Ex-Dallas Cowboy Troy Hambrick seeks redemption after leaving prison

Troy Hambrick played for the Dallas Cowboys before going to prison for dealing crack. Getty Images (2001)
Troy Hambrick played for the Dallas Cowboys before going to prison for dealing crack.Getty Images (2001)
Published February 22 2012
Updated February 23 2012

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 cocaine 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. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped other charges for cocaine deals that had originated in Dallas.

Authorities knocked 18 months off his time because he entered a drug treatment program. He left prison last March but spent six months in a Tampa halfway house. 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.'' Even today, 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 where players shared equipment and took buses instead of planes.

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.

"Away from the field, I had no discipline,'' he said. "There was so much money and all that comes with being a Dallas Cowboy. I couldn't resist the temptations. I started gambling. I wasted so much money and so much time. I also thought this would last for 12 years.''

It didn't. Dallas traded him to Arizona for one last season in 2004. He injured his foot, and the Cardinals released him. 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 cocaine.

Hambrick remembers getting the call from federal agents, 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 seemed especially optimistic. He considered that Hambrick had no previous record. He knew Hambrick was married and had four young daughters. "I know you are the type of person who will regain your rightful place with your family, your friends and your community,'' the judge said.

Those words still resonate.

While in prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., Hambrick spent any free time working on a business plan. He knew it would take some serious forgiving and somebody to take a chance on him, but he also thought, "Who better to help people keep from making these same mistakes?''

He formed a nonprofit business, if only on paper: Bricking the Gap.

"We have so many gaps in our community,'' he said. "We have to find a way to plug them.''

He wrote letters to celebrities like Tony Dungy and Michael Vick, recounting his life story and asking for advice. No replies. And when he knew he was leaving prison, he boxed up all his papers and sent them to his mother's home in Lacoochee. The box arrived in tatters, his papers ruined.

"But that's okay,'' he said pointing to his head. "I have it all up here.''

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.''