clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
AP Images
AP Images

Filed under:

Fade Route

Justin Blackmon was one of the most gifted wide receivers in college football history. Then, after bouts with alcohol and the law, he disappeared from view. Those who love him are still trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

Justin Blackmon does not look like a man who has disappeared. He wears no unkempt beard or hibernation paunch, no look of vague suspicion in his eyes. Honestly, he looks pretty good. Shoulders high and wide; arms thick in the appropriate places; legs lean and functional, vaulting him up three flights of stairs. It’s a Wednesday in August and Blackmon is appearing in public, something he used to do quite often but now seems to try his best to avoid. He’s dressed well, if casual. Black and gray henley, buttoned all the way to the top; a pair of khakis over black sneakers; Ray-Bans perched on top of his head.

You don’t need much creativity to imagine this man, just a few years ago, setting fire to secondaries across college football. It’s easy to picture him sitting in the green room at Radio City Music Hall, waiting to be selected in the 2012 NFL draft. He’s still imprinted with the muscles of a former Heisman candidate. But in the past two years, Blackmon has appeared in this drafty room on the third floor of this rural Oklahoma building more often than he’s appeared on an NFL sideline.

He says hi to his lawyer, and then to the bailiff, and when the moment comes he nods politely at the judge. While his former Jaguars teammates are preparing to begin the 2016 NFL season, Blackmon is 1,200 miles away, in a courtroom. And when you ask many of the people who love him, they struggle to explain just how he ended up here.

If you wanted to disappear, Ardmore, Oklahoma, would be a fine place to do it.

The town envelops you slowly, pulling you in from the highway on your way north from Dallas or south from Oklahoma City. Cut through the layer of strip malls and Applebee’s; head past the Walmart Supercenter that draws shoppers from nearby towns Lone Grove and Wilson; and as you head past Main Street toward downtown you can watch the world transform. Here the brick is faded, the signs all slightly askew. Businesses have straightforward names. There’s Ashley’s (books), Marquis (furniture), and Antiques (antiques). Above, a water tower and a feed mill reach toward a sky that is vast, occupying air that is hot and dry. Below, locals say, a web of tunnels snakes through the earth, underground passages that once connected bootleggers to brothels and gave criminals refuge whenever their enemies passed through town.

You could disappear down there, in the tunnels underneath Main Street. Or you could disappear on the other side of the train tracks, in the tangle of streets that give the town the highest per capita rate of violent crime in Oklahoma, according to 2011 FBI data; or on the more affluent west side of town, lost in anonymous chain restaurants and charmless McMansions.

After Blackmon vanished from football and public view, he reemerged on the town’s south side. One of the great college wide receivers of all time, Blackmon had become a ghost. After a successful rookie season in which he caught 64 passes for 865 yards, he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy, earning a four-game suspension. On November 1, 2013, news broke that he’d committed another violation, netting another suspension — this time, indefinitely. He was forced to miss at least the remainder of the 2013 season. He was eligible to apply for reinstatement before the beginning of 2014.

And then: silence. No interviews. No public workouts. No attempts to rebuild his image. No media campaign for reinstatement in the league. Though Blackmon was still on their roster, the Jaguars spoke of him as if they knew his career was over. "I think it’s an absolute tragedy," Jags owner Shahid Khan said in 2014. Reddit threads popped up: "What happened to Justin Blackmon?" On Twitter, @aus10jag took the question to Langley: "@CIA where is justin blackmon?" Last August, Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell speculated that Blackmon would never play again. "What you were once," Caldwell said of Blackmon, "is not what you probably will be."

Nearly the entire 2015 season passed, and in public, Blackmon’s name was scarcely mentioned. For the first time in years, northern Florida had reason for optimism. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles showed signs of promise. Wide receiver Allen Robinson emerged as one of the best pass catchers in the NFL. Blackmon was gone, but it no longer mattered. The Jags had moved on.

And then on the morning on December 22, 2015, a video emerged on TMZ. It showed a white Jeep, pulled over on the side of a dark and empty road. An officer leaned into the driver’s window. "The problem is now," he said, "if you’ve been drinking and driving, I’ve gotta figure out if you’re OK to drive or not." The voice that responded was slow and tenor-pitched. It was unintelligible at first, soft words all running together. But after a moment, the voice clearly said, "I swear."

"How many did you have?" the officer asked.

"I had two drinks," the voice responded.

The officer invited the voice to step out of the car, and a moment later a man emerged. He was tall and fit, if not hulking, his body buried under gray sweatpants and a red Nike hoodie, his head covered with a Chicago Bulls beanie. He took wide and meandering steps on his way over to the police car, and as he looked up, the car’s camera caught a clear image of his face. It was Blackmon.

The officer told him to wait for a moment, and Blackmon shrugged, his palms open, a look of desperate confusion on his face. Moments later he struggled to walk heel-to-toe, and he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.

As the video bounced around the internet, football media and fans were reintroduced, if only briefly, to a man many of them had forgotten. But to people in and around Ardmore, this was the Blackmon with whom they’d grown familiar.

He was polite. He was drunk. And he was home.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last month I spent about a week in Oklahoma, and while I was there, I spent a lot of time thinking about Justin Blackmon’s face. I did this in part out of necessity. I had to think about Blackmon’s face because I couldn’t think about his words. He wouldn’t talk to me. Neither would his parents. His best friend Garrett Moore said, in an email, "We are all hoping and praying for a good ending," but declined to be interviewed. The Jaguars sent a very polite rejection of my request to talk with team officials. Current and former Jaguars players also declined to talk, and one of Blackmon’s former Jacksonville teammates said, through his agency’s publicist, that he was hesitant because he didn’t want Justin to read the story and "think that I’m not his friend."

But I also spent a lot of time thinking about Blackmon’s face because, well, it’s a remarkable face. Not in its construction, necessarily, but in its capacity for movement. It reveals secrets and then hides them before they can be understood. It seems most at ease when it is tilted downward, staring at another face, and in those moments it is wide and expectant, thrilled by whatever that other face is about to say or do.

At two different points while I was in Oklahoma, I sat in rooms with two different middle-aged men, both coaches, and I listened as they reflected on Blackmon’s face. The first was Mike Gundy, his coach at Oklahoma State. We were talking in Gundy’s office in Stillwater one morning when Gundy paused to think for a moment about what he first noticed about Blackmon. Finally, Gundy said, "He has a beautiful smile." The second time was a few days later, sitting in a Starbucks in the OKC suburb of Edmond with Rick Harris, who coached Blackmon on the basketball team in high school. Harris had admitted to feeling some hesitation about discussing Blackmon, some nerves over how the former player he thought of "like a son" might be portrayed. But when considering Blackmon’s face, Harris plowed straight ahead. "He’s just so expressive," Harris said. "He draws you in." And then, in these two separate conversations in different parts of Oklahoma, these two men both landed on the same word to describe their former player. Blackmon, Harris and Gundy both said, drew people to him because he was just so damn "bubbly."

You can see it in interviews. Blackmon was often aloof with the press, even at his peak, but if you catch him in the right clip you’ll find his shyness melting. I saw it again, on that August afternoon in court, as Blackmon made small talk with his lawyer and his dad. And I saw it most clearly one morning in the office of Oklahoma State assistant athletic director and media relations staffer Gavin Lang, who took a moment to fish through old files on his computer until he found a video that had been taken on another OSU staffer’s cellphone in 2011.

One day that September, ESPN’s College GameDay dispatched Tom Rinaldi to Stillwater to tell the story of Blackmon’s friendship with Olivia Hamilton, a then-9-year-old girl with leukemia. It was the perfect TV feature — built on what seemed like a genuine connection between a football star and a vulnerable child. Lang had facilitated the story, but his favorite moment of the day came after the ESPN crew left. Here on his computer screen, he showed me shaky iPhone footage of Blackmon and Olivia in the team meeting room, surrounded only by her family and a few OSU staffers lingering in the aftermath of the shoot. Blackmon told Olivia he had a surprise for her, and then he told her to look at the video screen in the middle of the room. The video for Justin Bieber’s "Baby" came on, and Blackmon took out his phone and held it to his mouth as a mic. He walked over to Olivia and began to serenade her — Baby, baby, baby, ohhhhhh! — alternating between clutching his own heart and reaching out to take her hand. She giggled. She danced. When the song finished, she clapped. And Blackmon held the most familiar contortion of his face — that eager, expectant grin — for almost the entire time.

These are the moments that make watching the TMZ video so jarring. It’s not that the Blackmon on that video is angry or violent. Throughout the arrest he was neither. It’s the image of his face — something usually so warm and so open — retreating into itself. There in the dark, he doesn’t look upset or frantic. Even though he’s clearly drunk, he doesn’t seem out of control. But you can’t shake the sense that this person is different from the magnetic and inviting man that so many people describe.

This Blackmon isn’t grinning. He doesn’t seem bubbly. He just looks confused and alone.

People who love Blackmon have spent years searching the space between the versions of Blackmon shown in those two clips — the one of him singing Justin Bieber to an ailing child and the other of him stumbling toward his fourth arrest in six years. "It’s heartbreaking," says Gunter Brewer, Blackmon’s position coach and co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, who is now co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at North Carolina. "I don’t know that person. I don’t know that Justin Blackmon. I know someone else."

Here is the Justin Blackmon that so many people say they know: He was born in Oceanside, California, on January 9, 1990. He moved to Oklahoma as a child and was raised by Warren and Donna Blackmon, a retired Marine and a kindergarten teacher, parents who were equal parts tough and caring, relatable and wise. In an area rife with drugs and violence, he grew up west of town in the Plainview district, a neighborhood that was insular and safe, on a secluded street full of PTA members and multilevel homes. He attended Corinth Baptist Church each Sunday. He sang in the choir and played the drums.

When he was in the eighth grade, he got frustrated with a coach, stormed out of the weight room, and walked back to his home. His school’s varsity football coach, Jeremy Dombek, then called Donna to let her know what Justin had done. Fifteen minutes later, Donna walked into the weight room holding Blackmon "by the ear," Dombek says. She told the coaches Justin had something to say. He apologized. Dombek never had a problem with him again.

By the time he reached his sophomore year in high school, Blackmon was still rangy and awkward. He struck coaches as someone with the potential to be a good high school athlete — nothing more. But there were moments. Sometimes, at the end of a long practice, he would finish sprints so far ahead of the team’s seniors that coaches wondered whether other players were slacking off. He reacted to losses with an almost unknowable sadness, as if, for those 15 minutes in the postgame locker room, there were no greater tragedy in the world. That sophomore year he got the ball on the wing in the closing seconds of a basketball game against a rival. He pulled up for a game-winning jumper, and upon release, the shot looked pure. It rimmed out. He walked over to the sideline, inconsolable. After a moment, he sought out Harris, his coach, and told him, "I am never missing a game winner ever again. From now on, you can give me the ball. I won’t let you down."

The short version of what came next: He got very good at football. He played both ways and dominated both sides and he sometimes made catches that even his teammates and coaches thought looked unreal. He wasn’t a sprinter, but he was fast enough; he wasn’t a giant, but he was big enough; and he would run longer and harder and would leap higher and stretch farther than anyone who ever tried to cover him. He remained something of a secret, a three-star recruit hidden down there in southern Oklahoma, and when recruiters from Oklahoma State showed up at one of his basketball games and saw him knifing through the lane for a dunk, they knew, says Mike Gundy, "we had ourselves a steal."

At the end of his official visit to Stillwater, Blackmon walked into Gundy’s office on Sunday afternoon and sat across from the man who was quickly establishing himself as one of the fastest-rising head coaches in the country. Gundy asked Blackmon if he’d enjoyed himself and he said yes. He asked how the visit had gone and Blackmon said good. Gundy told Blackmon that he wanted him in Stillwater, that he was officially offering him a scholarship. Blackmon was quiet. He said nothing.

Minutes later, Blackmon walked outside with Brewer and Donna. Brewer remembers Donna asking, "Did you tell Coach Gundy you want to come here?" Blackmon said no. "Well," she asked, "do you want to come here?" Blackmon said yes. It’s easy to imagine him then, as he has seemed many times since, to be standing on the outside of his own experience, as if watching himself from afar. "So," his mother asked, "why didn’t you tell him?" Blackmon shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know.

Blackmon reappeared in Gundy’s office and told him he wanted to be a Cowboy. Months later he arrived on campus for the fall of his redshirt season, still a little underdeveloped, not quite ready to contribute. The next spring he added muscle and confidence, and as a redshirt freshman, he proved to his coaches that he could play. As a redshirt sophomore, he showed all of college football that he could dominate. And as a redshirt junior, he showed NFL scouts that he had the talent to be one of the best wide receivers in the league.

Dombek remembers laughing at the absurdity of some of his catches, how easy it was to call plays on third-and-long — you just had to lob it up to Blackmon and watch him catch and run. Brewer thinks of a game against Georgia in Blackmon’s redshirt freshman year. He dropped a pass while taking a vicious hit over the middle, but he popped back up — moments later, on the sideline, he seemed desperate for the chance to run across the middle again. Gundy still seems awed not by his grace or dexterity, which were on display every Saturday, but by his cardiovascular system.

"He could just go and go and go," says Gundy. "Play and play and play. It’s late in the game, and he’s got 14 or 16 catches, and the defense is bent over, exhausted, and he just keeps coming."

It’s unclear when the drinking started, when or how the space opened up between the Blackmon who seemed so effervescent and the one who staggered toward the cop car, stumbling and confused. High school coaches seem to think he didn’t have a problem until college. College coaches seem to think any dependency didn’t arise until he was bound for the NFL. "Maybe I’m naïve," says Harris, the high school basketball coach, "but I just didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. Not at all."

The first public sign arrived when he was a redshirt college sophomore. One night, Blackmon and three teammates drove down to Dallas to watch their friend, ex-Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, play on Monday Night Football. On their way back to Stillwater, police stopped Blackmon driving 92 miles per hour in a 60 mph zone. They performed a field sobriety test and arrested Blackmon for driving under the influence. The charge was later reduced to underage alcohol possession, and back in Stillwater, coaches were disappointed but saw no reason for alarm. Says Brewer: "When it happened, I was thinking, ‘When I was in college I probably would have done the same thing.’ You know? It’s a situation where, ‘Hey, I’m down here watching my buddy play in the NFL. There’s a crowd.’ … It’s not like they were at some wild party. They just met at a restaurant and stayed too late, hanging out with friends. If anyone says, ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ you’re lying."

Brewer left before Blackmon’s last year on campus but said that he never saw evidence that Blackmon had a problem. It’s college. Kids drink. The lines between acceptable and alarming levels of consumption sometimes blur. When I talked to Gundy, he didn’t speculate about Blackmon’s relationship to substances during his time at OSU, but he did remember that in Blackmon’s last few weeks on campus, just before he left for the NFL, Gundy saw something in Blackmon change. "His demeanor was different," Gundy said. "That happens at times to young men who know they’re going to be a first-round pick. Their egos get built up a little bit. If I had to describe it, I would say that for those few weeks he just seemed a little bit irritated."

That January the Cowboys traveled to Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, where they beat Stanford, 41–38. Afterward, Gundy and Blackmon sat together at a podium for a postgame presser, and for a moment together, they laughed, an image captured by a photographer and now plastered on a wall in Boone Pickens Stadium. Gundy thinks often of that moment, the two of them lingering there, enjoying one of the biggest wins of either of their careers. Soon the press conference ended and they walked away from the podium, each one whisked away to various other postgame responsibilities. "Maybe," says Gundy, "I should have gone to him and said something. ‘I’ll see you soon.’ Something like that." Gundy hasn’t seen him since.

That spring, NFL scouts and executives flocked to Oklahoma. Blackmon appeared to be a lock to become the first receiver taken. In a radio interview, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon called him Dez Bryant "with all of his brain cells." Dombek, Blackmon’s high school football coach, recalls members of the Jaguars’ front office coming to town to ask him about Blackmon. "They wanted to know everything," Dombek says. "Everything." The Buccaneers, who owned the fifth pick, sent a scout to Stillwater to sit in a bar for a week, their then general manager, Mark Dominik, later told Colin Cowherd. "We checked," Dominik said, "how many times did Justin Blackmon come in? And he came in too many times." The Bucs traded their pick to the Jags.

Now, sitting with the Jacksonville scout, Dombek told him what he knew. Blackmon was an incredible talent and a committed worker, someone desperate to improve any team he joined. Shortly after Dombek’s first daughter was born, Blackmon was the first person outside of family he ever called to babysit. He was a good man from a great family, someone who went out of his way to help others, who was kind and considerate, thoughtful and curious.

There was more, though. Dombek had seen Blackmon out in Stillwater. He’d seen him buy drinks for a big group of friends, and he’d sat there and wondered, JB, what are you doing? He’d heard stories. Blackmon was partying constantly, both in Stillwater and back home. By now, among those who knew him best, this was no secret. "I can’t diagnose that," Dombek says. "But where there’s smoke there’s fire."

Dombek spoke up. "You know," he remembers telling the Jacksonville scout. "I think Justin might have an issue with alcohol."

The Jaguars selected him with the fifth overall pick.

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Over the next two years, Blackmon showed the ability both to dazzle and infuriate. He was arrested soon after the draft, in June 2012: Driving 60 in a 35 in Stillwater, veering to the left side of the road; when an officer pulled him over, Blackmon agreed to a Breathalyzer test and blew three times the legal limit.

He had moments, as a rookie and in his truncated second season, when he looked like he could make Chad Henne a competent quarterback and could bend the entire league to his will. But then came the second suspension for substance abuse. The NFL kept the details of the suspension private, but people close to Blackmon say he has struggled with abusing marijuana. It began to look like he would never fulfill the on-field promise he’d once shown.

Nearly three years later, there Blackmon sat, looking up at Judge Dennis Morris, who would determine his fate. Blackmon had already pled guilty to driving under the influence. Since entering the plea, he’d done what the judge had asked — completed a Victims’ Impact Panel, spent 24 hours in DUI school and six hours in counseling for substance abuse. "He’s worked hard," Blackmon’s attorney, James Gilmartin, told the judge, "to get things done. He wants an acceptable punishment and then to move on with his life and be a productive member of society."

Judge Morris peered down from his bench, toward Blackmon. He smiled, softly, and spoke with no sense of derision in his voice. "You’ve been really straightforward with me," he said. He referenced the classes Blackmon had taken. "I told you what you needed to do, and you got it done."

Morris delivered a one-year suspended sentence and probation. To avoid jail, Blackmon must visit the district attorney’s office once a month and must complete random drug tests; he also must complete 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine. On his way out of the courthouse, he declined to speak with reporters and hopped into his Jeep, the same one he was driving when he was pulled over and arrested, and he drove away.

The next night I sat with Gilmartin, Blackmon’s lawyer, at Bar 115, an upscale lounge nestled in the heart of downtown Ardmore. Gilmartin said he thought the sentence was fair, that it was just what he and Blackmon had hoped for. But he wanted to point something out: This was harsher, he believed, than anything Blackmon had encountered after his other arrests. Whether due to his celebrity or mitigating factors, several earlier charges had been reduced. Go back to the arrest in college, on the way back from the Cowboys game. That DUI was downgraded to underage alcohol possession. After the 2012 arrest in Stillwater for aggravated DUI, a more serious offense, Blackmon negotiated a plea deal and received a one-year suspended sentence that would be dismissed if he completed 50 hours of community service, paid a $500 fine, and fulfilled the rest of his plea agreement. Finally, following the 2014 arrest in the OKC suburb of Edmond, on a charge of marijuana possession, Blackmon pled no contest and the charge was reduced to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

This time, in Ardmore, there was no reduction in charges. "I think that says something," Gilmartin told me. "You know how you’re a lot tougher on your own kids than you are on someone else’s? I think that’s kind of how you could describe the relationship between Justin and Ardmore. This town cares about him. The people here want what’s best for him." It is a tight and insular town, the kind of place where any time you leave your home, you expect to bump into someone you know. That night, sitting out on the patio at Bar 115, Gilmartin exchanged pleasantries with a number of fellow patrons. Here was a former assistant coach at Ardmore High, and up next came the biggest bail bondsman in all of Oklahoma. When told why I was in town, most responded with a weak smile or a sympathetic moan, and at one point, Gilmartin turned to me, and he said, "If you go all over this town, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’s disappointed in Justin."

He was right. I tried. I mentioned Blackmon’s name in bars and restaurants all over town. Everywhere I went, I found at least one person who knew him. After he fell from his peak, after he’d been arrested in Stillwater and in Edmond, after he’d been suspended twice in Jacksonville, once it began to look like he would never play in the NFL again, Blackmon came back home. The football world had no idea where Blackmon was. Often, he was here in Ardmore.

On many weekends he began his nights downtown at the Red Dirt Brewhouse, always rolling in with a large group of friends. Bartenders pretended not to recognize him, and he always smiled as he ordered round after round, paying for everyone. He could be cocky, bartenders around town said, walking to the bar with the assumption that he’d be served before anyone else. But he was also polite, and in my time in Ardmore, I found no one who had ever seen him violent or heard him being cruel.

Sometimes, the bartenders at Red Dirt would cut off his group. Blackmon would nod and take his check, pay his bill, and, often, walk out the door and around the corner to right here, where Gilmartin and I were sitting, at Bar 115. While we were talking, the bar’s manager, Gigi Powell, approached our table and asked me, "Are you taking notes?" When I told her I was, she looked to my notepad, then to my eyes. "I have kicked him out of this bar three times," she said. "We have been in here just screaming at each other. And every single time, he has walked in the next day, and he has come up to me, and he has said, ‘I am so sorry.’ Every time." Then she paused, and before she returned to the bar, she looked at me and she smiled and she said, "If you write a single bad word about him, I swear — I will find you."

Since his latest arrest, Blackmon has vanished from the bars in Ardmore. He told the judge he’s been living in Dallas, and he drives up to see his family every Sunday. For the first time in years, he returned a text from Harris earlier this summer. He asked Harris, his high school basketball coach, about his family. He said he was doing well. Brewer texts him regularly and talks to him from time to time. He tries not to lecture, just to listen. He says he feels encouraged. He invited Blackmon to come speak to his players at North Carolina, to talk through his own experience. Blackmon declined. He’s not ready.

Sometimes, when Dombek talks to his team at Mustang High School, he tells them about a former player of his, a smart and funny kid with outrageous talent and intense drive. He tells them about the substance abuse, about the NFL contract that he let slip away. (Because of his suspensions, estimated that Blackmon may only have received a little more than $7 million of his $18.5 million guaranteed rookie contract.)

"Justin," Dombek tells me, "is already helping people. His story is helping those kids. He just doesn’t know it yet." His coaches like to imagine a future for Blackmon, perhaps far away from a football field, but free from substances, at peace. Says Dombek: "I think someday he’s gonna be 55 or 60, and he’s gonna have a beautiful wife, some beautiful kids, maybe some grandkids. He’s gonna have regrets, just like anybody. But I think when that day comes he can take a look at his life. And he can say to himself, ‘You know what? I’m OK.’"

Today, though, they are still left wondering, as Brewer says, "What went wrong?" Gundy thinks back to those last six weeks at OSU, just before the Fiesta Bowl, when Blackmon became a slightly less recognizable version of himself. He knows what that period of time is like for college players with talent like Blackmon’s. Agents are calling. A multimillion-dollar contract is waiting. Your entire existence is about to change. "I think someone got to him," Gundy says. "I don’t know who." The same kinds of people, maybe, who try to enter the lives of many would-be millionaires: shady agents, shadier advisers, newfound friends.

Dombek still struggles with just how far out of the ordinary Blackmon’s behavior has been. He’s never been accused of violence. And while there is always the possibility of some disturbing incidents that have gone unreported, on the surface Blackmon appears vastly different from peers who have been exiled for violent behavior. "I don’t know that he’s doing anything that a lot of other people aren’t doing," Dombek says. "He’s just been caught however many times."

Harris wonders if there is some deep trauma, some untreated wound that Blackmon has chosen to medicate on his own. As a freshman in high school, Blackmon lost one of his best friends, Brett Spells, in a car accident. The summer before his junior year, another friend, Zachary Roderick, died in another crash. "You don’t know what seed that might have planted," Harris says. "Hurt like that can manifest itself in a lot of different ways."

When these coaches talk, each of them does so with some measure of pain — a pain that seems to come from deeply loving a person that you realize you can never fully know. They want to fill the space between the two versions of Blackmon, but perhaps that chasm isn’t as vast as it seems.

Harris shrugs and shakes his head. "I know what he’s doing," he says. "He’s trying to figure this out. People have analyzed this to the nth degree, and they don’t know him. But maybe that’s part of his weakness in all of this. He’s always been able to handle things. The fame. The status. And this is one thing that maybe — maybe — I don’t know …

"Maybe it got the best of him."

Before I left Oklahoma, I stopped in one more bar. Chevy’s sits on South Commerce Street in Ardmore, just a few blocks from housing projects, near the dividing line between the affluent and impoverished sides of town. Ask locals, and they’ll tell you to be careful there, but owner Jennifer Miller is proud to say that in the four years she’s owned the place, they’ve had only seven fights. People come to play pool, and to put some cash in the jukebox, and on weekends, they come to dance.

Miller said she last saw Blackmon one night last December. He’d been there often. She knew him well. He’d follow the same routine as elsewhere, putting round after round on his tab, and in between he’d make small talk, asking about her kids, about how business was going, about corners of the country they’d each explored. That night the air was cold, but the bar was full, and inside the mood was light and warm. It is easy to imagine him there, surrounded by friends a few feet from the jukebox, leaning down as he listened, fixating on someone with that expectant smile. This was the Justin Blackmon that so many people know. Bright, kind, engaging. Bubbly, even.

As things wound down, Blackmon went to the bar to close out. Miller remembered a bartender asking him, "You’re not driving, are you?" She remembered Blackmon saying no, of course not. He wouldn’t do that. He walked out the door and she told him to be safe. He wore a red Nike hoodie and a pair of gray sweats, a Chicago Bulls beanie on his head.

The last time Miller saw him was just a few minutes later. She was back in the bar, cleaning up and getting ready to go home. She looked out the window. She saw lights flashing, bright and blue.

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Would Brock Purdy Work Outside San Fran? Credit to Daniel Jones, Plus Life Advice With Van Lathan.

The Ringer's Philly Special

Eagles-Buccaneers Preview: Will A.J. Brown Have a Big Game?

Extra Point Taken

Week 3 NFL Picks, Props, and Predictions!

View all stories in NFL