Dirty dishes needed clearing. A large man with muscular arms grabbed a tray. But before he could get to the kitchen, diners stopped him.
Troy Hambrick knew this might happen. People in a small town don't forget local heroes. Hambrick wished they would.
Once he had stood on the star at the 50 yard line, a Dallas Cowboy. He had soaked in the cheers as a starting running back for "America's Team,'' earning more than $300,000 a season.
Now he was back in Dade City, glad to have a part-time job busing tables for minimum wage.
"People kept stopping me to say hello,'' Hambrick said. They remembered that legendary season in 1992 when Troy and his brother, Darren, led Pasco High to the state championship.
Reality set in when somebody yelled, "Troy, we need you in the kitchen, NOW!''
He applied for a job unloading freight at Walmart but never heard back. Disappointing, but not surprising. Potential employers don't see Troy Hambrick the former football star. They see Troy Hambrick, crack dealer.
Hambrick, 35, was sentenced to five years in a minimum security federal prison in 2008 after pleading guilty to distributing 50 grams or more in his hometown of Lacoochee. Authorities knocked 18 months off his time because he entered a drug treatment program. He still must serve three more years of probation, which requires that he pass random drug tests and find "gainful employment.''
He doesn't worry about the drug testing part. "I'm done with that,'' he said while sitting beneath a giant oak at Stanley Park, a few blocks from his boyhood home. He calls it his "comfort zone.''
"I made some bonehead decisions,'' he said. "I don't blame anybody but myself. But I have to keep going. I have to find my second chance.''
Hambrick didn't lean on the obvious — that he is the product of his environment. He had a good family life, he said, but in the same breath noted that young people in Lacoochee didn't have much more to do than "smoke weed and listen to music.'' Not much has changed in Pasco's poorest community.
Football got him out of town. He joined his brother at the University of South Carolina but got kicked off the team after his third season for "disciplinary reasons.'' He broke that down to one word: marijuana. He finished college at the much smaller Savannah State University.
The NFL ignored him in the draft, but once again he benefited from being Darren's little brother. Darren had become a starting linebacker in Dallas, and Troy signed as a special teams player and eventually backed up Emmitt Smith. He thought his career would last for 12 years.
It didn't. He had tasted the rich life, and now he had run through all that money. Some people he thought were friends asked him to score some crack.
Hambrick remembers federal agents calling and telling him to turn himself in.
"I got under my bed and cried,'' he said.
When U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday sentenced Hambrick, he said, "I know you are the type of person who will regain your rightful place with your family, your friends and your community.''
Those words still resonate.
Hambrick knows he faces a challenge much greater than running over an NFL linebacker. He fears his crimes will make it impossible to make an honest living, to provide for his family.
"I am really afraid,'' he says. "But I'm also determined to make things right.''
Bill Stevens can be reached at [email protected] tampabay.com