IT'S FEB. 17, and, like at the start of every other NFL scouting combine, each team has set up a booth inside a cavernous lounge in Lucas Oil Stadium. The effect is a gantlet drill of executives, coaches, and scouts every bit as daunting as the on-field workouts or the Wonderlic tests that await the latest class of draft prospects.
Entering this fray on a chilly Indianapolis morning is Dorial Green-Beckham, a 22-year-old conundrum of talent and troubles. Each team gets 15 minutes with him -- or more like 13 minutes after pleasantries and small talk. Got to get down to business.
All Green-Beckham has to do is tell the truth. He has no choice. As he moves from booth to booth, shaking hands, grasping at names, he knows his 87 receptions and 17 TDs over two years at Missouri have been offset by two marijuana-related arrests and an investigation into a possible domestic disturbance that led to his dismissal from the team.
"I had to repeat that story every single time," Dorial says weeks later, sounding a bit weary still even now. "It was all about finding out what happened at the University of Missouri."
And yet -- as Green-Beckham shuttles from table to table -- it isn't. The people asking him the questions already have most of the answers. This is an exercise in performing under pressure, one long off-field drill to measure his character.
"Can we trust you?"
Green-Beckham is asked that question more than 20 times. The only possible answer is yes, of course. Who would say no? The teams know it's a stock response, a part of the process that cannot promise any real guarantees. "They wanted to know what I learned from that, and if they give me all of this money, am I prepared for it? But I knew that's what they were going to do. I went in there, and I was ready for whatever." He had to be. If NFL teams decide they cannot trust him, Green-Beckham could drop from a prospective first-round draft pick to a third-rounder.
The final interview ends at 11:30 p.m., just 5½ hours before his wake-up call. He jogs over to his hotel to stretch and do a few exercises to loosen his hamstrings, which are stiff from sitting all day. Lights out at 12:30 a.m.
That next morning should begin the most nerve-wracking part of the experience: the combine's on-field workout, a grueling series of drills and tests meant to identify the best of the 300 prospects invited to Indianapolis. But few of those watching this now made-for-TV spectacle from the comfort of their homes would ever suspect that these finely tuned, media-trained college football stars are drained before they even slip on their spandex. "You're mentally exhausted," Green-Beckham says later. "Some guys are so beat-up from the interviews, they don't even go out there and test good."
For him, though, the only questions left to answer are on the field. It feels like old times. It feels like freedom. It feels like football. Over the next couple of hours on the Lucas Oil turf, he goes out and confirms what everyone with decent vision or YouTube has known about him since he was a preteen basketball prodigy in southeastern Missouri: Dorial Green-Beckham is one heck of an athlete.
"It was comfortable," he will say, smiling broadly. "Some guys freeze up because we're in the lights and guys are watching. But I just went out there and had fun. I was just being me."
NFL executives are dedicating their considerable resources to figure out exactly who that is.
IN ANY OTHER YEAR, Green-Beckham might have been able to slip into the NFL without all that focus on his character. But pro football has changed forever. Coming off a year of unprecedented public scrutiny after the league's handling (many might say mishandling) of domestic abuse cases involving stars Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson, the NFL is under significant public pressure to clean its house; and do so in a time when fans know as much about the off-the-field exploits of their sports stars as they do their measurables. Indeed, some behavior now raises as many red flags as a torn ACL -- if not more.
"When something bad happens with a player and it all goes wrong," says former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, "you're the ones getting embarrassed."
That could be bad news for Green-Beckham. Because of his off-field missteps, he hasn't caught a touchdown pass in more than 15 months, when he caught two against Auburn in a breakout performance in the SEC championship game.
Perhaps the best comparison for Green-Beckham is Josh Gordon, whose troubles outweighed his production at Baylor and resulted in him transferring to Utah, where he sat out for a year before being selected by Cleveland in the 2012 supplemental draft. Even today, Gordon's demons have derailed a promising career -- he's facing a one-year suspension for testing positive for alcohol use while in the league's substance abuse program.
Would another team want to risk a high draft pick on a player of the caliber of Gordon, who was named All-Pro in 2013?
We will find out with Green-Beckham, who has a strong case for being the top receiver in the 2015 draft. He's 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, measurables that compare favorably to those of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 and 4.50 seconds in Indianapolis, surprising speed for a man of his size. He has long arms and soft hands, making him an especially inviting target in the end zone. He needs work on his route running and is massive but not yet sculpted, hinting at a well of potential that could be tapped at the next level.
"When you strip away everything and look at the core of what happened, he's just a big kid who needs to grow up -- and he's doing that," says Ben Dogra, agent for Green-Beckham, Peterson and dozens of other NFL players.
"If someone doesn't take this kid because the information says he has a lot of trouble following him, we can live with that. But we'll see what happens in five years and we'll see who's right. I think somebody is going to get a heck of a player."
And Green-Beckham promises to reward that team for its faith in him.
"I know what's at stake," he says, with an unshakable confidence.
THERE ARE BOYS everywhere -- all of them teenagers, all of them black. Some are lounging on the living room couch watching college hoops on the large flat-screen TV. Others are playing video games in a nearby bedroom. The rest all have their eyes trained on their smartphones.
"My cellphone bill is something like $1,000 a month," explains John Beckham, man of the house, head football coach of the high school only a half-mile away and Dorial's father.
"And you don't want to know what the grocery bill is."
Green-Beckham is home in Springfield, Missouri, for the weekend, a brief -- and welcome -- respite from his monthslong grind to the draft that started at a workout facility in Phoenix, circuited through Indianapolis and now has him back in Missouri.
A town of 164,000 at the western edge of the Ozarks, Springfield is perhaps best known as the birthplace of Route 66 and for being one of the whitest cities in the country. It is not known for producing many professional athletes.
Green-Beckham, who turned 22 on April 12, has a chance to become the town's first homegrown NFL star, but only because he found the open door of John and Tracy Beckham, where many other boys with nowhere else to go have found sanctuary.
The Beckhams live in a comfortable four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on a nearly 60-acre property tucked into the rolling hills on the north side of town, a pastoral scene that reflexively calls a Rockwell painting to mind.
"I've always lived in the country," says Tracy Beckham, who grew up two miles away, just over another hill range. "I didn't want to live in town. Why would we? I've got my horses and cows out here."
The Beckhams, who have been married for 31 years, have used this rural expanse to help children in need. They've been foster parents for more than 25 years, taking in over 30 children and adopting five. (They have seven children total.) They welcomed Green-Beckham and younger brother Darnell into their house when Dorial was in seventh grade.
The boys had been living in Boys & Girls Town of Missouri, a home for abused and neglected children. "It was pretty much like a dormitory," Green-Beckham said. "You couldn't leave the premises unless it was with staff or someone approved. I remember a couple times guys would break out of there. But then, it'd be like, 'Where you going to go?'"
Tracy gave the boys someplace to go and to live: She'd pick up Dorial and Darnell so they could eat at McDonald's. Dorial and Darnell learned to adjust to life in a safe and stable home. They finally got regular meals and learned the enjoyment of sleeping in their own beds. The streets that had tried to claim them seemed so far away, even if they really weren't.
"I was a shy kid when I was in their house," Green-Beckham said. "I played sports and slept. I didn't do much else. I just got into a good comfort zone."
The Beckhams finally knew their relationship had deepened when the boys came into their room one night and just lay on the bed to watch TV. "That's when I knew we had crossed over," John said. "It can just take some time for them to trust you."
In December 2009, Dorial Green became Dorial Green-Beckham when the Beckhams adopted 14-year-old Darnell and 16-year-old Dorial, who was on the cusp of becoming the nation's No. 1 football recruit.
ALREADY 6-3 BY the time he was in eighth grade, Dorial Green-Beckham seemed destined for stardom.
In his varsity football debut as a freshman, his first two catches went for 150 yards worth of touchdowns. As a sophomore, he led Hillcrest High School to its first state championship in basketball. By his junior year, he'd already been identified as one of the nation's most sought college football recruits. And in his senior year, as the top prospect in the country, Dorial brought a steady stream of college coaches (Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel made his appearance in a helicopter) and media outlets to Hillcrest.
Dorial "was sorta the only show in town," Tracy said. "It got a little crazy."
"As a parent, you worry, 'Is he going to live up to these expectations?'" John said. "The bar was set so high there was no way he could reach it."
In a May 2012 interview with hometown newspaper the Springfield News-Leader, John openly fretted about the spotlight. "He's a role model for a lot of kids, and I hope he understands that and doesn't do anything stupid. If he does something stupid, it will be on ESPN," John said at the time.
His words would prove to be true. Dorial had three run-ins with police in his two seasons at Missouri, and each time it made headlines.
In October 2012, he was arrested with two teammates on suspicion of marijuana possession outside Memorial Stadium. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of trespassing. In January 2014, he was arrested in Springfield with two other men on suspicion of felony distribution of a controlled substance but was never charged.
"I didn't realize how big of news it was going to be," John said. "We were disappointed and hurt and all the feelings you go through."
In April 2014, Green-Beckham found himself in trouble and in the news again when the university announced he'd been suspended indefinitely. He was accused of breaking into an apartment and pushing an 18-year-old female person -- a friend of his girlfriend's -- down a short flight of stairs. The alleged victim in the case declined to press charges, citing fear of "media and community backlash," according to a police report. Green-Beckham's girlfriend sent several text messages to the woman, asking her to reconsider pressing charges against him.
"Dorial was wrong in every way and you have every right to be furious," one of her messages read, according to the report. "I'm not sticking up for him but football really is all he has going for him and pressing charges would just ruin it for him completely."
Over the next couple of days, Green-Beckham and his parents had several meetings and phone calls with the coaching staff and administrators. They anticipated another suspension and a laundry list of restrictions and requirements. "Since he was never arrested, we didn't think he was going to be dismissed," Tracy Beckham said.
The school announced his dismissal by the end of that week. "This decision was made with the best interests of all involved in mind," Pinkel said in a news release. "Dorial's priority going forward needs to be focusing on getting the help he needs."
Green-Beckham released his own statement, saying, "Don't blame my girlfriend or her friends for anything. I am not looking for sympathy. I thank those who have given me concern. I have been young and dumb. I want to be better."
Green-Beckham and his family have declined to discuss more specifics about any of the cases at the behest of Dogra and his agency.
But this is known: By nightfall of the announcement, Green-Beckham had become a cautionary tale, if not a punch line, around his home state. "I had just let my state and my family down," Dorial says. "I was hurting a lot of people. It was very upsetting."
Unbeknownst to Dorial, minutes after word of his dismissal had gotten out, his father started receiving emails and phone calls from college football coaches. "My phone started blowing up," John said. "I had to turn it off because I was getting so many calls."
By the next morning, Green-Beckham was again one of the most-coveted recruits in college football. He was still a valuable commodity even though Dorial had -- to borrow from his father's pre-Columbia admonition -- done something "stupid."
GREEN-BECKHAM FINISHED his spring semester at Missouri in May, then started sifting through more than 35 scholarship offers. But no school stood much of a chance of beating out Oklahoma, which had been his second choice in his senior year of high school.
Dorial and the Beckhams recalled how Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and then-receivers coach Jay Norvell had called to wish him luck even after he'd chosen Missouri. "They were the only ones who did that," Dorial said.
Stoops' decision to welcome Green-Beckham into his program came with its share of detractors, most notably U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill. "It is time for real leaders in the world of big-time sports to do a soul search on character," McCaskill wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. Local columnists were also skeptical of giving Green-Beckham, such a high-profile screw-up, a second chance in a program already under investigation for a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation.
Stoops was undeterred by the criticism. "I thought Dorial was very respectful and a person who handled himself well through the recruiting process," the coach said. "There's times when you feel people deserved a second chance to improve their lives and opportunities. I believe in helping young people to grow."
Green-Beckham started workouts with the Sooners in early July, hopeful the NCAA would approve a waiver that would allow him to play that fall. He worked with the starters from the first day, trying to learn the offense and develop chemistry with his new teammates.
It wasn't until a week before Oklahoma's season opener against Louisiana Tech that the NCAA announced that it had denied his request for immediate eligibility. Just like that, he went from working with starters to the scout team. He'd be spending game days on the sideline for the first time in his football career.
"I'm not gonna cry in front of these guys," Dorial said he thought to himself. "I just need to get my mind right." Green-Beckham wanted to be part of the team, even if he couldn't play. He went out to practice. "Instead of being a normal scout team player," he says, "I was going to make myself better."
With no outlet for his game-day fire, Green-Beckham saved his intensity for practices and the 5:30 a.m. workouts usually reserved for freshmen and scout teamers. He even managed to turn Jerry Schmidt, the Sooners' strength coach since 1999 and a notorious grump, from a skeptic to a believer.
"Going into it, I thought it was going to be a problem," Schmidt said. "But he didn't miss a day and he led all of our younger guys and showed them how to work. Here's a guy who's supposed to be playing in SEC at a high level, and now he's not playing on Saturday, and still working like that. You've got to give him some credit for that."
Green-Beckham went on to be named scout team player of the week six times, turning practices into his own personal challenge against the No. 1 defense.
"I told them, practice is my game," he says. "This is my Saturday."
He'd got through the season healthy, thanks to sitting out a season. He also took note of University of Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, a projected top-10 draft pick before knee injury ended his season. But most importantly, his longtime girlfriend had told him she was pregnant and due in July.
He could finally play for Oklahoma, but he'd have to struggle to provide for his family and risk his pro career. Nor would waiting a year make those questions about what happened in Missouri go away. In the end, it wasn't much of a decision.
He called Stoops, who'd risked some of his reputation to take a chance on Dorial, to deliver the news.
"There was like a three-second pause ... it was crickets," Green-Beckham says. "But Coach told me he respected my decision and he was going to support me. I was like, this isn't really that bad of a talk."
Said Stoops: "I made sure when I spoke to him that I let him know that he didn't owe me anything. I want him to improve his situation."
But while Green-Beckham was staying out of trouble and preparing to go pro, the NFL was undergoing one of its worst public relations crisis in recent memory, responding to Rice, Hardy and Peterson and the league's perceived bungling of their cases. Dorial would be entering a new league. One where he has to prove he's as good at avoiding the police blotter as he is at avoiding press coverage.
DOWN IN PHOENIX for pre-combine workouts, Green-Beckham found himself working alongside other prospective first-round draft picks Kevin White of West Virginia and Jaelen Strong of Arizona State.
It didn't take long for Green-Beckham's competitive spirit to renew itself when he was grouped with guys projected to go higher than him in the draft.
White, 6-3 and 215 pounds, "sized me up the first time I met him down there," Green-Beckham says, laughing. "And I was like, 'Yeah, I know. I know I'm bigger than you."
If NFL personnel decisions were limited strictly to football, it's possible Dorial would be a more inviting prospect than White or Strong, players who were among the top-performing receivers in Indianapolis. At the least, boasting a fairly reasonable comparison to Calvin Johnson, he would be seen as one of their equals.
Dominik has admitted that he dispatched a scout to spy on wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who had a DUI on his record, during the pre-draft process in 2012. And he says Green-Beckham is definitely one of those prospects who would demand extra attention.
"Obviously, I'd have my scouts do a lot of work on him," Dominik says. "Then I'd want to sit down with him and see how honest he's being. I'd ask him questions I already know the answer to to see what he says."
NFL teams "have the ability to find out whatever they need," says Dogra, Green-Beckham's agent. "Although we're always advocating for the player, I want them to know the truth. If there's bad information out there, or misinformation out there by third parties, I make sure that I can clarify it."
Since Green-Beckham declared himself eligible for the draft, there have been whispers of multiple failed drug tests to NFL.com (Dorial's representatives adamantly deny this); of a suspect work ethic (Schmidt granted a rare interview to push back against that accusation); and of a wide-eyed immaturity that could make it difficult for him to separate himself from the sort of people who got him in trouble in Columbia.
"He's enabled, spoiled," an NFC personnel executive told the NFL Network. "Whatever everyone else was doing, he'd do it to be cool, trying to fit in."
"I'm a nice guy. It is hard for me to say 'no,'" Dorial says. "I've been learning to control that and to do that. It's going to help me in the long run.
"When people come to me, asking to borrow some money, I'm going to tell them I can't do that. I'm going to tell them that this is something I deserve. I worked for this. I didn't see [them] there with me when I was working hard to get here."
In the next breath, he talks about providing financially for the biological family left behind in St. Louis, including his mother, grandmother and older brothers. He also plans to care for his girlfriend and expectant child, unlike the birth father that he knows little about.
"I have a lot that I need to do for providing for our family," he says. "I'm doing it for all of us."
In his interview session with reporters at the combine, Green-Beckham churns his way through the questions. He nervously taps the lectern with his hands as he speaks. He talks in spasms of sentence fragments, choosing to avoid much detail about what he, repeatedly, calls "the past." It is as uncomfortable to watch as it is for him to go through, something to be expected of nearly anyone forced to discuss their shortcomings in front of an audience full of reporters.
"It's tough for me to stand up here and be able to speak in front of all you guys," Green-Beckham admits.
But Green-Beckham again has no choice other than to rely on his words. At least until his actions speak louder.