OWINGS MILLS, Md. – He has made mistakes. Lord knows Sergio Kindle(notes) has made mistakes. And they piled like trouble around him before last year's NFL draft, with stories of college fights at the University of Texas, a DUI and an accident in which he crashed his car into an apartment while texting. These things kept him from being a first-round pick, and they all occurred before he tumbled down the stairs of an apartment in Austin last summer – cracking open his skull and ending his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens hours before he was to leave for his first training camp.
And that was before the next DUI arrest, last December, leaving a lament around the Ravens which spills into this summer: Will he ever get it right?
But there is also something so endearing, so sweet, so moving about the Ravens linebacker which belies the sometimes ferocious player on the field and the one who confounds off it. A lot of people want to believe in him because they see an honest man who has done wrong when all he wants to do is right. They use words like "special" and "good" and "sincere." And it makes him perhaps the most intriguing player in the NFL right now: a linebacker with the size and speed to be dominant, the desire to be a star and the hope that trouble won't find him again.
"He's made a lot of bad decisions," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, who became a mentor to Kindle as the Texas defensive coordinator. "But he has a great heart. He's a really good-hearted young man."
Kindle sat, the other day, in the office of a team executive doing an interview he probably would rather not have done. He is not comfortable in front of the media and it is especially hard when the questions are about his troubles and an injury that until recently held back his future. His hearing is almost gone in his left ear – a result of the fall down the stairs – and he has trouble understanding questions. But he is happy to be playing again after a year away and it doesn't seem like he wants to disappoint the writer who has come to talk to him.
"What surprised me was how much an injury like that can affect so much of your body, so much of your ability," he said. "You think a head injury, OK, you might have some headaches or some ringing in my head or something or be nauseous, but you lose your hearing, your balance, your coordination. I never would have thought that."
Eventually the balance came back, first at a rehabilitation facility near his home in Dallas and then in workouts at the Ravens' headquarters, where he sat in meetings, changed in the locker room and watched drills – everything but putting on a helmet since the doctors would not clear him to play.
He glanced out a window, toward the practice fields now empty.
"I have been playing football every year since I was 4 years old, and taking a year off was hard," he said. "In my life, eight months of the year for the past 18 was football, and it's different without it. You feel like some plays out there I could have made it, but you're not out there."
Then he smiled.
"I had prove to myself first and foremost," he said. "Basically I had to show I could [make it back] because if I don't prove to myself, how am I going to show all of you and the doubters?"
He has a son named Sergio Jr. The boy is 5 and lives in Dallas with his mother so Sergio doesn't get to see him much now. But he adores the child everyone calls "Little Serg," a gregarious boy who struck his preschool teachers as quite bright even if he does talk a little too much at quiet time. And it never seems as if Little Serg is far away. Sergio has downloaded Little Serg's photo to the screensaver of both his cell phones. He also keeps pictures of his son in his living room, dining room, bedroom, bathroom and lest he forget Little Serg on the way to practice, there's a photo on the dashboard of his car.
"I had to get back," Kindle said. "That was my motivation."
Plus he isn't sure he's been the best role model.
"Him being 5 now I have made so many mistakes during his childhood but at the end of the day … " Kindle said, then stopped. "Let me rephrase that. Luckily he's too young to understand some of the things I was getting into, but at the end of the day you want him to look back at your career and man he will be proud to say, 'That's my father.' And be happy about it. I don't want people to come up and say, ‘Your dad was messed up' because that's not what it's about."
So it is because of Little Serg and this team that made a commitment to him and never wavered that he tries so hard to get back to becoming the player he was. The Ravens loved his potential when they picked him in the second round last year and he is expected to be one of their primary pass-rushing threats at linebacker, something that is coming along slowly given the injury and the time spent away. At times he's still the lighthearted prankster who ran around the locker room last fall trying on other players' helmets and shoulder pads since he wasn't assigned any of his own. But he's also the one standing in the weight room for hours, straining, pushing to play football again.
"Sergio's a pleaser, he wants people around him to be happy" Muschamp said.
"That's dead-on," agreed Bobby Estes who coached Kindle when he was the country's top defensive end prospect at Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas.
After big games on the road, when the rest of the Wilson players were on the bus ready to leave, Kindle was still in the stadium signing autographs because he didn't want to say no. Once, as the Wilson players came out of the locker room for the second half of an away game, a boy in a wheelchair asked Kindle for an autograph. Unable to oblige because the second half was about to start, Kindle grabbed the ball at game's end, carrying it past his teammates and through the fans until he found the boy in the wheelchair and gave him the ball.
This is the Sergio the people closest to him know, the one who Muschamp's children ran to see at team functions, the one who Estes' son wanted more than anyone else at one of his birthday parties so he could have a birthday with Sergio. "He's got a heart of gold," Estes said. "He would cancel plans to help you move."
Then Estes sighed.
"At the same time you've got to learn how to handle your success," he continued.
When asked about the trouble, everyone who knows Kindle says the same thing: He came from nothing. His father Johnny Walker worked hard for the state highway department, but the family had little money. His mother disappeared when he was young, leaving Walker to raise his kids alone. Estes believes Kindle felt so much pressure to be the family's provider and worked hard to fulfill everyone's belief in his rising football abilities that he didn't know how to handle life when everything was handed to him at Texas.
"If you've never driven a sports car and you get a Maserati, you have trouble not going 115 mph," he said.
Perhaps more than anyone, it was Muschamp who got him focused, who preached punctuality and doing the right thing. Ironically, it was Muschamp he was texting, telling the coach – whose house he had just been to – that he was almost home when he ran his car into the apartment building. And it seemed Kindle's life had come together even after falling into the second round of the draft despite skills that suggested he should probably have been taken in the first half of the first round.
Then came the fall down the stairs.
Kindle had a charity appearance in Austin that afternoon. He spoke to his brother, Calvin Walker, earlier in the day, telling him that his plan was to go to the event, go out for dinner with the people from the event and then sleep over at a friend's house rather than drive home late at night. He had plans to work out early the next morning before flying to Baltimore for the start of training camp. Instead, their father was calling Calvin at 5 the next morning, telling him to get to the hospital.
At the hospital, Calvin felt sick at the sight of his brother. Sergio, who was going in and out of consciousness, had to be tied to the bed because he kept trying to leave. The back of his head was cut open and blood kept dripping from the wound. The doctors told Calvin they couldn't stop the bleeding because they didn't want to sew his head closed and let the blood pool in Kindle's brain.
Since their father had to work during the day, it was often Calvin who sat with his brother in the hospital. The doctors kept coming in, throwing long, undecipherable medical terms to explain his condition. Calvin didn't want big words, he wanted to know what was wrong.
"Will he be all right?"
"Will he live?"
Even as the doctors at Texas and even those from the Ravens said it seemed he would recover, Calvin was distraught.
"I didn't even care about football, I just wanted a normal brother," he said.
The first stories about the injury said Kindle was at a party and fell down two flights of stairs. The implication was that he was drunk and so out of sorts that he literally rolled down one set of stairs and turned before going down another. This infuriates Calvin, who went to the apartment to look at the stairs himself.
"He didn't fall down two flights of stairs," Calvin said.
The apartment is a townhouse with a staircase rising up to second-floor bedrooms. Kindle told his brother he was sleeping in one of the rooms when he woke up needing to use the bathroom. Estes, who knows that Kindle often takes Ambien at night, figures Sergio might have been groggy and unsure where he was. Stumbling around an unfamiliar place in the dark, he searched for a light switch and instead stumbled down the staircase.
The speculation on Twitter and Facebook got to Kindle. He laughs and says he had to cut social media from his life. But Estes thinks Kindle had bouts with depression last year when all he could do was watch, the man who wants to please instead letting everyone down. Kindle threw himself into his workouts those months, running and lifting.
"You can see it in the weight room and the meeting room, he's trying hard to get back," said Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan(notes), who shared an apartment with him last year. "He's trying to do everything right. He's trying to show everyone he's got a great attitude on and off the field. He wants to show he's a positive influence."
Estes suspects the DUI from last December might have something to do with effects of the head injury and the depression that came with it. "I'm not an apologist by any means," he said. But he's trying to find some reason for why Kindle would let something like that happen, especially after coming so far from his early years at Texas.
"We have to pray he is out of the rough stuff," he said.
Not long before the lockout started, the last of the doctors who had been studying Kindle's head sent word: He was clear to play. In a moment the months of despair disappeared. He could be a part of the team again. Kindle picked up his phone, found the number of Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis(notes), and dialed. It was Lewis he let down the most last year and it was Lewis who would know first that he would be back for the Ravens this year.
The call only lasted five minutes but it was as if the man who wants to please everyone had made something right.
But the first test came early in training camp. How would Kindle's head handle a hit? Would he pass out? Would he get splitting headaches? Would he be able to still play?
"That was the whole thing," he said. "If I can't take it I guess it wasn't meant to happen that way but if I can? It's on."
Then it happened, on a punt coverage drill with the ball spiraling down from the sky. He turned to block a player and instead of meeting body on body, their helmets met in an enormous clatter. Kindle stopped, looked around and realized he was fine. Nothing hurt. He had survived.
He was back. And as he tells this story he smiles, as if it was the first time he had proven he belonged.
"We like Sergio as a person," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Even though we were frustrated with his decision-making, we like him. We think he has a good heart. And from a business standpoint it was an investment for us. We did take him high. We like our value. We think he can be a good football player for us and be worth the investment."
Then he paused.
"That's yet to be determined," he said.
But for a player who has made so many mistakes, there are a lot of people hoping so hard he will make it right.
And that might say more about Sergio Kindle than anything else.