The agonizing wait was over, but not the controversy. ESPN's coverage of the drug rumor came under fire, but the network stood by its sources and methods. It pointed out that no mention was made of the rumor on the air until Oliver consented off-camera to address it.
"We had reliable reports from confidential sources," says Gatti. "We did not raise the rumor to give it credibility, but to give Oliver the opportunity to discredit it. When he began to slide unexpectedly, we felt there was a legitimate reason to ask the question. If he didn't want to be interviewed, we would not have brought up the rumors at all."
Although Newsday had reported two days before the draft that Oliver might not go as high as people were predicting he would, reporters at the draft heard no rumors of drug involvement before ESPN broadcast its information. It might be argued that Zucker should have tried to stop Oliver from going on television. But in the confusion, Zucker says, he didn't know whether ESPN had mentioned the rumors prior to the interview, and Oliver, in an emotional state, wanted to clear his name.
After reviewing tapes of the coverage, Zucker says he thinks ESPN "acted responsibly." He would like to locate the source of the rumor, however, and take legal action. "It was certainly slanderous," he says. "Of all the athletes I've ever been associated with, Louis is the last one I'd dream would be associated with drugs."
Oliver flew to Gainesville late Sunday after the draft and drove aimlessly around town in his red-and-white Bronco with the 2 D TOP license plate. The next morning his mother cried at school. "Once you say it [suspected drug use], the thought will always stay in some folks' minds," said Juanita. "I can't find the adjectives to describe what we went through. I was so depressed I cried all day at work. I even cried in front of my students."
University officials say Oliver passed every drug test the school required. He passed the mandatory drug test at the Indianapolis scouting combine in February. No NFL scouts contacted by SI say they have ever heard of a drug rap against Oliver. According to Atlanta Falcons player personnel director Ken Herock, the drug rumors are "a bunch of baloney." Denver pro personnel director Lide Huggins says that the Broncos liked Oliver plenty as a free safety but that they had a greater need at strong safety, Atwater's natural position. Finally, the Dolphins' chief of security, Stu Weinstein, says he had done a complete background check of Oliver and found no signs of wrongdoing.
By the middle of last week, calls and letters from Louis's friends and former teachers and principals had buoyed Juanita. "We were truly suffering, because Louis had worked so hard to get where he did," she says. "There is still pain, but it's nice to know so many people care."
Inside her small but handsomely furnished house, pictures of Louis and his siblings cover the walls: Ernest Jr., 22, who is in the Navy; Keysha, 17, and Tiffany, 9. Keysha and Tiffany were abuzz with excitement when Louis drove down from Gainesville last week. Tiffany wore her gold LOUTS necklace and grinned nonstop. "He's been an inspiration for us," says Keysha, whose collection of academic trophies stands alongside Louis's on a nearby cabinet.
Oliver is good news for Belle Glade, which has had its share of bad news, including the highest per capita rate of AIDS in the nation. But as much as he means to his hometown, he could soon mean more to the Dolphins, who have struggled defensively for several seasons. After the Oliver pick, Shula and Miami owner Joe Robbie exchanged a high five. Robbie later said, "This ranks with our alltime great drafts, the drafts that gave us Griese, Csonka and Marino." Besides beefing up their ground game with Smith, they now have two former Gators, Oliver and second-year player Jarvis Williams, at the safeties.
Whether Miami will get Oliver into camp is another question. He will attend a six-week precamp session but says he will hold out in July unless Robbie pays him the kind of money appropriate for a ninth pick, not a 25th.