At Michigan State, where Rison toiled in the shadows of running back Lorenzo White and tackle Tony Mandarich, he says he sometimes felt so unappreciated that he would sit at his locker and cry. He remembers his Michigan State days "only with bitterness," he says. "I averaged about one catch a game, and they let Lorenzo run the ball 55 out of 60 plays." Rison did see the ball enough to set school records with 146 receptions and 2,992 yards, and to score 20 touchdowns.
Upset that teammates were "driving brand-new Corvettes and brand-new this and brand-new that," Rison says he went to a car dealership one day in his junior year and told a salesman that he was bound for the NFL and wanted a truck. According to Rison, the man let him drive off with one, but Spartan coach George Perles phoned Rison that same day and ordered him to return the car immediately. Feeling slighted yet again, Rison says he walked two miles in the snow from his apartment to practice. Somebody stopped and offered him a ride. Sulking, he said he didn't want one and continued on his way. "That's my pride," he explained later.
The Indianapolis Colts made him a first-round pick in the 1989 draft, the 22nd player taken overall. But Rison wasn't completely thrilled. Oklahoma State's Hart Lee Dykes, a consensus All-America, was selected before him, as were other players whom Rison regarded as inferior to him. He said at the time that he was equal to or perhaps even better than San Francisco 49er receiver Jerry Rice, a case he still makes today. While Rison is quick to call Rice "the greatest player in the game, hands down," he says Rice's name with a mocking, effeminate tone. Coming from Rison, it's "Jay-ree."
"There's nothing [Rice] could do that I couldn't do," Rison says. "What do you play this game for? You play it to be the best you can be. You can't tell me Michael Irvin don't lay his head on the pillow at night and think he's the best wide receiver in the NFL. You can't. Sterling Sharpe? You can't. Jay-ree? You can't. But, listen, I can do the things he docs. Just give me the opportunity. Give me a Joe Montana. Give me a John Taylor on the other side to pull double coverage. Give me a Roger Craig in the backfield where the linebackers can't get up under you. Give me a tight end like Brent Jones, who can go up the scam. Give me some Ronnie Lotts on defense so I can have the ball back. Now you tell me! Now you——tell me!"
No, different doesn't come close to explaining Rison. After only one year in Indianapolis, Rison was traded to Atlanta, part of a deal that gave the Colts a shot at drafting Illinois quarterback Jeff George, who himself now plays for the Falcons. Rison groused about the trade but promised "to bring smiles and joy to the people of Atlanta."
One night after he made $4,000 cash for appearing at a car show, he proved this by giving an elderly parking lot attendant $500 and telling him to take a few days off. "He looked like he was freezing," Rison recalls. "He just looked at the money like he didn't know what to do with it. I think he thought I was a dope boy."
Rison lists other small, unpublicized acts of charity as proof that he isn't the ne'er-do-well people make him out to be. One time, for instance, he picked up a homeless woman and her child and fed them bacon and eggs at his aunt's house at one o'clock in the morning. He gave a cab driver $200 to take them to a police station. People need something, he says, and he gives it: money, cars, time, advice, whatever. And yet he says he can't read about himself anymore without seeing the words turmoil and trouble attached to his name. He resents having his many kindnesses overlooked while less deserving players are treated as if they were the second coming of Mother Teresa.
"It's like those United Way commercials," he says. "I watch TV, and they've got these [NFL players] on these commercials, and it makes them look like they're all-American-type people, when the truth is, I'm just as good a person if not better than they are."
Says Jones, "Andre takes care of his mama, his brothers, his sisters and his cousins. If you or I were making the money he's making, we might invest it, but in Andre's eyes it's, What can I do to get what I want and also take care of these people? He's living for now."
Rison's notoriety has never been greater, but whether he's ever been as popular depends on where you live. In Atlanta, Rison appears to have replaced Deion Sanders as the city's most-beloved showboat, though on Sunday, in Sanders's first visit to Atlanta since his free-agent defection to the 49ers, he got the best of the heralded matchup with Rison. The two former friends brawled to a draw early in the second quarter, but Sanders returned an interception 93 yards for a touchdown, while Rison was held to five catches for 32 yards by the Niner zone.