Checkered pasts questioned

Jason Cole

Virginia Tech safety Aaron Rouse is a polite young man with a strong sense of introspection.

By all accounts, he's a high-character player with intriguing physical skills. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Rouse profiles as a strong safety/linebacker prospect who will be at least a good special teams player.

During a recent interview, about the only trouble Rouse had was getting his three-year-old son Isaiah to stop chewing gum, brush his teeth and go to bed. By 9:30 p.m., Rouse put the hammer down on "blanky" time.

"He's testing me," Rouse said with the typical weary joy that goes with parenthood. "Taking care of him, that's work. Football is the easy part."

While that scene paints an endearing picture even for the most hardened NFL scout or coach, there is a troubling element to Rouse's life. Rouse's father, Tim Newby, is serving time in Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., for murder. Newby also had killed his own brother (it was deemed self-defense) and was well known in the neighborhood as a drug dealer.

For anyone in charge of picking players for an NFL team, that story is cause for questions, and every team that Rouse has interviewed with has asked them.

"Everybody in the 'hood knew who my dad was," said Rouse, who went to visit his father before last season. It was the first time he'd seen his father since he was 11.

"Growing up, I really missed having a father around. … At the same time, it helped me. I'm not saying I'm glad not to have my father. But not having my father around, I learned not to be like him."

The NFL draft is one gigantic profiling fest. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell has the strongest arm since John Elway or Jeff George. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson looks like the next Jerry Rice. Quarterback Brady Quinn has long been compared to Tom Brady.

Those are the optimistic comparisons. But the biggest question for NFL teams with the draft looming at month's end is much less positive: Who could be the next Adam "Pacman" Jones?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is leading the call for a tougher personal conduct policy this offseason. This week, he met with Jones, who has been arrested five times and questioned by police 10 times since being drafted No. 6 overall by the Tennessee Titans in 2005. Goodell also spoke with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, one of the team's nine players arrested in the last year.

There is a strong sense among NFL owners and executives that Jones will be suspended for a year. That kind of penalty for that high a draft pick will have far-reaching effects not only on the draft, but also on player contracts and perhaps even job security for the men picking the players.

"You want to know the biggest reason why so many of us want the commissioner to hammer some guy?" one NFL general manager said. "Because if there's a player you're worried about taking, now you have a really good reason to drop him either completely off or way down the board.

"You don't want to be the guy responsible for taking another Pacman. It's not just that the guy can be a problem on your team. That could kill your career."

He pointed out how difficult it has been for former Tennessee GM Floyd Reese, who was in charge of the 2005 draft that netted Jones, to get much interest from other teams. Reese's résumé includes 31 years in the NFL, including 13 as the Titans' GM.

"[Reese] did what most of us have to do," the GM said. "You draft for talent and you hope that you can control the player enough … Hopefully, the new policy will make it easier on all of us."

Still, there is always going to be the process of assessing what is acceptable or not from a troubled player. Moreover, is someone from a troubled background more or less likely to get into trouble?

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher has said repeatedly that Jones had only one problem in college. It was a fight in which Jones hit someone with a pool cue. But both Jones' father and mother were in trouble throughout his life. Was there a clue there that the Titans missed?

"Just because someone's father got into trouble doesn't mean the same thing is going to happen to you," Detroit Lions cornerback Stanley Wilson Jr. said. The association for Wilson is well known. His father, former Bengals running back Stanley Wilson, became infamous in 1989 when he had a relapse of a cocaine problem the night before Cincinnati played the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. Wilson has been in and out of prison ever since.

Wilson Jr. has taken a different path. He has been known as a solid citizen all his life and graduated from Stanford before being picked in the third round of the 2005 draft. He hopes that NFL teams start to recognize the differences with the stronger emphasis this year.

"When you get to this level, the talent difference between teams is really small. What's really the difference is who has players who are willing to work hard. You can't have a lot of guys who are going to be distractions, who are going to make it hard not just for themselves to do their job, but for everybody else," Wilson Jr. said.

As for his own past, Wilson Jr. said he learned to compartmentalize his father's qualities.

"There are things about my father I learned I didn't want to be and things about him that I did want to be," Wilson Jr. said.

For NFL teams, knowing which players have separated good from bad is not as easy. Players like defensive tackle prospect Marcus Thomas, who was kicked out of Florida after repeated marijuana use, have obvious problems.

That's not the case for all prospects though.

"We do all the background checks that we can, but there's still a point where you don't know everything about them," Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "When you're recruiting kids in college, you get to make the home visit and see what kids deal with and how they interact with their parents or whoever is in charge. With that process, the parents are really involved. They're just as much a part of it as the kid is.

"At this level, you're hiring someone to do a job. The parents don't have the same role. They're there, but they're really not part of the process."

Literally? No. But in the figurative sense, NFL teams will have to consider the adage about the apple not falling far from the tree. Fair or not, the environment of the NFL is changing when it comes to problem players.

"I understand what teams are thinking," Rouse said. "I think I've been successful despite what my father did and the fact that he wasn't around. I think I'm a pretty positive person and I was able to take the good out of any situation, even when it was really hard.

"I think some guys don't think about it the same way. Some guys say, 'That's not going to be me.' … You're a little successful and think you're not going to do the same thing and you become ignorant to the fact that you can go down the same path. My mother always said, 'Never get so high that you think you can't come down.'"

Or, in a greater sense, never think you can't bring down other people in the process.

"Some guys think when they get in trouble, it's just me who's going through it. But you affect your team," Rouse said. "You affect the people who watch. Fans get to thinking, 'These guys make too much money.' Or, 'These guys think they're above the law.' The NFL is like America's biggest sport. To get in trouble brings a bad vibe on everybody."