Learning from an expensive lesson

Jokingly dubbed "The Hitman" at the Senior Bowl, former Oregon RB LeGarrette Blount has managed to improve his draft stock, but questions about his character remain. Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.com

LeGarrette Blount tried to control his breathing, but the former Oregon running back struggled.

His heart raced. His pulse quickened. His eyes darted into the stands inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where all those intense scouts waited for him to run the 40-yard dash at the recent NFL scouting combine. Blount had never felt such anxiety before this drill. Now he thought, One of these teams could pay me a lot of money, and I can't handle my nerves.

Blount's jitters shouldn't have been surprising, and his disappointment with a respectable 4.62-second time was predictable. He was the most infamous man in Indianapolis that week, a player who had lost nearly all of his senior season after punching Boise State defensive end Byron Hout after a season-opening loss. Every other prospect at the combine was trying to showcase his speed. Blount was trying to create more substantial distance from that ugly night on Sept. 3, one that included his clashing with Boise State fans and needing security to escort him from the field.

The media bashed Blount so ferociously after that game that his father, Gary, said, "They made my son out to be some kind of beast."

Some analysts even claimed Blount, once projected to be a second- or third-round prospect for the 2010 draft, was undraftable. But here he stands, a 23-year-old preparing for Oregon's pro day on Thursday after trips to the Senior Bowl and the combine.

"I just want everybody to know that I don't have character issues," Blount said in a recent interview. "A lot of people who met me at the combine and the Senior Bowl didn't know me. All they knew is what happened on Sept. 3. They thought I had anger issues."

So Blount patiently has listened to all the predictable questions. He smiled when his Senior Bowl teammates jokingly dubbed him "The Hitman." He didn't flinch at the combine, back when a coach asked him why a player who constantly smiles in games suddenly couldn't harness his anger when provoked by an opponent. Blount knew this came with the territory. Such scrutiny wouldn't vanish easily.

Although Blount won't publicly say what set him off -- his family and friends say it was a combination of Hout touching his left shoulder and shouting at him -- the bottom line is Blount lost control.

"Everybody had high expectations for that game -- including myself," he said. "And when we lost, I let my emotions get the better of me and I overreacted."

He thinks his message is starting to sink in.

"I had two or three teams ask me about it at the combine, and that was it," Blount said. "Everybody else just said the same thing -- they knew what happened, so they wanted to talk about something else. I know they get tired of hearing the same answers, but you really can't explain what happened. After people stopped asking me about it, I started feeling like we were getting somewhere."

Fatherhood and newfound maturity

What Blount would rather talk about is all the work he has put in since that fateful day. He sees himself as a rare commodity in this year's draft, a 6-foot, 241-pound power back in a class filled with smaller, quicker runners.

Blount showcased his hard-charging running style at the Senior Bowl, where he scored one touchdown and nearly carried a couple of defenders into the end zone on another. That week was a nice first step in Blount's hopes of becoming more than a middle-rounds pick, but he still needs to impress more scouts.

An AFC personnel director said Blount "is a big back who runs strong and is elusive for his size" but added that "not playing last year hurt his ability to show what he could do. He only averaged eight to 10 carries the year before, so [his senior year] would've been his chance to prove himself as lead runner."

Added an NFC personnel director: "He certainly runs with an attitude, but he's a little sluggish. If somebody has a scat-back starter, then he could be a short-yardage guy or a change-of-pace runner. Right now, he's probably going between [rounds] five and seven."

Blount might gladly accept that fate if it's the worst-case scenario. He spent the first two weeks after that Boise State game wishing he could go back in time and walk off that field without any incident. The birth of his son, LeGarrette Jr. -- only two weeks after that loss -- has made him thirst for any opportunity to continue his playing career. Blount also has a newfound hunger, focus and appreciation for the game.

The hard part for Blount is that millions of people got to see the biggest mistake of his life. And that night defined him in ways he's hoping to shake.

"People always ask me what LeGarrette is like," said Roger Carr, who coached Blount at East Mississippi Community College and who played 10 years as a wide receiver in the NFL. "And I always say the same thing: He's not a problem kid."

Carr can remember only one time that Blount lost his cool in junior college. That moment came when an opponent hit Blount late on a running play and Blount responded by swinging at the defender, a retaliation that led to a one-game suspension. Blount's divorced parents -- Gary and Barbara -- also stressed proper values to their son. LeGarrette didn't drink or smoke, and when he attended high school dances at Taylor County High School in Perry, Fla., they made a point of picking him up afterward.

The only major issue Blount had was discipline. When numerous Division I programs courted him out of high school, he didn't have the grades to qualify for a scholarship. When a high ankle sprain sidelined Blount for his first season of junior college, he went home and returned for the spring weighing nearly 275 pounds. And after Blount gained 1,002 yards and scored 17 touchdowns for Oregon in 2008, he thought he could blow off some offseason workouts. That decision led to a suspension that lasted from February 2009 until the beginning of spring practice in mid-March.

Earning his way back

Blount is considered an amiable type. Former Ducks tight end Ed Dickson said, "LeGarrette was friends with even the quietest guys on the team."

But Blount was immature, and the Boise State game incident so incensed first-year Ducks coach Chip Kelly that Kelly suspended Blount for the season.

"At that time," Kelly said, "there was no chance for him to get back on the team. We weren't going to tolerate that kind of behavior."

As Blount sobbed in Kelly's office upon hearing that news, the coach encouraged him to think carefully about his options. You can leave school and run away if you want, Kelly told him after explaining the suspension. But if you do that, you'll just be giving people a reason to think what they already think about you. Because Blount could keep his scholarship and still practice with the team if he stayed, he didn't see any other options.

"I knew I wasn't going to leave," he said.

The next two weeks were the hardest time for Blount. He spent a lot of time hanging out with Dickson, who encouraged his good friend to finish school and get a degree. Blount also kept telling his girlfriend, Merissa McCullugh, that things would work out, but others saw a different reality.

"At one point, he did feel like his career was over," Gary Blount said. "He thought he was through."

There were three important factors that saved Blount. The first was his contrition -- he apologized to Hout, Boise State, his Ducks teammates and the entire University of Oregon.

The second was his son. As soon as Blount became a father, he said, "I realized I couldn't keep dwelling on what happened. I had to give my attention to him, and I had to do right by him."

Blount turned into such a devoted parent that he didn't even hesitate when nurses once said his son was getting cold in his hospital bed after birth. Blount stripped off his T-shirt, held the boy to his chest and patiently waited for the child's body temperature to rise.

Still, the most critical element of Blount's turnaround was his attitude after the suspension. He practiced on the scout team as if he were a walk-on hoping to earn a full ride. He also listened intently when given the chance to talk to men such as Dr. Harry Edwards, the noted Cal-Berkeley professor, and former NFL coaches Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden (now an analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football").

"They kept telling me that I'd get a shot at the NFL and I should keep my head up," Blount said. "They told me to stay in shape for when my opportunity came."

"I never knew I would get the chance to come back," Blount said. "So I never had the chance to get my hopes up and enjoy it. I always kept expecting Coach to finally tell me that I couldn't come back. I just kept working hard, and I didn't complain."

A month after the incident, Kelly outlined a set of conditions that Blount would need to meet to return to uniform. When Blount met those demands -- which included attending all classes and anger-management sessions -- Kelly decided to reinstate him because "LeGarrette earned his way back."

Blount missed 10 games after the Boise State game before his official return. Blount's first playing time came in Oregon's regular-season finale victory over Oregon State on Dec. 3, when he gained 51 yards on nine carries. He also scored on a 12-yard run in that game, a touchdown that resulted in a deafening eruption from the Autzen Stadium crowd.

When Blount raced to find Merissa and LeGarrette Jr. after the contest, she told him that she wept after that score.

"He was so happy," Merissa said. "He knew he'd gotten the chance to play the sport he loved again. He could see that all the hard work he had put in had paid off."

Now Blount is hoping NFL scouts see the same things. Despite a critical fumble in Oregon's 2010 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State, his stock has been rising in the past three months. Blount expects to run a 40 in the 4.5-range at the Ducks' next pro day (Oregon also had one March 11).

After that, he'll be waiting for a final verdict. Some organizations might view him solely as a prospect whose maturity was born out of desperation. Others might see legitimate growth.

"I don't think a team won't draft him because of that incident," the NFC personnel director said. "It wasn't premeditated. It was a reaction. But the team that drafts him has to know that's the first story that will be written about him."

Added Kelly: "I think he's more at peace with himself now. I don't know if it's because of what happened or because of his son, but there's definitely been a change."

"I know I'm showing people the person I want them to see," Blount said.

"Because it's just me. I want everybody to know that I'm not a temper tantrum waiting to happen. I'm a cool dude. The people who know me know that. Now I just want the team that drafts me to see that. Whoever takes me, they can trust that it won't be a mistake."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.