Four months have passed, and Rison is sitting on the driveway leading to his friend and teammate Vinnie Clark's house. Practice ended less than an hour ago, and Rison is sipping from a 16-ounce can of beer. A woman in the manse across the way keeps calling for him to come over and eat. But Rison doesn't move. He is content to sit and watch day bleed into night.
"Know what I am?" he is saying. "I'm misunderstood—that's me. The most misunderstood guy in the world."
He pauses, seeming to try this all-too-familiar lament on for size. Remarkably, he manages to keep a straight face. Then after a time he expounds on the theme, saying, "It's true, man; I see myself as a victim. But I've also got so much pride that I don't feel sorry for myself. If I start feeling sorry for myself, then I won't be able to get out of the tank. They can say what they want about me. I know who I am, I know me. I've got a kind heart. I'm good to people, I respect them, I treat them right. I went to a high school football game in Atlanta, and you should've seen the little kids mob me. But to the older crowd I'm not a role model. I'm a rebel. Or I'm crazy. Or I'm wild. I'm this and I'm that. Man, I ain't none of that."
Rison has been ducking this interview for days, not wishing to cover the same old ground. The fire, for instance. Why won't people just leave him alone about it? He says he's tired of trying to explain personal problems that do nothing but detract from his accomplishments as an athlete and contribute to his reputation as a hell-raiser. And as much as he would like to set the record straight, Rison today has drawn a line: Don't even bother to ask any questions about the past, especially personal ones.
He has every reason to be sensitive. It was Rison, after all, who as a rookie in 1989 was ticketed for driving 128 mph in a 55-mph zone. And it was Rison who two years later was stopped for driving 111 mph and cited not only for speeding but also for driving with a suspended license. And Rison who since 1991 has had to defend himself against paternity and child-support actions, both of which were settled out of court. And Rison who, little more than a year ago, fired a pistol outside an Atlanta nightclub after two men tried to stop a quarrel between him and Lopes (assault charges were dropped). And Rison who continues to taunt opponents by guaranteeing victories before games, as he did against the Los Angeles Rams earlier this year.
It is also Rison who can run his mouth with the best of them: "I see these so-called, quote-unquote superstars, I see them all the time. And their attitudes are so——, man, so incredibly——. But I'm not like them. I mean, I went to the Pro Bowl, and I saw so many——attitudes it was unbelievable. Arrogant, cocky. And I'd say to myself, Now that's what arrogant and cocky is. And they say I'm arrogant and cocky! But guess what? I'm the one always portrayed as this——who'd just as well turn his back on you and go the other way."
"When I first met him, I'd heard so much I thought he was going to be a gangster," says his pal Clark, a cornerback who came to Atlanta from the Green Bay Packers before last season. "But the truth is, Andre is a kind person, and he's sweet. He's like—well, he's like a puppy sometimes, a little, soft poodle. You spend time with him and it's like, Hey, 'Dre's the nicest guy in the world."
"I see Andre as a young kid who just needs some direction," says Falcon coach June Jones, apparently forgetting that his receiver is only five months shy of his 28th birthday. "I admit that if he wasn't such a great player I wouldn't be as persistent in trying to help him, and that if he were just an average player he would have been cut, probably a long time ago. But my belief is, anybody can coach the overachievers, or the kids who do everything right, who try their hardest. I get paid to coach the guys like Andre. The great ones, they're just different from everybody else."
Different hardly begins to describe Rison. When he was a teenager, his behavior gave evidence that an uncommon soul had entered the scene, not to mention one whose athletic brilliance would lead to a rich future. Rison grew up poor on the streets of Flint, Mich. He says that he and his family "lived in about 15 different houses, moving around a lot." Asked about siblings, Rison says he'd rather not give a number since he "classifies cousins along with the others in my family, since everybody stays with everybody."
As point guard of his high school basketball team, Rison was called Doctor by his fans. He made all-state and led his team to a 55-1 record. I le also starred as a pitcher and an outfielder in baseball and as a long jumper in track. In football he played no fewer than eight positions. Ram cornerback Todd Lyght, himself a Flint native, recalls that as a junior varsity player in high school he used to skip his own team's varsity games and travel across town to watch Rison's team play.