Five years ago, Adrian McPherson became the only athlete in Florida high school history to be named Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball. Now he may be better known for a different sort of past, one that could jeopardize his standing in this weekend's NFL draft.
Despite a brief but stellar career at Florida State, McPherson carries the baggage of having pleaded no contest to theft and gambling charges as a college student. He was sentenced to 90 days on a prison work detail, with 30 months of probation. Once among the top quarterback prospects, McPherson, 21, finds himself being described as a risk. Several teams reportedly have even taken his name off their lists; others rate him a highly talented prospect who may well be worth a gamble, perhaps as early as the third or fourth round.
"I embarrassed myself, my family, Florida State. Just for my name to be associated with something like that is an embarrassment to me," says Adrian McPherson.
(John Severson -- Indianapolis Star Via AP)
And any team that has shown an interest in the native of Bradenton, Fla., has certainly gone to great lengths to make certain that the Adrian McPherson of 2005 is not the same young man who, in 2002 as a redshirt freshman at Florida State, cashed a stolen blank check from an auto parts company for $3,500, or gambled on college basketball and football with a bookie and on an Internet gambling site.
McPherson, who is 6 feet 3 1/2, weighs 213 pounds and has run 40 yards in 4.52 seconds, insists he has changed.
"It's a situation where I was young and made a mistake," he said recently. "It's in my past. It's been two or three years ago. . . . I'm the first to say that it's never going to happen again because I don't put myself in those situations to allow trouble to come my way. I'm willing to stand up and answer any questions and admit what I did, and I'm ready to move forward."
Most troubling for NFL teams were the gambling charges, which McPherson still denies. With millions being bet on NFL games legally and illegally every week, the league has always been particularly vigilant on any issue involving players and gambling.
The NFL's security department questions every player invited to the league's February scouting combine and doing a basic background check.
"There is an established process of what we can and cannot do under existing labor law," said Milt Ahlerich, a former FBI agent who heads the NFL security department. "Once we obtain the authority to do it from the player, it's a basic background questionnaire that asks about brushes with the law, gambling, drug use, driving under the influence, that sort of thing. We do criminal checks through public records. We do media checks."
A number of teams hire outside firms to conduct their own investigations. Others rely on scouts and personnel directors to obtain background information. "We have a service that does background checks," one NFL general manager said. "We run a newspaper check for any mentions in a non-football story. We have college scouts ask people on campuses who know the kid. The scouts have a better relationship and they should get better answers than some private investigator."
Last week, one firm that does background checks for 18 NFL teams, InfoMart of Marietta, Ga., provided incorrect information on Louisville running back Eric Shelton, who is expected to be taken in the second or third round. The report said Shelton had a criminal record, with a conviction for aggravated assault in 1999 and marijuana possession in 2001. The mistake was discovered when teams began to question Shelton's agent, Peter Schaffer.
"I have been told [InfoMart] has notified every team in writing that the report was wrong," Schaffer said. "I have no problems with teams doing these kind of checks. If you're spending the kind of money they are, you want to find out as much as you can. Character has become a very important part of the process. The scary part to me is we don't know how many times mistakes like this have been made. The only issue is that these reports better be accurate, and this was a perfect example of what can go wrong."
Holly Comer, a spokesperson for InfoMart, said the company would have no comment on the Shelton error. She would only confirm that the company has been doing employment background checks for 15 years and that some NFL teams do use their services.
McPherson's background information has been a matter of public record since his plea of no contest to the theft and gambling charges in 2003. Georgia Cappleman, who prosecuted McPherson, said there was no doubt that he was guilty as charged, even if he still publicly denies that he gambled on games.
"Unfortunately I was around some people who were [gambling]," McPherson said. "At the time, I didn't know they were. Like I told everybody, I'm embarrassed. I embarrassed myself, my family, Florida State. Just for my name to be associated with something like that is an embarrassment to me."
Cappleman said: "I was convinced beyond all doubt in my mind that he was guilty. There was a hung jury the first time we tried him, but five of the six jurors told us they had voted to find him guilty. It's probably why he took the plea bargain."
Still, she added, McPherson served his time and abided by the terms of his probation. "That's a good sign," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, he paid his debt to this community and he hasn't been in any trouble since. Maybe he's matured. Maybe he now knows what it can cost him. Maybe he knows his talent and his future career is more important. I'm rooting for him."
So is former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, who coached him in the Arena Football League last year. DeBerg, who played for 17 seasons, described McPherson as a taller version of Michael Vick and last week told the Miami Herald that "experience is the only factor he lacks. John Elway came into the NFL having played a lot in college. Adrian hasn't done that, so he has to learn. But if you're talking about just physical talent, Adrian is as good as anyone I've ever seen."
Another NFL general manager disagreed, saying "his past won't be a major factor in where he's drafted. I think he'll probably end up in the fourth to seventh round, and I'm guessing sixth. What we saw at the combine was an inaccurate passer with a good arm and athletic ability who hasn't played in a while."
However it plays out, McPherson is ready for this big chance.
"My parents always told me to keep the faith, what's for you is for you. I always felt that I'd get the opportunity. I always wanted to continue to work hard so when I did get a chance, I'd be ready."