Somewhere along his often lonely road, Rod Shoate, three-time All-American at the University of Oklahoma and seven-year veteran of the New England Patriots, opened the wrong door, and lingering death walked in.
What killed Rod Shoate, a vigorous, youthful, happy Oklahoma hero, after the cheering stopped?
Those questions have been frequent topics of earnest conversation this month among coaches and former and present players of college and pro football.
Contacted by The Sunday Oklahoman during the past two weeks, coaches and players throughout the National Football League voiced a common question: "You ever find out what he died of?"
Many suspected but weren't certain, and those closest to Shoate probably knew but wouldn't let on. Shoate's family wasn't talking. Most who knew Shoate knew he struggled with drug addiction, did a stint in prison and wandered homeless for a time. Today, his family just wants to "let him rest," his mother, Lula, said.
"His heart just stopped," Shoate's sister, Paula Sims of Oklahoma City, said.
"Everybody has things that they keep deep down in their hearts, things they don't want anybody to ever see. This was Rod's," his younger brother, Myron, said of Shoate's final illness, which he declined to name.
Rod Shoate fell victim to fame and its darker trappings: the loss of fame, drug addiction, divorce and loneliness. He died of AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - in an apartment in a tiny Oklahoma town at 8 a.m. Oct. 4. He was 46.
Fame in sports can be a blessing or a curse, and its lessons often a dichotomy, said Dewey Selmon, who, with his brothers Lee Roy and Lucious, were Shoate's teammates in the early 1970s aboard an OU football juggernaut for which losing seemed not an option. Of the 34 varsity games Shoate played under Chuck Fairbanks and later Barry Switzer, the team was 32-1-1. Shoate's only loss in college football was his fifth game. Of his final 29 games, 28 were wins and one was a tie. He was an All-American all three years he played. He was the Patriots' second-round draft choice in 1975.
While at OU, Shoate, a former high school running back, created a defensive position in football that has become a fundamental in today's method of play - the "undersized" linebacker with an explosive start and startling cross-field speed.
"He was incredible. He had one of the greatest bursts that I've ever seen," said Larry Lacewell, then OU's defensive coordinator and now head of college and pro recruiting for the Dallas Cowboys. "He looked like a track guy coming out of the blocks. He looked like a heat missile. He's the best one that I've ever coached, and I've been in it a long time."
"He came to the pros and was undersized as a linebacker, but he was very strong and very quick, and he had a very good career. Chuck Fairbanks recruited me and he recruited Rod, and he built the defense around us," said Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton, former OU Sooner and now the Patriots' defensive line coach.
Many college football stars like Hamilton survive and prosper, while others, like Shoate, do not.
"The thing that happened to Rod happens year in and year out to a lot of good athletes," Dewey Selmon said. "If you're a night-lifer and a pro player - you can mark it down - you are going to be approached," by groupies, gamblers and drug dealers.
"Anytime you're an entertainer, you're going to get approached by that," said Rex Norris, Chicago Bears defensive line coach, who had the same job at OU in 1973-83. "Most of them handle it pretty well.... You hope your children, your ex-players, your friends, all make the right decisions. I just have a hard time believing it, because I knew Rod in college. It's like telling me one of the Selmons robbed a bank."
"There are really two times when you're susceptible," Dewey Selmon said. "One, when you're at the top of the heap, like we were when we were at OU - we were almost pro-quality athletes - and when you go to the pros."
Selmon said both he and his brother Lucious, now outside linebacker coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, were approached by Florida gamblers after they turned professional. Dewey Selmon, a player's union rep at the then brand-new Tampa Bay franchise, turned the matter over to the NFL. "League security came in there like crazy," he said. Plainclothes detectives were put on the payroll "to protect the players from the junk of our society.
"If two guys like myself and Lee Roy can be approached, they'll approach anybody, and me being a union representative. It's big business and big money. To counter that, proper measures had to be put in, and they did that."
Three against the world
Myron Shoate said he and his sister Charlotte found their brother's body in a tiny apartment on NE 2nd Street in Spiro on Oct. 4.
It was sadly appropriate, somehow, that they would share those final, quiet moments together.
Rod, Myron and Charlotte Shoate were the youngest and closest of 10 children, and all had attended OU together - Myron, a younger football-scholarship recipient who worshipped his celebrity Sooner brother, and Charlotte, a no-nonsense OU cheerleader and the family's matriarch-in-training who had encouraged Rod to leave the family farm and come to the big city and join her at the university, where he would find opportunity and the coaches to train him to ply his unmatched skills.
Many wondered what killed Shoate earlier this month. Some things just didn't add up. His body was kept out of public view at Mallory Funeral Home in Spiro, and his sealed casket sat alone and unattended in the sun and wind in the distance outside the church in which his funeral was held.
"That's very unusual for a black funeral," Lucious Selmon said.
Shoate's death certificate disappeared for an unusually long time.
For his hundreds of mourners, all there was to say goodbye to inside the Mount Triumph Missionary Baptist Church, or at Levester and Lula Shoates' home nearby, were a few photographs, most depicting Shoate in his teens and 20s and in football pads. The final decades of his life went unmentioned.
The only evidence of his professional football career was a wreath of birch twigs and red plastic roses, sent by the New England Patriots, which bore thick, liquid-chalk handwriting on a blue ribbon pulled across its middle, bearing the sentiment, "Alumni and Friend," its Latin syntax wrong. None of Shoate's professional teammates came. Outside, during a burial service, two hospice nurses stood alone at the fringe of the crowd.
Dewey Selmon said he regretted that more of Shoate's former teammates failed to come. He called the funeral's tone "almost apologetic - like he was asking for forgiveness.
"We've got to say that Rod was forgiven a long time ago," Selmon said.
Shoate's death angered some of those who loved him, most notably Barry Switzer.
"I was with Joe Washington and Greg Pruitt last night - they were in town for a golf tournament - and we were talking about Rod, and how hard it was to believe what a great personality and what a great kid he was then, and how he turned out. It was all because of drugs. He was a neat, neat kid," Switzer said. "Drugs destroyed his life. We all know that. We don't keep that a secret. It's a tragedy. We cared about him. We loved him, but that's what took him away from us."
Shoate was injured while playing for the Patriots, and "Once he got hurt, it slowed him down, and he was just a regular outside linebacker who was a little too small," said Attleboro, Mass., police detective James Keane, a Patriots fan who helped extract Shoate from a frigid Rhode Island river in 1987 - and arrested him for robbery.
Shoate was traded to the Chicago Bears in April 1982, where head coach Mike Ditka cut him before the season started. The next year, Shoate's former OU and Patriots coach, Chuck Fairbanks, picked him up for the USFL's New Jersey Generals. The following year, Shoate had wandered to the former league's Memphis team.
"I drove over to Memphis one time just to see him play when he was with the USFL, and I knew something was wrong with the guy," said Lacewell, who discovered Shoate at Spiro High. "I saw him in the locker room and he was just different. I knew something was changing in his life."
The quiet man
Shoate kept his troubles to himself. That attitude was hammered to hardness by football. He was a deeply empathetic listener known for long conversations with close friends and family. With family, he didn't talk much about football, his heartache and wandering after the sport left him behind.
Shoate's sister, Paulette Sims of Oklahoma City, called it "the hole in his life. I guess he kept that part away from his family also. We never questioned him about that, because I come from a family that, we stood behind you, whatever you decided you wanted to do. None of us know if it was something he wanted to keep away from us, or what."
"That gap that you have is the gap that we have. We worried about him," she said.
Shoate married a woman named Deborah in Boston when he was with the Patriots, but in March 1986, Deborah, then estranged from her husband, filed for divorce. "I've had enough," she said.
"Football teaches you that you're a team, but you're an independent warrior, too," Dewey Selmon said. "When things get tough, football players just get tougher. If you're a gymnast or something, you can ask for help," he joked, darkly. "If you're a football player, you tape it up and you move on."
"That's not true, though," he reflected.
"Football players make mistakes. We do need help. We live in a sheltered environment, where we're protected from a lot of things that we should know, but then the things that we shouldn't know about or be approached by, they're outside that door."
College offers no classes for stardom, he said.
Selmon, now a successful Norman businessman, said that, when he retired, he thought he was ready for it. "But in six months, I felt like a lost dog." An internal voice, bolstered by years of football glory, told him, "'I'm Dewey Selmon, I know everything.' Then I asked myself, 'What are you going to do?' I didn't know."
The lonesome road By 1983, Shoate was calling home for money. He asked his parents to sell his $45,000 interest in the family's 20-acre farm. They sent him the money, then didn't hear from him for at least four years.
That's when a great aberration occurred in Shoate's life.
On March 1, 1987, Shoate, then listing an address in Malden, Mass., walked into an Attleboro, Mass., convenience store with his hand in his pocket, implying he had a weapon and demanding cash.
"It was cold. He did ours about 2 o'clock in the morning, and he took off in his car, which was an old, beat-up brown Chevy," Keane, the Attleboro police detective, said. "He drove to Cumberland (R.I.), which is the next city over, he did a gas station and got into a chase, and he dumped his car in a wooded area and dove into the river and stayed in the river, I'd say, about a good three hours before he came out."
"He was doing pretty well up here until he left the Patriots," Keane said. "Then, he just went downhill."
Cumberland deputy police chief Bucky Sheets clearly recalled the 12-year-old case.
"New England Patriots defensive back Rod Shoate. We found him in the river.
"It was snowing with freezing rain," said Sheets, who was then midnight patrolman in his town. "It wasn't hard to follow his tracks."
Shoate, who'd driven a Mercedes while with the Patriots, was driving a battered, borrowed '65 Dodge, which he'd abandoned at a clearing to the frigid Blackstone River while fleeing the police. He'd stayed, submerged to his neck in the freezing water, as policemen from Rhode Island and Massachusetts waited for him to emerge. "There was one way in, and one way out. We waited," Sheets said. Shoate surrendered when a police dog arrived and began snapping at him.
"He broke down crying. He kept on saying, "I have no idea why... This is not me," Cumberland detective Ronald Champane said.
Shoate, then 34, spent several months in the Adult Correctional Institute of Rhode Island, where he was held for trial. In October 1987, he pleaded guilty to the Rhode Island holdup and was sentenced to 10 years probation. A month later, in New Bedford, Mass., he was given a 20-year suspended sentence for the Attleboro holdup. He was ordered to undergo drug treatment.
After that, "He sort of vanished. That was the last time we ever dealt with him," said Keane, who loves his Patriots.
"That was a tough time for the Patriots," Keane said. "They were kind of in the dumper (Keane pronounces it 'dum-pah'). Shoate could have really been something, because he was playing with two other good linebackers. He would have been all set - he had Steve Nelson in the middle and Andre Tippett on the outside, and they're both gonna be Hall of Famers.
"It's a sad story. It's too bad for his family. Especially a guy who showed so much promise," the detective said.
Members of the University of Oklahoma Football Letterman's Association, commonly called The "O" Club, became aware of Shoate's drug problems in the 1980s, said association president Charlie Newton, an Oklahoma City restaurateur.
The club put Jim Riley, a no-nonsense firebreather, on the case.
Riley, 54, who played for OU in the 1960s, was the second-round draft choice behind Bob Griese for the Miami Dolphins, and played defensive end throughout the Dolphins' 1972 undefeated, Super Bowl-winning year. Newton said Riley became a "falling-down drunk, into drugs - this, that and the other - finally had kind of a come-to-Jesus thing come upon him. He's not a rehab counselor, per se, but he's sort of a resource, I would call it. It's kind of an awareness program."
The letterman's association gives Riley $17,000 per year to help OU players, former players and others come to grips with addiction.
"It's done quietly," Newton said. "He believes in what he does, and he and his wife, Robin, run a real neat program. He's a tremendous resource for us."
"I reached out to Rod several times, but I didn't get any response," Riley said. "We visited when he was back here, and he really wasn't interested in what I was doing.
"If he would have been a part of my group, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. Hopefully, he'd still be alive.
"What you've seen in Rod's life is that chemical dependency will kill you, sooner or later, and he's one of those that had to die from it. And that's sad. It breaks my heart. That's the reason, 14 years ago, I dedicated my life to help people who have those kinds of problems. I do it in a very quiet way. We don't jump up and down. You're not supposed to hear about it, really."
Riley is a recovering addict's nightmare, or dream come true. He's tough and accepts no excuses.
"I'm not one of those that believes, 'Bless their hearts, they have a disease, and they can't help themselves.' I believe you make choices. I don't think Rod wanted to live on the street, but he chose to do that. It kind of makes you angry, when you see someone just throw away a life that could have had some meaning.
"Football is just a game. It's merely a game . There's a lot more to me than 'I used to play football,' but, there's a lot of guys, unfortunately, that's all they have."
Lacewell called Shoate's death "the biggest shock of my life. Rod was a fierce, up-in-your-face competitor, had a little trash-talking ability and was, frankly, kind of a mean guy on the field. But off the field, I just don't ever remember any problems with Rod. He was always quiet, fun-loving, always had a smile on his face.
"But you play at such a wonderful level, and when you go to pro football sometimes, and you're not the man, disappointments start happening to you, and maybe sometimes you don't handle it the right way."
What are the warning signs of drug problems that players should look for?
"I've had problems within my own family with it," Lacewell said. "I know the signs now, and I understand it a little bit better. I think it starts with making sure that parents know who their children are running around with. And tell the kids, don't just do drugs because it's the easy way out. Once it happens, it's a never-ending battle. Until you've been around someone that's had drug problems, you can't fully appreciate it.
"Leon Lett is on our own football team now. He's had three different drug-type deals. It just breaks my heart, because Leon Lett is a heck of a guy and he just can't hear it.
"I'm sure that's what happened to Rod Shoate. It's a lot bigger than all of us. It's a hard thing to whip."
"The responsibility," Dewey Selmon said, "comes from the family, the community, the church, even the big schools like OU, Notre Dame, Texas, who constantly produce pro athletes. Do they have a good enough system in place that warns athletes what they're going into when they leave the college ranks?
"There were a lot of things I wish I would have known when I left OU that I never encountered in the college ranks. It's taboo to talk about temptations inside the NFL, but once you got up there, you saw it all - if you want to get bigger, there's steroids, if you need to get up for a game, there's something laying around. If you want to feel good, they've had drugs that did that. That wasn't indicative of the whole NFL.
"To some people, they're just not susceptible to it, so the system just kind of looks on over them, and they tend to move on. I think it was just Rod's giving nature, and his wanting to be a friend to everybody, might have been the open door that they picked up on."
Shoate, one of 10 children of Levester and Lula Shoate, grew up on a tiny sharecropper farm in Fort Coffee, outside Spiro near the Arkansas border, a close-knit community of families that had weathered together two world wars, the Dust Bowl years, the Great Depression, and several hard decades before the earliest of those dark markers of time.
The families of Fort Coffee live in simple homes on small plots of land scattered along roads a few miles northeast of Spiro, and just south of the ancient manmade landmark Spiro Mound.
"We ate many pinto beans and potatoes and sugar by the hundred pounds," Lula Shoate said. "We had hogs and cows and chickens. That was what the children was raised up on. He'd do the farming and I'd stay home and cook, and I had a baby every two years. We just went on and done what we could do.
"Thank the Lord, we made it, by the help of God, because, in '35, it was hard. It was hard, man. It was hard in Fort Coffee, I mean, everywhere. But we just made a living, we didn't have to suffer for anything. But we just had to work," Lula Shoate said.
The Shoates and the other people of the unincorporated community attended church together, worked and played together, and mourned and buried their dead together in the cemeteries at the churches near their homes.
"We just took care of them when they was here and tried to raise them up the way they was supposed to be. We tried to grow them up right.
"I wouldn't take a gold guinea for those kids. They're some nice children to us. Intelligent children, too.
"We're just living because God is so good to us. He brought us this burden - this is the first child we ever lost. Sometimes it gets hard, but I just stay proud of them, 'cause we all got to leave from here. That's why we need to be prepared, we need to be ready."
It's always is a sad time when anybody passes away. You just miss them so, 'cause, you know, we all got that to do, but you just miss 'em so bad. So, I guess I'll get up from here now, and go do my work."
Paulette Sims, 53, the Shoates' sixth child, said her brother didn't ask for fame.
"Rod was recruited into playing football. It was like an accident. What he really wanted to do was farm - to take over the family farm. He accepted fame, but it wasn't his goal. He wanted the life where he wasn't famous, he just wanted to be down in the country, like we were raised. The football life wasn't his life. He just wanted the quiet, relaxed, down-home life."
"He wanted the quiet life and we're going to respect his wishes and let him have that, now that he's gone. Now that he's dead, I want to leave it alone. We didn't think of him as an idol, as a star. We just want him to rest."
Shoate almost missed his rocket to stardom.
Lacewell said Shoate's coach at Spiro asked him to look at film of a young fullback.
"We had some kind of bowl game, I don't remember, and Highway 9 goes to Arkansas and I just stopped in Spiro as kind of a nice gesture, and he gave me a film, and told me about the guy. I really didn't pay much attention to it, to tell you the truth. I put it in the trunk of my car and forgot about it, went home for Christmas, came back, we went to a bowl game, and I'd forgotten all about it. The coach calls back and asks me, 'What do you think about Rod as a linebacker?' I said, 'Linebacker!?' I couldn't find the film. It finally dawned on me where I'd left it, so I went out to my car and got it, sat down in my office.
"It was one of those things. It took about two minutes. It was incredible how good he looked. I called Chuck Fairbanks and Switzer and said, 'I want you to watch this guy. He's not very big, but he can run like a deer.' Chuck and Barry looked at it about 30 seconds, and there was never a debate. Chuck said 'Go get him.'"
The early 1970s at OU were times that most athletes and coaches only dream of and represent the best of times for some who have gone on to the pros.
"It was a heady time for all of us," Lacewell said. "I went from junior college coach pretty quickly to a guy that had his own television show, a Cadillac, a Lincoln. You know, you play like we played, and won like we were winning... it was incredible. And we were all kids - Barry was, I was. We were the Boys of the Fall. We didn't know what was happening. I guess we could coach - we didn't screw it up.
"I'll always be indebted to Rod and the Selmons. They made the Larry Lacewells and the Barry Switzers and the Jimmy Johnsons a lot better football coaches than we probably were," Lacewell said.
"It's a story to be told - at least something good to come out of this tragedy, let people know that, hey, this is where it leads you," Switzer said.
Along a more tender vein, Selmon said, "Now that I'm getting older myself, I think... for a family, and for a community and for a team, sometimes, maybe it is better that we hold to and remember him for the best part that he had, and I think that OU was his best part. The rest of it is a story with so many crooks and turns and stuff in it, you find different theories and mix of opinions.
"It's going to be a tough story. When you write it, give it decent display and coverage, so it won't be bombarded by a bunch of other big game stuff that's going to need coverage and space.
"When you finish it up, bring it where Rod really was, what he really did accomplish. And maybe a part of life that maybe - not all athletes, but maybe all people, boys and girls - know they should avoid and be aware of."
"My daughters play sports. And my son, even if he doesn't play at the college level," Selmon said. "They're still going to be exposed - you're going to be offered, and you're going to encounter.
"If it's drugs, or anything in life, there are things you should do and things you shouldn't do. I just have to leave it at that. In this case, I think the temptations were there, and I think Rod, being naive, because Rod wanted to be a friend, fell into that.
"Rod's life reflects a part of OU, and a part of Oklahoma. I'm not asking you to whitewash the story. But, some kind of way, see if you can... maybe put an ending to the story that Rod would have wanted you to. What would the ending be that Rod wanted, if he could write the end? Let that be something that Rod could close this whole deal with.
"Rod wanted to be a friend.
"I pray and hope your story comes off good. I know it's tough. I would not want to write the story," Selmon said.
Maybe having friends who loved him enough to make a request like that is fitting end enough.