolwork. "Whatever you do," he'd tell his teachers, "don't call my mama."
After his last exam of college, Curry sent her a text message: I'M DONE.
"I was really pushy about things," she says. "If you're going to do something right, do it all the way."
Genetics suggested that Curry was destined to play football. His father is Reggie Pinkney, a former defensive back for the Lions and Baltimore Colts. If Curry turns warm and fuzzy in conversations about his mom, he chills a bit when Pinkney is brought up. He doesn't talk about his dad much, and says he got his athletic ability from his grandfather, a large man who played basketball and track and was called "Big Pa."
"My mom was my dad," Curry says. "It was my mom and my two older brothers. We were all we had, and we made it."
The autumn nights were brutal on the E.E. Smith football team in Fayetteville. If Curry wasn't satisfied with a practice, or felt that he had a play down, he kept the whole team as the sun fell, and teenagers toiled away under the glow of a couple of headlights.
You've gotta see this kid, Curry's coach, Mike Earwood, would tell the college guys. But at 190 pounds, Curry didn't give them much to look at. Only two schools, Wake Forest and East Carolina, offered scholarships. Curry chose Wake in part because it was two hours from home, but mostly for revenge.
"It's what I call the Adrian Peterson approach," Curry says. "Anybody who passed me up, I was going to punish them. That's why I chose the ACC, [because] those schools like Carolina, Duke, and North Carolina State were right around the corner, and I wasn't wanted by any of them.
"So I took that approach that every game I played, I was going to prove everyone wrong. That I was better than what they thought I was."
He was better than anyone thought. He shot up to 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds; he emerged as one of the top linebackers in the country. Curry would spend three hours in the film room watching muted practice tapes, always scrutinizing his mistakes.
Before workouts, his defensive coordinator, Brad Lambert, would remind Curry "not to kill anybody." He was joking mostly.
"He's always trying to hit somebody so hard that we've got to slow him down," Lambert says. "Even in practice. That's the beauty about him. What you see on Saturday is what you see on Tuesday.
"That's how he helped bring our team along. Because it was hard to take a day off when the best player on your team is working hard every day."
The season before Curry arrived, Wake Forest was 5-7. He led the Demon Deacons to a school-record three straight bowl games. Some of his highlight tapes left even Curry speechless. The seven tackles and two interceptions against North Carolina his junior year; the 82 yards he ran one of the picks back for a touchdown. Not one receiver could catch him.
In his senior season he had 105 tackles, including 16 for a loss, and won the Butkus Award. He didn't tell many people this, that he almost didn't make it. Curry seriously considered entering the draft in late 2007 to provide for his family. He told his brothers that he was leaving Wake Forest, and called his teammates and said the same thing.
Deep inside, he was worried about his mom. The year before, she had run into trouble. She had three sons in college, fell a little behind, and had a not-so-sympathetic landlord. She had been forced out of their rental home in the summer of 2006, leaving Aaron to move his belongings into the Fuller house.
Chris rolls her eyes when someone mentions that summer of struggles.
"People get evicted every day," she says. "You have to keep it in perspective. I mean, it's not a good experience, but it happens for various reasons. It was hard on Aaron. He was mostly worried about me, and I told him, 'I am fine.'
"But that's life in America."
At pro day
It's a couple of minutes before Curry is set to do positional drills at pro day, and he takes off his warm-up jacket and bounces from foot to foot, shadowboxing, his fists punching the warm Carolina air. He does this before every game, as sort of a tribute to Muhammad Ali.
He's an Ali fanatic, and before a big game, he tries to put himself in the boxer's shoes to get himself motivated.
"A lot of people looked at Muhammad Ali as cocky and arrogant," Curry says, "but he was just confident. And he worked hard. When you work as hard as Muhammad Ali worked, you have every bit, every right, to be confident.
"That's how I see myself. I work very hard and I never let anybody tell me what I can or cannot do as far as football."
For a kid who used to stuff pads in his uniform just to make himself look bigger for the college recruiters, the past four months have been surreal for Curry. He flew to Arizona in late December to train at the Athletes' Performance Institute, for three months of intensive workouts. In February, Curry's work showed at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he ran the 40-yard dash in an impressive 4.52 seconds.
The gurus call him a sure thing, a lock to be one of the first men to spring out of his seat at the April 25 draft. Besides being consistently impressive on tape, Curry has the versatility to play inside or outside linebacker or dabble at defensive end.
He could go anywhere near the top, from Detroit to Kansas City. He could be the centerpiece of any rebuilding defense.
"Everybody says the same thing about Aaron," Curry's agent, Andy Ross, says. "He just raises the level of his teammates.
"At pro day, after some of the players got done running their first 40, Aaron was kind of pulling them off to the side, showing them things to work on with their start. Some of the guys were from other teams. How often do you see a player who's there with all the expectations he has and he's trying to help out the other guys who are there? That's the type of guy he is."
Curry knows this: His life is about to dramatically change. But maybe, in some ways, it won't. A few months ago, with a little bit of new money, he went Christmas shopping for a needy child in Winston-Salem. Just to give the kid something to open.
"I think anybody who knows my story," Curry says, "would be inspired to just keep fighting. To keep working. I've been through some tough times, but I've found a way to be successful in football."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.