It may take just a little more time before Barry Word can prove to the NFL world that he is finished with drugs. He thinks there are those with doubts still waiting, waiting for Word's troubled past to match his 4.5 40-yard dash speed and catch him from behind.
What happened to the Kansas City Chiefs running back and former University of Virginia star has been well documented: The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in 1985 and subsequently drafted by the New Orleans Saints, Virginia federal prosecutors in 1986 indicted Word for "conspiracy to distribute less than a kilogram of cocaine." He was later convicted and spent most of his 4 1/2 months in a minumum security prison.
Word said he used cocaine over a three-month period during his junior year. He said he used the drug in group settings, one time at a party splitting two grams of cocaine eight ways.
"I thought people were my friends that really weren't," he said in a telephone interview. "But there are no excuses. I messed up."
But Word says he feels fortunate that his story did not end, as he said, like that of Len Bias, the former University of Maryland basketball star who died from a cocaine overdose. "I think I almost hit rock bottom," said Word, who was a third-round draft choice by the Saints in 1986. "I came pretty close. Yet at no point was I so down I couldn't come back, but I was pretty down. I was on my knees."
For now Word's story is a successful one. He is a living how-to instructional video on what it takes to rescue oneself from misery. On how to go from sharing a prison cell with a murderer to becoming inundated in success. Word, only the sixth Chief to ever rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, is one of the reasons Kansas City (11-5) won the AFC West, setting up a showdown with Miami (12-4) in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.
His turnaround started when he left his telephone sales job in Reston and headed to Kansas City wearing only jeans and a polo shirt. There was no suitcase. He planned on buying a whole new wardrobe once he settled in with the Chiefs.
"It has been pretty incredible and it has all happened so fast," said Word, who grew up in Halifax and South Boston, Va. "Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. I'm having a ball."
This year Word has 1,015 yards and four touchdowns on 204 carries. Word set a Chiefs single-game rushing record when he blasted for 200 yards in 18 carries against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 14. He had just 26 yards in the first half.
When the Chiefs signed Word as a free agent in May, he was to be used primarily as a backup to starter Christian Okoye. But Word has gotten more playing time because Okoye has been out the last several weeks with a shoulder injury and only returned last week against Chicago. Chiefs Coach Marty Schottenheimer said Word will start against the Dolphins.
"We did quite a bit of research on Barry," said Schottenheimer, who admitted he was skeptical at first. "We flew him out and I visited with him for a couple of hours and my feeling was that we weren't taking a great risk because he's a very bright young man."
Then Schottenheimer couldn't help but be impressed with Word's preseason. He was the Chiefs' leading rusher, with 90 yards on 19 carries. Okoye had 49 in 15.
But Word's journey to Kansas City was not as cut and dried. Word and two of his teammates were among 13 persons charged by federal prosecutors on July 24, 1986, in an investigation of drug trafficking in the Charlottesville area. The three were described by prosecutors as minor dealers who sold to friends to pay for their own drug use.
Word spent the first three weeks of his sentence in a county jail, then was moved to a minimum security prison in Morgantown, W.Va.
In 1987, after serving his sentence, he made the Saints' roster. He played in all 12 nonstrike games, gaining 133 yards in 36 carries. After making the Saints the following year, he walked away after two games "because he wanted to straighten his life out."
Trying to get back in the NFL wasn't as easy as walking away. Teams called but quickly lost interest.
"I guess teams had this mental picture of him standing on the corner with a crack pipe in his hand," his brother Kenny Word said.
"I'm sure because of what happened to him there weren't a lot of people beating down his door," said Cowboys Director of Pro Personnel John Wooten.
Perhaps now they wish they had.