Strange Fruitvale

Defending the Read-Option

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Michael Dyer #5 of the Auburn Tigers

Red Flags

The redemption, and rebranding, of Michael Dyer

Michael Dyer has cantaloupe-size biceps, diamond studs in his ears, and a 40 time that approaches the one he ran in high school. Dyer has but one problem: His brand is broken.

You might remember Dyer as a series of headlines. As an Auburn running back, he was MVP of the 2011 BCS title game. He left school later that year amid reports of marijuana use and gun possession. In 2012, Dyer transferred to Arkansas State. He left there, too, amid reports of marijuana use and gun possession. He then went to tiny Arkansas Baptist College, a historically black school in Little Rock. He and Fitz Hill, the school’s president, were tweaking Dyer’s image for a return to college football.

“He is a brand,” Hill said one afternoon. “His brand has been damaged. So we’re going to rehabilitate it.”

We were in a red-brick building that former slaves had built in 1893. Framed newspaper stories attesting to Hill’s good works covered the walls. Dyer entered wearing his BCS title ring on his left hand and his SEC title ring on his right. He took a seat across from his new mentor. His rings clacked against the table like typewriter keys.

There’s an old playbook for bringing athletes back into good standing. At Arkansas Baptist, Dyer had kept his nose in his books, stayed away from bad seeds, and given motivational speeches to local youth. With Hill’s guidance, Dyer could talk about his new focus, how he was free of distractions, how he deserved another shot.

But Dyer’s brand rehabilitation was more delicate than that. As the running back saw it, his past sins were pretty minor. Sometimes, they weren’t even sins. They were the suggestions of sins: words like “marijuana” and “gun” that barnacled themselves onto Dyer, never resulting in a criminal charges but ginning up a lot of suspicion. These were Dyer’s “red flags.”

In sportswriting, a red flag is a warning of a potential future bad act. In 2011, Dyer failed a drug test at Auburn. That was a red flag. Dyer had owned a gun during the same period. No one had seen him fire it or brandish it. But the gun was a red flag, too.

Red flags — also known as character concerns — have become as much a part of an athlete’s C.V. as his 40 time and his vertical leap. Aaron Hernandez’s life before his pro career “sent up red flags in the NFL,” the Miami Herald reported last month. Reporters were now trying to construct a timeline of evil in which Hernandez started by failing drug tests, moved to bar fights, and finally graduated to a felony murder charge. If only we’d seen the signs …

Dyer had never done anything close to what Hernandez is accused of. “There will be numerous other guys playing college football this fall that have records,” Hill said. “Michael has none.” But to land on another team, Dyer had to clear his name in advance.

“If I’m a thug, where are my charges?” Dyer said. “I’ve got not one charge. I’ve got some speeding tickets. I’m sure a lot of people have speeding tickets.”

As Dyer was discovering, his journey back to college football had become a course in media studies. Dyer was the student, and his past — his red flags — were the text.

Potential red flag: Michael Dyer is from a bad neighborhood.

Dyer was born in North Little Rock in 1990. He and his four siblings lived with their mother in the Silver City Courts, a housing project built around a treeless courtyard. If you visit Silver City today, you can find a large sign on the outer wall with the phone number of the local police substation. A network of gravel alleys cuts a path to Big D Liquor. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything pretty there since I’ve been a kid,” Dyer said.

In the fifth grade, Dyer’s family sent him to Little Rock Christian, a suburban school a few miles west. Dyer began a transient life. He would show up with a red bag full of clothes on Monday. At the end of each day, a Little Rock Christian mother would herd him into a car, feed him, and let him sleep over. “I got used to the sense that people really started liking me,” Dyer said.

Little Rock Christian wasn’t very good at football. Dyer’s maturation into a 5-foot-8, 200-pound back with a quick first step was seen as “an absolute gift,” said B.J. Maack, who was training Dyer at the time. Dyer ran for 3,600 yards in his first two years of high school. He went to an LSU summer football camp, where coach Les Miles instructed him to run a 40-yard dash. “Do you know what you just ran?” Miles asked.

Dyer had run a 4.37.

“Well, do it again,” Miles said.

Dyer did it again. Miles looked at him with intense interest and asked, “What grade are you in?”

That 4.37 made Dyer into an object of national fascination. He got offers from Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, and Notre Dame. Rivals made him a five-star recruit. The rule is that each star increases the idiocy of recruiting by a factor of 1 million.

In Alabama, Gene Chizik was trying to turn Auburn into a place where recruits like Dyer might want to come. Tigers coaches began turning up at recruits’ high schools in white limousines, and holding the Big Cat Weekend, when recruits watched students roll the trees at Toomer’s Corner just like they did after wins. Dyer became the obsession of Gus Malzahn, a former University of Arkansas offensive coordinator who’d taken the same job at Auburn in 2009. During his senior year, Dyer would look up during games and see Malzahn standing in the bleachers. He remembered the coach wearing immaculate suits.

Auburn wasn’t the best team. It wasn’t the closest, either: Dyer regarded the nine-hour drive from Little Rock like a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But Malzahn touched a part of Dyer that had gotten used to feeling liked. “It was the same Little Rock Christian love,” he said.

Two men in business suits put their arms around Dyer and led him away. “Where am I going?” Dyer said.

“You’re the MVP,” one of the men said.

“What?” Dyer said.

Dyer’s starring role in the 2011 BCS title game was one of college football’s great happy accidents. Dyer was a true freshman. Even though he’d broken Auburn’s freshman rushing record (previously held by Bo Jackson), he was Roger Craig to Cam Newton’s Joe Montana. When Under Armour came by, Newton was the guy the company wanted to test its new cleats. Dyer was just thrilled to get an extra pair.

In the title game against Oregon, Dyer didn’t play in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he came in and muscled through the Oregon defense for four first downs. He noticed no one was paying much attention to him. “That middle linebacker wasn’t even looking at me,” he said. “They were looking at Cam!”

Fifty-seven minutes into the game, Auburn and Oregon were tied at 19. Dyer had run for 86 yards on 19 carries — solid but unspectacular stuff. On the last drive, Dyer took a handoff at the Auburn 40, ran six yards, and landed on top of an Oregon safety. Dyer stood up, assuming the play had been stopped for forward progress. An Auburn receiver told him to keep running. Dyer ran for 31 more yards before he was tackled. Three plays later, he set up the winning field goal. He was the MVP — what?

Auburn hadn’t won a national title in 53 years, and Dyer’s fame left him sort of terrified. “You’ve got fans that get drunk and come knock on your door at five in the morning,” he said. “They want autographs. All types of crazy stuff. I couldn’t go to Walmart. I had to get somebody to go to Walmart for me.”

Dyer bought a gun. The purchase was legal, and, in Alabama, unremarkable. Dyer struggles to explain why he bought the gun. He liked Auburn fans. But he had an inchoate fear of strange people in a strange place. “You got locals around who don’t like you,” Dyer said. “So you go to a party and you’re guaranteed to have to argue with them or have some kind of dispute.” In June 2012, two members of Dyer’s recruiting class were murdered and another was shot when a gunman opened fire at a party near campus.

In March 2011, Dyer was hanging out with a few teammates. They watched the Lakers and smoked synthetic marijuana.1 At some point, one of Dyer’s friends broached the idea of robbing a nearby house.

“They were going to go take some K2, some synthetic,” Dyer said. “I’m not going to go rob somebody for some synthetic.” He remembered telling his teammates, “There’s no way y’all are going to make it out of this.” Dyer left his friends and went to bed early.

The next morning, Dyer was summoned to Chizik’s office and found Auburn coaches, their wives, and local cops waiting in a semicircle. Dyer’s gun lay on Chizik’s desk. “My heart kind of dropped,” Dyer said.

“Is this your gun?” Chizik demanded.

Dyer was never charged in the robbery, and no one has suggested he had anything to do with it. (The other Auburn players were convicted and given sentences ranging from three to 15 years in prison.) But a gun had been introduced into Dyer’s story with the urgency described by Anton Chekhov. Even if Dyer never shot anyone, the gun would be fired in the sports page. It was a red flag.

The next season, Dyer rushed for more than 1,200 yards and was named first team All-SEC. He smoked a lot during this period. He figured this was his privilege as the 20-year-old MVP of the BCS title game. In December, Auburn officials told Dyer he’d failed a drug test. It was another red flag. He was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Dyer didn’t bristle at the suspension, per se. “I could have stayed and worked it out and talked to the coach and played my junior year there,” he said. “I could have done that. But to me, something was just a little bit bigger.”

It was a sense that Dyer was not a ward of Auburn as he had been of Little Rock Christian. There was no one herding him into an SUV or washing his clothes or giving him gentle lectures that turned into teachable moments. The coaches, nearly all of whom he liked, were busy men weighing Dyer’s needs against the PR needs of an SEC program — one that, incidentally, had lost five games that season.2

“Let me put all this together,” Dyer said. “You offer me a scholarship. I go out there and play 12 games for you. Do the best I can for you. Get grades. Win you a national championship, MVP, Bo Jackson’s record. I do all this for you. Then at the end, what did you do for me?

“I win you millions of dollars that I don’t see a cent of,” he continued. “I put my neck on the line for you. And then I’m sitting over here in the corner? That’s telling me you don’t really care that much about humans. You don’t care that I’m someone’s child. That I have a mother and I have a little girl. You don’t care about that.” Dyer left Auburn in December. When coaches called his cell phone, he didn’t answer.

“If you listen to his story,” Fitz Hill told me later, “it’s like you’re taking a puppy home. He’s been out, so he just gravitates to you. He just wants to be hugged.”

Dyer was determined to be closer to home. As fate would have it, Gus Malzahn left Auburn to become head coach at Arkansas State. Dyer could restart his career with the coach he’d known since ninth grade. He signed last January.

Two months later, Dyer and two friends were pulled over in White County, Arkansas. A state police officer named Royce Denney ambled over to their cars. Dyer was about to acquire his strangest red flags yet.

Through one of Dyer’s friends, Denney discovered that he had pulled over a famous athlete:

Denney: Was he a big football star there or something?

Female: Yeah. He was like actually like was like the MVP, I think he was the MVP of the national championship for Auburn.

Denney: No kidding?

Female: Yeah.

Denney: I watched it, but …

Female: Yeah, that’s him. He kind of rolled over the guy and …

Denney: Yeah, I do remember that.

Upon learning who Dyer was, Denney became oddly paternalistic. He recoiled when he found Dyer’s gun — which was registered and being carried legally — in the trunk. “You’re being a total dumbass right now,” he told Dyer. Denney told Dyer he should “bend you over the hood and whup your butt.” Denney confiscated the gun.

Denney also found a baggie in the car. He thought it contained pot. Dyer told me it contained Black & Mild cigarettes.

Legally, the distinction doesn’t matter, because Denney allowed the contents to be poured out on the side of the road. He turned off his dashboard camera during the stop, in violation of procedure, so that the 58-minute encounter survives only as a partial video and audio transcript.

The stop became a red-flag Rorschach test. If you were so inclined, you could see Dyer — apparently the “male” in this exchange — admitting to something or other:

Denney: How much weed did you start off today with?

Male: I just had that blunt.

Denney: You just had that one bud?

Male: Yes, sir.

Denney: Then what did you already smoke?

Male: What?

Denney: Didn’t you say you already smoked some?

Male: [Unintelligible.]

Denney: I didn’t hear what you said.

Male: I said I got a blunt, now I don’t.

Got that? From another angle, Dyer was trying to tell a strange but seemingly helpful cop whatever he wanted to hear:

Denney: What if I talk to Gus Malzahn, however you say his name? … I really don’t want to tell him about this, because of the NCAA crap … What’s the best way to make you think? You’re a grown man and I’m not trying to treat you like a kid.

Dyer: I’m done with this. This is my second chance over here.

Four months later, the Jonesboro Sun and local TV stations got ahold of the recording. Malzahn studied it, Dyer’s red flags no doubt dancing in his head. Dyer had entered a kind of media black hole, where the suggestion of criminality was equal to actual crimes. A day later, the coach called Dyer and told him he was off the football team.

Dyer was never charged with marijuana possession. The substance Denney found in his car was never collected or tested. When I asked the Arkansas State Police to see a copy of Denney’s report, they said no such report existed, because Denney had only issued Dyer a ticket for driving 96 miles per hour. In fact, after the stop became public, the Arkansas State Police fired Denney for multiple violations of procedure.

“Michael Dyer hadn’t even stepped on the field for Arkansas State yet before he began making headlines for all the wrong reasons,” NBC’s CollegeFootballTalk reported. Dyer drove home to North Little Rock.

Over lunch at the Dixie Cafe, Fitz Hill prayed for God to forgive humanity for its sins. Then he outlined his plan for Dyer’s brand rehabilitation.

You might say Hill’s life’s work is brand rehabilitation. In 2006, when he became president of Arkansas Baptist, the school’s enrollment had fallen to 150 students. Hill increased it to nearly 1,200. Many of his students are what he calls “formers” — ex-cons, high school dropouts — who were confronting their own red flags. “I give ’em some hope,” Hill said.

Later that afternoon, Hill drove me around downtown Little Rock, pointing at the boarded-up houses the college had bought and was bulldozing for expansion. “We got that one!” Hill said. “We got that one!” In 2006, there had been a coin-operated car wash on Wright Avenue that was the locus of several violent crimes. Hill bought the car wash, put a white cross on the roof, and — in a singular act of brand rehabilitation — dubbed it Auto Baptism. Now, Arkansas Baptist was collecting 10 cents out of every quarter put in the machines.

But it was Hill’s experience in college football, in the sport’s shifting sands of perception, that had intrigued Dyer. From 2001 to 2004, Hill was head coach at San Jose State University. He didn’t win many games over four seasons — black coaches, he said, were often given a “chance” at schools where they had little chance. One San Jose State booster had told Hill he had too many blacks on his staff. After he resigned, Hill noticed that his successor, who was white, got a larger budget to hire assistants.

Hill recounted his experiences in a book called Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches. But even as he was leveling a critique of college football, Hill was highly conscious of how he was perceived in the media. In Crackback!, he wrote, “I am not angry.”

I asked Hill how Dyer had become a villain.

“There are certain cognitive processes that are ingrained in our society,” he explained. “I got that. That’s normal. Either you’re going to conform to that cognitive process or you’re going to skew it.”

Dyer, in Hill’s thinking, had been caught in the crosshairs of three cognitive processes. There was marijuana. There was a gun. And there was the color of Dyer’s skin. A state policeman’s chain of evidence didn’t much matter, because when those words were thrown together in a news story, they triggered cultural connotations and media hokum.

“If I saw nine skinhead white guys over there with a bunch of tattoos,” Hill said, glancing across the restaurant, “I’m going to say, ‘Oh, my!’ Now, they might be Mormon. But what’s my first instinct going to say?” Hill’s initial reaction to Dyer, whom he only knew from the sports pages, was equally grim. At one of their early meetings, he asked him, “Are you on parole?”

As Hill figures it, the sports media has a powerful frame for the woebegone black athlete. But it has another, equally powerful frame: that of the humble, apologetic athlete. A man torn down in the sports pages can be rebuilt with equal speed, often by the same writer.

Take the red flags (“marijuana,” “gun”) that Aaron Hernandez had collected at the University of Florida. We know Hernandez is accused of murder, so these events form a hypothetical path to iniquity. But if Hernandez’s story had been more like, say, Dyer’s, then the very same red flags could be relabeled as “periods of adversity” on his road to becoming an All-Pro, a mensch, the mayor of Bristol, Connecticut. The insidiousness of red flags is that they’re only useful after the fact. One athlete’s pre-crime indicator is another’s surmountable roadblock.

Hill thought that it wouldn’t take much to push Dyer into the second, sunnier frame. “I’m like, ‘Look, Michael, you stay positive,'” he said. “‘Tell your story. Confess your sins.'”

Even if Dyer didn’t commit any major sins? I asked.

“That’s it!” Hill said. He told Dyer: “Be humble. And ask, ‘What can I give?'”

That required a concession on the part of Dyer, who plainly felt he’d gotten a raw deal. But Hill had gained Dyer’s trust by smothering him with attention. It wasn’t unusual for Hill to text Dyer at night and ask, “Who are you with?” I noticed Dyer kept channeling his mentor’s equanimity. “I haven’t been mad,” Dyer said.

I asked Hill if this Zen detachment in the face of a reputational drubbing made him proud.

“Absolutely!” Hill said.

Dyer wants a third chance, despite the obvious red flags surrounding him,” Bleacher Report noted this month.

Hill almost looks forward to these kinds of stories. They remind him of the old, toxic Dyer brand. He texts the links to Dyer as cautionary tales.

Dyer had a couple options for the final step of his rebranding. There was a Tyrann Mathieu path: admit an addiction, go to rehab, and hope pro stardom eventually changes the narrative. (“Mathieu continues to raise red flags in NFL circles.”) One general manager told Hill that if Dyer had entered the draft last spring, he would be a fifth-round pick.

But Dyer thought college offered a fuller redemption. “I want to clear my name,” he said. “I’m going back and learning everything I should have learned, that I should have stayed and listened to, that I should have been awakened to.”

After he left Arkansas State, Dyer’s phone didn’t ring much. But last October, USA Today‘s George Schroeder published a long and vivid story about Dyer’s life at Arkansas Baptist. Colleges began to offer scholarships. Dyer has picked one — a big, D-I school, he said, where he can play starting next month. “It’s a school where he can replicate and duplicate,” said Hill.

Now, Dyer knows his red flags better than anyone. At Hill’s urging, he told the school he would submit to weekly drug tests. He would leave his gun at home.

Minus a little seasoning, Dyer is the same guy who went  to Auburn three years ago. But he and Hill have nudged the frame. Red flags have become mere moments of adversity. The question of what Dyer would do next has become exciting rather than alarming. They can almost write the redemptive copy themselves.

“It’s an incredible story!” Fitz Hill said.

“You gotta be that Timmy Tebow,” Michael Dyer said. “You gotta be a Tebow.”

Filed Under: Sports

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast