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At decisive moment, Armstead went right

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


TAMPA -- Ah, yes. This is the life.

Jessie Armstead, king of the world, leans back in his chair and grins for the cameras, and it is difficult to tell whether the light bounces brighter off his diamonds or off his smile.

And why not? Who wouldn't want to be Armstead? He is one of those young men kissed by the angels: rich, athletic, popular, charismatic, intelligent, admired, charmed. Given the opportunity, who wouldn't choose this life?

Turns out, Gary Edwards didn't.

Turns out, Derrec Evans didn't.

A thousand miles away, Edwards watches as his old friend talks about the Super Bowl on television. He, too, smiles and thinks about old times and shared glory. He thinks of the way things were, and the way that they might have been. It is then that the saddest thought of all occurs to Edwards.

"Jessie Armstead," Edwards says softly, "is living my life."

This is a story about choices. Good ones, bad ones, lasting ones. Call in the 17-year-old who lives at your house, and tell him about the roads we pick and how long they can shape our direction. Let him know about rising stars and fallen ones. Tell him, most of all, about two men, each realizing how close they were to being the other.

They were best friends, Armstead and Edwards. They slept in each other's homes, ate out of each other's refrigerators, dated girls from the same circle. They ran together, laughed together, considered themselves invincible together. They also were teammates on the 1988 Dallas Carter High School football team that might have been one of the finest ever assembled.

Then, one evening at a park near their homes, as the young men loped around the basketball court, someone had an idea. Maybe Jessie, good old Jessie, wanted to come along that night. No one called it armed robbery. It was a bit of fun, he was told. It was a glorified prank, he was told. It was easy money, he was told.

And Jessie said no.

Simple as that, at the age of 17, Armstead saved his own life. As simply as shaking his head, Armstead picked the fame, fortune and freedom over pain, punishment and prison. As quickly as going his own way, Armstead chose ... all of this.

"It was the turning point in my life," Armstead said. "I think about it all the time. I could have gone on with them. I went with them everywhere else. I made a choice."

A year earlier, Armstead had been caught shoplifting, a couple of pairs of tights, a T-shirt -- and spent 10 hours in juvenile. That might have saved him, however. He still remembers the hurt in his mother's eyes that day. He remembers how he promised her he would never hurt her like that again.

"There was no temptation," Armstead said. "I knew I was a million-dollar chip waiting to be cashed. I told them that wasn't for me. They looked at me like I was selling them out. But you have to make your own choice. Your friends will tell you that's cool to go along, but that isn't cool."

Oh, for a while, it probably felt like it. Evans' cousin had gotten away with robbery, and Derrec had seen the money, Edwards said. So Evans worked it out with a buddy who worked at Taco Bueno who was in charge of closing. The players would show up, and he would hand them the money, and then he would report a robbery.

From there, it graduated to robbery of video stores and other fast-food restaurants. Sometimes Edwards carried the gun. Sometimes it was someone else. Edwards took part in seven robberies. In all, 12 students were arrested and charged with 21 robberies.

"It wasn't as bad as it sounds," Edwards said. "No one ever got hurt. It was like a high school prank. Just kids growing up. No one ever pointed the gun at anyone. It was very seldom pulled out."

Eventually, of course, they were caught. It still rankles Armstead how harsh the punishments were. Evans, the safety who had signed with Tennessee, was sentenced to 20 years (he served six). Edwards, who had signed with Houston, was sentenced to 16 years (he served nearly four).

"They were great players," Armstead said. "Derrec would have been a top 10 pick. Gary would have been drafted in the late second, early third round. They'd both be in the league.

"It's all about choices. You go right, and no matter what you do, you're going to be all right. You go left, and your Mama and Daddy can't save you, because the system has you."

If he had it to do over, Armstead said, he would have talked. He remembers approaching Carter coach Freddie James and telling him he had something to discuss with him, then changing his mind. After all, his friends had accused him of selling out once.

"I wish now I had told someone," Armstead said. "They would have hated me. But they wouldn't have gone to prison."

This week might have been easier, too. Edwards admits he thinks about that almost constantly. The other day, he was in the barber shop, his face buried behind a magazine, when he heard others arguing about whether Armstead was the best player on his high school team.

Oh, James will tell you that he was. When the old coach talks about Armstead, he does not pause for breath. He will tell you about the playoff game against Marshall, when Armstead came and tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to put him into the game as a tight end. "I'll catch the ball, Coach," Armstead said. And James looked in his eyes and said, "You sure as hell will" and put him in the game.

The other coaches were upset. This was Jessie. Jessie never caught the ball. Not even in practice. But somehow, James knew. And he put him in, and the quarterback threw, and of course Jessie caught it and the team went on to win the state title.

Tell your kids. It could be Edwards sitting there, the way Jessie is as he tells the story about his father's kidney transplant, and how he offered to surrender his own even though it would have meant his career. It could be him talking about how tough his old man was, and how being in a fight was all right, but losing one meant punishment. It could be him talking about the knife plunged into his thigh when he was 12 years old.

Tell our kids. It could be Evans sitting there, the way Jessie is as he talks about how angry he was with coach Jim Fassel a year ago, and how the two have mended fences, and how the Giants have turned into something Super.

And it could have been Armstead back home, pointing at the screen and telling everyone the old stories about how good they were, and how famous they were going to be.

"I wish I could go back," Edwards said. "I wish I could do it all over again."

Tell your kids. Those who make the wrong choice always do.

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