The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why did Derrius Guice’s draft-night drop hurt so badly? Start back at ‘The Bottom.’

Derrius Guice was thought to be one of the top running backs in the NFL draft based on his talent, but he slid to the Redskins in the second round. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

BATON ROUGE — The two cellphones rested on the table, silent and still.

Why wouldn’t they ring?

Derrius Guice could feel his family, friends and former coaches watching him. They all were waiting anxiously for the call, all wanting to hear the Louisiana State running back’s name read aloud like all the other players who had sat in the green room.

This April night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. — the first of the NFL draft — should have signaled a dramatic shift in a young life marred by tragedy, violence and pain. His father, murdered in a Denny’s when Guice was only 5. His brother, locked up in East Baton Rouge Parish Jail, following his alleged role in an attempted homicide. His mother, left to hold herself and the family together. This night was supposed to be the final chapter in Guice’s journey out of his impoverished Baton Rouge neighborhood known as “The Bottom.” Instead, it was just another disappointment in a life filled with setbacks and seemingly insurmountable odds.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell read 32 names that night. But not Guice’s. And he was determined not to let anyone see him break while the world watched his every move amid public whispers and questions about his character and alleged immaturity.

“Next thing I know, I’m outside in [expletive] tears,” the Washington Redskins running back said a week after he plummeted from a projected top 20 pick to the 59th overall selection.

Guice — it’s pronounced GEISS — has since recovered from that moment, which briefly crushed his spirit and ultimately cost him millions of NFL dollars. But the emotions from that night have not faded.

“Knowing where I come from and worked my whole life for this, just to get [expletive] on in front of everybody and get embarrassed in the green room, especially off a bunch of lies,” Guice said. “I don’t care what nobody says. ‘Oh man, you’ve got to just enjoy this’ — Man, [expletive] that. I came into that green room that day to get picked in the first round. Not to still see Goodell after and to get invited to tomorrow.”

An enduring loss

Hidden among the overgrown grass and aboveground cement vaults arranged in haphazard fashion at Zachary Public Cemetery lies the beginning of Guice’s story.

The cemetery, which sits at the intersection of Mt. Pleasant Zachary Road and Louisiana Highway 964, is home to the final resting place of his father, Derrick Keith Guice Sr. He was cut down by a barrage of bullets in 2003, at the age of 27, following an argument with another man inside a Denny’s restaurant.

The murder affected Guice’s path in ways he still can’t fully comprehend. He’s guarded, often untrusting, refusing to let others in too deep.

“It was the way he lost his dad,” says his longtime best friend Javahn Ferguson, a linebacker at New Mexico State. “Where we’re from, it happens a lot, but you don’t want it to happen to someone that close . . . .

“Having a dad makes such a big difference. It affected him more down the line because the older he got, the more he wanted to understand, and he couldn’t completely understand why.”

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Football kept Guice focused. The sport would eventually be his vehicle out of “The Bottom,” the three-mile depressed area stretching between LSU and downtown Baton Rouge, a neighborhood intent on derailing his promise.

“Just to see all the people you played with growing up either dead or in jail right now,” said Guice, scrolling through a text message conversation with a friend whose twin brother was shot in the head, mouth and neck during a recent drive-by shooting. “Every day, I get a new story about somebody that just got shot. Shot or in jail, doing life.”

His family has its own stories.

Guice, 20, bears a striking resemblance to his 21-year-old brother, Derrick Jr. But their paths diverged long ago.

Guice’s older brother was charged with multiple counts after he allegedly drove the getaway car in a nonfatal November 2016 shooting, according to the Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge. Online records show that while out on bond last November, he was arrested for resisting an officer.

Guice likens his sibling to “a best friend, who just veers off, and no matter how much you try to leash him on to the hook, he keeps pulling away. . . . And I’m still here. Never been arrested. Nothing. And he’s all around that [expletive]. Guns. Drugs. Girls.”

As a teenager, Guice felt the weight of taking care of his mother, Beulah, and younger brother “C.J.,” now 6. But Derrick Jr.’s incarceration strengthened Guice’s sense of responsibility and his resolve to play football at LSU — a childhood dream he had shared with his father. His family’s circumstances would not break him. But Guice still needed help.

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He often went hungry and never had enough clothes as he bounced from one home to another. Later, he struggled with the transition from public school to mostly white and affluent Catholic High, where he faced rigorous structure, rules dating from 1894 and racism.

But amid the chaos and confusion, Guice’s infectious spirit drew in people — a village of coaches, administrators, friends and family. In him, they saw a survivor, the physical embodiment of Tupac Shakur’s poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” said Gabe Fertitta, his former offensive coordinator at Catholic.

But danger still was never far away.

Dale Weiner, his former head coach at Catholic, still remembers the frantic voice mail the running back left for him years ago. It captured a breathless Guice shouting into the phone: “‘They’re shooting at our house, coach. I won’t be able to be there Monday for workouts. . . . I just want to let you know.’”

Weiner, who had given Guice a ride to school for roughly three years, saved the message as a reminder of Guice’s daily struggles. “This is what this guy deals with,” Weiner said. “This is his life.”

Stephanie de la Houssaye, a former Catholic guidance counselor who took in Guice when he was 16, recalled the time a gang showed up at the athlete’s home. A fight broke out “in the street,” and Guice “got knocked out” and had to go to the hospital. “That’s when we took him,” said de la Houssaye, a white, married mother of two sons.

Their bond initially formed over simple acts of kindness, like de la Houssaye making frequent calls to have pizza delivered to Guice and another friend, Charles Vaughn, because she knew both boys were hungry. When Guice asked to live with her family, she couldn’t refuse.

“If he would have stayed there, I truly feel, he wouldn’t be where he is today,” said de la Houssaye, who quit her job at Catholic after Guice moved in. “When it started to infiltrate [the home], because Derrick was not really making the best choices, he had no other safe moment.”

Life after death

The walls of Guice’s Baton Rouge apartment are completely bare, but framed mementos from his college days — multiple No. 5 LSU jerseys, article clippings and a painting of his likeness in full uniform — are neatly propped up along the base of one wall.

The ceiling fan works furiously to cool the one-bedroom apartment while the air conditioning unit is being fixed. All the while, Guice alternates between shoving spoonfuls of his snowball shaved ice into his mouth and sipping the melted red liquid through a straw in his large foam cup.

His all-black attire masks his muscular, 5-foot-11, 224-pound frame on this muggy afternoon. His blond-dyed locs protrude from the sides of his backward cap with “Compton” stitched across the front, and his Adidas track pants cover up the large tattoo of “Scooby Doo” — his favorite cartoon as a child — on his lower right leg.

Guice’s running style mirrors his personality: He’s a pinball of frenetic energy, bouncing from one spot to the other. He relishes contact on the field, running straight in the path of oncoming flesh and shoulder pads.

It’s his sensitive side he prefers to keep hidden.

Guice is obsessed with cars and a lover of creatures, collecting random and discarded animals, including snakes, lizards and dogs. Trevell Johnson, who grew up in “The Bottom” and attended Catholic with Guice and Ferguson, motioned to the bearded dragon in the large glass case on the kitchen counter: “I told him if football don’t work out, he’ll make a perfect zookeeper. I don’t know if it’s, like, a missing affection or something he needs, but he’s big on animals.”

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Guice’s thoughtfulness is often mentioned by people in Baton Rouge. Friends, even local restaurant owners and staffers, highlight his fun-loving disposition, especially with kids. “If he loves you, he loves you with all he has,” Ferguson said.

But this particular day — the 15-year anniversary of his father’s murder — feels no different than all the others, according to Guice. Today, that Denny’s on Acadian Thruway is a Mexican restaurant featuring napkins decorated with the fleur-de-lis and daily specials served with a Cajun flair. But Guice refuses to dwell on the past.

Save for an early-morning tweet he posted in remembrance of his father (“Today marks another year! RIP Pops”) and a delivery of doughnuts to his mother, the running back’s daily routine remained unchanged: Work out. Take a nap. Play video games.

Death is a part of life, he points outs. And life, after death, goes on.

'I'm not a liar'

The questions raised about Guice’s immaturity began in the run-up to the draft. His video game habit and active social media presence were cited as potential red flags by draft analysts, intimating a level of laziness and lack of focus.

Those familiar with his upbringing understand those pastimes were borne of his need to survive: Staying inside was the best option to stay safe. “I’m inside all day,” he said. “When I leave, I’m on a mission to go get something and come right back.”

But the innuendo extended beyond video games.

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There was the strange incident at the NFL Scouting Combine in March in which Guice said in a radio interview that one unidentified team had asked him about his sexuality and that another had inquired if his mother was a prostitute.

The NFL announced the day before the draft that an internal investigation did not support Guice’s claims.

There were a number of unsubstantiated rumors about Guice being late to pre-draft meetings with teams and talk of him getting into what was variously described as an altercation or shouting match with representatives of the Eagles during a pre-draft trip to Philadelphia.

And then, early in the second round of the draft on April 27, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network reported that he had been receiving text messages from general managers claiming “there’s another investigation out there that could be potentially highly embarrassing to the kid and maybe to the team that selects him.”

The revelation, Mayock said, was why Guice was sliding down the draft board.

Mayock offered no specifics, and nothing has since surfaced to back up the report.

On advice of the Redskins, Guice would not comment on the record about the combine interviews in question or the league’s investigation, but he was adamant that he didn’t miss any pre-draft meetings. He did acknowledge missing his flight for a pre-draft visit with the Eagles because of traffic en route to the airport in New Orleans. The visit was rescheduled, he said, and upon his arrival to the team’s facility, he went “in each room” and apologized.

But there was enough smoke surrounding Guice to scare off teams. Not Washington, though.

“There’s high expectations,” Redskins senior director of player personnel Doug Williams said in an interview in Baton Rouge during a trip to visit his mother. “There’s a reason we picked him that high — [because] we want him to play. We want him to help us become a better football team. And he can do that.”

The Redskins communicated frequently with LSU officials before the draft and stress that they extensively researched Guice’s character. Before the running back’s April 4 pro day, Williams and team president Bruce Allen treated Guice to dinner at a local favorite eatery, Phil’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant. Over chargrilled oysters (Guice’s favorite) delivered to a private room, the trio talked, laughed and built a rapport.

But Guice now finds himself a part of a league in which owners and head coaches prefer uniformity, and navigating the line between what is acceptable to say, and when, has been a challenge for him.

During a two-hour conversation, he acknowledged his personality can be off-putting at times. But he believes people “misjudge” him because he’s not a “robot.” Asked whether he said something in his pre-draft interviews that a team might have misread, the rookie said: “It’s not even that. It’s just the way I come off. The way I am. The way I answer stuff. Just me. They’re used to those ‘Stanford people that answer things perfectly’-type [expletive]. I answer how [expletive] is, and they’re just not used to that.”

Those who know him best believe the beauty of Guice lies in his lack of a filter. He always is real, no matter the occasion, no matter the company. “He’s not going to be somebody that he’s not,” said Fertitta, who assumed the Catholic head coaching job in 2016.

As Guice tried to focus on the journey ahead with the Redskins, he remained vexed by his draft-day slide. But Johnson encouraged his friend to focus on the positive.

“I think you should still say it was a great experience,” he said.

Without missing a beat, Guice turned to his friend and calmly said: “I’m not a liar, though.”

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