The story of Leon Searcy: Not every No. 1 draft pick lives happily ever after
April 29, 2012 4:15 AM
Leon Searcy on Feb. 18, 1996: The day he became the NFL's highest paid offensive lineman.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PLANTATION, Fla. -- The money will come back. Leon Searcy says this as if it's the dollars that have the free will, not the former Pro Bowl offensive lineman. He's seen what obscene wealth can do to a man, stripping a giant of his power, but he believes he'll be prepared for it next time.
A warm South Florida wind blows on a recent afternoon as Searcy, 42, talks about the opportunities he has in front of him. He leans back in a patio chair at his community swimming pool, relaxing with a bottle of Corona. Behind him, two strangers, middle-aged men, are laying out with their shirts off, tapping away on their smartphones.
Searcy used to have his own pool. After he signed his first contract with the Steelers in 1992, he built a 9,000-square-foot home near Orlando. It had seven bedrooms, six baths, a deck, a movie theater, a sauna, a steam room and a three-car garage to go along with that pool.
"It was ridiculous," Searcy says. "I guarantee you I never went in every one of those bedrooms."
Searcy was once an anchor on a great Steeler offensive line, helping Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in 1996. He'd leave for the Jaguars to become the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history at that point, and an addiction to the high life that began with the Steelers only intensified. He bought expensive cars and fancy condos, splurged for limos and the flashiest clothes and jewelry, and, when reality jolted him awake from his dreamy existence, he somehow had nothing.
Because he showed no caution, Searcy is now a cautionary tale. His story can be a gift to the 253 players whose names were called during this weekend's NFL draft, many of whom will assume their futures are secure. The culture of professional football is one of invincibility and, as Searcy can attest, nobody will tell these young men otherwise until it's too late.
"You've got to find a quiet place amidst all the confusion," Searcy says. "You have to find time to think. You're going to have so many different people pulling at you, telling you how great you are. Women, groupies. Keep your circle small, and just listen."
Here, at this cookie-cutter apartment complex near Fort Lauderdale, in a two-bedroom, two-bath townhouse he shares with his longtime girlfriend, Searcy can finally listen to the way the winds are blowing. He feels them picking up after years of dormancy, but there's a different kind of optimism now.
He can't count on his body anymore. It's breaking down after 11 years of constant banging. He's older and wiser, with white hairs springing from his beard, and any potential for a big finish exists inside of him.
Day after day, he sits on his patio, smoking cigars and just ... thinking. He's got plenty of ideas -- one of which is a gospel play about his life. He's going to speak with a playwright next week about it, actually.
"I know that whatever lies ahead for me is going to be far greater," Searcy says. "God didn't bring me this far to fail."
A foolish start
Leon Searcy couldn't sleep, and neither could his father, Leon Sr. Later that day, Leon Jr. was sure to be drafted in the first round of the 1992 NFL draft, and the excitement was too much.
At 6 a.m., father and son went for a walk. The last five years had been a rush. Leon Jr. hadn't played a down of high school football until his senior year at Evans High in Orlando because his mother, Erea, said that he had to have a 3.0 grade-point average first. Erea was a schoolteacher, and Leon Sr. worked at Orlando International Airport handling minority contracts. They were educated, and their son was going to be, too.
Leon Jr. got that GPA and quickly showed himself to be a dominant player. The University of Miami came calling, and he said yes to the growing powerhouse. He took a 3.5 high school GPA with him to Coral Gables, where he spent five years and helped the Hurricanes to three national titles. Now it was time to reap the benefits of his talent and the determination of his parents.
On draft day, when they returned to their home, reporters with TV cameras already were lining up for the hometown success story. A few hours later, before the draft had started, Searcy's phone rang. It was Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who had coached him at Miami.
"Leon," Johnson said, "how do you feel about being a Cowboy?"
Searcy felt great about it. Soon, a Cowboys representative arrived with a contract and a Cowboys jersey with SEARCY on the back..
The draft began, and Searcy's phone rang again. This time, it was Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
"Leon," Cowher said, "how do you feel about being a Steeler?"
Now, Searcy felt confused. Cowher explained that the Cowboys had tried to trade up in the draft to get him, but instead, the Steelers were going to take him at No. 11 overall. About that time, the Cowboys official took that jersey and left the house. Searcy was going to be a Steeler.
That night, there would be plenty to celebrate. Searcy flew back to Miami from Orlando to celebrate with his college teammates. He rented five limos, and they hit the town.
Money was already becoming important to Searcy. He held out for 2 1/2 weeks during his first training camp before agreeing to a four-year, $4.012 million contract that included a $1.5 million signing bonus. Before he'd ever played a down, Searcy was the third-highest-paid Steeler, behind cornerback Rod Woodson and quarterback Bubby Brister.
He wasn't afraid to let people know it, either. Searcy bought a Jaguar convertible straight off a showroom floor. He drove it to the Steelers facility, where Woodson, cornerback Carnell Lake and offensive tackle John Jackson were outside, and put the top down.
"They said, 'Look at this Miami fool,' " Searcy says. "Rod Woodson said, 'Do you know where you are? There's no way that Jaguar is gonna survive the season.' "
Sure enough, at the first sign of snow, Searcy housed the Jag in a garage and purchased a Ford Dually, a massive diesel truck with a CB radio.
As the years passed, minimal thought went into any financial decision.
"You think you're indestructible, that there's no repercussions for your actions," Searcy says. "And ultimately, you think that this lifestyle and the way you're living is never going to leave you. Everything was on me -- parties, limos, everything. The biggest thing I could not say to people when I was playing was 'No.' I had a very giving heart. And I was more concerned about what people thought about me than my future."
Searcy loved being a Steeler. It killed him, losing Super Bowl XXX to the Cowboys 27-17. His contract was up, and he wanted to stay a Steeler. But it wouldn't be that simple.
Searcy's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was in control, and it was his job to make Searcy -- and himself -- as rich as possible. Rosenhaus told Searcy that the Steelers didn't value him and, to prove his point, put Searcy on a three-way call with the Steelers. Searcy says the Steelers didn't know he was listening when they told Rosenhaus that Searcy was not one of the team's top three linemen.
At first, Searcy was hurt. Then, he was angry. He would prove to the Steelers he was great by signing with the Jaguars, who were closer to home anyway. In a few days, Rosenhaus presented Searcy with a contract for 5 years and $17.5 million -- the richest the league had seen for an offensive lineman -- and Searcy happily signed.
He suddenly had enough money to live comfortably forever. But what was he going to do with it?
Reality sets in
Leon Searcy stopped the car. He was driving a Mercedes Benz, but that didn't matter anymore.
He was going through a second divorce, separating him from his young son just as he had been separated from his two daughters the first time. That mattered. The people he had considered his friends during the past decade were now quiet on the other end of the line. And that mattered, too.
"I had the most empty feeling in my life," Searcy says. "I was in an $80,000 car, crying my eyes out. I just couldn't understand why this was happening to me."
He had retired from football because his body had given out on him. In 2000, the Jaguars gave him a 5-year, $50 million extension, but he hurt his knee before he could ever play a down of that contract. They released him before the 2001 season began, and he signed with the Ravens for six years and $31.5 million. A left triceps injury kept him out for the entire year, though, and the Ravens released him prior to the 2002 season.
Searcy tried to earn a starting job with the Dolphins in 2002 but was denied again after hurting his right triceps. Soon, he would officially retire, but his last down of football had come in 1999.
Through the injury-plagued seasons -- the first signs that his career may be coming to a close -- and two years after his retirement, Searcy still lived as if he were untouchable. His denial that the end was near became clear in several real estate transactions.
In 1998, Searcy bought a condo in Miami for $865,000. In 2000, he bought a house in Clermont, Fla., for $399,900. In 2001, he bought another house in Baltimore for $870,000.
"I was punch drunk," Searcy says. "It was a facade, what I was living. I still wanted to give people the impression that I was big-time. I'd see the guys who were still in the league in the night clubs, and I had to look the look. I was in character."
In 2002, the bank foreclosed on Searcy's Baltimore property for $550,632. In 2003, another bank foreclosed on his Miami condo for $568,263.
Records show that Searcy owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state tax liens.
That day in the empty Mercedes, he prayed for God to lead him out of the mess he'd created. It was not going to be easy.
"It's a very addictive lifestyle," Searcy says, "and when it's over, there's no rehab center for a former football player. There's no place you can go to recover."
The name Leon Searcy still holds weight.
It's lunch time Tuesday at the Primanti Brothers in Plantation, and Searcy has pulled up at a table for some garlic chicken wings and a chicken salad. Owner Eric Kozlowski, a Pittsburgh native, gets wind of Searcy's presence and comes over to say hello.
"You still out in Hawk's Landing?" Kozlowski asks, referring to the location of Searcy's former 3,000-square-foot home.
"No, I moved, sold my house there," Searcy says. "I'm looking for something smaller now."
Kozlowski takes care of the tab, having no idea how important every dollar is these days. He doesn't know what Searcy has been through. Most don't. It's easier to remember Searcy as the imposing lineman he was for those eight seasons, and at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds, he still mostly looks the part.
But Searcy says that he is not the same person. His recovery began in 2004 with the help of an old friend and former Miami teammate, Hurlie Brown, who got Searcy in the door as the offensive line coach at Florida International University. Brown says he never knew the Searcy who lost sight of his priorities during his NFL years.
"He was in a totally different circle from what I was," Brown says. "I wasn't around at that time he was this multi-millionaire and star football player. When we were able to reunite, it was just like old times. He was just Leon. He's never been flamboyant, flashy."
Searcy was fired after a coaching change in 2006, but he at least had his bearings.
In April 2007, he began the process of getting California workers' compensation payments from the NFL. Searcy had to show that he had sustained injuries while playing in the league that still were affecting his daily life. It took several years, but, thanks to California's worker-friendly labor laws, Searcy eventually won workers' compensation and partial disability from the NFL.
He began doing local radio and TV spots in Miami and started training offensive linemen from leagues such as the Canadian Football League and United Football League. A Houston-based acquaintance, Darryl Fisher, brought Searcy into a technology business called Payables 101. Searcy is now a part-owner of a mobile application called Expense E-Z, which helps people keep track of their receipts for tax purposes.
"Leon is a bright guy," Fisher says. "Not to mention the fact he's got some brand awareness, especially in the South Florida area. People remember him."
Searcy could go on for hours about all of his ideas. He has started a T-shirt company called "I Am So," and he has the vision for an annual "Leon Searcy's Block Party," a summer camp for young players who want to be linemen.
"It's almost as if he's coming out of his shell," Brown says.
Searcy also made several smart decisions early in his career that are paying off. He started trust funds through the NFL to put his children through college. His oldest daughter, Malika-maya, is a freshman at George Washington University, and Searcy has been able to help. Later, he says, he will receive a pension from the NFL.
Searcy knows what people think when he says that the money will come again: Mainly, after everything that's happened, why would he want it? He says he could handle it this time, that he would use it to help kids not make the same mistakes he did.
"Whenever I feel that I'm stretching it," Searcy says, "then it's time for me to pull back. I don't ever want to be in that position again, where I'm living beyond my means."
His desires are simple now, he says.
A nice home. A spacious backyard for his kids. And, of course, a quiet place to be with his thoughts, fashioning the next steps of his ongoing re-emergence.