Forgive Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse if the Bowl Championship Series bid on the line in Saturday night's game against Florida State isn't his all-consuming motivation. Forgive the junior safety if he's thinking about forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
To understand fully what has driven Rouse to become one of college football's most promising defensive backs, one must first learn the circumstances that have shaped his 21-year-old life and that nearly caused him to quit football and leave school two years ago:
* a girlfriend living in government housing with their 2-year-old son, awaiting deliverance from their home town;
* a mother in another housing project just down the shoreline with her two daughters and five grandchildren, waiting for him to fulfill the promise he made to her;
* a father sitting in a prison cell a three-hour drive away, wondering if his son will ever want to know him.
When the No. 5 Hokies take on the Seminoles in the inaugural ACC championship game at Alltel Stadium here, Rouse will carry these burdens with him onto the field.
"I'm going to get them out of there," Rouse said. "My whole life, we've gone from one ghetto to the next, where all the dreams are the same. Only a few make it out, but we're going to make it out."
While Rouse is determined to deliver his mother and girlfriend from the Virginia Beach projects, such feelings of obligation do not extend to his father, Roosevelt "Tim" Newby. Newby is three years into a 43-year prison sentence for shooting and killing a man six years ago in a Virginia Beach crack house. Newby has no chance at parole, and if he lives until the end of his sentence, he will be 92 when he leaves prison in 2045.
Before then, Newby prays, his son will somehow forgive him for never being there and for leaving his family in such dire straits.
"I'm happy he isn't making the same mistakes I've made in life," Newby said this week, during a telephone interview from prison. "It's one of the things that hurt me the most -- that I wasn't there for him. It really hurt me a lot and I know it hurt him, too."
Rouse, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in sociology, is determined to avoid the mistakes his father made. Rouse's son, Isaiah, lives with his mother, Jacina Thornton, in Twin Canal Village housing project in Virginia Beach. He said it is a better place than Friendship Village complex where he grew up and his family still lives.
Rouse returns to Virginia Beach whenever he can to see Thornton and Isaiah. During football season, Rouse's mother brings them to Virginia Tech's football games.
"He would come home every weekend and I'd get on him about it," said Nadine Rouse, his mother. "I'd ask him, 'Why do you come home so often? I don't even get a chance to miss you.' All he would says is, 'Mama, I've got to see my son. I'm not going to be like my daddy was.' "
Rouse says he hopes to marry Thornton soon after he graduates and hopefully is drafted by an NFL team. When Thornton became pregnant with Isaiah during Rouse's freshman season at Virginia Tech, Rouse thought about leaving school and getting a job to support them. But doing that, he said, would have caused him to fall into the traps that plagued his father and most of his friends.
"It's very difficult being away from your family, let alone when you have a newborn son," Rouse said. "You've just got to keep telling yourself you're setting yourself up for the future. You've just got to keep reminding yourself to look ahead."
Rouse certainly doesn't want to look back to a childhood he would rather forget. In 1983, when Rouse's mother was pregnant with him and caring for infant twin daughters, Newby left his family and moved into his mother's house in Virginia Beach. One night, Newby's older brother, Michael, showed up drunk at the house, and the brothers fought in the front yard. Roosevelt Newby went inside, returned with a handgun and shot his older brother dead while his mother watched.
Roosevelt Newby claimed self-defense and served less than one year in prison. But the guilt of killing his brother, he said, still haunts him.
"Everybody said you'll forget about it and move on," Newby said. "But it really messed me up. I had a lot of problems and didn't have the help to get through them."
Roosevelt Newby said he became a crack addict, and his criminal record shows he was arrested more than a dozen times and charged with crimes ranging from larceny to trespassing to drug possession. Newby served a three-year prison sentence from 1995-98 for conspiracy to sell cocaine. Once Newby was released from prison, he returned home and swore to Rouse, then 14 years old, that he wouldn't leave again. Four months later, he was gone.
"That was it for Aaron," Nadine Rouse said. "He didn't want anything else to do with his father."
On Dec. 26, 1999, the day after Newby again failed to come home for Christmas, he fatally shot a man in a crack house in Virginia Beach. Newby and two other men were arrested and charged with murder; Newby claims he shot the man in self-defense after he tried to rob him of money and cocaine.
Rouse, his two sisters and younger brother haven't visited their father in prison. Rouse said he hasn't contacted Newby since his father left home for the last time; Newby said during a telephone interview that his son still writes him and occasionally sends e-mails.
"I know he still loves me and that he's got me in his heart and mind," Newby said. "Every time I write him, I tell him he's got an uncle and a mother to go to for advice. As long as he's got the Lord in his heart, he'll do the right thing."
But never having a father, Rouse said, is something he will never forget.
"It is what it is," Rouse said. "He's in there, and I'm out here. He wasn't there when I needed him. So why in the hell should I be there when he needs me?"
Newby said he is able to watch most of Virginia Tech's football games on the television in the recreational room in the D-3 pod of Buckingham Correctional Center. He usually watches games with 10 to 15 other inmates and complained that he can't always hear commentators talk about his son because of noise. He also keeps a scrapbook of stories and photos of his son that he clips from newspapers in the jail.
"I'm very proud of him," Newby said. "He's a very aggressive player. He's professional. Everybody in here says he's a beast. I can see him going all the way to the NFL. When you see your son playing like that, it makes you feel really good."
Newby says his life is all but over. The only thing that matters now, he claims, is that his children are happy. And it might be up to the son he abandoned to make that happen.
"I have all my kids on my visit list just in case they want to come see me," Newby said. "It would mean so much to me to see Aaron. I'd probably cry. I just want to hold him and see how big he is. It would just be . . ."
Newby didn't finish the thought. Knowing the odds against such a meeting, he began to cry.