MIAMI — The distance from Super Bowl XLIV's home, Sun Life Stadium, to the Transitions Recovery Program in North Miami Beach is about 9 miles.
Anthony Hargrove knows the road to recovery is much longer than that. That's why the Saints defensive tackle was standing in front of a room full of counselors and recovering addicts Tuesday afternoon.
"I can't believe nine months ago I was no different than you guys and now I'm playing in the Super Bowl," Hargrove told them. "It's all unbelievably exciting. But this means more to share with you all. You know why? Because this is life and death, and (the Super Bowl is) a game."
The rehabilitation center was Hargrove's home for 10 months after the NFL suspended him for the 2008 season. His return was full of hugs, handshakes and hope, his agent, Phil Williams, said.
A year ago, Hargrove paced the floor trying to keep busy during a Super Bowl party the program threw. The images that flashed on the television screen were painful reminders of what his romance with cocaine, marijuana and alcohol had taken from him.
He never dreamed that in 12 months he would return to the city as the "heart and soul" of a Saints team that would play the Colts for the NFL championship.
"I guess when you go through a period like that, when you're in treatment, you see so much," Hargrove, 26, said. "I saw death. I saw people just giving up on life. So you … say to yourself, 'I don't ever want to get to that point where I just give up on life or just throw in my cards and say I'm done with this.' So even when we're in a situation on the field when we're down, I'm always telling people, 'Listen, we can still do this. It's not over until it says zero, zero, zero, zero."
That Hargrove has been able to extend his life, let alone his career, is a testament to the hard truths he has faced about himself.
"Everybody has their own story," Hargrove said. "This is my story."
When he was 6, the Brooklyn, N.Y., housing unit where Hargrove and his mother, Rosa, and two of his half-siblings lived burned down. For the next three years, they were on the streets or popping in and out of homeless shelters and foster homes.
He barely knew his father, and after his mom died of AIDS when Hargrove was 9, he was adopted by an aunt who lived in Port Charlotte.
Sports always were Hargrove's outlet. He played quarterback and defensive back well enough to earn a scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he spent two seasons before becoming academically ineligible.
He worked odd jobs to support his two children before he met his agent, Williams, who convinced him to get back into playing shape.
Despite his brief collegiate career, Hargrove was drafted by the Rams in 2004's third round. He became a starter in his second year. But Hargrove didn't handle the money or fame well and resorted to his destructive habits.
He once disappeared for a few days on a cocaine binge and claims to have tried to kill himself once with sleeping pills. In 2006 the Rams traded Hargrove to the Bills, where he finished the season. During training camp the next year, he was involved in a nightclub incident. Then came a few failed drug tests, a four-game suspension and eventually banishment from the NFL.
"I was at a friend's house, and I walked past a mirror, and I went back and looked in the mirror, and the person I saw I didn't recognize," Hargrove said. "I was looking at myself wondering, 'What's going on.' I had dark eyes and was just looking bad, and I realized that I had to do something."
He gave God and rehab one chance to save him, starting his comeback at a facility in South Carolina. "Once I got there, I said, 'I'll give this three months,' " Hargrove said. "If I don't feel any better, if my life hasn't changed, I'm going back."
Hargrove completed the program and moved to Miami to continue at Transitions.
Williams began working on Hargrove's reinstatement to the league. He made a videotape of Hargrove answering tough questions and sent it to all 32 teams. The Saints were the only one that responded.
"I think it started with the face-to-face interview," Saints coach Sean Payton said of his meeting with Hargrove in May. "People in all walks of life at times can hit rock bottom or maybe exhaust their opportunities. There is part of us that wants to make sure you give someone a second chance, and it starts with evaluating the sincerity of someone eye to eye."
Hargrove quickly won over his teammates with sincerity and athletic ability. "He's fast for his size," said defensive end Will Smith. "I think he's the heart and soul of our team because he's the Energizer Bunny. He's always positive. I've never seen such a positive person. When you understand where he comes from, you'd say, 'Why is this guy, of all people, so positive?' "
Super Bowl week is full of temptations, and players such as the Raiders' Barret Robbins and the Bengals' Stanley Wilson have succumbed to their demons in the past. Hargrove has a plan to keep himself focused. He attended a meeting for recovering addicts Tuesday and has another scheduled Friday.
Hargrove said being back in Miami, staring at the sunset, made his journey seem purposeful.
"The hardest thing about being here, honestly, is the other people I see outside that can't come in," Hargrove said. "It's tough, because you sit here and wonder, 'Why aren't they here?' … It's unfair. Why have I been spared? Why have I been given this?
"I have no clue. But obviously, there's something more to this, and I can't be selfish any longer doing what I need to do."