Wash my car, said the man in the wheelchair.
The boy looked at him quizzically.
Why? The boy wondered.
Don't worry about that, the man in the wheelchair said. You'll find out later in life.
So Ronald Powell, age 5, started washing his stepfather's car.
Cut the grass, said the man in the wheelchair.
The boy didn't understand this either.
Why? He asked.
Don't worry about that, the man said. You'll find out later in life.
So Ronald Powell, age 7, started mowing his stepdad's lawn.
The boy grew up tall. He became a star baseball player, then a star football player. Not just a star football player, but arguably the most coveted high school football player in the nation.
When he was 14, a pastor came to his home in Moreno Valley, Calif., and prayed with the family. There was no talk of sports, and yet on his way out, the pastor turned to Ronald and predicted he would play in the NFL.
Powell rushed from the defensive end position, terrorizing quarterbacks and awing college coaches. He was the No. 1 recruit in the 2010 Rivals 100, nine spots ahead of 2013 NFL draft pick Marcus Lattimore and 38 spots ahead of Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 selection in this year's draft.
Powell decided to leave home. He wanted to play for the best defense, and that was in Florida. He also wanted to play tight end, and head coach Urban Meyer told him he could. Powell chose the Gators and fans there rejoiced.
The moments when his stepdad asked him to do difficult chores were long past. Powell got a scholarship to play football, he would be famous for playing football, and it was likely he'd end up being paid a lot of money to play football. What exactly would Powell have to find out later in life?
Then suddenly Powell wasn't playing football at all.
Things kept unraveling in Gainesville. The tight end plan fizzled. The head coach left. There was a rift on the team, between the older guys and the newer players, and Powell was stuck. "The team didn't trust him," says Ronald's mom, Tracy Mitchell. "They felt like he wasn't somebody they could come and talk to." Then, after a good sophomore season in which he led the team in sacks with six, Powell tore his ACL in the 2012 spring game.
"It was a real blow to him and to our team too," says Dan Quinn, Powell's position coach who has now moved on to the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. "He was one of our most improved players from 2011, and going into 2012, we thought he'd be one of our most improved players again."
Powell went through the surgery and all the lonely rehab. He dealt with the pain, the frustration, the soreness and then the stiffness. He was in the stretch run, ready to make his return in what would be the biggest regular season game of the year – at home against LSU.
Then Powell felt some pain in the same knee. He needed an MRI.
"I tried to stay positive through it all," he says, "telling people I was going to be all right, and there was nothing wrong."
There was a lot wrong. The Florida team doctor summoned coach Will Muschamp. The ACL was torn again. There went the 2012 season, and the 2013 season wasn't a sure bet either.
"It just killed me," Muschamp says. "To see him after all that to go through this."
Muschamp went to meet with Powell, wondering, "How are we going to present this to him?"
Powell sat down and listened. The doctor told him the diagnosis.
"Well," Powell said, "when do we go again?"
It all started over: the surgery, the pain, the rehab, the isolation, the wondering and the fear. For so long he was so special, and now, as his mom says, "There were 100 Ronalds." He was just another football player. And he wasn't even playing football. The others were moving on without him. So was the team: the Gators won 11 games. They were back. He wasn't.
"When you're an athlete, the papers, they blow you up so much," says Tracy. "And athletes lose themselves. They get lost. The things parents instill in them, they get lost. The love, the concern, the genuine care for other people."
Powell himself admits this.
"When the game's ticking away, and you can't do the things you want to do, it can break you down," he says. "It can tear you down. Even trying to stay positive, I was doing it; I was being positive. But sometimes it just hits you and you don't know why."
Yet there was a stronger force at work. There was a lesson from long ago that was about to be learned, at last. It was his stepfather's lesson. One day, during the depths of Powell's ordeal, he got a text message from his stepfather.
"Every day I wake up," the text read, "and wish I could walk."
Maurice Haley, 47, got into an argument when he was younger and someone shot him. The bullet entered his spine and he was paralyzed. That's how Ronald's stepfather ended up in a wheelchair.
"He can't do things without the help of those around him," Ronald says. "When he told me that, I had to look at it this way: here's a man who's lost his legs, basically. He's paralyzed. Maybe never be able to walk again. I'm gonna get a chance to do it again."
But not without work, and not without help. Powell would have to spend the extra time and trust others: his teammates, his coaches, his doctors.
"He kinda did things in a different way," Ronald says. "He showed me work ethic. If I wanted something from the ice cream truck, he would say, 'What have you done around here? Have you washed the car?' And he's gonna make sure the rims are clean. The window has no smears. In the end, he taught me a lot."
So did Ronald's mom, who is separated from Maurice but still close with him. She has a story of her own. She drove a school bus and then got a job working at a home for neglected and abused girls. She was drawing a salary of $6.75 an hour. That was in 2000. Now she's a manager of two homes.
"I think Ronald learned how to genuinely care for people," Tracy says, "and understand in life, everybody has struggles. You can't complain about small things in life."
Powell saw what his stepdad needed in the way of help, and what his mom gave in the way of help, and the meaning was clear. He began devoting himself to being a great teammate.
"I wasn't in a position as far as playing to be a leader," he says. "So I got in the position to become a leader."
He watched film every Friday with Quinn. He took younger players on as mentees. He showed them energy and encouragement. He refused to let freshmen go through the "us vs. the upper classmen" phase he faced when he arrived. He and his cadre from the Meyer years – guys like Mack Brown and Neiron Ball and Trey Burton – became the marrow of the team. Even while many in the college football world ripped the Meyer era, the Meyer players were leading the Muschamp guys. At his speech to the press during SEC Media Days in July, Muschamp made a special mention of Powell. He had become the soul of the defense, if not the entire team.
"I've learned to open up more," Powell says. "I wasn't as open. I learned to let my guard down. Make 'em feel like they can come to me and talk – ask me anything. If they need help, I'm the guy to go to."
Inside, there were swells of doubt: What if he got hurt a third time? What if he wasn't quite the player everyone expected? What if he had taught himself to walk again twice in one year, only to be unable to run the way he once did? He paced the Gators' sideline in the spring game in his uniform, but again watched everyone else play. In an interview on June 5, he confessed he'd lost some momentum.
"A couple weeks ago, I was down a little bit," he said as the summer began. "You start thinking about all the little things. How are you going to be when you come back? You got a million things running through your mind. I hit one of those blocks."
Before, he would retreat. Now he reached out. He talked. He let it go. His teammates listened and said, "Wow, that's a lot," and Powell immediately felt better. They understood. He had come across a whole country and after all this time, he found a home. He was truly, finally, a teammate.
Ronald Powell returned to the field last week against Toledo. He broke into the backfield several times and Muschamp said just the sight of him in the locker room made him "jacked." Powell said the coaches have talked to him about playing tight end when he gets fully comfortable on defense. "Once I'm feeling good," he says, "I'm sure they'll work something in for me."
The bigger goal is when Tennessee comes to the Swamp. Ronald's stepdad will be at the Swamp for the first time ever. He's never seen his son play a college game in person. Is Maurice Haley sentimental? Well, mostly.
"He's gotta play hard that game," he says, " 'cause I'm gonna be there. Four or five sacks."
In his first news conference since his return, after the Toledo game, Powell said again and again how much he learned to appreciate being able to play. It sounded not as if he'd been dealt a blow, but rather given a gift.
"I owe it all to my two ACLs, I guess," he said with a smile.
Maybe not his ACLs, but definitely his two pillars of strength: hard work and service. Those are the two things that brought him back. Those are the two lessons he learned after all these years, both from his tireless mom and from the man in the wheelchair who taught a football player what it means to stand on your own two feet.
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- Ronald Powell