Nowhere has never looked this good

Drugs and booze cost Desmond Allison his first chance. A small South Dakota college has given him another.

Published November 13, 2005

VERMILLION, S.D. - Lost, really lost, Desmond Allison stood near his friend's body lying in an open casket.

No money in his pocket, no driver's license, no job, no home address. He listened to the minister explain how Kwane Doster, a 21-year-old football star at Vanderbilt, was shot in the head the day after Christmas 2004 on a dark Tampa street. It was only a few blocks, as it happened, from where Allison was arrested five days earlier, his third drug-related arrest in eight months.

At the service, old friends and others stared at him, as many had in the past. He stood out. He was 6 feet 6, 240 pounds and, at least in this town, famous.

Cedric Powell, who played basketball with Allison at Robinson High from 1995-98, said he stood near Allison at the service and for a split second thought, as many do, "He might be the best athlete to ever come out of Tampa."

Later Powell would say, "How many guys can score 32 points and shut down (future NBA star Tracy McGrady) and then go out and score three touchdowns in a playoff football game? How many can say they started as a freshman for the University of Kentucky's basketball team? My God, Des is so gifted.

"But then you know what? Knowing all that hurts because of how he ended up."

The worst was when they asked, "What are you doing now?" Did he tell the truth, that he was, among other things, working at a fast-food restaurant and for Tampa Electric cutting off power to delinquent customers?

He never knew what to say. What to do.

Walking from the funeral he was stopped short by a voice.

"Desmond.'' He looked down into the tear-streaked eyes of former Robinson assistant football coach Vaughn Volpi. "Desmond, am I going to your funeral next?"

Allison stood there, dumbfounded. Had he fallen that far? He recalled later that he wondered, as he often had, how things had gone so wrong. He wished he could go back five years to that moment when he coasted through a red light in Lexington, Ky., with an open bottle of Hennessy cognac next to him. If he hadn't been arrested and lost his basketball scholarship, would he have ended up so lost?

"I will help you," Volpi was saying, "if you promise me you'll try. There may be a way, believe it or not, to get you a Division II football scholarship."

Allison's eyes widened. He hadn't played football since 1997, but suddenly, there he was at his friend's funeral, saying, "I'll go anywhere for a football scholarship," and feeling for the first time in years, at the age of 25, a hint of hope.

* * *

"This isn't anywhere," University of South Dakota football coach Ed Meierkort said. "This isn't even in the middle of nowhere. This isn't even next to nowhere.

"This is nowhere."

Vermillion, South Dakota.

Population 10,278. When the students leave town, more like 3,000. One paid firefighter. Two movie theaters, three total screens. One homicide in seven years. One 14-lane bowling alley attached to the Prairie Inn ($49.50 a night). Corn fields for miles around.

Smack in the center are the Division II South Dakota Coyotes, led by Meierkort, who on a recruiting trip a few months after Doster's death stopped by Robinson at the request of Volpi and Robinson coach Mike DePue.

Meierkort was shown an 8-year-old football highlight film of Allison. It was, Meierkort said with earnestness, like watching Randy Moss in high school, a 6-foot-6 "freak" leaping over defenders and catching footballs with one hand, making tacklers fall around him like Keystone Cops.

As Meierkort read Allison's senior stats - 38 receptions, 15 for touchdowns, and 23 touchdowns overall - DePue said, "And we were a running team." (That year Knight running back Zain Gilmore ran for 2,322 yards and was named Mr. Florida Football.)

Why, Meierkort wanted to know, hadn't Allison played college football?

"Because he loved basketball," DePue said, explaining that Allison also averaged 34.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 10 assists as a senior.

The good news was that under Division II rules, Allison was eligible for football. Division II schools give athletes unlimited time to use their eligibility, and Allison's time playing basketball two years at Tennessee's NAIA Martin Methodist (after Kentucky) didn't count. So with only two years at Kentucky in basketball, Allison could play football for the Coyotes for two seasons.

A few hours after the meeting, Allison walked through the door. "My eyes popped," Meierkort said.

He wasn't the kid on the tape. He was a muscled man of 240 pounds. In Allison's eyes, Meierkort saw a bright, unassuming, humility. In Allison's words, the coach heard honesty and good nature and "lots of regret." More than anything, he sensed an overwhelming urgency for another chance.

"I'll be honest, I loved what I saw on that tape," said Meierkort, who because of Allison's past had to go all the way to the university's president to get him enrolled. "That kid had so much football talent in high school it was mind-boggling. I never saw him play basketball, but he could have played football anywhere.

"But on top of all that, I liked Desmond. I liked him a whole lot. And hey, if he was willing to go to "Nowhere' for a second chance, I was willing to give him that shot."

* * *

In many ways, from the places he had lived most of his life, "Nowhere" wasn't much of a stretch.

His father had never been around. It was just Desmond and his mother, Detria Jones, who moved to a shabby duplex in the roughest part of Port Tampa when Allison was 12. There Allison met Powell and Gilmore, who would become his best friends. "We were a team," Powell said. "None of us had fathers. What we had was each other."

And sports.

"There were drugs and some bad people around," Powell said. "I'd have to say basketball, and sports, saved us."

When they weren't playing pickup games they played for one of the state's best AAU teams. And after the playing was done, they'd sleep on one or the other's floor or couch.

When Allison's mother moved to California the summer before the boys' freshman year, Allison came back to Tampa, alone, a few months later. For more than six months Allison lived from week to week at the duplexes of Powell, Gilmore and a few other friends. He didn't have a permanent address until his mother moved back to Tampa almost a year after she left.

Throughout high school the three boys almost always slept at the home of, as Powell said, "Our high school dad," Robinson basketball coach Scott Wagers, now an assistant at East Tennessee State.

By then Allison was, in Powell's words, "A star. And when you're a star like that, bad people tend to gravitate toward you. And that's how Desmond sometimes got in with the wrong people."

Still, Powell said he believed Allison "would go on to Kentucky and then the NBA and live a great life. I thought he was just that gifted."

Powell - who went to Florida Southern on a basketball scholarship, earned a master's in business administration and works for Northwestern Mutual as a financial officer - said Allison and he don't talk much anymore.

"I would have helped him any way I could, but there was like this thing that had grown between us," Powell said. "I think after he came back to Tampa (after his stint at Martin Methodist) he was embarrassed to talk to me. He had become a mystery."

* * *

The pivotal moment, Allison said, came the morning after the arrest in Lexington, when at 7 a.m. he sat in his Kentucky sweat suit across from coach Tubby Smith and then-athletic director C.M. Newton.

A DUI conviction would make him the first athlete affected by Kentucky's zero-tolerance drinking-and-driving policy, instituted by Newton after the alcohol-related traffic death of a football player. Kentucky's rule meant loss of scholarship, loss of athletic eligibility and de facto banishment from UK (a policy that was later drastically eased).

Smith was saying the rule would be followed to the letter.

Allison's face fell in his arms on Smith's desk.

"Oh, please, pleeeease," he sobbed. "Isn't there anything we can do? Oh, God, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

Allison said Smith, who declined to comment for this article, told Allison he was sorry but didn't say much more.

Allison looked up from his arms at the men who held his fate in their hands and thought, I'm lost.

* * *

In Vermillion last month he looked up from a plate of ribs and said, "That was the last time I cried."

He didn't cry when told his blood-alcohol level registered 0.113 percent, over the level at which a driver is presumed impaired. He didn't cry in June 2000 when he pleaded guilty to DUI charges (a marijuana possession charge was dropped). He didn't cry at Doster's funeral.

"I was numb there," he said.

Next to Allison sat his South Dakota roommate and teammate, 21-year-old Jevon Bowman, who listened with a quiet fascination.

"You catch yourself thinking about him playing basketball at Kentucky," Bowman said. "You catch yourself thinking about where he went after that, and then that thought just goes away because after a while he's just goofy old Des."

They had finished Sunday's practice at the Dakota Dome, where the day before in front of 9,000 fans they helped the Coyotes improve to 5-0 with the school's biggest victory in 10 years, 59-14 over the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Allison caught one pass, a 4-yard touchdown lob (a play USD has converted all six times when throwing to Allison near the goal line). He didn't play much after the Nebraska-Omaha touchdown because of a strain in his left foot, an injury coaches say was caused by wearing football shoes for the first time in seven years.

After Kentucky and Martin Methodist, Allison had a short look at the United States Basketball League and failed tryouts with NBA teams in Atlanta, Miami and Toronto.

He might have helped himself by sitting out a year after Kentucky and joining another Division I team, but he chose Martin Methodist because, he said, he couldn't stand to sit out an entire year. He admits the competition wasn't the best.

"Sometimes before a game I'd tell myself, "I think I'll get a triple double today,' and then I'd go get one," he said, giggling, which he often does.

With games sometimes played in front of just parents and cheerleaders, he called Martin Methodist a "different planet." Especially compared with Kentucky, where "It was like being a rock star. You couldn't go anywhere, not to the mall or out to eat, without somebody wanting your autograph."

After leaving Kentucky, though, nothing stuck except the perception he was trouble. "I think getting kicked out of college made (NBA) teams and everybody else look at me differently. I felt like people weren't willing to give me as much of a chance."

* * *

Until Meierkort.

"I've always said I would never sign a kid who I wouldn't have babysit my kids," the coach said. "So guess what, the first day Desmond was here I went up to him and said, "Desmond I need a favor,' and then right after that he came over and watched my son, Reid (10), while I ran an errand.

"My kid loves him and we haven't had a single moment of trouble since. Not one. He's been at every practice and every meeting, and he's been on time every time."

Meierkort says there's an outside possibility Allison could play tight end in the NFL. He needs to add a few pounds of muscle and learn the position quickly, the coach said, but he might have a shot.

Even at 27.

Meantime he has to put up with his USD nickname, "Grandpa," often yelled by teammates and often in association with the requisite Viagra jokes every time he pops ibuprofen.He said he loves everybody in Vermillion but misses Tampa, and he desperately misses his children, Jasmine, who is 8 and lives in Tampa with his mother, and Desmond, 3, and Deja, 2, who live in Kentucky with their mother. Allison is not married but says he is constantly on the cell phone to his children and their mothers.

Though Allison has stayed out of trouble since the December arrest, he didn't check in with his probation officer as much as he should, and this summer warrants were issued for his arrest.

Don Russell, a probation supervisor, said Allison made efforts to contact him last week, but the two "have simply missed each other."

"But this really doesn't have to be a big deal," Russell said. "All (Allison) has to do is make contact with me and this can all go away. Sometimes these types of things just happen."

In the end, Allison said, what is important is that he becomes a better provider for himself and his family. That means, at the very least, getting his degree.

Unlike his days at Kentucky, where it was, "almost all about sports and trying to make it to the NBA," now he cherishes the little things: walking with textbooks on a tree-lined street through the pretty campus, sliding into a classroom chair and learning "everything I can."

"I may not live at "the Lodge' (the plush basketball dorms at Kentucky)," he said, "but I do like "the Mansion' (the wooden house he shares with Bowman).

"Plus, there's really no place to get in trouble around here. Everybody here is so good."

* * *

In May he plans to come home, to work out for the summer, get stronger, quicker.

Volpi and DePue plan to get Allison working with their team and, together, to keep him away from trouble.

Still, Powell said he worries.

"Des should not come home for the summer," he said. "Look, he's done a great thing going out there. To be honest, I couldn't believe it was possible. I had to look on the roster, in fact, before I could believe it. But now that he's there he needs to stay up there until he gets that golden ticket, that degree. Who knows what might happen here?"

Allison says that no matter what, he's staying out of trouble, and if the NFL doesn't work out he would like to teach at Robinson High and, he said with a huge grin, "Coach the Knights."

He said he will always cherish "Nowhere," South Dakota, where he has been embraced like a son, a friend, and, yes, a grandpa.

"The best part," Allison said, "Is that I know this place can help me go somewhere.

"Somewhere good."