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The Life


December 6, 2001
Justice is served
ESPN The Magazine

Free Laveranues Coles. Free him from all the innuendo, and, while you're at it, put him on your fantasy football team.

Two years ago, Florida State University chose Peter Warrick over Laveranues Coles, but I promise you now that the New York Jets would choose Coles over Warrick. It may seem amazing that yesterday's punk is today's rising star, but, in this case, the punk was never really a punk.

And so it is justice that two years later, two years after they "shoplifted" from a Dillard's department store in Tallahassee, Fla., Laveranues Coles is the impact player and Peter Warrick is the possession receiver. Back then, back when Bobby Bowden's word was gospel, Warrick was the supposed victim and Coles was the supposed hood. Neither was further from the truth.

To refresh your memory, Warrick needed a ride to the mall one day during his senior season at FSU, and asked his next-door neighbor, Coles, for a lift. While they were there, Warrick told Coles to pick out some Polo and Nautica shirts at Dillard's, and the next thing Coles knew, a young female sales clerk was charging him $10.70 for his fistful of shirts -- instead of the actual price of $168. She gave Warrick the same discount, and it was all caught on video. Fairly soon, they were under arrest; eventually both pled guilty to petty theft and were sentenced to pick up trash on the highway.

Well, there had to be hell to pay, and Coles, not Warrick, paid it. Not that Warrick got off completely scot-free. He was suspended for two games, and lost his chance at the Heisman Trophy, but he wrote a letter of apology that got written up in the paper, and found himself back on the field for all the cool TV games.

Of course he was reinstated! He was the team's most explosive player, and the Seminoles were in the hunt for a national title. And when I interviewed Bowden for a Magazine feature on Warrick and Coles before the NFL draft, he basically admitted winning takes precedence in Tallahassee.

"People can fool themselves all they want to," Bowden said back then. "But you go to a bowl that pays $13 million, and if you win the national championship, your royalties are going to double, and then you're going to be national champions and you're going to get money for this and money for that. My work has tripled or doubled since we won the national championship. I'm talking about signing autographs, signing this, speaking here, speaking there. And you think I'm gonna sit [Warrick] on the bench? With all that riding out there?"

But Coles got the immediate boot. He got the boot, in my opinion, because FSU needed a scapegoat, and because he wasn't as important to the team as Warrick was, and because of some incidents that made him appear to be a thug. The first fracas began when a woman hit his mother. His mother asked him for help, and so Coles used an open hand to shove the attacking woman away. That got him taken downtown for battery. That got it all started.

Another had to do with a trip to Houston that an agent paid for, and another had to do with a so-called curfew violation. Warrick did similar things back then, and people knew it. Trust me, because this is what my sources told me. But, according to the school, Coles had two strikes against him when the Dillard's incident occurred, and strike three meant banishment. Coles wrote the same apology letter that Warrick wrote, but it never got publicized, and his image never got repaired.

And so a punk was born -- albeit erroneously -- and there were ramifications. NFL teams were calling the school before the NFL draft, asking about Laveranues Coles, and the FSU people were saying he was moody. They were saying it was always foul ball, foul ball, foul ball with him. And I know one NFL executive who said back then, "Where there's smoke, there's fire. I'll stay away from him." And I know Coles heard this, too.

"Excuse my language, but Baltimore totally straight-up told me they thought I was a d---head," Coles said at the time. "And Tampa Bay wouldn't even give me an interview."

That's the flaw in NFL scouting, the herd mentality they have. What they ought to do is go visit with a prospect's family, and then they'll know. If they had done that with Coles, they would know what the New York Jets know now: he was never a bad kid.

If they'd gone and visited with his grandmother, Barbara Wakefield -- like I did -- they would've known that growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., he took his report cards seriously. That he used to race home, sometimes with straight A's, to get his report card signed.

That his grandmother would never let him curse. That he wasn't even allowed to use the word "ass." That he had to say "booty" instead.

That he loved to hear about her job as a registered nurse. That he decided, after hearing her talk about laser surgery and other operations, he wanted to be a doctor. Or a veterinarian.

That he reached his qualifying SAT score as a sophomore in high school.

That he considered himself a nerd.

That, after Bowden threw him off the team, he just wanted one measly chance to sniff the NFL. That he told his grandmother, "If I have to be the waterboy on an NFL team, I'll do it."

So, he got to work before the 2000 draft, and, at the combine, he ran a 40-yard dash in the low 4.3s. He'd be up at 8 a.m. every day, and he'd be catching passes by 8:30, and he'd be on the track doing speed work until noon. Then he'd spend two more hours in the weight room, and then he'd ice down his legs, and he'd finally wrap it all up at 3:30 p.m.

He'd do this Monday through Saturday, and he couldn't help but see that his next-door neighbor, Peter Warrick, would sleep in every morning until 11. That Warrick wasn't running or lifting seriously. Peter Warrick had been enabled by FSU, and sooner or later, Peter Warrick would be exposed.

Of course, on draft day, Warrick went fourth overall to the Cincinnati Bengals, and eventually signed a seven-year deal worth $42 million. Hours later, Coles went in the third round to the Jets and signed for three years and $1.3 million.

But contracts do not make the man.

It is two years later now, and Coles, according to his quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, is definitely not moody. "If there's one guy on this team I'd want to walk into a dark alley with, I may just pick Laveranues," Testaverde says. "He has that kind of toughness, that kind of character."

It is two years later, and Coles is the Jets' leading receiver with 38 catches. "He's a player on the rise," his coach Herman Edwards has said. "He's on fire."

It is two years later, and Coles has six touchdowns this season compared to Warrick's one.

It is two years later, and Coles averages 14.8 yards per catch this season compared to Warrick's average of 9.8 yards.

It is two years later, and Coles has 59 yards on 7 end-arounds, compared to Warrick's 12 yards on 7 end-arounds.

It is two years later, and Coles is the superior player. Warrick does lead the Bengals with 49 catches, and he's certainly a presentable receiver, and it's not his fault he has a below-average quarterback in Jon Kitna.

But Coles is the deep weapon that allows the Jets to thrive without Keyshawn Johnson, and Coles is probably the most improved Jet from last season, and Coles is in the weight room at all hours, and Coles is the one who proves that college is college and the pros is the pros.

If he applied to be waterboy now, he'd be turned down.

Overqualified.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at tom.friend@espnmag.com.



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