And George? He kept waking up at night, raging at the world and at himself: "Two sentences in my bio. Two sentences insignificant to what I was doing. Academic fraud, they're calling it. How could that be, when I never used it to get a job? Nobody ever asked for a résumé before they hired me to coach in college or the pros. I never profited from it. Look, I was stupid, I screwed up. I'm responsible for everything. But where's forgiveness? I keep kicking myself: You did it to yourself. You were set—financially, emotionally. For 30 years you put in 16 hours a day, to end up like this? Now you're nothing. Why? I was just trying to get ahead. To prove something to people who didn't know me. I just didn't believe in myself enough."
2002 Assistant Coach, Minnesota Vikings
A white-haired man moved swiftly through the airport in Atlanta with a cellphone pressed to his ear, pretending to hold a conversation so none of the people staring at him would approach. He stepped onto an airplane to Minneapolis that morning in mid-January and arranged his purgatory. George O'Leary had sown too much loyalty to be abandoned in hell.
Mike Tice, George's old high school quarterback who'd wept when he heard die shocking news, wanted thus man at his side as he took over the Vikings, the purple and gold—the same colors to which the two had brought glory at Central Islip High. "I get the benefit of it all," said Tice. "I get to have a better coach than me."
A few weeks later George reported for his first day on the job. The sky was black. The temperature was 15°. The time was 6:30 a.m. He hadn't felt the tingle yet but was pretty sure it would come. He pulled into the Vikings' parking lot, first one there, 30 seconds before Tice.
So what do we have here? A man who was tarred and feathered—and is already largely rehabilitated. A man off the hook for the $1.5 million payout, which Georgia Tech let slide, and earning roughly $300,000 a year. A man who's walking into a circle where men will take a step forward to slap him on the back and say, "What a bunch of bull," and "What a raw deal you got over something so small"—while people outside the circle will take a step back and see, from a wider angle, that it's not small, because what becomes of a society if no one's word means a thing?
What no one can know is what will happen on the field, George's old safe place, the first time he snarls and demands complete honesty from a player who knows his sin.
And Luca? Over in Liverpool, N.Y., the old Italian continued to toss and turn at night, thinking of George and all the kids he'd steered to manhood, weighing the decision that he and his superintendent had made a quarter century ago—that the net worth of a man like George was more, much more, than the cost of his weakness. And shaking his head in sad wonder at the fear that whispers the oldest and biggest lie to us all: You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough. And deciding that, still, he and his boss had been right to let George get away with playing with matches, even in the face of all that had come to pass, because...well, because his grandmother was right.
"'Piglia i buoni,' she always said to me," says Luca. "It means, 'Take the good'—in people. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt. You have to give the rose a chance to bloom, or it's a dark world."