Sports

Trouble follows Patriots’ Aqib Talib

GARLAND, Texas — Tucked into a quiet suburban development, Green Pond Drive appears the unlikeliest crime scene. It is a family-filled neighborhood lined with two-story brick houses, well-tended yards, and wide sidewalks.

On a recent afternoon, a father watched his young son ride a bicycle, a jogger ran laps around the block, and carpoolers dropped off schoolchildren.

Gunfire would not be expected in this neighborhood.

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But shots echoed through the area on March 21, 2011, as a family dispute escalated into violence. Garland Police charged Aqib Talib with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Authorities believe Talib fired a Ruger .380 handgun at his sister’s live-in boyfriend, Shannon Billings, and attempted to pistol-whip Billings with a Springfield 9mm semiautomatic handgun.

Talib owned both weapons. Recounting the incident to police, Billings said Talib yelled, “You’re going to make me throw away my career,” during the attempted pistol-whipping.

By the time of this incident, talent and trouble already defined Talib’s football career. Selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the cornerback quickly racked up interceptions and off-field incidents.

The Green Pond Drive incident continued a pattern of poor judgment and uncontrolled aggression. And while prosecutors dropped the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge last summer — reportedly because Billings, a repeat sex offender, did not make the best witness — Talib remains at a critical career juncture.

Traded to the Patriots this month, Talib, 26, is set to make his debut with the team Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium against the Colts. This likely is Talib’s last, best chance to save his career and truly distance himself from past problems in Florida and Texas. He knows that.

Last Thursday, Talib spoke to reporters for the first time since the trade and focused on football. He smiled broadly and stuck with safe talking points about having a “great opportunity with a great organization” and respecting coach Bill Belichick.

“We kind of just talked straight football,” said Talib. “[Belichick] didn’t bring up the past. I didn’t bring up the past. He didn’t bring up the future. I didn’t bring up the future.”

As it stands, there is no future for Talib beyond this season. He is in the last year of his contract, and New England will pay him the prorated portion of his $1.825 million base salary.

Meanwhile, Talib’s past is hard to push aside, even if he adds the defensive skills the Patriots desperately need in the secondary.

A long list

Talib twice fought with Tampa Bay teammates, admitting after the second altercation in May 2009 that he needed to control his temper better. Four months later, he assaulted a cab driver in St. Petersburg, Fla., then resisted arrest on charges of simple battery. The arrest report said Talib struck driver David Duggan’s right ear and neck with a closed fist and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. The NFL suspended Talib one game for violating its personal conduct policy.

During an argument with a game official outside the Tampa Bay locker room in November 2010, Talib had to be restrained. Then came the charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in March 2011.

Most recently, Talib violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances and received a four-game suspension in October. In a statement released by the Buccaneers, Talib said he “made a mistake by taking an Adderall pill without a prescription.”

The list of problems grows longer if you include Talib’s high school and college years.

At the 2008 NFL Combine, he reportedly told teams that he tested positive for marijuana on three occasions at Kansas. In March 2007, Talib was riding in a truck outside a Lawrence, Kan., nightclub when the vehicle struck a 23-year-old man, according to police reports. The man allegedly had pointed a gun at Talib; he was charged with felony aggravated assault. Neither the driver nor Talib faced charges.

Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino mentioned multiple suspensions early in Talib’s college career, but did not elaborate on the reasons behind them. Mangino did say, however, that once Talib promised there would be no more off-field problems, there weren’t.

Court documents in the Green Pond Drive case show a 2006 burglary charge on Talib’s record. The burglary file is now sealed, but based on witness details, it appears to be the same case described in a Tampa Bay Times article. According to that report, shortly before graduating from Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas, in April 2004, Talib broke into a house down the street from where his high school football coach lived. Reduced charges led to a two-year probation.

“He is a good person who occasionally makes some bad decisions, but it’s away from the field,” said Mangino, who still talks regularly with Talib. “Some of his bad decisions are impulsive.

“Is he a guy that walks around with a chip on his shoulder? Absolutely not. Is he a guy that likes to be around people? Yes. Sometimes he just gets caught up in the moment.

“I think he’s remorseful for the mistakes he’s made. He knows that time is going to run out on him if he doesn’t get it right.”

Family drama

There is no question that Talib got caught up in the moment when he arrived at Green Pond Drive on March 21, 2011. An afternoon filled with family drama built to that moment. Garland Police had responded earlier to a domestic disturbance call involving Billings and Talib’s sister Saran. Upon learning by phone that Billings had hit Saran, the police said, Talib became “upset over someone putting their hands on his sister” and drove to her house.

Shortly after he arrived at his sister’s Green Pond Drive home, the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Talib confronted Billings in the front yard and tried to hit Billings with a 9mm handgun. Then Talib and Billings struggled for possession of the gun, police said.

Billings, 41, eventually gained control of the gun. At this point, Talib’s mother Okolo drove onto the scene and emerged from her car with a .380 handgun. Okolo and Aqib allegedly both fired at Billings with the second gun. Trying to escape the gunfire, Billings ran toward a wooded area across the street. Police recovered spent .380 shell casings from in front of two houses.

“It was very fortunate no one was killed and no one was hurt seriously,” said Garland Police spokesman Joe Harn. “There wasn’t a great deal of distance from one person to the other that was shooting.”

Harn added that Aqib was cooperative during the investigation. The cornerback turned himself in once authorities issued an arrest warrant, though the warrant states that Aqib and Okolo both fled the scene and “lied to Detective multiple times.” When Okolo returned to the scene after changing clothes, she initially told officers that Aqib was in Florida.

Perhaps Okolo, 59, was simply a mother protecting her youngest son. Even so, Okolo and her troubled past appear to have been bad influences on Aqib. Living in Cleveland under the name Donna Henry, Okolo was arrested on May 6, 1996, and indicted for felony assault for attacking another woman with a knife. She was sentenced to two to 10 years at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.

After serving almost eight months, she was released in May 1997 and placed on probation. Aqib, who was born in Cleveland and later moved to Texas for middle school, was 11 years old at the time.

In the past, Talib’s high school coach Jim Ledford has talked about his former star player’s family. The coach noted that Talib’s loyalty to his mother can be problematic. Strong family ties clearly created a dangerous situation for Talib and his mother in March 2011. It doesn’t help that the smiling, friendly personality Talib display in the Patriots locker room can easily turn into the stubborn, hot-tempered personality evident in his many transgressions.

Approached outside her home on Green Pond Drive, Saran Talib, 44, declined to comment about her brother. She also said her mother wouldn’t talk. When Aqib’s father, Theodore Henry, was reached by phone at a Tampa number, he did not answer any questions.

It seems those closest to Aqib want to move forward, too. And those in regular contact with Aqib have advised him to stay focused on football.

“In my conversation with him a week ago, he sounded like the worst was behind him,” said Mangino. “I told him this is an opportunity of a lifetime with the Patriots. I told him, when you get up there, all you care about is football. Lay low and relax when you’re away from football.

“That was my advice. He agreed.”

Competitive passion

Mangino added that the Patriots provide the kind of structure and discipline that Talib needs and that the cornerback “does well in an environment that is very organized.”

Meanwhile, the Patriots see a good fit with Talib on the field. The organization trusts Belichick to find players ready to make the most of a second or third or fourth chance. If any problems surface off the field, he won’t stay on the roster long.

“I think veteran players will tell him what it means to be a Patriot,” said team president Jonathan Kraft on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “My guess is he’ll listen and respect that.

“Bill has a unique and keen sense to look at veteran players in this league and know how to pick out the guys who he believes burn competitively and want to win, aren’t just great athletes, but have a passion for the game and love it.”

No one questions Talib’s passion for the game, at least not as he made a name for himself at Berkner High School, and as he developed into an All-American in college.

But when asked to describe himself off the field, he sidestepped the question.

“I’m a competitor on the field, man,” said Talib. “That’s kind of what we’re talking about right now, just football.”

As far as he is concerned, Talib hopes football remains the main topic of conversation.

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