LAKELAND — The Bulloch family barely knew Bilal Powell the first time he asked if he could stay the night.
Rusty and Julie Bulloch had certainly brought kids into their home before — 25 now over the years. The night before Lake Gibson High was to play in a seven-on-seven football tournament at USF in the summer of 2006, Rusty thought little of letting the senior-to-be Powell, who was from a bad part of Lakeland, sleep under the same roof as his children, Brodie and Amanda, now 21 and 24, respectively.
Powell had a good home and a hard-working mother, Stephanie, who drove a bus for Polk County schools. But they lived a short walk away from drugs, guns, gangs and violence, which Powell knew all too well he needed to get away from. He found that separation and salvation on a 25-acre ranch.
The first night Powell stayed at the Bullochs' house, the first time they prayed together, he simply asked for a good night's sleep. He slept for seven hours without the nightmares that had haunted him.
"'How long can I stay here?" he asked Rusty. "I'd really like to stay here as long as you'll let me."
Today, Powell is one of the nation's top running backs, six months away from not only graduating from Louisville but potentially a future in the NFL. When the Cardinals play Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday, the Bullochs will be at Tropicana Field cheering for him, as will his mother, sister and fiance, Jessi, also a Louisville senior.
But 41/2 years ago, Powell wasn't a running back, wasn't sure he'd even get a high school diploma. But one man saw something in him nobody else had.
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Bulloch, then in his first season as Lake Gibson's running backs coach, had seen Powell's speed as a cornerback and asked to have the senior moved to running back. He remembers the first play Powell ran in practice — "54 zone" — on which he took off through the No. 1 defense. His first game as a running back, he rushed for 291 yards and five touchdowns.
His one year at running back showed enough to land him scholarship offers from major programs. He chose Louisville, and much the same way, he has emerged during his senior season.
If Powell scores a touchdown Tuesday — he has 13 this season — he'll put his right hand to his heart then point to the heavens, a sign of the faith he found with the Bullochs' help.
Most people who have known him only in college have little understanding of the transformation that has taken place.
"He went from being one of the most feared guys on the streets to one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet," said Brodie, who played at Lake Gibson with Powell and hopes to walk-on at USF in the spring.
Powell and Brodie quickly became inseparable, to the point they consider themselves brothers.
"Everywhere I went, he was right there with me. Everywhere he went, I was right there with him, always," Brodie said. "All I had known was he was a wild child, had been in gangs, would fight like every weekend. And he slept 6 or 7 feet away (from me) in my room. The first couple of nights were a little nerve-wracking. … We've been extremely close ever since."
The Bullochs don't want credit for who Powell has become.
"We just gave him the environment to grow," Julie said. "He made the decision to change. You can give someone the best environment, but if they don't want it, it's not going to happen."
There were rules for Powell to stay in their home as there have been for the other kids.
"What's a curfew?" he asked, learning he had to be home at 10 on school nights, 11 on weekends unless he had permission.
He couldn't go back to his old neighborhood except on weekends, and then, he had to stay with his mother at all times. No cussing, no drugs or alcohol and he had chores.
"You took an inner-city street kid and put him on a ranch; fish out of water and into the frying pan," said Rusty, 48, a retired youth pastor who shoes horses by trade.
Rusty wore a black cowboy hat, camouflage shirt and jeans last Sunday, having just finished presiding over the "cowboy church" service that precedes the rodeo in Lakeland.
Powell doesn't do interviews with the media. Rusty says the silence reflects his humility and a reluctance to have the spotlight focused on him and not his teammates.
Powell has rushed for 1,330 yards this season, 10th in the nation. And among the top 10, his 6.3 yards per carry are second only to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
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Powell isn't the only Louisville player who has called the Bulloch ranch home.
Redshirt freshman Champ Lee, a cornerback from Lake Gibson who has played sparingly this season, is Powell's cousin and spent his senior year, 2008-09, there after his mother died. USF junior defensive end Claude Davis, another Lake Gibson graduate, lived there during the same year as Powell.
"It made me stronger, helped me deal with a lot of adversity, showed me a lot," Davis said. "I learned a lot from that experience. And Bilal has taught me a lot, too. How he changed his life over. He's a good role model. I wish him the best because he deserves it, coming from where he came from, and the Bullochs helped us both."
Their message to the young players was to use football to get a college degree.
"Football is your ticket to an education," Julie said. "If you're fortunate enough to get to the next step, amazing. If not, you have an education, something to fall back on."
This is a homecoming for Powell, but he'll be back in the spring for a bigger occasion: his wedding at the Bullochs' ranch. Rusty will officiate.
"Knowing that he's coming back here (for the game), that he's reached the level that he's reached and him being so humble about it," Rusty said, "it's going to be a great day. And it's even greater that he gets to come here the next day."
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Powell's mother, Stephanie, is as surprised as she is excited to see her son excelling — on the football field, in the classroom and in life. She's not done being proud of his high school diploma, so the thought of a college degree in May is incredible.
"I'm very proud of him," she said. "I didn't think he was going to make it this far. I look back, and he's become a respectful, nice, pleasant person. Everybody says how much he's changed, and I'm so proud of that. I'm just overwhelmed with joy."
The Bullochs appreciate that their story reminds many of last year's Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side, but they bristle at the notion they've brought anyone into their home with the hopes of raising a pro football player for their own benefit.
"He owes us a lot. He owes us a lot of love," Rusty said. "That's all we expect. To know that in six months, he could be basically a millionaire? Oh, my gosh. What more do you want for your kids?"