Jevon Langford's life on the field and in the ring ended years ago. His quest for peace was just getting started.
by CODY STAVENHAGEN
Photos by Jackie Dobson
Jan. 25, 2014
Jevon Langford is a ghost.
He has a booming voice and a boisterous personality, but he spends much of his time alone, except for the few hours a day he devotes to training teachers and lawyers, students and middle-aged women.
He rents a small gym in a rundown Stillwater shopping center. When he opened this place, he opened a dusty box full of his dreams, his accomplishments, his failures. He used it all as inspiration, as motivation for one last chance.
Langford says his heart surrounds him in the form of messages he spent days painting in an impassioned daze on the otherwise gray walls.
“Don’t be afraid of becoming great,” one reads.
Langford, 41, is the same man Pat Jones — Oklahoma State’s football coach from 1984-94 — once called his best sheer talent. He was a fourth-round NFL draft pick, an ex-pro boxer with a 6-1 record, a father of three.
Understanding our past makes our future full of life, not excuses.
At 6-foot-3 and close to 300 pounds, the product of a boxing family, he’s never had trouble fighting. But his whole life feels like a battle. As a high schooler, Langford fought his way out of the southeast Washington, D.C, ghetto.
The punches didn’t stop there.
He overcame academic failure, legal trouble, drug use, alcoholism, marital disputes and what he called spiritual warfare. Often, he was his own opponent. He managed to become the only NFL player in history to simultaneously be a professional boxer. Then, the demons chasing him, he lost it all.
Now Langford, an OSU defensive end from 1993-95, is back in Stillwater, and he is searching for the only prize that has ever eluded him: Peace in life.
The fight starts with self.
'SET FOR DEATH'
In the 1980s, the influx of crack cocaine took a mighty toll on inner cities throughout the nation. Blocks away from the White House, it consumed the nation’s capital. Nationwide homicide rates among young urban African-Americans quadrupled. School systems failed. For many, life started and ended at the corner as the result of one of history’s most overlooked social phenomena. America’s capital city was considered the epicenter. The New York Times bestseller “Freakonomics” suggests “Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow.”
Langford felt he had two choices growing up in the Washington, D.C., ghetto: rob or sell drugs.
Langford is one of 15 siblings. He grew up living in the same house as two brothers and two sisters. His mother, Mary Langford, was a crack addict who left the family when Langford was 10. Langford’s father, Howard, was a disciplinarian. He didn’t hug his children and rarely said “I love you,” but he worked as janitor and did what he could to make ends meet. Howard raised the family in poverty, first in a dilapidated apartment on Congress Park and eventually in a three-bedroom home in the heart of southeast D.C.
Langford grew up rarely attending class, but he had the smarts to pick up on the cycle of drugs and crime that permeated his neighborhood.
“I call them red zones,” he said. “You’re set for death. I had an urge to get out.”
Langford knew an education wasn’t the way for him. Really, it wasn’t the way for anyone under those circumstances; Langford remembers teachers doing crack and spending many school days locked in the gym playing basketball with his classmates. If not for sports, Langford said he wouldn’t have lived past 25.
His father raised him to be a boxer. Langford aspired to be like his older brother, Carlos, a rising pro fighter before he suffered career-ending injuries when he got shot robbing Florida pawn shop.
On the exterior, Langford seems gruff. But he boxed because he knew it made his father happy. He did it out of a loving heart — not to please Howard — but to bring joy to his father’s otherwise stressful life.
As a sophomore at Ballou High School, Langford craved another escape. He decided to play football.
Mostly because he began to idolize the Washington Redskins’ Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Langford tried to play under center. He was big. He was fast. He claims he could throw a 60-yard spiral.
“I don’t know if it’s ADD or whatever, I didn’t take the time to learn the plays,” Langford said. “So you’re not going to play quarterback, be a leader of a team, just because you can throw and run.”
Then he tried running back. He played in a game against Riverdale Baptist and had no problem plowing over defenders.
“But it goes back to the playbook,” Langford said. “You can’t tell me what hole to run through. You’re not going to be able to do that when the defense checks down and audibles plays.”
The next week, he tried linebacker. He couldn’t read the offense, a running theme of ineptitude that would continue to haunt him.
Desperately, he approached his coach, Frank Young, and begged for another shot. He thought he could play defensive end.
“He said, ‘You run at that quarterback and hit him every time he gets the ball, and that’s all you got to do,’” Langford said. “From that day on, that’s all I did. That’s what got my ass outta D.C.”
Before the newspaper write-ups started, Howard didn’t approve of his son leaving boxing.
Langford ended up leading the D.C.-area in sacks as a sophomore. For the first time in his life, he felt worth something, and his father slowly grew proud. The next year, coach Sam Taylor recruited Langford and offered him a scholarship to play at Archbishop Carroll, a private school filled with the children of lawyers and politicians.
Langford couldn’t afford a school uniform, at least not one that measured up to what the other kids were wearing. That’s why he would ask to go to the restroom in the middle of practice.
“I stole my uniform from my classmates,” Langford said. “In practice I’d say I had to go take a piss. I’d go in and bust the lockers, me and another dude. Them rich kids, we were jealous. We were envious … But there was a sense of importance to walk back into Southeast and you wearing a button-down yellow shirt and gray slacks and a pair of loafers. I’m feeling important because I go to Archbishop Carroll.”
On the heels of 1987’s SMU “death penalty,” Oklahoma State faced serious sanctions from the NCAA in 1989. Investigators discovered more than 40 violations, including a trend of illegal payments to players and scandals in the recruiting process. Then and now, many college teams operate under a win-at-all-costs mentality where rules often don’t apply. Football programs occasionally face consequences, but it’s the athletes — so often black young men who come from nothing — who feel the lasting impact.
Two years after he first strapped on a helmet, Langford had coaches from all across the country recruiting him.
Like the limitations that kept him at defensive end, there was another problem: He didn’t have the test scores to play college football.
“I had never heard of an SAT before,” he said.
Langford said his first SAT score was a 490 out of 1,600, and every school backed off but one: Oklahoma State. Later in the year, Langford said he paid a friend to take the test for him. The friend scored in the 1,100s, and Langford said the SAT board invalidated the score.
Then, Langford paid the same friend $50 to take the last ACT of the year under Langford’s name. The score was a 15 out of 36, exactly what Langford needed to land in Stillwater.
Pat Jones — who has never been directly linked to NCAA violations — said he had no knowledge of that situation.
“I have no remembrance of anything like that,” Jones said in a phone interview. “I’ve never heard that before.”
Calvin Miller, OSU’s defensive line coach from 1991-94 and 1997-2001, said the same.
Regardless, Langford was out of the ghetto, in a new world that was less threatening but even more confusing.
“I come here, I’m a wild brother from southeastern D.C.,” Langford said. “It’s a culture shock … I had never been around this many white people in my life before. I felt very inferior.”
Langford had no intentions of attending class. A lifelong introvert, he worked out, played football and went home to his apartment to spend time with his rottweilers. Miller said he recognized Langford’s potential but was also well aware of his problems. That’s partially why Miller and Langford formed a lasting connection.
“He was rough around the edges,” Miller said. “A guy you didn’t mess with … You have to build a relationship with a man like Jevon in order for him to believe in you, in order for him to trust you.”
On April 9, 1994, Langford was arrested. Stillwater Police alleged he assaulted three white male students at an off-campus party, broke the eyeglasses of another and stole from a jar being used for beer money. Langford’s attorney said Langford reached into the jar to take out his money after the students called him a racial slur. The assault charges were dropped.
Looking back, Langford said he remembers getting in the fight but doesn’t remember what provoked it. He said his attorney, who Jones helped arrange, told Langford not to worry about facing charges.
On the field, Langford remained a force.
“Whatever it took at that time back then, if you was a good player, Pat Jones had his ways to get you back on that field,” Langford said.
He started nine games as a freshman and had 8 ½ sacks as a sophomore, earning second team All-Big Eight honors despite playing on an OSU team that went 3-7-1.
“He was a very gifted guy,” Jones said. “He was plenty good enough to have played well and played a lot on any of the (Thurman) Thomas or (Barry) Sanders teams.”
But Langford slacked off in the classroom, making “all F’s” in the fall of his sophomore year. In the spring, Langford said he worked harder, but couldn’t raise his grade-point average enough and ended up suspended from school.
Langford took summer classes at Connors State in Warner to regain his eligibility.
In the fall of 1995, Langford battled injuries all season and flunked out again at the end of the semester. Luckily for him, the football season had ended.
“It didn’t make a lick of difference to me because I knew I was eligible for the NFL Draft,” he said.
Langford moved to Denver with his agent and began training for the combine. His raw physical skills and impressive highlight tapes made him among the best defensive linemen in the draft. His history of problems, plus a negative report from Jones, contributed to Langford not going until the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the fourth round with the 108th overall pick.
He was out of the ghetto and in the NFL. But satisfaction wasn’t so easy to come by.
Among Americans ages 25-34, the leading cause of death is not drugs or alcohol or cancer. It’s depression that leads to suicide, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. It’s estimated one in five Americans experience a mental health issue. Depression’s effects are often silent and gradual, but they can be destructive not only to the person inflicted, but to all in its path.
Langford sat at Willie’s Sports Bar in Covington, Kentucky — about a 15-minute drive from Langford’s home in Cincinnati — with his teammates as a rookie in 1996, fresh off what would be best game of his NFL career.
He had just gotten a sack and an interception against the Atlanta Falcons. He was set to marry the woman of his dreams, Pamela Lindley. He was making more money than he had ever imagined. Yet he sat at the bar, shaking, feeling claustrophobic, gritting his teeth, ripping at his leather jacket.
As part of the NFL lifestyle, Langford had started partying regularly. Drinking. Sleeping around. Not coming home.
Now he was on ecstasy. He had been high all day, then popped two more pills before going out.
“Me and the fellas, we were in meetings trippin’,” Langford said. “We were popping (ecstasy pills) all week long. Young bucks, man.”
What Langford thought was happiness ended up being destruction. He was coming undone from the inside.
“This shit hit me hard one night, man,” he said.
That night, Langford walked out of the sports bar and left his truck in the parking lot, compelled by some rage and confusion deep inside. He started the 5- or 6-mile walk home. He heard voices in his head.
“I was going through what I call spiritual warfare,” Langford said.
In one ear, he said he heard God.
“This is God talking to me now,” Langford said. “‘Jevon, everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve strived to get, now you’re going to throw your life away.’”
He started to pray: “God, if you’ll take this from me, I’ll never do it again.”
In the other ear, he said he heard the devil.
“The devil is telling me, ‘Walk into the street and kill yourself,’” Langford said. “‘Walk in front of a car and just end it. You ain’t shit. You ain’t nothing.’”
Finally, just before Langford reached his home on 1731 Gilbert Ave. in Cincinnati, he came to a small church he had never noticed before. He went to the door and found it locked. Then he knelt down.
“I got on my hands and knees,” Langford said. “And I said, ‘Lord, if you take this from me, I will never do this drug again. I want this to be released off me.’
“And I remember this. The Lord told me, ‘If you take this as a lesson, and you don’t do it again, I will take it off you.’ I raised my right hand to God. He delivered me that night.”
Still coming down off his high, Langford said he went back home, where Lindley found him in a panic. In some strange mixture of fear and enlightenment, Langford said he confessed to Lindley everything he had done. Miraculously, she stood by him.
Langford awoke the next morning feeling like a changed man. He went to the Bengals’ training complex and sought out a teammate named Tim Johnson.
“He was always saying for some reason the Lord sent him to the Bengals to save someone,” Langford said. “He was always talking to me in practice, giving me scriptures, things like that. I didn’t want to hear all that. Everybody was like, ‘Get away from the Christian guy.’”
This time, Langford approached Johnson in the locker room and told him what had happened the night before.
“He said, ‘Jevon, I knew something was going on,’” Langford said.
From there, with Johnson as his guide, Langford committed to cleaning up his life. Johnson, a veteran defensive linemen, remembers talking with Langford about God for 45 minutes one night.
“I asked him a real simple question,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Jevon, why are you here?’ He said, ‘I’m here to play football, I’m here to make money.’ I said, ‘No. Why are you on the planet? Why do you exist?’
“He was stumped. He didn’t know. Beyond football, beyond making money, he was just stuck. … I think down in Jevon’s soul, he knew he was troubled and that he didn’t have a lot of options for how he was going to personally develop. Football was like a house of cards in his life.”
He said a receptive Langford immediately knelt down, prayed and asked God for forgiveness. Days later, Langford took hundreds of dollars’ worth of music and drug paraphernalia and threw it in a dumpster.
“It was a desire in him,” said Johnson, who is now a pastor in Orlando. “He didn’t want to be totally destructive. I didn’t believe it. Regardless of the stories that came out about him, I believed he was more. … Maybe it was the Lord showing me, telling me, ‘Invest in this man, he’s called to do something great beyond football.’ And I believed it.”
Langford stopped doing ecstasy. He quit drinking, but he said he still smoked weed, unable to completely escape the vices that controlled his life.
“In his heart, he was a real genuine, loving, wanna-do-right guy,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it was shrouded in the confusion of who he really was. If you don’t know who you really are, you’re up for sale.”
One day, Langford decided to see a psychiatrist. He became so depressed that he would lock himself in his room for hours. He didn’t even want to interact with his newborn daughter.
Jevon Langford the football player had everything under control. But when the lights went off and the adrenaline stopped, Langford had no identity — a dangerous reality for someone whose life revolves around a game.
Eventually, he approached a team doctor, told him about his symptoms and the medication he was on, searching for more help.
“I was scared I would get cut if I told him because he would think I was crazy,” Langford said. “I remember him telling me, ‘Jevon, don’t ever deprive yourself or be ashamed to tell what’s going on. Believe it or not, probably 90 percent of your teammates are taking this.’ And he put me on Zoloft.”
After that awakening, Langford wanted to change, to become a better man. He set new goals: To own his dream home. To become a stronger husband and father.
He saved game checks under his mattress for so long team management found out they hadn’t cleared the bank. Finally, he bought his family a 5,000-square-foot home in Las Vegas, complete with a custom brick exterior, home gym and everything he had ever wanted.
But Langford’s life, his list of goals, is like a mountain with no peak.
In 2013, the NFL created a taskforce to investigate the lasting effects of concussions. It’s estimated one in three former NFL players suffer from the aftermath of brain injuries. In 2011, Langford joined a litigation team seeking damages for the NFL’s history of negligence. He knew he had concussions. Could that be the cause of his depression and impulsive mistakes? Even as awareness increases and leagues crack down on safety, there remains a disturbing culture that turns a blind eye to the seriousness of concussions. From the acclaimed investigative book “League of Denial”: “A man will not believe something that his livelihood depends on his not believing.”
There is an old pair of boxing gloves stowed away in the small storage room in Langford’s gym.
He holds on to them as a reminder of what it feels like to fail. He is done with that. He has had enough of it.
In 2000, Langford became a professional boxer while he was still with the Bengals. Football was his escape, his way out, but boxing was his love. He went on to earn a 6-0 record in the ring — all knockouts — but team management was always opposed to his outside venture.
“Our concern is he might get roughed up, knocked out or injured in some way,” Bengals owner Mike Brown told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2001. “I don't think these two endeavors are mutually compatible.”
Before the 2002 season, Langford got cut from the team. About the same time, his marriage fell apart..
Langford said he got back into the party scene in Vegas, simply because he had nothing else to do. The identity he built for himself, a two-sport pro athlete, was gone. Now he had to face Jevon Langford and the remnants of a tough upbringing he masked through sports.
“I don’t think I had who Jevon was under grasp,” he said. “I thought I was a football player. A boxer. That’s all it was. So when those things are gone, how do you deal with the man in the mirror?”
It rubbed off on Lindley. They began fighting, emotionally abusing each other. Langford claims he never hit her.
Soon, the couple separated and then divorced in 2006. Langford had no money because of reckless spending habits that fluctuated with his depression.
“These demons from the past, quarterback, running back, playbooks, discipline, studying,” Langford said. “Money doesn’t help none of that.”
He ended up essentially homeless, sleeping on a drug dealer’s couch. Soon, he said started dealing with a friend. One night in 2003, after driving around with a quarter kilo in the trunk, Langford and his crew checked in at a Motel 6 outside of Las Vegas to facilitate a drug deal. Langford ended up staying in. That night, his partner got picked up by an undercover cop.
Still, Langford was soon on probation for a domestic assault charge he said he pleaded guilty to because of his attorney’s advice.
In the years that followed, Langford struggled to find himself. The demons of his past came back. He couldn’t regain the drive that once lifted him out of Washington, D.C. He was an alcoholic and ballooned to 450 pounds.
“I was honestly on death’s bed,” he said.
In 2008, he got remarried to a woman named Jayna, with whom he had an ongoing affair. He moved to Denver and the couple had a son. Langford dropped 140 pounds and spent eight weeks training to revive his boxing career, thinking it was the only thing that could make him feel whole.
In May 2011, he fought heavyweight Tobias Rice in Providence, Rhode Island. It was Langford’s first fight in eight years. It was also his first loss.
“I got my ass kicked for four rounds,” he said. “That was the most humbling night. It wasn’t you kicked somebody else’s ass, you’re going out partying and drinking. You had to taste that.”
In 2011, he got divorced again. He hasn’t seen the two children from his first marriage since 2008. It’s been a year since he has seen his other son.
“It hurts like hell,” Langford said. “I run a business where I’m trying to help other people, trying to make a difference in their lives, but I can’t be there for my own children. It hurts like hell.”
In an act of humanity, Miller — now a pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church and defensive coordinator at Langston University — offered his old defensive end a temporary place to stay in Stillwater and helped him find work.
“He called me and just said, ‘Hey Coach, I need some help,’” Miller said. “‘I’m a couple of steps away from being homeless, and I just need some help.’ He said, ‘I just need a new start.’”
Langford started attending church with Miller and got a job working on the construction team renovating the OSU Student Union. He was getting up at 4 a.m. and working for $9.25 an hour.
“I’m back in Stillwater … 18 years later,” Langford said. “I had a breath of fresh life.”
Then, one day, Langford’s boss came downstairs yelling. Langford had struggled with this job, mostly because he had no construction experience. He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong. He knew he was tired of being ridiculed.
He took off his hard hat and swung it as hard as he could at his boss. Langford was fired the next day.
Thinking he had nothing, believing it was all over, Langford went home and looked at that old pair of gloves.
He called a few friends and pitched an idea.
It’s fascinating, the factors that shape a life. It starts with intangible genealogy. Environment. Socioeconomic status. Then we become citizens of our own experience — love and heartbreak, hopes and failures, a range of moments and memories good and bad that shape our inner psychology. It’s believed that a child’s first four years are the most important in terms of formation, yet anyone who has lived knows we never stop adapting. Maybe we don’t change, not the intangibles of who we are, but the way we act and react never stop transforming; our attitudes and beliefs, goals and priorities, in some cases the way in which we live.
In the summer of 2011, Langford began giving free boxing lessons at Boomer Lake. He had six pupils. They all used the same old gloves and trained with Langford and his $10 boxing mitts.
Slowly, the group started to grow. People such as Kari Quigley, a middle school math teacher in Stillwater, saw people training and asked was happening. Quigley gave it a try, got hooked and has been working with Langford for 2 ½ years.
“He’s a great motivator,” Quigley said. “It’s like having a personal trainer … You want to work harder and push yourself and do better for yourself and for him.”
Langford went to OSU strength coach Rob Glass and asked whether there were any way he could lend any training equipment. Langford said he got eight orange cones.
“This is when you realize you ain’t nothing no more,” Langford said.
He started saving his money, eating cans of beans for every meal. He got assistance from the NFL’s dire needs fund. He worked odd jobs, applied the lessons he learned from counseling, alcohol classes and the Bible. He started charging a small fee for his classes and held on to a dream.
Langford deciphered the roots of his problems. He began to understand his past. In the process, he developed a vision for his future.
“When a man stop dreamin’, stop hopin’, that’s when he’s in a really bad situation,” Miller said. “Jevon, he always had a dream. He always had a hope.”
In 2012, Langford rented the storefront he now calls JRAUK Boxfit. He made it a fitness program to help everyday people. He focused his lessons on building mental toughness and having a positive attitude. Soon, he said, his business started booming. Now he has more than 40 clients.
The business isn’t the only thing that has grown. Quigley said she has watched Langford grow as a person, shedding his rough exterior, becoming a better teacher and crafting friendships with his clients.
“I haven’t seen the life before he got here,” Quigley said. “But I have seen in 2 ½ years how he has grown as a person in terms of being able to communicate and caring about people and trusting, letting us into his life. He has opened up to where he does care about you, your family.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s a workout, pay for it, then go on to the next class.’”
Langford is the one teaching, but he might also be the one who has learned the most.
“God puts you on these journeys to learn at the end of the day, this wasn’t about me,” Langford said. “This failure, it was about learning to help somebody else.”
THE BIGGEST FIGHT
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
— Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
Jevon Langford has been many things in his life. But he wants you to know he is not a fool.
He knows his circumstance is the result of his decisions. Some mistakes, like the ones that have separated him from his children, haunt him every day.
He doesn’t want to pin excuses on anyone else. He does, however, want to serve as an example of what can happen in what he calls an increasingly broken system.
“You put everything in one basket to make it to the NFL,” Langford said. “And if you do make it, but you’re lacking something else — an education, another career — you are going to fail.”
He says big-time college athletes are treated like meat. He knows from experience. He barely got by academically at OSU, recruited despite barely meeting academic standards, allowed to keep coming back despite flunking out.
When he went to the NFL combine, had his head and hands measured, showed off his physical abilities for hordes of NFL scouts, he couldn’t stop thinking about his ancestors. How slave traders placed a price tag on his peoples’ lives based on appearance and measurements.
Many college coaches call some criticism unfair because people only put stake in wins and losses. But coaches get paid millions of dollars for that reason: To win football games.
Langford said young athletes are pawns in a rigged game.
“It’s no different than slavery,” Langford said. “You have to get the cream of the crop. A lot of the time where you’re going to get the cream of the crop is in these ’hoods.”
Langford has experienced racism, seen the worst of the inner city. He went to the top, achieved his dreams, then threw it all away.
Now he is clinging to his livelihood. He doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He said he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. All he wants is another chance. He wants to train, to coach. He has an idea for a reality show. Langford is a ghost of his former self, but he is ready to come back to life.
“I think he’s a good man,” Miller said. “I think what you see is what you get. He done been there. He done had the glory. He done made the money. He didn’t make the right choices. He paid for those things. It really affected his life. It got him down … But you must keep believing in people.”
More than anything, Langford said he wants to change the lives of others. He could live off his past glory if he wanted; he could sit in a bar and tell stories about his life in the NFL. That, however, wouldn’t be true to the more complete version of Langford that emerged after years of searching the inner mines that held his heartache.
Langford has been to hell and back. It’s a place he doesn’t want anyone else to go.
“I have a sense of hope that through all that failure, it’s going to equate itself back out someday,” Langford said. “I can be that strong man because I’m still fighting right now. I’m fighting for my home. I’m fighting for my story to get out.
“You got a lot more chapters that need to be opened. The pages have to keep turning.”