ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Nick Fairley's determination was never questioned back in 2010. He was a force of nature at Auburn, an offseason that turned potential into reality followed by a fall campaign for the ages.
He delivered 60 tackles, 24 for loss, and recorded 11.5 sacks; the latter stats were school records. He won the Lombardi Trophy. He was the anchor of a BCS champion defense. He showed a nasty streak that got him labeled dirty. If anything, Nick Fairley's "want to" was too high.
Gone were any doubts. Of just a three-star recruit out of Mobile (Ala.) Williamson High School, where he had once considered a future in basketball, not football. Of a one-time projected offensive lineman switching sides. Or of a work in progress that redshirted his first year of junior college because no one saw him as a likely early entry candidate, even after his slow transitional first year at Auburn.
In 2010 Nick Fairley would not be kept from his goals, first opposing quarterbacks, then the first round of the NFL draft.
And now? Well, who knows?
Who knows if he can regain that old determination and focus or whether once he got to the promised land of the Detroit Lions, the will to succeed, to make his mark on the NFL, just faded away?
Fairley was arrested for the second time this offseason near his hometown over the weekend.
He was charged with driving under the influence after police allege he was whipping 100 miles per hour on Interstate 10 at 1 a.m. Saturday. He was also cited, among other things, for trying to elude police and having an open container of alcohol.
His smiling mug shot was a bad look made even worse coming about a month after people in a Mobile neighborhood called 911 about a car that kept speeding through the streets. Police responded, pulled over Fairley and found him in possession of marijuana. He was arrested then, too.
Based on precedent, the dual arrests, especially the high-speed drunken chase, should cause NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Fairley for at least a couple games next season.
Fairley deserves his day(s) in court, but the run-ins raise a serious question: Is this a guy who lost some of his drive once he got to the NFL, got his guaranteed millions?
One time is one thing. Twice?
"That's the thing that's the most concerning about it," a none-too-pleased Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said Tuesday, referencing Fairley among a handful of Lions who have run into offseason trouble. "There's a lot of guys that have had an issue in the past, there's a lot of guys who have had some maturing situations. I think that goes for everybody. There (are) things that you do when you're young that maybe you're not proud of but you learn a lesson.
"We've had a couple situation here that it has happened twice. It certainly cause for concern that they haven't learned it."
Fairley isn't big, strong or talented enough to just cruise through the NFL. Almost no one is, especially on the brutal defensive line.
He played like he was 6 feet 5, 310 pounds at Auburn. When he checked in at 6-3, 291 at the 2011 NFL Combine, it was both a stunner and the most tangible reason he dropped to the Lions at 13th overall.
That slightly undersized frame for the interior line will always be an obstacle. There's no questioning his speed, which is a premium in the Lions' scheme. Still, success in this league requires intense dedication, work ethic and a will to become great – none of which is mined via late nights out, open bottles or fast cars.
Fairley had just one sack and 15 tackles last season. A two-to-one arrest-to-sack ratio at this point wasn't what anyone expected. A recurring foot injury limited him to 10 regular-season games and that too is worrisome. He's healthy now but problems with feet can be chronic – there's no good way to keep the weight of such a big body off of them.
Mostly though, this is about attitude.
Will the 2010 version of Nick Fairley please stand up?
Are these isolated incidents or part of a pattern of behavior? The Lions are still bullish on his potential and teammates swear he's still committed, noting he's in better physical condition this year.
"He's a good worker," said defensive lineman Kyle van den Bosch. "He's in good shape. He's worked (this offseason). You can tell that. Pretty much everybody on the team has been working hard and Nick is included in that."
Fairley looked good in Tuesday's organized team activity (OTA). Then again, he's refused to issue a public comment or speak to the media, leaving his teammates and coaches to answer for him.
Fairley wasn't a can't-miss prospect in high school. He had potential. There were also questions. When he failed to qualify academically to attend Auburn in 2007, the Tigers coaching staff encouraged him to attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi with a specific plan.
Fairley would redshirt his freshman year, so when he eventually got to Auburn he'd still have three years of NCAA eligibility. He was a project, perhaps even an offensive lineman.
His one season at the juco did nothing to change that opinion. He had seven sacks and nine tackles, a good but hardly dominant force. His first season at Auburn was mostly the same, just two starts and 1.5 sacks. Then came 2010 and the transformation was overwhelming. The light bulb went on. The motor never stopped. He just destroyed college football for a 14-0 Tigers team.
On draft day, when he dropped to the Lions it looked like fortuitous for both parties. He would join an already strong defensive line where he'd eventually pair up with Ndamukong Suh to form a strong interior unit.
That's still the plan. Of course, it's all but assured the Lions won't get 16 games out of him due to the likely suspension.
"He's been playing like we expect him to be play," Schwartz said. "He's a very talented player. He's been working very hard. None of that is going to matter if he isn't on the field for us."
Detroit has been a circus of incidents this offseason, Fairley is just one of four members of the 2011 draft class to get in trouble, legal or otherwise. Just Tuesday, wide receiver Titus Young returned to OTAs and issued a statement apologizing for what is reported to be a sucker punch of safety Louis Delmas.
It's been one thing after the next.
"What we have here is a case of a few guys tainting the reputation of a lot of others," Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who spoke individually with Fairley on Tuesday and hinted at unspecified team punishments, was asked if he was angry.
"I'm a lot of things with that," he said. "Concerned. Angry. There are a lot of different words. It's disappointing also when our story isn't about guys (who are acting like pros)."
Fairley has to be the most troubling situation. He means too much to fail.
At Auburn Nick Fairley wanted that NFL dream so much he turned it on and exceeded everyone's expectations.
Now he's here and he keeps getting busted. He needs to show that old resolve, because if two arrests put him at the crossroads, the next sends him down the path to being a bust, 100 miles per hour.
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