The sugarcane stretches for miles around Belle Glade, Fla. When he was a child Louis Oliver would watch from his yard as fires swept through the fields, burning off leaves for harvest time and sending thick smoke billowing into the sky.
Last week Oliver came home to this town of 16,500 on Lake Okeechobee. "I used to watch the Miami Dolphins on TV, then run outside and throw 100 fakes," he said with a smile. "The only thing I ever wanted to do was play in the NFL." Now Oliver was back as a first-round draft pick of the Dolphins, but he was smoldering inside. Three days earlier, on April 23, he had sat in the home of his agent, more than 1,200 miles away in suburban Chicago. Five years of hard work—beginning as an unknown walkon at Florida and ending as perhaps the premier college safety in the country—had brought him to the brink of a personal triumph: early selection in the NFL draft.
Oliver thought the occasion would be sweeter than all the cane around Belle Glade, but his hopes unraveled, and his reputation was smeared by a draft-day drug rumor. Rather than being one of the first dozen players chosen, as most draft prognosticators figured he would be, he became the 25th pick. The cost of such a fall, according to the arbitrary standards of the negotiation game, could be as much as $300,000 a year.
Oliver was still drained and disappointed as he pulled into the parking lot at Belle Glade's Gove Elementary, where his sister Tiffany is a student and his mother, Juanita Edwards, has been teaching fourth grade for several years. But within seconds, he couldn't help smiling as children outside called out, "Louis! Louis!" Teachers hurried over to shake his hand and pat his back. With his chiseled good looks, black shades, sleek blue, black and white sweatsuit and gold earring, he looked like a Marvel Comics hero as he strolled through the courtyard to find his mother.
Outside her classroom, Oliver was mobbed by boys and girls who waved notebook paper at him in hopes of getting his autograph. In the excitement, some of them asked Mrs. Edwards, who was standing several feet from her son, for her autograph, too. "'This is what Louis means to children and to this town," she said.
Later Oliver drove to his parents' home on SW Avenue C. People on the street waved. A man in a wheelchair on the sidewalk flashed a thumbs-up sign. He was a cousin, Oliver explained, who was paralyzed by a gunshot during an altercation in Belle Glade.
"I've always been determined to succeed, and I knew I had to go beyond Belle Glade," says Oliver, a criminal justice major at Florida who graduated in December with a 3.0 grade point average. "You see so much negative stuff. I couldn't be satisfied here."
There seemed to be no questions about Oliver as he headed into the draft. The scouts raved about his rare combination of size (6'2", 225 pounds), speed (4.35 in the 40) and power (390-pound bench press). They knew he had spent endless hours in the weight room to bulk up from the 195 pounds he weighed as a freshman; they knew he had knocked .34 off his freshman time in the 40 by running the stadium steps.
What's more, Oliver was a Gator who put in charity time at old-age homes. Before that he was the son who took care of a younger brother and two younger sisters while his stepfather. Ernest, drove an hour and a quarter to a factory job in Fort Pierce and his mother worked all day in the fields. A member of the National Honor Society in high school, he made it to college in 1984 with the help of an academic scholarship and family savings. He recently had begun work to fund a scholarship for his high school.
Against that backdrop came the 11th-hour rumor of drug involvement, and it has left him seething. "I just have a fire burning inside me that won't stop." he says. "The feeling is going to stay with me a long time. I still feel like it was a dream draft, like I'll wake up and the real draft will take place next week."