The town in which DeForest was raised owes its languid existence to the Newtonian principle that what goes up must eventually come down, and few folks in Titusville are more familiar with the perils implicit in that principle than DeForest. His father owns a real estate agency in town, and the family business is still hurting from the shock of the Challenger disaster of January 1986. That sent the shuttle program into a tailspin, causing mass layoffs, and the real estate market plunged. DeForest considered football a saving grace. He was a junior then at Southwestern Louisiana, on his way to earning his degree in four years and already looking forward to being chosen in the 1987 NFL draft.
He had an excellent senior season, but when draft day came, no one chose him. The Oilers decided to take a peek at him in training camp and gave him that bonus to get him there. When he told Laura about the money, she said, "I'll take a white Porsche."
Instead he gave her a diamond engagement ring and promised to marry her in February 1988, right after his first season with Houston. He returned from school to Titusville and threw himself into a conditioning program, working with weights and bulking up his 6'2" frame from 240 pounds to 255. "I was in the best shape of my life," he says.
On July 27, DeForest was sent off to Houston with backslaps and accolades, a young man known and envied by the townsfolk. Five years earlier he had helped lead Titusville High to its first Class AAA state championship. Now, after four years of college ball, he was off to the pros. The town had sent two men to the NFL—Wilber Marshall of the Bears and Cris Collinsworth of the Cincinnati Bengals—but they had played for Titusville's crosstown rival, Astronaut High. No one from Titusville had ever made it in the NFL. Laura paid $3.50 to buy space on the marquee of Don's Florial Art, located on the town's main drag: GOOD LUCK, JOE, IN HOUSTON.
The Oilers really did give him only a peek. A couple of weeks later, DeForest slipped back into Titusville, as furtively as a man plotting to hold up a bank. Laura picked him up at the airport. "I didn't want to face my parents," says DeForest. "I didn't want anybody to see me. I was hurt and mad. It's hard on the ego, especially when, over the past 13 years, people have been telling you how good you are. You have an image. Then this guy I don't even know says, 'You're not good anymore. Go home.' Your whole world is shattered. When I got home, I didn't want to go to the mall or the beach or near the high school."
DeForest's image of himself, the structure supporting his sense of well-being and his self-esteem, was bound up with being a football player. When the Oilers stripped that away from him, he was lost for the first time in his life, adrift in a way he had never imagined. "I was in the mall one day, and I saw an old high school coach, and I ducked into a store," he says. "I didn't want to hear him say, 'Hey, what are you doin' back?' Your whole ego, your whole life, seems worthless. Football and my family are what I've lived for. You work your entire life, every day, then all of a sudden you're cut? You can't play anymore? You can't tell me that. A part of you is dying. People don't understand that. They say, 'Oh, that's all right, life goes on.' Not for a while it doesn't. Life stops for a while when you get cut."
In late August, DeForest quietly surfaced long enough to land the job with Grumman, largely through the efforts of his former Pop Warner coach, Ed Heiner, who supervises Grumman's logistical ground-support systems for the shuttle. Heiner put DeForest to work monitoring the flow of repairs needed to maintain the myriad electronic components involved in checking out the shuttle before launch. "I was leading a normal nine-to-five life and not liking it because I knew I could still play," says DeForest. "But I realized I had to accept it: Ball's over."
On Sept. 22, the day after NFL players union leader Gene Upshaw announced during Monday Night Football that the players would indeed strike, DeForest had his usual after-work workout and went home, never thinking he would be called in as anyone's replacement. But as he walked in the front door, his mother said, "The New Orleans Saints called. Your plane's leaving tomorrow morning at eight o'clock."
The ticket to New Orleans was prepaid. DeForest called his boss that night. "Go," Heiner told him.
"What about the job?"