Opportunity Lost
Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times, 2004

Inside the prison, the voices of desperate men grew louder in the night. The noise filled the room and spilled across the yard outside. It was an urgent, passionate sound, and on any other night, it would have been cause for alarms. On the night of Jan. 26, however, a group of 40-some criminals sat on wooden bleachers, their heads bobbing in and out, each trying to find a line of sight to the small television in the front of the large room. There, the images skittered across the screen, and the sound rose and fell with them. The Bucs were winning the Super Bowl, and the jailhouse was rocking.

In the back of the room, the tall man with graying hair and oversized glasses sat quietly amid the cheers. He knew this would happen. All week, he had told the others, those who knew who he was, those who cared who he had been. Defense wins championships. He played defense, and while most of the results were forgettable, he remembered that much. The game went on, and the score added up, and to his surprise, something old and warm stirred inside him. Once, he had been a part of this team and, now, a small part of him felt that way again. He felt that even though, in some ways, the team and the player had never been further apart. After all, this was the night of the Bucs' greatest success. It was also another night in Booker Reese's latest failure.

Booker Reese. To those who follow the Bucs, his name has come to define disappointment over the past two decades. His latest stumble, then, may surprise very few people. From bust to busted. Twenty-one years, and all that has changed is the tense. Reese is No. 397568, and he resides at the Okaloosa Correctional Institution. Even as prisons go, it is a stark and imposing facility with razor wire swirling around the fences and guard turrets at each corner. On a summer day, the air feels like breathing the exhaust fumes of a city bus. It is the type of prison they warn each other about in Siberia.

Reese, the former Bucs defensive end, the famous flop, is here for parole violation in connection with his 1999 conviction for cocaine possession. He is scheduled to be released next July. He also could qualify for work release during the fall. On the night the Bucs won their Super Bowl, however, Reese was five weeks into his 16-month sentence. He was jailed at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando at the time. He remembers the way the Bucs shut down the Raiders, the way defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires pressured Rich Gannon early. Few of the other inmates knew who he was, fewer were impressed by it. Inside, another prisoner is just someone else who messed up.

Still, when the game was over, and the inmates headed off toward lockdown, a few nodded toward him, as if he were an alumnus whose alma mater had won a big game. Reese lay on his cot, and he and the man in the next bunk talked quietly about the game. Then Reese looked at the ceiling. And he remembered how it all went wrong.

The next LeeRoy Selmon?
In the spring of 1982, linebacker Scot Brantley was eating dinner in a Tampa restaurant when he saw his bosses walk in. Even now, he remembers how fired up they were. Wayne Fontes, the defensive coordinator, was with defensive line coach Abe Gibron and linebacker coach Howard Tippett. The three of them had just returned from watching a potential draftee work out and, to say the least, they were impressed. "We have just found our next Lee Roy Selmon," one of them said. "His name is Booker Reese."

As it turned out, that was something of an overstatement. In hindsight, no one seems to remember the part about Reese being a terror as a college player at Bethune-Cookman. He was 6 feet 6, 260 pounds and fast, and he simply overpowered whatever competition he faced. In one game against Morris Brown, Reese had seven sacks. The Baby Train, they called him, a testament to his innocence as well as his power. As it turned out, the Bucs should have worried about the first part.

Reese was named the Black College Player of the Year by the Washington Pigskin Club, and he had been a Sheridan All-American. More important, he had made the stopwatches of the Bucs coaches blow up, running a 4.68 40 yards across the scruffy Bethune-Cookman field. It was a linebacker's time. It was the kind of workout that left the Bucs talking of how Too Tall Jones and Wally Chambers also played at small colleges.

It didn't work out the same way for Reese. He was overwhelmed by the NFL and overmatched by life. He couldn't deal with the money in his pocket, the hangers-on at his elbow or the drugs at his command. Still, those who played with Reese remember him as a sweet, naive kid. He was gentle, likable, gullible. For instance, when Reese signed his five-year contract with the Bucs, he received a bonus check for $150,000. He and his agent went straight to a nearby Pontiac dealership. He picked out a van for himself and a car for his mother. As he handed over the check he said, "Do you have change?"

Not the smartest bear in the woods
There was a cluelessness about Reese. By the time they reach the NFL, most players have been around the block a few times. Not Reese. There is the story about his helmet. After Reese joined the Bucs, trainer Frankie Pupello wanted to know if Reese had worn Bike or Riddell headgear at Bethune. "Hey, Booker. What kind of helmet did you wear in college?" "Green," he said.

There was the time when Reese entered the trainer's room with a cold and asked if there was any medicine. The trainer pointed to cold tablets in a jar on the counter. Reese took some and started to leave when another player - Brantley blames Mark Cotney - stopped him. "Booker, those are cold tablets," he said. "You have to put them in the refrigerator before they'll work."

Reese did. He put them in the fridge, then came back and got them in a half-hour. There are dozens of those kinds of stories about Reese, about his lack of polish. He was the kind of rookie who gets sent out for left-handed monkey wrenches and taken on snipe hunts. Sadly, it wasn't much smoother on the field. Reese struggled from the first day. It didn't take his teammates long to figure out that, despite his ability, Reese was going to have trouble playing.

He had played in a four-point stance in college and on a four-man line. Here, there was a three-man line, and players played with a three-point stance. Reese couldn't figure it out, and the harder he tried, the more confused he became. It got to the point where he couldn't slant in the proper direction. "Players would yell, "Right, right, right,' " Reese said. "But I would go left because that's the way I had been told to go to begin with. I'd go the wrong way, and nine times out of 10, the play was going where I was supposed to be."

John Cannon, a defensive end who came in the same year as Reese, put it this way: "Booker just wasn't blessed with some of the advantages the rest of us were. He'd work and work on something, and he'd finally get it. But when he left the field, it was like it would just ... detach."

Said Brantley: "He just wasn't ready. It was like they were taking a child and trying to teach him to be a man."

Perhaps the talent was there
Oh, there were moments when his size and speed would come together, and the Bucs would hope they could salvage something of Reese's career. But those moments never lingered. "If he had had the instincts of someone like Cannon, he could have been a great player," former teammate Richard Wood said. "He could have been a (Warren) Sapp. He could have been a Lee Roy."

Others, however, thought Reese was too stiff and lacked enough upper body strength to ever reach greatness. "I just didn't see it," Cotney said. "Even if he hadn't been challenged (with learning), I didn't see why the coaches would give a No. 1 pick in our draft. I didn't see he was going to be our best defensive end and sack leader. But as a person, he was a teddy bear."

Reese lasted only 24 games with the Bucs, and he left with only two sacks, one of Joe Ferguson of Buffalo in '82 and one of Danny White of Dallas in '83. He was traded for a 12th-round draft pick. Even that ended in typical Reese fashion. He came into practice, and he was the only player unaware he had been traded. He looked at the kickoff team, where he usually played, and his name wasn't listed. He looked at the punt return team, and his name wasn't listed. He went to the dressing room, and all eyes turned toward him. He began to get dressed. "Booker," Selmon finally said. "You need to go see Phil Krueger."

"I'll see him later," Reese said, and kept dressing.

"No," Selmon said. "Go see him now."

It was over. Perhaps the legend of Booker Reese would not be so large had the Bucs not tried so desperately, and laughably, to land him. It remains one of the most bizarre stories in draft history. The Bucs tried to draft Reese and failed. Then they succeeded, and they really failed. By his nature, Bucs director of player personnel Ken Herock was a gambler when it came to drafting players in those days. He liked athletic players, players with large hands and fingers. He liked tall, fast players. In '82, Herock liked Reese. "What a disgrace," Herock says now. "That kid was so talented. He could have been anything he wanted to be. He could have been a Chris Doleman type."

The joke selection - how the Bucs could have had Dan Marino instead of Booker Reese
In those days, most teams sent a representative to the draft in New York and handled their business with a speaker phone. That year, the Bucs sent trainer Pat Marcuccillo. As the draft moved closer to the Bucs' 17th pick, Penn State guard Sean Farrell was slipping. When the Bucs went on the clock, Marcuccillo was told to fill out a draft card with Farrell's name but not to turn it in.

After that, the discussions in the Bucs' draft room were between Farrell and Reese, and Reese's name began to pick up momentum. Herock loved his athleticism, Gibron liked his personality and Krueger, who negotiated contracts, liked his signability. Marcuccillo was told to also fill out a draft card for Reese. For the record: Tippett says that Gibron liked Reese, but by draft day, he had reservations about Reese's mental acuity. Tippett says Gibron would have preferred Florida end David Galloway, who could help more quickly.

As the clock ran down, the Giants were up next, and their fans began to get louder. Finally, the Bucs decided to take Reese. According to Herock, Marcuccillo was told, "We're not drafting Sean Farrell. We're taking Booker Reese. Turn in the card."

What Marcuccillo heard over the sputtering speaker phone was this: "Sean Farrell . . . turn in the card." After that, panic ensued. The Bucs had taken the wrong player! To make things worse, the team then began to chase its own mistake. Tampa Bay didn't have its own No. 2 draft pick. That had been traded away earlier for a pair of forgettable players named Gary Davis and Norris Thomas. So the Bucs offered the following season's No. 1 pick, even though it was already acknowledged to be the best draft in years. "We were naive," Herock said. "We should have been more thorough in our background checks."

How bad a decision was it? Consider: The next year, the Bucs lost Doug Williams to the USFL. Had they kept their own pick (it was 18th), both Ken O'Brien and Dan Marino were still available. Had they kept their pick and Williams, they could have picked running back Gary Anderson, cornerback Darrell Green or defensive end Leonard Marshall. Perhaps that's why the legend has ensued. The Bucs have picked plenty of bad players, and many of them - Keith McCants, Eric Curry, Charles McRae - were taken much higher.

Symbolically, however, that pick was when the franchise began to unravel. The next year, the Bucs didn't re-sign Williams, and they traded a No. 1 for Jack Thompson, and a couple of years later, Bo Jackson got away. One more time: The Bucs traded Dan Marino for Booker Reese. Think about it.

The drugs don't work
In the Bucs' breakthrough season of 1979, as a college sophomore, Reese took drugs for the first time. His Bethune-Cookman team had lost to Florida A&M, and a bunch of players had gotten together after the game. Someone had marijuana. Reese joined in. In the Bucs' run toward the Central Division title in '81, Reese tried cocaine for the first time. He was a senior at Bethune-Cookman by then, and he was getting money under the table from agent-to-be Irving Black, he says. Not much, $300-$400 a month. But from time to time, he'd spend $40-$50 of it on cocaine.

After he was drafted - there was no random drug testing at the time - Reese found himself with money for the first time. Worse, he found himself with time. The strike of '82 left him inactive for seven weeks. It was a dangerous combination. It was only after the team resumed its season, however, his drug problem escalated. Reese wasn't getting any better on the field. Gibron rode him harder than Reese was used to, and it frustrated both of them. "It wasn't panning out," Reese said. "I wasn't what I thought I should be. I kept wondering: "Why am I not excelling?' "

The popularity of cocaine spiked in the early '80s. In 1982, John Belushi died of a mixture of cocaine and heroin. Richard Pryor set fire to himself while freebasing. The movie Scarface was released. And a defensive lineman from a pro team in Florida told his story about how cocaine ruined his career. The player's name? Reese. Don Reese, in this case.

As his career foundered, Booker began to drink heavier, to use cocaine every two or three days, and his play got worse. He had trouble focusing, and he would get depressed again, and he would use cocaine again. "I should have known it was going to take time," Reese said. "If it didn't come in five or 10 minutes, I'd get depressed, and I'd turn to alcohol and other things."

By this time, the hangers-on had found Reese, a notorious soft touch. When he was in college, his friends would ask him for $3, $4. "Now it was three or four hundred," he said. Reese's teammates began to worry. Doug Williams called Reese's mother to tell her he was heading in the wrong direction. Dave Logan, Reese's roommate, repeatedly told Reese he had to straighten himself out. Selmon would look at him and ask, "Are you all right?" Reese would assure him he was fine. "Some people don't want to listen," Reese says now. "I didn't."

Others off that '82 team, notably Cecil Johnson and Neal Colzie, were later arrested on cocaine charges. But if there was a problem with that team, Reese said he didn't know about it. He said he never did cocaine with a teammate and that he never played or practiced while high. Still, Reese was spinning out of control. "I thought I was having a good time," he said. "I thought I was having a party. What I was doing was killing myself, slowly and slowly. It was all about me. I had forgotten about what got me there, working hard and having fun playing the game. Just because I was making a few dollars, I thought it was all about the money and the things money can get. I thought I was all this and all that. Really, I wasn't any of that."

On the night before he was traded to the Rams, Reese was out doing cocaine. He lasted only 11 games with the Rams. He was sent to rehab - and released while he was there - after he tested positive for cocaine in his second season. He signed with the 49ers over the next offseason but, again, he tested positive and, again, he was released. In the years since, trouble has followed Reese. He has been arrested for drugs, for credit card fraud, for domestic abuse. In the end, he has lost his career, his marriage and his freedom. "I've been numb for 15 years," he said. "Nobody did this to me. I did this to me."

And now he has changed
He has changed, he says. He is a different person. This time, he says, the results will be different. Reese speaks softly, firmly. He has been clean for a year now, and he is intent on doing the right thing. He says he reads the Bible twice a day. He says he wants people to know his story so someone might avoid the same pitfalls.

It is a skeptical world, however. Reese has spent a long time messing up. It will take more than him saying the right things for most people to buy in. For now, he sleeps in an open dorm room with 70 beds. The room is not air conditioned, and there is one television with only local channels. Yet, Reese seems happy. And whether you believe him, he says he won't repeat his past mistakes. "I can't come back in here," Reese said, looking around. "I can't. I'm getting too old. I'm 44. I finally have peace in my life."

He talks of his children, and his eyes grow soft. Michael is 24. Kamisha is 20, a senior at Bethune. He has a great relationship with Kamisha; he admits his relationship with Michael needs a little work. He talks about a trucking business where he can haul things from one side of the state to the other. It isn't NFL money, but it beats his prison job at the treatment facility. "I shovel boo-boo," he said. He talks about finding a good woman, one like Delphine Jones, the woman he was married to, the one he let down when he went out chasing drugs and other women. "She stood by me," Reese said. "She'd go running with me, practice with me, but I'd rather go out with the boys who were eating me alive."

Reese has not talked to any of his old Bucs teammates for years. He says he doesn't want anyone to think he's asking them for help. But you mention to him that this year, in the second round, the Bucs drafted Dewayne White, a defensive end from a relatively small school. He smiled. Yes, he said, he has some advice. "I would tell him first, I forgot about the gift of talent that God had given me to play the game," Reese said. "Don't let the things around you, your friends or your so-called friends, influence you. You came in there to have fun, to enjoy the game. Don't let circumstances or women or drugs or anything take you away from that love of the game. And what I know is this: If you have someone who you love, and if they love you, that's the person you need to hang with."

Reese looks ahead. He shrugs again. "Sometimes, it takes someone 23 or 24 years to figure it out."