The confessions of Rush Propst

After lies and scandal, coach returns for game tonight at Hoover High

Updated: September 17, 2013, 7:36 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This story was originally published Friday, Aug. 30, the day of the game between Colquitt County (Ga.) and Hoover High (Ala.). 

On Friday, Rush Propst will lead a football team onto the field at the Hoover Met for the first time in six years. As coach of the Colquitt County Packers, he will head to the opposite sideline from which he built one of the greatest high school dynasties of the past quarter-century. The memories will be bittersweet. The majority of time Rush Propst spent as the football coach at Hoover High School, he seemed to have it all. Yet his reign there ended in catastrophe and public scandal, all self-induced. So much has changed since then. A new wife. A new family. A new home. This time around, there are no secrets. No lies. No humiliating revelations. Instead, there is a man seeking closure and forgiveness, and a community wondering how to respond. This is the complicated tale of how one man's single-minded pursuit of his own desires nearly cost him everything important in his life. And what he's doing now to get that life back.

MOULTRIE, GA. -- Rush Propst had been told his meeting with Nick Saban and the Alabama staff would last an hour. But Propst likes to talk. A lot. And he had spent countless nights obsessing over every possible question Saban might ask, preparing an answer for everything. Each word that would come out of his mouth would point to a singular goal: helping Alabama win multiple national championships.

As a boy, Propst yelled at the radio each time his beloved Alabama football team fumbled or threw an interception. His mom, dad and brother would tell him to relax. But he couldn't. His obsessive pursuit of perfection would help him become one of the most recognizable high school football coaches in the country. By 2007, he had won five Alabama state championships in seven years at Hoover High School, just outside Birmingham, and was the star of a wildly popular MTV reality show that chronicled his on-field success.

Interviewing at Alabama felt like destiny. And his plan seemed to work. The interview stretched to three hours. Saban seemed impressed. On the drive home, Propst called his girlfriend. He nailed it, he told her. The dream would soon be a reality. A few minutes later, Saban called. Instead of a job offer, he had a question. About Propst's girlfriend. Propst, you see, was married to another woman with whom he had three children. Yet there were whispers he was living a double life. Two women. Two sets of kids. One football coach. Somehow, the rumors had spread all the way to the Alabama football office. Saban wanted to know: Was it true?

"I couldn't lie," Propst says now, some six years later. "I told him it was ... it was all true. I knew that was it."

He pauses.

"Man, that was tough as s---."

Rush Propst Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRush Propst coached at Hoover 1999-2007. The team was profiled in MTV's show "Two-A-Days."

A complicated decision

In the winter of 1998, nine years before Propst's world came crashing down, another job opportunity weighed heavily on his mind. The job itself seemed like a no-brainer. Moving from Alma Bryant outside Mobile to Hoover meant more money, better facilities and one of the largest enrollments in the state. But this decision was about far more than football. Propst had a secret. A big secret. And only he had any idea what accepting the Hoover job might mean for the rest of his life.

These kinds of personal decisions have never been his strength. He thrives under the pressure of a big-time high school football game, where his hurry-up offense requires him to call a play every 20 or so seconds. And then move on. There isn't time to overanalyze or agonize. But in life, everything is different. In life, everything Propst does is carefully planned. But what happens if those plans fail? The consequences are far greater than an interception or loss of yards.

Consider the day before his first wedding in the summer of 1990. That afternoon, a friend pulled him aside in back of the church and begged him not to marry his high school girlfriend, Tammy Cox. Propst and Cox were a bit of an odd pair: Propst, with his engaging, outgoing, center-of-attention personality, and the reclusive, shy Cox, who was perfectly content to stand in her man's oversized shadow. She found Propst to be personable, honest and well-liked. "He talked about getting into the ministry," she says.

But the reality was something altogether different. Propst had loved another woman during his on-again, off-again relationship with Cox, and his friend knew this. She pleaded with him not to get married, insisting he wasn't committed. "You don't have to walk down that aisle," she told him. "I'll put you in a car and we'll leave." But Propst couldn't do it. He wanted to start a family. He loved Tammy. And he couldn't face his mom, dad or anyone else from his hometown of Ohatchee, Ala., asking why he'd left his high school sweetheart standing at the altar. So the next day, he and Tammy were married.

[+] EnlargeRush Probst
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsPropst, seen coaching while at Hoover in 2007, his final year at the school.

Their marriage had been a rocky one; his infidelities didn't stop. Then, in 1994, Tammy flipped her Honda with their two boys in the backseat. Although the kids walked away, Tammy nearly died. Numerous skull fractures and severe damage to the frontal lobe of her brain kept her in the hospital for three months. She eventually moved in with her parents and spent the majority of her time at a rehabilitation facility, relearning how to walk, how to talk and how to eat. It was nearly a year before she returned home. The accident changed Tammy, Propst says.

By the time they made it to Mobile, in 1997, Tammy was better. And she believed her marriage was improving. She didn't want to leave. Rush was winning; he was the reigning Alabama Coach of the Year. She urged her husband to prove his commitment to their relationship by putting family in front of football. But for Rush Propst, such a decision doesn't come easily.

In December 1998, while Propst was sitting in a deer stand just outside Eufaula, his cellphone rang. It was Hoover. He hadn't even applied for the job, merely faxing a letter of interest when a school administrator begged him to do so. But now they wanted an interview. Tomorrow. He had no clothes. No résumé. No application. No desire. And no plan.

"The five ingredients of failure," he says.

Propst drove to a mall in Montgomery, where he bought everything he would need from head to toe -- a shirt, tie, suit, belt, socks and shoes. But no pen. And no paper. The next day, the man who obsesses over every interaction in his life walked into an interview unprepared and empty-handed. He had no idea what he was going to say. He wasn't sure that he cared. Yet he was still here, thanks to the advice of two coaching friends who insisted he had to at least talk to Hoover.

Three days after the interview, the phone rang again. Propst was at the top of Hoover's list. A meeting with the superintendent was arranged, after which he was offered the job. He had one week to decide. By 4 p.m. the next Sunday, if Propst hadn't accepted the offer, it would be gone.

That Sunday morning, Propst told Tammy he planned to accept. Frustrated, she left for the day with their three kids. As he sat in his home all alone, Propst couldn't pick up the phone and make the call. He knew that by dialing those 10 numbers he'd be choosing not only football over family but another woman over his wife. The clock inched closer and closer to four. At 3:48, he picked up the phone and accepted the offer to become the head football coach at Hoover High School.

The deciding factor?

A woman named Stefnie.

Rush and Stefnie

They tried to stop. Six years before Propst headed to Hoover, in 1993, he sat on the porch of his girlfriend's home and told her they were breaking up. What they were doing was wrong, he said. He was married. Had kids. Needed to make his life right.

Stefnie Duck listened that day in tears. She and Rush had first bumped into each other at a restaurant a year earlier. He was the football coach at Ashville High School. She was an assistant for a local attorney. She thought Rush was arrogant and cocky, but at the same time was drawn to his charismatic, passionate, driven persona. Rush was captivated by Stefnie's blond hair, bright blue eyes and warm, inviting way. They fell for one another almost immediately, although Rush had failed to mention one important detail: He was married. Not until a month after they met did Stefnie find out that her boyfriend was committed to another woman. But by then she was already convinced he was the one.

"I told him I wasn't going down that road," she says now. "Not with a married man. But Rush is sort of a persuasive kind of person. It was hard. We had a real connection. People that are truly in love and have that 'love at first sight' kind of meeting, they would understand."

[+] EnlargeRush Propst
Courtesy Connie SouthwellPropst says he was drawn to Stefnie from the start.

As they sat on that porch and talked about their future, Stefnie realized the man she believed was the love of her life was leaving her. Rush had accepted the head-coaching job in Eufaula, some 200 miles away. His focus needed to be on football. They both needed to move on. Then he left.

Over the next five years, they talked just twice, once when Rush's father died of cancer and a second time after Tammy's wreck. "I wanted to check in on him," Stefnie says. "I know how emotional he can be but how he hides it. I wanted to be sure he was OK."

Over the course of those five years, Rush and Tammy had a third child. And Stefnie tried to move on, as well, getting married and having a child of her own.

"As crazy as it sounds, I thought that would fix everything," Stefnie says. "He would have his life, I would have my life and we wouldn't go back."

But neither one of them was able to move on entirely. Stefnie kept tabs on Rush through newspaper stories about his football teams. And Propst asked about Stefnie through mutual friends. He admitted he was "disappointed" when he heard she got married.

"I remember thinking, 'I may have messed this up,'" he says. "Somebody I liked, I loved, you know? She's going her different ways, and I've allowed it to happen."

A year before the Hoover job opened, Rush bumped into Stefnie at a Bennigan's in Birmingham. They started to talk. Stefnie visited Rush in Mobile. They talked a bit more. In time, the feelings returned. When Rush accepted the Hoover job, he knew what was likely to happen. The two of them were going to get back together.

Hoover days

As he strolled toward his car after a 42-8 win against Tuscaloosa County in the 2005 Alabama state quarterfinals, Rush Propst stood at the pinnacle of his career. He had won three straight Alabama state championships. His current team was his best yet, had just avenged its only loss and, in two more weeks, he was sure, would add a fourth straight state championship trophy. But as he walked to his car, he was furious with himself. And no one else had any idea.

"I remember thinking, 'You're really, really messed up,'" he recalled. "'You ought to be the happiest in your life. You got everything you want. You just beat the mess out of the only team that had a chance to beat you. And you can't enjoy this because your personal life is so messed up.'

"I didn't like myself," he says now.

For five years, he had been juggling a double life, privately falling in love with Stefnie all over again while publicly staying married to Tammy. Stefnie had since divorced her husband. But she never pressed Rush to do leave Tammy. She knew football needed to be protected at any cost.

Part of it was perception. Rush wasn't sure how Hoover would react to a divorced football coach, not to mention one who left his wife after a near-fatal car accident. After a few months on the job, Propst hinted that he was considering leaving his wife. He says a Hoover administrator told him "that cannot happen." Propst also couldn't stomach the thought of letting down his children. He had failed them already, of course. But they didn't know that. And if he didn't leave Tammy, he wouldn't need to face that.

And then there was his upbringing. His parents fought through the ups and downs of married life but always stayed together. He had been raised on a heavy diet of traditional family values, living life by the Good Book and avoiding divorce at almost any expense.

So the lie continued.

[+] EnlargeRush Propst
Rick Diamond/WireImage Propst during the 2006 premiere of MTV's "Two-A-Days" at a theater in Hoover, Ala.

Football paid the bills. The train of winning couldn't be derailed. When Rush's father died of cancer, he coached two days later, the same day as the funeral. These were Rush's father's instructions, delivered to his son 30 minutes before he died. After Tammy's accident, Propst didn't miss a single game or practice, driving six hours each day round-trip to visit his wife in the hospital and still be there for his team.

This time, Stefnie and Rush had a plan. Rush was going to stay with Tammy until all three of their children graduated from high school. At that point, he would divorce Tammy, and he and Stefnie could be together. Officially.

But it wasn't that easy. With each day, the secret got harder and harder to keep. Football became harder and harder to protect. In 2003, despite the couple using contraception, Stefnie got pregnant. It was not part of the plan. She and Rush talked briefly about whether they should keep the baby. They agreed they would. Somehow, they would make it work.

"I was scared to death," Stefnie says. "How in the world are you going to bring a child into this mess, you know? But then what's the alternative? There is no alternative.

"Like everything else, you just make it work. You're not thinking about what to do, what's the right thing to do, what's the wrong thing to do. You're just trying to survive, I guess."

To protect their secret, pregnant Stefnie stayed home. She rarely went out, even to the grocery store. She worried people would start asking questions. And she didn't have any answers. She even kept the news from her parents -- until they showed up at her house one day and confronted her. She then called Rush to come over. Together, they confessed.

When Thomas Propst was born in 2004, doctors asked for the father's name to list on the birth certificate. Stefnie and Rush left the section blank.

"It was hard," Rush says. "You have this lovely, beautiful child. He's mine. I'm partial to him. But at the time, I was still in protection mode. I wasn't telling nobody, anything. I was denying everything."

With a child now involved, those close to Propst begged him to get a divorce. They knew about Stefnie. They told him it wasn't right. But the man who preached to his players about fighting through adversity, doing the right thing, living your life the right way, couldn't live up to his own words.

"I begged him," says Rush's brother, Phillip. "I told him several times, 'This isn't God's plan. This is not how you're supposed to be living your life.'"

Stefnie would go to the games and sit nervously in the stands. She would tell Rush where he could find her, and, after the final horn would sound, Rush would turn around and point in her direction. No one else knew what he was doing. They tried to see each other as much as possible, even if it was just a few minutes briefly in a convenience-store parking lot after a game. And Rush tried to get away to Stefnie's house to hold Thomas as much as he could.

Tammy knew something was wrong. Her friends told her there were rumors about her husband. When Rush was home, he would sleep on a couch in the basement. As the kids opened presents on Christmas, Tammy says Rush sat in a chair by himself, acting almost as if he wasn't there. Each time Tammy asked him what was going on, he insisted nothing was. She admits that her nonconfrontational, passive personality prevented her from pressing him further. She didn't want to believe the rumors. Even if he was straying, she told herself, he would always come back to her.

"I always felt that. I always thought that," she says now. "I was wrong."

In 2006, MTV's cameras came to Hoover for a reality show called "Two-a-Days." An estimated 46 million people tuned in each week for a behind-the-scenes look at Propst-fueled Hoover football. The coach was one of the stars of the show. And no one watching at home had any idea the coach was living a double life.

"A fraud," Propst says. "A total fraud."

At the end of each season, Propst would review his program in search of weaknesses. At Hoover, he kept coming back to the same answer.

"The head football coach," he says.

In those brief moments of introspection, he realized he had failed as a person. He would ask himself time and time again, "Why? Why? Why? Why?" He knew the answer. He was fighting his past. He was fighting how he was raised. He was fighting his ability to control anything and everything. At times, the stress and guilt would eat at him. And at other times, he'd convince himself that as long as the perception of what people see is OK, the rest of this he could live with. It was dysfunctional. And he knew it.

"I wasn't strong enough," he says.

So nothing changed. A few people in Hoover knew what was going on, but, for the most part, Rush and Stefnie kept to themselves. Hoover kept winning; the national spotlight grew brighter; and Rush tried to manage his double life. He and Stefnie had two more children, continuing down a path Rush hoped he could manage. Yet, at the same time, he knew better.

"I knew it was going to crash and burn," he says. "Sort of like being in a plane and knowing it's going to crash. I knew it was going to happen. I just didn't know when."

Rush Propst Courtesy Connie SouthwellPropst addresses his Colquitt team.

The crash and burn

On a sticky summer afternoon in July 2007, Rush and Stefnie stood in the carport of her parents' home as their three children -- at that point all under the age of 3 -- played inside. With each word that came out of his mouth, Rush paced back and forth faster and faster. Stefnie couldn't believe what she was hearing. Earlier that day, a newspaper reporter had said on the radio that he would be writing a piece about Rush Propst having a child out of wedlock. Rush was in his car when he heard the report. He nearly drove off the road.

The end was near. Stefnie felt scared. Rush's emotions were mixed. On one hand, he was horrified. But at the same time, he felt a sense of relief. When Tammy asked whether the reports were true, Rush admitted they were. He told her he would explain more later.

On the morning of July 3, 2007, Rush and Stefnie drove to Bessemer, Ala., to pick up a copy of the Western Star newspaper. There, a column written by Hunter Ford insisted that the Rush Propst everyone thought they knew was a different man altogether. The story mentioned Stefnie and their children, though not by name.

"It's right there in black and white," Stefnie says. "And you're going, 'Oh my gosh, this cannot be happening.'"

The story was front-page news and water-cooler talk for months. That fall, television cameras all but lived at Hoover practices. Reporters began digging for other cracks in Propst's Hoover empire. The school board then launched an investigation into accusations of grade changing, preferential treatment for football players and using an ineligible player in a JV game. There were also rumors of an affair with a school administrator, a charge the investigators neither confirmed nor denied, but which Propst vehemently insists never happened.

One night in October, he pulled his children with Tammy out of school early, sat them around the dining room table and explained everything. It was true, he said. He told them he was sorry. He told them he knew he had broken a lot of things in their world. He had lied for a long time. And he would spend the rest of his life trying to fix it. He encouraged them to be mad.

"Get it all out," he said.

Leanne, in seventh grade at the time, struggled to listen. She folded her arms on the table and buried her head, trying to escape between the tears.

Rush and Stefnie believed the exposure of their personal life was part of a well-calculated plan to get Rush out at Hoover. He had won too much. And his win-at-all-costs persona rubbed many the wrong way, including those at Spain Park, the rival high school in the Hoover school district. Twice, Rush says, it was suggested he leave coaching and become the athletic director for both schools. And twice he refused.

"When I did that, I figured my days were numbered," he says. "They were long fixing to get rid of me."

In October, the Alabama High School Athletic Association ruled that a player improperly transferred to Hoover under Propst's watch, forcing the school to forfeit the four victories in which the player competed. To this day, Propst contends that he didn't break any major rules and that the eligibility decision was a misinterpretation.

"The personal life, I couldn't deny," he says. "But the rest of it? I'll look you dead in the eye and tell you we did nothing else wrong. I don't know of anything we did wrong, except that I was supporting a second family and my personal life was in disarray."

And all around Alabama, that's all most people wanted to talk about, the juicy details of Propst's second life. On one online forum, Stefnie was labeled a tramp. Anonymous Internet comments talked about an abortion she said she never had. The few times she left the house, everyone stared. And judged. She wanted to scream at them, "I know it's not right!" Instead, she kept to herself. She tried to protect her children.

Propst tried to keep his focus on football and the 103 players to whom he had made a commitment. He tried to begin the healing process with his older children. And he tried to spend time with his younger kids.

On Oct. 30, 2007, Stefnie's 38th birthday, Rush finally gave in to the inevitable, presenting his resignation at a Hoover school board meeting. Stefnie watched with tears streaming down her cheeks. She felt responsible.

"It's one of the hardest things I've ever seen him do," she says now. "That was his baby."

Rush Propst Wayne Drehs/ESPNPropst and his Colquitt County Packers face the Hoover Bucs on Friday night.

Life and death

Rush couldn't look the oncologist in the eye. With his legs dangling from the end of the examination table, he just stared at Stefnie. He gazed into her blue eyes. At her blonde hair. He looked down at her black slacks. Up at her denim jacket. Nowhere could he find any answers. It was Jan. 26, 2011. Ten months earlier, Rush and Stefnie had been married. They had begun a new life together in Moultrie, a town of roughly 15,000 in rural south-central Georgia.

They had come here three years earlier, when the superintendent of Colquitt County Schools looked past Rush's checkered past and hired him in hopes of rebuilding his once-proud football program.

Rush had wanted to take a year off. But Stefnie wouldn't let him. She feared if he left football for a year he might never get back in. And besides, there were bills to pay. Seven kids to eventually put through college. So they jumped on the opportunity to come to Moultrie, where the unspoken agreement was obvious: You save our football team and this community will help save you.

"When we first hired Coach Propst, I told him, 'There's one positive thing that will come out of this if it doesn't work out here,'" said Leonard McCoy, Colquitt's superintendent at the time. "'We'll be able to get group rates on U-Hauls because several of us will be leaving town with you.'"

But that never happened. Instead, Propst took the Packers to two state semifinals and one state championship game in his first four seasons. In 2009, a Colquitt-record 12 players signed college scholarships. At home, the three little ones adjusted to their new surroundings. Rush's oldest son, Jacob, came along to play for his dad. Stefnie's older daughter, Taylor, lived with them, too. And Rush tried to begin living a life where football wasn't protected above all else.

As he sat in that examination room, he had every reason to shove football at least temporarily to the side. He knew he had cancer, stage 1 or 2, they had told him back in Moultrie. But at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, he sought a second opinion. On that day, as the doctor spoke, Rush couldn't block out the buzz from the fluorescent light humming above. Then he heard it. Stage 4. Squamous cell carcinoma. Throat cancer. Treatment would need to begin immediately. It wouldn't be easy, but the survival statistics were in his favor. Rush didn't even hear the numbers. Instead, he thought about his mom and dad, who had both died of cancer. He feared he was next. He looked at Stefnie. He thought of his kids. He even thought of Tammy. How would this all work without him?

Although they didn't come out and say it, Rush's and Stefnie's minds raced to the same place. This was their punishment for what they had done. This was payback for all the pain they had caused.

"I didn't know what to do," Stefnie says. "He was all I had. He had become my entire world, in a way. I had given up my friends, my family. I had sacrificed my kids for him. We finally get to a place where we are together and things are comfortable, and now he could be gone?"

The doctors outlined a treatment plan. Two surgeries. A series of short-burst radiation treatments. If all went well, he'd be cancer-free in a few months. If he stayed that way for five years, he could add beating cancer to his growing list of victories. But the positive outlook came with a warning. This wouldn't be good. He'd need surgery to remove a few teeth. He wouldn't be able to eat or taste for months. And he was going to feel the worst he had ever felt in his entire life, physically, mentally or emotionally. It will get so bad, one doctor suggested, that if somebody offered Propst a string to end his life, he would want to yank on that string as hard as he could.

Four months later, on May 29, 2011, that day arrived. Stefnie and the kids were at the grocery store. Her parents, who had moved to Moultrie to help with the kids, were also out of the house. The Indianapolis 500 was on television. Rush was stuck in bed. He had barely moved for weeks. Stefnie tried using the kids as a lure, but nothing worked. "Don't you want to see Thomas hit the baseball? Don't you want to watch Jacob shoot his gun?" Rush wouldn't budge.

He couldn't walk. He couldn't eat. He could barely use the bathroom. Stefnie had to feed him through a straw and inject medicine through his nose. He had lost more than 50 pounds. She couldn't believe what she saw.

"He was at a place where nothing I did mattered," she says. "I would sit there and think, 'Here is somebody who has always been in control. He controls everything.' And he couldn't control this."

As he lay in bed, Rush's mind would begin to wander. That's when he thought about his parents and their final days. His mistakes of the past. Or the fact that he couldn't do one single thing without assistance. If this was going to be the rest of his life, he thought, perhaps life wasn't worth living. And that's when the thought popped into his head.

Where's that string?

Instead, Rush reached for the phone. He called a third cousin who had battled throat cancer two years earlier and told him about the suicidal thoughts racing through his head. His cousin confessed he had gone through the same thing. After sharing the story of his darkest day, Aaron Acker switched the topic to football. He reminded the man who had coached for more than 20 years about all the things he barked to his players when they wanted to quit. How he pushed them to one more sprint, one more rep, one more touchdown. Then he told Rush to suck it up.

A bit later, Rush slowly climbed out of bed. He put on a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of slip-ons. Everything he did was exhausting. He tried to walk one lap around his house. It felt like it took forever, but he finished. The next day he took two laps. The next day three. Gradually, his strength returned. By the time football season arrived, Rush returned to the sideline to coach. He needed an IV bag before each game and two IV bags after each game. But it didn't matter. He was there.

On Thanksgiving, Rush sat at the head of the dinner table. Stefnie put a plate of green bean casserole in front of him. He hadn't eaten solid food in nearly a year. He forked the casserole into his mouth. He couldn't taste a thing. But he loved it. He took pleasure in the texture of something that wasn't liquid. That night, he stayed awake until 3 in the morning continuing to nibble the casserole, bit by bit. A month later, his doctors told him the cancer was gone and wasn't showing signs of coming back. His confidence returned. He knew what this meant: a second chance.

Rush Propst Courtesy Connie SouthwellRush and Stefnie Propst with Taylor, left, Mary Catherine, center, and Leanne.

Change

With the sun beginning to set on the six acres of tree-lined property he now calls home, Rush Propst stands over a grill in a sweaty Alabama football T-shirt and attempts to perfectly sear eight sirloin steaks. He has his own carefully choreographed method for culinary excellence, rotating the meat on and off the grill at various degrees of heat. But on this night, the best-laid plans don't deliver. The meat is overcooked. There are distractions to blame. Thomas, Mary Catherine and John David, his three little ones, racing their bicycles NASCAR-style around the family pool. Jacob shooting his bow in the middle of the yard. Jeff Sutton, Rush's longtime offensive coordinator, hanging around the grill trying to find the perfect description of what it's like to work for Rush. "Crazy on steroids," Sutton eventually comes up with. Rush's daughter Leanne and her stepsister, Taylor, revolving in and out of the back door, anxiously waiting for dinner so they can head out with friends. And the phone call from a former player having a tough time at college and looking for a few words of encouragement. In the middle of their talk, Rush's cellphone battery dies. The search for the charger is the likely culprit of the rare gastronomic imperfection.

By most any standard, it would seem like a typical chaotic dinner in a normal American family. It's just the way the Propsts arrived here that people struggle to understand. The little ones have yet to learn about the tabloid tale that brought their parents together. At Thomas' Little League games, Stefnie occasionally hears a whisper or two when someone sees "PROPST" on the back of the kid's jersey. The older ones, meanwhile, are trying to learn acceptance. When Rush was in his battle with cancer, Leanne left Hoover and moved in with him in hopes of getting to know her dad better. "I worried time was running out," she says.

The man she discovered was more complicated than she ever imagined -- on one hand, strong-willed, determined and opinionated, and, on the other hand, emotional. He can pull the strings for a football program that has been to a Georgia-record four straight state semifinals, but he can't operate a cellphone. And, although some people find him intimidating, she finds him in the kitchen late at night making pudding or a milkshake, still regular staples of his post-cancer diet.

It is in these moments that father and daughter talk. About their past. Her future. His regrets. Her dad has changed, Leanne believes. He spends more time at home and plays with the little ones more than he ever did with her, Bryan or Jacob. When he asks people how they're doing, he actually listens to their answers. He seems to care. Stefnie helps keep her husband in line, providing the bumper each time his bowling ball looks as if it's heading into the gutter.

Just like her mother, Leanne says she has forgiven. But she'll never forget. And she hopes her dad never goes back to the way he used to be.

"I don't want him to ever see himself again as someone who can do no wrong," Leanne says. "There was a point where he was so egotistical. I know he thinks cancer was his punishment. I don't believe in that. I just think that was part of the plan to help snap him back into reality. And now that he's there, I don't want him to go back."

Tammy is more skeptical. And understandably so. For years, she heard the lies; for years, she learned that football stopped for nothing. Even after her husband's affair became public, even after he confessed about the three kids, she tried to take him back. Only after Rush told her that he truly loved Stefnie and that they would never get back together did she file for divorce.

[+] Enlarge Rush Propst
Courtesy Connie Southwell"People that are truly in love and have that 'love at first sight' kind of meeting, they would understand," Stefnie says.

Now he says he's a new man? Tammy can't help wondering why this time is any different from those of the past.

"Rush is Rush," she says. "He was a lousy husband to me, and I'm not sure as time goes on he won't be a lousy husband to her. He was at death's door and realizes the mistakes he made, but I don't know if, as the years go by, he won't revert back. I'm not sure he's really changed down deep."

Tammy hasn't been to a Hoover game since Rush resigned. He is the ultimate salesman, she explains, the type of man who could convince you the sky is green on a beautiful blue day. This is why a former staff member once referred to him as "part Jimmy Johnson, part Jimmy Swaggart and part P.T. Barnum."

Rush considers this salesmanship a strength. Earlier this month, as Stefnie drove him five hours to scout an upcoming opponent, he sat in the back seat and sold himself as the ultimate college football recruiter.

"You know me well enough to know I could get a guy to eat a s--- sandwich," he said. "If a college hired me, it would be the best hire they ever made. They just don't know it yet."

So is all this talk of contrition and change just another sales pitch? Rush insists it's not. Sure, he might occasionally still curse at his players, harass officials and test the boundaries of the rules in hopes of giving his team an advantage. That makes him just like most any other football coach in America. As Tony Franklin, the offensive coordinator at Cal and one of Propst's closest friends, says: "If you write a story portraying Rush Propst as an angel, you will look like a fool. Write a story about Rush Propst as the devil and you will look like just as much of a fool. Like most of us in this world, the truth lies somewhere in between."

And depending on whom you ask, that's an improvement.

"Put it this way," Franklin says. "I like who he is today far better than who he was 10 years ago."

Adds Stefnie: "He's tried to be a better person but, at the same time, you'll never totally take the fight out of him. That's who he is."

When Rush is working, Stefnie is often by his side in the Packers' football building. She answers his emails, helps return his phone calls. She travels with him on scouting trips and takes notes as Rush dictates what he sees. As Rush schmoozed with boosters at a fundraising dinner earlier this month, he kept going up to Stefnie and having her write down thoughts about what he should say in his speech. "And he doesn't even have his glasses," Stefnie said that night. "I don't even know how he thinks he's going to read this."

In his speech, Rush thanked the coaches' wives for their support. "Without a supportive wife, your husband can't be successful," he said. "Trust me, I've been there. I've seen it."

Nearly every weekday, Stefnie cooks for and feeds Rush's players. She stays on them about their diet, whom they're dating and whether they're keeping out of trouble. In a town where 35 percent of children live below the national poverty line, it isn't unusual for her to go into Moultrie's poorer neighborhoods and yank a kid out of bed who is late for school or missing practice. She did that last year for one player everyone except Rush and her had pretty much given up on.

"He's all about giving people second chances," she says. "And think about that ... that's what he needs."

Stefnie struggles with the fact that, as she sees it, the story of their relationship -- and Rush's professional collapse -- probably will keep him from ever achieving his goal of coaching at the next level, and specifically at the University of Alabama.

"He sacrificed his career for me," she says. "I cost him ..."

Her voice fades.

"I know what his dream was. And our relationship cost him that. I feel so guilty about that every single day."

Rush Propst Courtesy Connie Southwell"I want people to know I'm caring. I'm loving. I'm a person of deep faith," Propst says. "I'm a great husband, a great father, a great human being. And I'll never get my priorities out of order again."

Going home

At some point in the late hours of Friday night, the football game will be over. One team will have won, the other team will have lost. And it will be time to head back to Moultrie. After the game, Stefnie will do what she always does. She'll find her husband on the field and give him a hug and a kiss. They will walk off together, with their three little ones either climbing on Dad or trailing not far behind. Only this time, at Hoover, everyone will be watching. Perhaps pointing. And most likely judging. There he is. There she is. There they are.

When Rush first told Stefnie he wanted to try to schedule a game against Hoover, she thought he was joking. She would have been fine never going back to Alabama again, with leaving the whispers and stares in the rearview mirror. But she knows her husband well enough to know he can't do this. He thrives on life in the storm. He craves the attention of a juicy storyline and loves the fact that, at least for one week, everyone back home will be talking about him again.

To anyone who will listen this week, Rush has insisted Hoover is just like any other opponent. But that's hardly the case. The trophy room in his house is all but wallpapered with Hoover photos, plaques and newspaper clips. He checks the score of their game every week. He even keeps tabs on their performances in 7-on-7 tournaments.

When the Packers lost in pool play of their own 7-on-7 tournament in July on a last-second Hail Mary, he lit into his players. Size wasn't a worthwhile excuse. Make a play. Fail to do so against Hoover's lengthy wideouts, he told them, and they might as well not make the trip to Alabama. As one Colquitt coach said earlier this month, "I'll be happy when this game is over with. I think the kids are tired of hearing about Hoover."

The reality is that Colquitt's 21-6 season-opening victory over Grayson last week meant more to the people of Moultrie. That was a grudge game. But Hoover means more to Propst. It has nothing to do with football or revenge. It's about closure. It's about going back home, with Stefnie and his kids by his side, and trying to prove that, at 55 years old, he finally has grown up. This time, he gets it. And he's sorry.

He brought all this upon himself. He knows that. But he's hoping that, through this one game -- and the national attention around it -- he can begin to change perceptions, one skeptical fan at a time.

"I failed that community," he says. "I don't like the picture which I painted over there. I like the championships. I like the wins. I like all the stuff we were able to do. But I don't like the way that I did it. I don't like the way people think of me over there.

"I want people to know I'm caring. I'm loving. I'm a person of deep faith. I'm a great husband, a great father, a great human being. And I'll never get my priorities out of order again. I will never, ever have another day in my life that football dominates and I allow it to be No. 1 over and beyond the other important things."

The proof will come in the days, months and years ahead. It will come in moments when Rush Propst has a difficult decision to make and instead of football he chooses family. It will come at a time when he and Stefnie hit a rough patch and he decides to communicate and fix the issues with her rather than seeking the arms of someone else. Do that enough and that's when people might start to believe. That's when the perception might start to change. And a university might finally call.

Maybe even Alabama.

Devon Heinen, a production assistant at ESPN, contributed to this report.

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