Marvin Austin walked into an IHOP with his 13-year-old sister, Jenae, in Southeast Washington, not far from where he grew up. They ordered a couple of drinks and Austin explained the roughest part of the past few months. It wasn’t necessarily missing his senior season at North Carolina — which was bad — or watching his NFL draft stock plummet — which was frustrating.
Rather, it was Jenae’s questions. She’d hear things and read things and none of it seemed to describe the brother she knew.
“All that stuff that went on this past year, no one knows the real person that I am,” Austin said. “It’s like I was a villain over here. But she knows better. Everyone who knows me knows better.”
Austin, 22, is convinced he’s the best defensive lineman available in the draft, which begins Thursday night. But he was thrown off the UNC team last fall following allegations he improperly accepted gifts from player agents, and likely won’t hear his name called until the latter part of the first round.
While those who know him and have coached him offer unwavering praise, draft analysts question his character and work ethic.
The brother Jenae knows is big — in just about every way possible. Austin stands 6 feet 3, weighs 309 pounds, has a giant personality, huge smile and thick dreadlocks that reach his shoulders. The brother she knows doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and has spent most of his life preparing for the NFL.
He’s not the guy described in many pre-draft reports.
Said Austin: “All these people talking about how I’m getting Bentleys, money and this and that — my mom doesn’t have a car. If I was getting paid, don’t you think my mom might have a car?”
His mother, Donna Johnson, works at the Jacob Burns Law Library at George Washington University and relies on public transportation. Austin says the first thing he wants to buy when he signs an NFL contract is a car for her.
Pro Football Weekly said Austin has character concerns and noted that in meetings with team officials, none of whom are quoted or named, Austin was “very selfishly throwing his college under the bus and refusing to take responsibility for any of the wrongdoings.” The report further stated that scouts consider him a “finger-pointing, excuse-making con artist.”
Said Austin: “Who am I conning? All my interviews went extremely well at the combine. Where are people getting this from?”
In those interviews, Austin concedes that he had to explain his role in an agent scandal that is the subject of an NCAA investigation and a probe by North Carolina’s secretary of state. The school suspended Austin for the first five games last season. When he and teammates Robert Quinn and Greg Little were ruled in violation of NCAA rules governing agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct in October, Austin was booted permanently from the team.
At least four trips made by Austin in 2009 — two to Miami, two to California, none of which he paid for — were questioned. He admits to making the trips but withholds much remorse. “I don’t regret anything,” he said. “Everything was a learning experience.”
In all, 14 players missed at least one game for North Carolina. As many as 12 Tar Heels could be selected in the three-day draft, the kind of talent that should’ve put North Carolina in the national title picture last fall.
If anyone has a right to be upset with Austin, it’s UNC Coach Butch Davis.
“There will always be that tinge of regret, like there’s unfinished business,” Davis said. “But I love the kid and wish him nothing but the best.”
Austin’s football ability does not appear to be in question. He impressed scouts at the East-West Shrine game, again at his pro day in Chapel Hill, N.C., and also at the NFL scouting combine.
“If he doesn’t go late in the first round, it has to do with his maturity,” said ESPN analyst Todd McShay, “and how he handles his business on and off the field in terms of work ethic, consistently giving the effort and preparing the way he needs to prepare.”
Austin’s football skills have drawn the spotlight since he was young. He passed on top D.C. area high school programs at DeMatha and Dunbar to attend Coolidge, where he started as a freshman. Coach Moe Ware had heard about the giant middle-school player before he ever set eyes on him.
“I thought people were exaggerating,” Ware said. “I’d never seen a kid like the one they described. But when I finally saw him, I thought, ‘Lord, this dude is the real deal.’ ”
Austin followed Ware to Ballou High and carved out his name as one of the best linemen to come from the Washington area.
His mother worked during the days, so Austin would leave school at the last bell, walk to pick up Jenae from child care and take her back to school, where she’d watch football practice. “What was I going to do? Leave her alone?” Austin said. “This side of town, there’s peer pressure and stuff like that. I got to show her that there’s more than doing what everybody else is doing.”
He was recruited by major college football programs and when he settled on a school, he made the decision on live television from an ESPN Zone restaurant. Wearing a black pinstriped suit, Austin brought with him a black briefcase with a silver lock.
“My life’s in here,” he said, shortly before unlocking the briefcase and pulling out a Tar Heels cap.
His career at North Carolina didn’t unfold as planned, but he hopes to redeem himself in the NFL. The way he sees it, he has no choice.
“If I don’t ball, there are people who want to punish me,” he said. “They feel like I’m a villain. If I slip, everyone is gonna say this and that and ‘I told you so.’ But I’m just gonna go and do my thing.”
While his peers finished their senior seasons at UNC, Austin signed with agents Eugene Parker and Roosevelt Barnes and began training in Florida in December. He had to rely on his in-person interviews with teams to convince them that he’s not a bad guy.
“There’s dudes in this draft that have beat people up, got kicked out of school, got in trouble for marijuana, that you never hear about,” Austin said. “You don’t hear about their issues. They praise these dudes. I took a couple of trips, and I got ‘issues’ and ‘too much baggage.’ But you look at my record, you don’t see me ever being locked up, arrested, speeding tickets. Know what I’m saying? It’s crazy.”
Davis has coached 11 defensive linemen who’ve been selected in the first round and has also spent 10 seasons coaching in the NFL. He understands why pro coaches scrutinize prospects so closely. These past several weeks he’s fielded questions about Austin and has continually explained that the big defensive tackle isn’t a character risk.
“There’s a whole different thing from, a kid made a bad choice to take some trips and stuff — it’s totally different than kids with multiple domestic violence charges, drugs, alcohol, theft,” Davis said. “Those are totally two different types of issues.”
Thursday night, Austin will learn whether NFL coaches agree, whether he’s been able to change their minds these past few months.