Somewhere along his often lonely road, Rod Shoate, three-time All-American at the University of Oklahoma and seven-year veteran of the New England Patriots, opened the wrong door, and lingering death walked in.
What killed Rod Shoate, a vigorous, youthful, happy Oklahoma hero, after the cheering stopped?
Those questions have been frequent topics of earnest conversation this month among coaches and former and present players of college and pro football.
Contacted by The Sunday Oklahoman during the past two weeks, coaches and players throughout the National Football League voiced a common question: "You ever find out what he died of?"
Many suspected but weren't certain, and those closest to Shoate probably knew but wouldn't let on. Shoate's family wasn't talking. Most who knew Shoate knew he struggled with drug addiction, did a stint in prison and wandered homeless for a time. Today, his family just wants to "let him rest," his mother, Lula, said.
"His heart just stopped," Shoate's sister, Paula Sims of Oklahoma City, said.
"Everybody has things that they keep deep down in their hearts, things they don't want anybody to ever see. This was Rod's," his younger brother, Myron, said of Shoate's final illness, which he declined to name.
Rod Shoate fell victim to fame and its darker trappings: the loss of fame, drug addiction, divorce and loneliness. He died of AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - in an apartment in a tiny Oklahoma town at 8 a.m. Oct. 4. He was 46.
Fame in sports can be a blessing or a curse, and its lessons often a dichotomy, said Dewey Selmon, who, with his brothers Lee Roy and Lucious, were Shoate's teammates in the early 1970s aboard an OU football juggernaut for which losing seemed not an option. Of the 34 varsity games Shoate played under Chuck Fairbanks and later Barry Switzer, the team was 32-1-1. Shoate's only loss in college football was his fifth game. Of his final 29 games, 28 were wins and one was a tie. He was an All-American all three years he played. He was the Patriots' second-round draft choice in 1975.
While at OU, Shoate, a former high school running back, created a defensive position in football that has become a fundamental in today's method of play - the "undersized" linebacker with an explosive start and startling cross-field speed.
"He was incredible. He had one of the greatest bursts that I've ever seen," said Larry Lacewell, then OU's defensive coordinator and now head of college and pro recruiting for the Dallas Cowboys. "He looked like a track guy coming out of the blocks. He looked like a heat missile. He's the best one that I've ever coached, and I've been in it a long time."
"He came to the pros and was undersized as a linebacker, but he was very strong and very quick, and he had a very good career. Chuck Fairbanks recruited me and he recruited Rod, and he built the defense around us," said Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton, former OU Sooner and now the Patriots' defensive line coach.
Many college football stars like Hamilton survive and prosper, while others, like Shoate, do not.
"The thing that happened to Rod happens year in and year out to a lot of good athletes," Dewey Selmon said. "If you're a night-lifer and a pro player - you can mark it down - you are going to be approached," by groupies, gamblers and drug dealers.
"Anytime you're an entertainer, you're going to get approached by that," said Rex Norris, Chicago Bears defensive line coach, who had the same job at OU in 1973-83. "Most of them handle it pretty well.... You hope your children, your ex-players, your friends, all make the right decisions. I just have a hard time believing it, because I knew Rod in college. It's like telling me one of the Selmons robbed a bank."
"There are really two times when you're susceptible," Dewey Selmon said. "One, when you're at the top of the heap, like we were when we were at OU - we were almost pro-quality athletes - and when you go to the pros."
Selmon said both he and his brother Lucious, now outside linebacker coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, were approached by Florida gamblers after they turned professional. Dewey Selmon, a player's union rep at the then brand-new Tampa Bay franchise, turned the matter over to the NFL. "League security came in there like crazy," he said. Plainclothes detectives were put on the payroll "to protect the players from the junk of our society.
"If two guys like myself and Lee Roy can be approached, they'll approach anybody, and me being a union representative. It's big business and big money. To counter that, proper measures had to be put in, and they did that."
Three against the world
Myron Shoate said he and his sister Charlotte found their brother's body in a tiny apartment on NE 2nd Street in Spiro on Oct. 4.
It was sadly appropriate, somehow, that they would share those final, quiet moments together.
Rod, Myron and Charlotte Shoate were the youngest and closest of 10 children, and all had attended OU together - Myron, a younger football-scholarship recipient who worshipped his celebrity Sooner brother, and Charlotte, a no-nonsense OU cheerleader and the family's matriarch-in-training who had encouraged Rod to leave the family farm and come to the big city and join her at the university, where he would find opportunity and the coaches to train him to ply his unmatched skills.
Many wondered what killed Shoate earlier this month. Some things just didn't add up. His body was kept out of public view at Mallory Funeral Home in Spiro, and his sealed casket sat alone and unattended in the sun and wind in the distance outside the church in which his funeral was held.
"That's very unusual for a black funeral," Lucious Selmon said.
Shoate's death certificate disappeared for an unusually long time.
For his hundreds of mourners, all there was to say goodbye to inside the Mount Triumph Missionary Baptist Church, or at Levester and Lula Shoates' home nearby, were a few photographs, most depicting Shoate in his teens and 20s and in football pads. The final decades of his life went unmentioned.
The only evidence of his professional football career was a wreath of birch twigs and red plastic roses, sent by the New England Patriots, which bore thick, liquid-chalk handwriting on a blue ribbon pulled across its middle, bearing the sentiment, "Alumni and Friend," its Latin syntax wrong. None of Shoate's professional teammates came. Outside, during a burial service, two hospice nurses stood alone at the fringe of the crowd.
Dewey Selmon said he regretted that more of Shoate's former teammates failed to come. He called the funeral's tone "almost apologetic - like he was asking for forgiveness.
"We've got to say that Rod was forgiven a long time ago," Selmon said.
Shoate's death angered some of those who loved him, most notably Barry Switzer.
"I was with Joe Washington and Greg Pruitt last night - they were in town for a golf tournament - and we were talking about Rod, and how hard it was to believe what a great personality and what a great kid he was then, and how he turned out. It was all because of drugs. He was a neat, neat kid," Switzer said. "Drugs destroyed his life. We all know that. We don't keep that a secret. It's a tragedy. We cared about him. We loved him, but that's what took him away from us."
Shoate was injured while playing for the Patriots, and "Once he got hurt, it slowed him down, and he was just a regular outside linebacker who was a little too small," said Attleboro, Mass., police detective James Keane, a Patriots fan who helped extract Shoate from a frigid Rhode Island river in 1987 - and arrested him for robbery.
Shoate was traded to the Chicago Bears in April 1982, where head coach Mike Ditka cut him before the season started. The next year, Shoate's former OU and Patriots coach, Chuck Fairbanks, picked him up for the USFL's New Jersey Generals. The following year, Shoate had wandered to the former league's Memphis team.
"I drove over to Memphis one time just to see him play when he was with the USFL, and I knew something was wrong with the guy," said Lacewell, who discovered Shoate at Spiro High. "I saw him in the locker room and he was just different. I knew something was changing in his life."
The quiet man
Shoate kept his troubles to himself. That attitude was hammered to hardness by football. He was a deeply empathetic listener known for long conversations with close friends and family. With family, he didn't talk much about football, his heartache and wandering after the sport left him behind.
Shoate's sister, Paulette Sims of Oklahoma City, called it "the hole in his life. I guess he kept that part away from his family also. We never questioned him about that, because I come from a family that, we stood behind you, whatever you decided you wanted to do. None of us know if it was something he wanted to keep away from us, or what."
"That gap that you have is the gap that we have. We worried about him," she said.
Shoate married a woman named Deborah in Boston when he was with the Patriots, but in March 1986, Deborah, then estranged from her husband, filed for divorce. "I've had enough," she said.
"Football teaches you that you're a team, but you're an independent warrior, too," Dewey Selmon said. "When things get tough, football players just get tougher. If you're a gymnast or something, you can ask for help," he joked, darkly. "If you're a football player, you tape it up and you move on."
"That's not true, though," he reflected.
"Football players make mistakes. We do need help. We live in a sheltered environment, where we're protected from a lot of things that we should know, but then the things that we shouldn't know about or be approached by, they're outside that door."
College offers no classes for stardom, he said.
Selmon, now a successful Norman businessman, said that, when he retired, he thought he was ready for it. "But in six months, I felt like a lost dog." An internal voice, bolstered by years of football glory, told him, "'I'm Dewey Selmon, I know everything.' Then I asked myself, 'What are you going to do?' I didn't know."
The lonesome road By 1983, Shoate was calling home for money. He asked his parents to sell his $45,000 interest in the family's 20-acre farm. They sent him the money, then didn't hear from him for at least four years.
That's when a great aberration occurred in Shoate's life.
On March 1, 1987, Shoate, then listing an address in Malden, Mass., walked into an Attleboro, Mass., convenience store with his hand in his pocket, implying he had a weapon and demanding cash.
"It was cold. He did ours about 2 o'clock in the morning, and he took off in his car, which was an old, beat-up brown Chevy," Keane, the Attleboro police detective, said. "He drove to Cumberland (R.I.), which is the next city over, he did a gas station and got into a chase, and he dumped his car in a wooded area and dove into the river and stayed in the river, I'd say, about a good three hours before he came out."
"He was doing pretty well up here until he left the Patriots," Keane said. "Then, he just went downhill."
Cumberland deputy police chief Bucky Sheets clearly recalled the 12-year-old case.
"New England Patriots defensive back Rod Shoate. We found him in the river.
"It was snowing with freezing rain," said Sheets, who was then midnight patrolman in his town. "It wasn't hard to follow his tracks."
Shoate, who'd driven a Mercedes while with the Patriots, was driving a battered, borrowed '65 Dodge, which he'd abandoned at a clearing to the frigid Blackstone River while fleeing the police. He'd stayed, submerged to his neck in the freezing water, as policemen from Rhode Island and Massachusetts waited for him to emerge. "There was one way in, and one way out. We waited," Sheets said. Shoate surrendered when a police dog arrived and began snapping at him.