Everything was right about the place: From the top—head coach Mike Price—on down, the staff at Washington State felt to Devard like family. The team trainer and doctor seemed ready to fight for his right to play, if they could find a way for him to do it safely. The Cougars' offense filled the sky with footballs, a wide receiver's kingdom come, and the trash cans were tucked away in corners and beneath desks, not set up around the gym. John Lott, the strength coach at the University of Houston when cousin Frank ruled the triple jump there, had moved on to the New York Jets and relayed word of Devard's plight to Jets offensive assistant Eric Price...who just happened to be Mike Price's son. Presto, Devard was walking through Pullman, trying to conceive of himself starting fresh there, among total strangers on the continent's far corner.
He talked it over with Devaughn. Somehow, in the hush of a Pullman night, he came to a realization. Here there was no one and nothing to take his eyes off his mission. Here was the perfect place for a solitary, single-minded man.
He started classes and moved into an apartment at the end of the summer of 2001. Devaughn's mouth guard, wristband and gloves went up on the wall. No roommate could match the one he'd had all his life, so he wanted no roommate at all.
His family's lawyers readied a wrongful-death lawsuit against Florida State, charging the university with negligence in both the hydration and the supervision of a player in physical distress—"straight murder," cousin Frank called it. But the family was quick to sign a form freeing Washington State of liability should disaster recur. Still, the university needed more before it could let him take the field: a medical authority willing to counter Dr. Katopodis's opinion, willing to risk his reputation, and perhaps Devard's life, by clearing him to play. And so week after week, as the medicine men pored over reams of Devard's data and peppered the sickle-cell-trait experts with queries, he waited, suffocating from homesickness and living on his cellphone, agonizing as the season trickled away, rushing straight from classes to the football offices each day to ask if anyone had heard anything. Sorry, kid, they kept saying. Nothing yet. He came oh so close to quitting and going home, but he couldn't get past the framed picture of Devaughn on his nightstand.
Finally, in late October, Gust Bardy—a renowned Seattle cardiologist and the man on whom Washington State settled to make the call—invited Devard to his office and rendered his verdict: Yes. If Washington State was willing to take some precautions, Devard could play football. Somehow Devard made it all the way to the parking lot before the tears rolled down his cheeks.
It was too late to play in 2001, but two days later Devard adorned himself in the sacred vestments and bolted onto the practice field, so much adrenaline surging through him that he barely felt the bone-deep chill as he thumped his heart twice and pointed to something in the sky. The second week of practice, as he crunched through the first snow of his life and shivered uncontrollably under three layers of sweats, Coach Price sidled up to him and muttered, "How dumb are you to come here?" and they both puffed out smoky plumes of laughter.
The Cougars purchased four defibrillators, installed a new digital radio system to call EMS, rationed Devard's conditioning sprints and watered him as if he were an orchid transplanted to the desert. He was rusty at first, but by spring practice he was turning on the jets and plucking balls out of the sky with those octopus arms, power-cleaning more weight than anyone except two behemoth linemen, and by opening day of 2002 there was a determination in his eyes that his mates marveled at, a sense of urgency in him that smoked like burning rubber. He scrawled Devaughn's high school and college numbers on the tape he wrapped around his socks. Inside his shoulder pads, over his heart, was a picture of his twin, and over the pads he wore a new number, the loneliest number: 1.
He caught six passes in his first game, against Nevada. Then he caught five, two for touchdowns, and scored a third time on an end-around against Idaho, double-thumping his chest and pointing to heaven each time. Then came six more catches and a TD against Ohio State. Through 11 games he led the Cougars with 657 receiving yards—no small task on a team featuring three receivers with NFL potential. His 10 touchdown receptions were one shy of the school record, and his 46-yard scoring catch on a tipped ball, which sealed a 32-21 win over Oregon that briefly vaulted his team to No. 3 in the AP and BCS rankings, was replayed on SportsCenter so many times that Devaughn couldn't possibly have missed it.
"He gets open so quickly with his speed and strength, it's like watching a man among boys," said Cougars quarterback Jason Gesser. "It's clear this is just a stepping-stone for him. He'll be playing Sundays. His brother's on his shoulders, and he's taking him to the NFL. We haven't even scratched the surface with him yet."
He seemed to his teammates to be much older than they were, and he moved through the locker room wafting a certainty that no circumstance could stop him now, that nothing could hurt or shake him more than he'd already been hurt and shaken.