WEST LAFAYETTE -- Dwayne Beckford has new gold teeth and a final black-and-gold chance. He will not, he insists, blow it.
“Every practice could be your last one,” Purdue's senior linebacker says. “Every game could be your last game. Every day could be your last day. You have to make the most of it.”
Beckford stands in crisp Purdue football attire on the green Ross-Ade Stadium turf. A storm looms in the background, but then, he's familiar with rough times.
He has been his own worst enemy. He has messed up, paid a price and received a reprieve. He has looked in the mirror and, he insists, found perspective.
“I take responsibility for all of this,” he says. “I don't take anything for granted. That's the lesson I learned. I can't do anything about it now. Take responsibility for it.”
Beckford is back in Boiler good graces after a winter of discontent. He was arrested last December for driving while intoxicated. He was suspended for the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, and remained suspended for the second semester -- the university as well as the team -- during which police allegedly found marijuana in his car. In July, he pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to probation.
It was more than enough for coach Danny Hope to kick him off the team for good. Beckford figured his Purdue career was over.
“I didn't think I'd be back on the team.”
Instead, Hope offered one last opportunity, with this understanding -- there can't be another mistake.
“Coach let me know,” Beckford says. “I have to stay on the straight and narrow. If I don't, he won't have any choice.”
Beckford's return came at a cost. In the spring he spent $2,000 to take five online classes through Vincennes University. He also had to pay for his own rent and food and other expenses. He got a job with a local moving company. He worked out on his own.
Hope has seen a changed man.
“He has learned from his mistakes,” he says. “He's matured a ton in the last several weeks. I see him asserting himself more in the classroom, off the field, than he has. I see him communicating more with his coaches. He seems very focused on football and school.”
Beckford says he's behind after missing spring practice, but he swung by a few times to watch, and has worked hard to learn the new defense installed by new coordinator Tim Tibesar.
“I learned a little bit of it by watching, but seeing it and doing it are two different things. I think I'm picking it up pretty well.”
Adds Hope: “The new defensive system we have is simpler in some ways at (linebacker). That can help him catch up on the reps he missed in the spring. He's in great shape. He bench pressed 480 pounds. He ran a low 4.5s in the 40. He's gotten bigger and faster. He's really developed.”
Football is a game of passion and Beckford realized how strong his was when he was out of the sport.
“It was so hard watching your teammates play and you can't be out there. It lets you know what it means to you.”
Still, temptation is out there. The key question is, can Beckford handle it?
“I just have to make the right choices,” he says. “If I get a chance to make a wrong choice, don't do it. If I get to that point, make the right choices.”
Easy to say, but not always easy to do. Blow this opportunity and he's back in his hometown of Irvington, N.J., “trying to finish school.”
“I've learned,” he says, “that you've got to grow up sometimes.
“To have made the mistakes I've made and to have this opportunity really means a lot to me. It showed to me the kind of man Coach Hope is. He's a man who sticks by his word.”
Worth the risk
Sometimes you give a guy a break. Sometimes you give him a couple of them. There's a limit, of course, and Hope has his. He took a chance with Beckford. Perhaps it blows up on him. Hope says Beckford is worth the risk.
“The worth of a player is his total affect on the team -- period,” Hope says. “I like his affect on the team as a player, his work ethic and all he's put into it.
“I don't have any regrets. It's based on how hard he's worked and the development he's achieved over the last four years.”
In nine years as a head coach, Hope has suspended and dismissed players. He says it is not a cookie-cutter process.
“It's based on the individual. If you think he's worth having around; if he has all the redeeming qualities somewhere inside you're looking for; if he's a hard worker, you give him another chance.
“There are certain places where you have to draw the line. Lots of college students make mistakes. Our players are college students. Some guys I dismissed from the team because I didn't believe in them. There was no way I thought they deserved to be around here. They hadn't proved anything to me. If you can't do what you're supposed to do, I'll get rid of you as soon as I need to.”
A cynic could say Hope kept Beckford because the 6-1, 228-pounder was the team's leading tackler when he was suspended (he finished with 91 tackles, seven for loss, and three sacks) and because of the team's linebacker needs, but that misses the big picture.
Hope has known Beckford since the player was 16 and a Joe Tiller recruit. He sees the potential and drive and, yes, weakness.
“He certainly has (grown),” Hope says. “He's always been a hard worker and he's had to work really hard to adjust to the academic challenges at Purdue. He's scheduled to graduate from Purdue in 4 1/2 years. That's outstanding for him.
“He's always been a good teammate. He's always been a try-hard guy, but there's a difference from being a focused try-hard guy. He's on track now.”
Beckford is set to graduate in December with a degree in psychology. He understands it wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for Hope.
“I can talk to Coach Hope about anything -- life lessons, football. He always lets me know what I need to do. He always keeps me on track. Our relationship is really important. I'm going to stick by him.
“From being on the verge of not being on the team, to graduate in December, that's a big deal to me. At one point I didn't think I'd get the opportunity to graduate from Purdue. I'm trying to make that happen.”
Adds Hope: “To see where he's at now, I'm very proud of him.”