NORMAN — Monrina Reed walked into St. Thomas More Catholic Church a few months back. She needed help with her rent. She and her husband have two small children. Monrina had been sick, unable to work, and even then who would take care of the kids? Her husband's check brings in $616 a month. Their rent and electric bill averaged $630 a month. You do the math. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was willing to help. The volunteer organization is the world's most distinguished friend of the poor, helping the needy since 1833. But a de Paul member first checked with the OU athletic department and was asked to refrain from helping. Aiding Monrina Reed with her rent was a possible violation of NCAA rules. Monrina's husband is Mike Reed, a Sooner linebacker. This is the shadowy underside of big-time college football. The sport of multimillion-dollar coaching contracts and multimillion-dollar bowl payouts and multimillion-dollar television deals, is built upon the backs of people like Mike Reed, who borrows soap from neighbors to take a shower and speed-trains 23-month-old daughter Makhya on the potty because he can't afford the Pampers and who slept on the floor of their west Norman apartment until his parents came from Florida in September and scrounged enough money to buy some second-hand furniture. But Mike Reed's life is not a story of darkness. It is a story of light. Mike Reed is in Oklahoma chasing two dreams. The football, you know about it. He wants to play on Sundays. Wants to be an NFL linebacker. The other dream is less glamorous but richer in spirit. Mike Reed wants to be a father to his children and a husband to his wife. In a sport filled with players, including Mike Reed himself not so long ago, who have children living hundreds of miles away, Reed has decided he will be absent no more. So with a ready smile and a cheery heart, he lives in virtual poverty with Monrina and Makhya and 3-year-old Mike Jr. "It's hard for me to live without 'em,” Reed said. "I need to see they're OK. I don't need to hear it over the phone. "If we're going to struggle, we're going to struggle together.” Mike Reed makes us ask: Who's the real all-American? • • • Eddie and Willie Mae Reed raised their grandson. He calls them his parents. They raised him to be God-fearing. Raised him to be a family man. Mike Reed hasn't always listened. While in a California junior college, Reed was arrested for possession of stolen property and spent 30 days in jail. Monrina was back in Florida with Mike Jr. But good raising usually takes. It took to Mike Reed. Reed transferred to a different school, stayed out of trouble and became one of the nation's top recruits. He signed with OU because of defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the Sooner linebacking tradition. And last spring, after spending a semester alone at OU, Reed heeded the words of Willie Mae. "I raised him that you've got your children and you love the mom,” Willie Mae Reed said. "They were talking about shacking up. Marriage is honorable. You be married, and God will bless you.” So in May, Mike and Monrina married, and he brought his family to Oklahoma. Venables wasn't thrilled when he found out. Venables knew what such a load could mean, but what kind of system encourages a man to be apart from his family? "He's a terrific person,” Venables said. "The way he has handled himself, you have so much respect for him. "The biggest issue for him, he's been overwhelmed. A lot on his mind. Slowed his transition here. He came with a lot on his plate.” You'd be overwhelmed, too, if your wife was pregnant and had an appendectomy and there was no money to feed your kids. Reed was supposed to be the next Torrance Marshall, the next Lance Mitchell. Both linebackers came to OU from junior college, became stars and went on to the NFL. Reed was more highly touted than either. Some rated him the No. 2 juco player in America last year. Most wrote him in as the starting middle 'backer as soon as he hit campus last January. Reed is a monster physically; 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, good speed. Delivers vicious hits. But Reed didn't pick up the defensive calls so quickly. And middle linebacker Curtis Lofton exploded into the 2007 Big 12 defensive player of the year. Monrina was sick all summer and eventually hospitalized, so Reed missed workouts, taking care of his children. Monrina had surgery in October. It all became too much for Reed to carry. "She was going through hell,” Reed said of Monrina. "I had to stay home with them.” OU dropped Reed's class load from 15 hours to six, making him ineligible to practice or play. He hadn't been playing anyway. "I've talked to Coach V about that,” Reed said. "I'm sure he felt he's not comfortable with me in there. In meetings, he asked me questions, and I had to think too long. You have to be sharper than I was.” Reed is not a knucklehead. If he was, he'd have been long gone. Coaches have little patience for a guy who can't make it to summer workouts, much less practice. They would have run off Reed if they didn't believe he was a good person. Reed will be back to full-time academic status in January. He plans to go through spring practice and crack the lineup next autumn, though middle linebacker seems safely taken unless Lofton turns pro. "I just hope he gets a chance to play football, see what he's got,” said Eddie Reed, Mike's grandfather. "Play in one of those big games at Oklahoma. He's trying to fulfill his dream.” But how will 2008 be any easier than 2007? • • • OU asked the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to hold off on helping the Reeds while it explored other avenues. It would not have been an NCAA violation for the church to help the Reeds. Former NCAA investigator Brent Clark, now a Norman lawyer, cited Section 16.11.2 of the NCAA manual, which addresses non-permissible extra benefits. The rule prohibits extra benefits from school employees or representatives of schools' athletic interests. Neither describes the de Paul society, which began helping people before Amos Alonzo Stagg was born, much less Mike Reed. OU said no because most schools live in fear of violating NCAA rules; the answer is no before the question is asked. The Sooners, particularly, are gun-shy, because of recent sanctions after Rhett Bomar and J.D. Quinn were paid by Big Red Sports & Imports for work they did not do.
Last August, Houston high school player Herman Mitchell, who had committed to OU, was murdered. A Sooner fan in Houston began raising funds to help with funeral expenses, but the NCAA warned OU that could be a rules violation. OU asked for a waiver and was allowed to administer a fund that could provide the family up to $10,000.
OU compliance director Jason Leonard said the school would have asked the NCAA for a waiver to help Reed, had other options not materialized.
The department steered Reed toward a little relief. Federal grants provide him $4,300 a year, plus a $500 clothing allowance out of a student-athlete special assistance fund. OU also had Reed apply for food stamps.
There's the $616 monthly scholarship check. His grandparents pay his car insurance and telephone bill and send $60 every two weeks to help out.
"I don't look for too much more help than I'm getting,” Reed said. "They're my responsibility. They're my kids. I love 'em to death. And my parents do it because they love us.
"I don't get down on the system. We're going to be all right regardless.”
Eddie and Willie Mae Reed are not affluent people. Eddie, 61, drives a truck for the city of Vero Beach, Fla. Willie Mae, 59, is disabled.
"We promised him if he would do the right thing, get his education, we'll go all the way, even if we have to borrow money,” Willie Mae said.
Reed says he's 24 hours shy of his sociology degree and hopes to graduate next December.
OU could apply for an extra year of eligibility for Reed; if granted, he says he would start working on a master's degree.
"I hope they continue to weather the storm they're going through financially,” said Willie Mae. "He keeps a positive attitude. He's never negative. I just love that so much.
"He told me, as long as he can get his education, take care of his wife and children, me and his granddaddy, that's the most important thing. That makes me feel good.”
• • •
Mike and Monrina were high school sweethearts in Vero Beach.
Monrina was raised by her father; her mother was a junkie and now is in prison.
Mike Reed never knew his father. His mother wasn't around much; he went to live with his grandparents in second grade.
"When I was a little boy, I always wanted my dad in my life,” Reed said. "I didn't know he didn't want to see me. I figured that out, it hurt me.
"With my kids, I never want them to feel I'm neglecting them.”
The Reeds stay broke. They borrow a little money here or there. They scrimp. They do without. They endure. Reed could obtain permission to work while on scholarship, but lack of time already has hindered his football hopes, with school and weight-room workouts and taking care of two little kids and a pregnant wife who is better but still not well.
There are no easy answers for Mike Reed.
"We made some decisions that we have to accept responsibility for,” Reed said.
"I don't ever think about sendin' 'em back. I've been without 'em too much. I wanted us to be together.”
He still holds that football dream. Monrina said her husband won't be disappointed if his football career falls flat, but you don't really believe her.
He talks about all the obstacles. Not making his ACT scores out of high school. The trouble in California. His family being sick. Being in Oklahoma a full year without even getting to play.
"I just want to go out there and have a super season,” Reed said. "Have a great year on the field.”
Monrina doesn't dream so much. In this sparse apartment 1,500 miles from home, with little to her name and no prospects for quick relief, she says she has what she wants.
"I have us,” said Monrina Reed. "My kids being with their father every day. This is what makes me happy. We don't have much, but we have us.”