METAIRIE, La. – Chris Ivory is running again.
The player who is the best story in the NFL this year – bursting from nowhere to the New Orleans Saints – moves with a fury that borders on desperation. His legs whirl. His arms whip. His head bounces. There is nothing easy or graceful in the way he goes. Every step comes violent and hungry as if stopping means he will lose everything that's happened almost as fast as it came.
Who could have seen this? He, Chris Ivory, in the NFL, let alone leading the Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions, with 683 rushing yards – almost as many as he had in four years at Washington State and Tiffin (Ohio) University? Things like this don't normally happen. Ivory understands. What was that his high school coach back in Longview, Texas used to say?
"If you aren't running as hard as you can, they will get you."
Ivory smiles as he sits at his locker at the Saints' practice facility late last week. He is a running back in a linebacker's body, weighing 222 pounds.
"But there's more to it," he says.
Then he goes quiet.
Yes there is more, which is why he has been running ever since those days in the dusty East Texas fields where they kept telling Chris the best way out was to play football and the only way to be great at that was to run. He's been running since that day he and his best childhood friend Trent Williams(notes), now a left tackle for the Washington Redskins, made a pact that they would both someday play in the NFL and then set about to make a ridiculous dream come true.
He's been running since Longview High, where a flashier running back who ran smooth and true named Vondrell McGee got to be tailback, drawing all the attention from recruiters who barely noticed Ivory racing through defenses as a fullback. He's been running since Washington State, where the injuries came, where they charged him with a felony crime his friends say he never committed, where he eventually was thrown off the team, driving him to Tiffin where the injuries came again and the NFL didn't care.
And now he is here? With the Saints?
Ivory laughs. It is a quiet laugh, his face stays hidden behind a curtain of dreadlocks.
"You know, sometimes when I'm at home and maybe I hear some music or I smell a certain smell it will get me thinking of what I went through," he says. "It will remind me this is a blessing."
"Stay dedicated, man," he says. "Stay dedicated and prayed up."
Ask Ivory's cousin Ricardo Buchanan what has kept Ivory running despite a mountain of roadblocks that screamed he should stop and he says "Aunt Judy."
Few kids in Longview didn't know Judy Ivory-Gilliland. She was a police officer in Longview, first working a beat on the streets until eventually landing the job as the officer assigned to the local schools.
"She is the rock of our family," Buchanan says.
Even more, she was the rock of other families too, picking out the kids at school who needed the most guidance, talking to them, mentoring them, urging them to get degrees.
"A lot of them didn't come out of homes with much love," says another cousin, Quincy Grant. "And when someone comes from the outside and shows them that love, it meant a lot to those kids. It motivated them to get better. A lot of kids graduated who wouldn't have because of her."
It was Judy who pushed her only child Chris, telling him he could be great, that all he had to do was keep working and working and that good things would happen. She was the one who sat at the edge of the fields during youth league games, hitting a button in her police cruiser every time Chris scored, filling the East Texas sky with the wail of a siren until it seemed the sound never stopped.
And when he needed to be told to keep running even when nothing seemed to go right, she was the one who told him he had to do it.
Maybe it was a curse he grew up in Longview, where football matters more than anything else. In addition to Williams, Ivory's high school team had two other future Redskins – receiver Malcolm Kelly(notes) and linebacker Robert Henson(notes).
John King, the coach at Longview High, realized Ivory – as the bigger and stronger back – was a perfect fullback to block for McGee. King tried to run plays for Ivory, to get him attention, even moving him to linebacker at times just to show his versatility. Yet when colleges came recruiting, it was McGee they wanted.
The one exception was Leon Burtnett a former Purdue head coach who was Washington State's linebackers coach and happened to notice Ivory one day while recruiting in Texas. He loved the frenzy with which Ivory ran and told WSU head coach Bill Doba to offer a scholarship. It was the only real Division I interest Ivory received.
For a time Ivory was healthy at Washington State, teasing with his mix of speed and power. Special teams coach Dave Walkowsky loved him. Then the injuries started. Ivory was still nursing an ankle injury when a call came from back home. His mother was sick.
Somehow Judy had contracted viral meningitis, picked up most likely from one of the children she had been trying to save. At first she thought it was just a very bad cold or maybe pneumonia.
Shortly after Judy got to the hospital, she fell into a coma. Doctors raced to hook her to a ventilator. They attached her to all kinds of machines and then they gathered the family in the hallway outside her room and told them it was probably hopeless, that the ventilators and the machines could only do so much, that she was almost certainly going to die. Chris raced back from Washington State. Trent Williams got permission to leave Oklahoma, where he had gone to play, just to sit in the lobby like everyone else and wait.
That first night, the worst night, Ivory wouldn't leave his mother's room, Buchanan remembers. He sat all night holding her hand, praying, begging her to survive.
And she did. After two days, she woke from the coma. Recovery was longer, many weeks. In many ways, family members say, she is almost where she was before. Some of them suggest it is nothing short of a miracle.
"So maybe Chris was born into it," Buchanan says. "I'm telling you [survival] is in his blood, anything you can throw at him, he can take it."
But this was also when college started to come apart for Ivory. He missed several days of classes tending to his mother and worked frantically to catch up. This was during spring practice before his sophomore year and everyone says he was not himself – distraught by his mother's illness and worried after learning about her firing from the police department for missing too much time due to what it deemed an illness not related to work.
Then came the flood of injuries. A shoulder ailment kept him out of games his sophomore year and his junior season was hampered by a bad hamstring. Several times he missed games. And yet there were moments of brilliance, like the day he ran for 104 yards against Stanford his sophomore year and the 114 he had two weeks later at Washington in the Apple Cup.
Maybe if he was at USC or Stanford or one of the Pac-10's bigger, more glorified schools, this would have been enough to catch someone's attention. But lost in the rolling fields hard by the Idaho border, Washington State is far from the glare of the rest of the conference's big-city shine. Big games disappear quickly if not followed up by more.
When you play at Washington State it's easy to be forgotten.
Especially when there's trouble.
What exactly happened at a residential party near campus in July of 2009 is unclear; almost a mystery in itself. At some point that night, a fight broke out, a man was hit in the head with a bottle and police were called. Almost nine months after the incident, Ivory was charged with a Class B felony in the state of Washington. It is a crime that could result in three to nine months in jail. No date has been set for a trial yet.
And while an athlete facing criminal charges in a college fight is not in itself unusual, what is unique is the vehemence with which everyone surrounding Ivory insists he had nothing to do with it. Ivory himself has refused comment except to say: "No I did not commit that," to New Orleans reporters after the story broke in October that he was facing the Washington charge. Walkowsky, the one-time special teams coach, says he talked to a WSU player he trusts who told the coach he was with Ivory that night and that they weren't anywhere near the party in question. This seems to support a version Ivory has told Saints officials.
"I have no clue how [Ivory could be charged]," Buchanan says. "He's not that type of person. My cousin has never been a troublemaker. Ask anyone back home: Chris is the nice one, the sweet one. My cousin would not do anything like that."
Some close to Ivory say it is a case of mistaken identity; that a witness saw a dreadlocked man hit the victim with a bottle and since Ivory has dreadlocks he was identified as the attacker. It is an allegation that is almost impossible to verify because everyone involved is silent. His lawyer, John Snyder, refuses to speak about the case. Whitman County prosecuting attorney Denis Tracy instructed his receptionist to say he has no comment. A message left at the Pullman, Wash. Police Department was not returned.
Nonetheless the fight and its aftermath damaged Ivory at Washington State. With Doba and the men who recruited him gone – fired before his junior year – Ivory struggled with new coach Paul Wulff. It was clear that as an often-injured senior who did not fit well in the new offense, he was not the player Wulff wished to feature. And as summer practice began not long after the fight, Ivory found himself buried on the depth chart.
"He was the sixth string tailback," Walkowsky says. "He wasn't second string or third string. He was sixth string. I don't think the [new staff] wanted him from the get-go. He was very quiet and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued as not all-in or not positive. But that can't be farther from the truth."
When Ivory overslept one morning, missing a team meeting during two-a-day practices, Wulff kicked him off the team.
A few days later Doba called Walkowsky, who had taken the head coaching job at Tiffin and said: "They cut Chris Ivory, do you want him?"
Yes, Walkowsky very much did want Ivory. But wary about why a player he loved could suddenly fall so out of favor, he called everyone he knew at Washington State trying to see if Ivory had changed. Yet "everything was positive," Walkowsky says. "And when I learned the true backstory of what happened there I said: 'Yup, I still want him.'"
Since Tiffin is a Division II school, Ivory could transfer and play right away. He arrived not long before the first game and quickly became the team's lead tailback. "He was like a man among boys," recalls Tiffin's athletic director Lonny Allen. Still the team struggled and it was hard for Ivory to break free for big runs. After about three games Ivory walked into Walkowsky's office, closed the door and said he wanted to talk.
"I thought, 'Oh no here it comes he's going to quit,'" Walkowsky recalls.
Instead Ivory wore a worried look.
"Coach, what am I doing wrong?" Ivory asked.
Walkowsky told Ivory he was doing nothing wrong, that the team's problems were with the offensive line, not him.
"Is there something more I can do?" Ivory asked. "Should I play defense? What can I do to help us win?"
Talking now by phone, Walkowsky sighs.
"I almost hugged that kid," he says. "If you have that attitude at Tiffin after playing in the Pac-10, I'm sorry, you aren't a bad kid."
A few days later, Ivory suffered a meniscal tear in his knee. His season was over. His college career done. If the NFL dream didn't already look bleak, it now seemed impossible. But Ivory nonetheless refused to give up on football.
He started running again. He ran even before his doctors told him he could begin exercising. He ran through the cold. He ran through the snow. It was 15 minutes from his apartment to the campus and he ran the route every day, as hard as he could, heading straight to the weight room where he would spend the next two hours building endurance, fixing his leg, making himself so powerful that maybe the injuries would never happen again.
He set a goal: attend the March 16 pro day at the University of Toledo. Most NFL teams would have coaches and scouts there. He was certain that if healthy he could impress them.
"I always knew I had that chance," Ivory says.
When the day finally came Ivory's knee was still not healed. But he ran the 40-yard dash in a respectable 4.48 seconds – remarkable considering his recovery was at about only 90 percent.
NFL teams called. At first Walkowsky was ecstatic to finally get interest in Ivory, but the questions they asked stunned him.
Tell us about the baggage at Washington State.
"I kept telling them 'there is no baggage at Washington State,'" Walkowsky says. "How could this kid get this label? It's baffling to me that everyone would come in and ask all these things. I was there, he's not a bad kid. I think a lot of it was the fight allegations."
The exception was a Midwest scout for the Saints named Dwaune Jones who happened to be driving through Ohio one afternoon in the fall of 2009 and decided to stop at Tiffin because he heard the school had a transfer from Washington State on its roster. He knew nothing about Ivory but this is what you do in scouting, you check out every possible lead, no matter how remote. Ivory's injury had come the week before but Walkowsky showed Jones film from Tiffin's first four games. Even on the tape, with the offensive line crumbling, Jones could see Ivory was big and he seemed to have a burst of speed that was unique for a back so large.
But what struck Jones the most was the enthusiasm with which Walkowsky talked about Ivory. Coaches are sometimes enthusiastic about their players but Walkowsky practically gushed. Whatever happened at Washington State suddenly seemed irrelevant. Here was a coach from Washington State and he was raving about a player in a way few coaches ever do, especially for a running back who in four years of college had barely gotten to run.
"Everybody has a past," Jones says. "You can't go in there with a negative attitude. I want to give him a second chance. That's all I'd want anyone to do for me."
Jones wrote a strong report, suggesting Ivory could be an NFL player. The report moved through the executive offices of the Saints until eventually it was read by general manager Mickey Loomis. Sitting at his desk late last week, Loomis called it up on his computer and smiled.
"That's where our scouts make their money," he says.
The Saints gave Ivory a draftable grade but decided he was not someone they would use a draft pick to choose. But when the draft ended, New Orleans still needed two running backs to fill out the training camp roster. Usually in such a case they make offers to the next five running backs on their draft board and take the first two who say they will come. Ivory agreed immediately.
It was the only offer he received.
Looking back, Williams, a first-round draft pick, chuckles at the urgency with which Ivory went through Saints camp this summer, certain he would never make the team. "I could see what he was doing, I knew he was going to make it."
Things began to happen on the Saints' roster. Players got hurt. Ivory, who might have dreamed of just being on a practice squad, was suddenly on the team. Then Reggie Bush(notes) went down and Pierre Thomas(notes) was injured and suddenly Ivory had become the Saints' top running back.
So he ran harder than ever, literally trying to push through tacklers rather than go around them.
"I figure if I give a blow it's better than taking a blow," he says.
He shakes his head.
"I know I'm going to run through guys," he said.
It's all he's ever known to do.