COLUMBIA — As soon as that foreign door in that New Orleans neighborhood swung open and Brian Coulter saw them, the tears finally came. Prompted by painful memories of his past, they pushed free all the mixed emotions that would take a lifetime to sort out.
Antwan and Leslie, his siblings, the toddlers he'd been responsible for before he was even 10 years old, now stood as teenagers in the living room. Forced into separate foster homes when Coulter was only 9, he'd had only sporadic contact with them since they had been adopted by a new family, and no contact at all in nearly a decade.
As he crossed the threshold, it was obvious that pre-teen Brian Coulter was long gone. He wasn't that quiet boy who sat in the back of the classroom anymore. The man who walked through that door commanded the attention of everyone in the room, his broad shoulders collecting tearful hugs as he made his way towards the couch.
This was a football player, one good enough to play for Missouri, a Big 12 title contender who would enter 2008 ranked in the top 10.
But, for a few hours, he was just a big brother.
So finally, they sat. And they talked.
Coulter's story goes beyond recruiting phone calls and stories of coaches doubting his abilities to perform in the classroom. The junior defensive end is what can happen when a kid who just needs someone to care doesn't slip through the cracks.
Antwan and Leslie asked questions they had waited their whole lives to ask. Coulter answered them, taking on the role of historian to tell them about the world they'd left behind, a world Brian knew all too well, but had also escaped.
"My little sister doesn't remember our mom at all," Coulter said. "For her to ask me stuff like, ‘Does she (Coulter's sister) have a mama?' or ‘Did her mama love her?' or ‘How did her mama look?' hurt me a lot to talk about."
As they sat in the living room, Coulter told them his story. The places he's been, the people he's met. All the bad breaks that, because of a few outstretched hands, weren't as bad as they could have been.
Highly recruited out of high school, academic issues forced Coulter to play two years in junior college and sit out a year before he finally get a chance to suit up for a major college team. The 6-4, 250-pound specimen wowed coaches with speed more likely to be found on a defensive back, and in summer workouts, it was clear he had the physical tools to play at any level.
"I knew eventually my time would come," Coulter said.
The hype spread to fans, who logged onto Missouri message boards and, between pasting headshots of Coulter above Superman's body and creating countless other Photoshop creations, discussed what "Count Sackula" could do for a team that led the Big 12 in total defense in 2007.
A simple search of the word "Coulter" on the popular Missouri message board Tigerboard.com delivers 50 pages of results.
On the field, though, "The Coultergeist" didn't deliver.
A chronic foot injury led to a preseason tumble down the depth chart.
After the injury healed and he finally earned some playing time, he made a pair of costly mistakes in the Tigers' two losses, a roughing the punter penalty against Oklahoma State, and a roughing the passer penalty against Texas.
"I just felt really mad at the world," Coulter said. "Stuff like that happens, and then you've gotta come back, you gotta answer to the public, see what people write up about you. It was real frustrating."
Junior All-Big 12 Conference linebacker Sean Weatherspoon reached out to the newcomer. When Coulter finally made it to Columbia, it was Weatherspoon and sophomore receiver Jeremy Maclin who let him live in their extra room for the summer. Weatherspoon and Coulter met on his first visit to Missouri, and the two immediately clicked.
"When those things happened, he was always the guy to get me to cool down, to just let it go," Coulter said.
It wasn't until the Tigers returned home to face Colorado that Coulter's time would come.
A helping hand
Outside the Baker High practice field, Mitch Jackson drove away after picking up his nephew from football practice. In that middle-class suburb of Baton Rouge, he saw that lonely kid on the curb waiting for his group home's van to come pick him up. One day the van was particularly late, and Jackson extended a hand, telling Coulter if he ever needed anything, to call him. He would hear the stories soon enough. But for now, Coulter was just that kid on the curb. Weeks later, Coulter accepted Jackson's offer to be that kid upstairs.
"He was a kid I always watched," Jackson said. "I just knew this was someone who needed some help."
And just like that, Coulter finally had a real father, and Jackson had a son. And as the years passed, Coulter told him those stories.
He would tell him how, on that Sunday morning, Coulter's father came to pick him up for church. He would hear how the night before, his parents had fought, and his mother left to stay with Coulter's grandma. How the next morning's encore escalated so quickly. How his daddy got violent. How his mama grabbed a gun from somewhere. How, in a flash, Brian didn't have a daddy anymore. And, perhaps worst of all, how he was 10 before a psychologist accidentally told Brian that his daddy didn't really live in Atlanta.
Coulter says the shooting was in self-defense, and his mother was arrested but did no jail time for the crime.
"When you're brought up in that type of environment, you really haven't seen that better side of life," Coulter said. "You kind of know it ain't right, and things ain't supposed to be like this, but at the same time, you think that this really is the way things are supposed to be. You just don't know nothing else."
With his new family, Coulter could forget all that. He played video games, enjoyed barbecues with his new family, kept his room clean. Normal things. And never found trouble, even when those around him did. according to Jackson.
"Some other guys might go out to a club or something, go do all that," said Rosalie Jackson, Mitch Jackson's wife. "He never did though. He's never liked being around a lot of people. He just wasn't that kind of person."
Of course, it's not like he's never been accused of being that kind of person.
"People kind of judge you by the way you dress or by the car you drive or whatever, but my life was always kind of laid back," Coulter said with a mouth that features a gold-and-diamond encrusted grill that covers the bottom row of his teeth. "Even on homecoming, everybody thought I'd go out, but I just went home and went straight to sleep."
After the death of Brian's father, Coulter's mother never really returned home. She was there physically, but a drug habit reduced her to what amounted to a part-time babysitter. It was 9-year-old Coulter's responsibility to care for Antwan and Leslie, both still in diapers.
"I kind of thought that was what life was supposed to be like," Coulter said. "Now that I'm older, I wouldn't wish that kind of life upon nobody."
Before too long, Louisiana got involved.
His brother and sister were sent to a foster home, and eventually adopted by their foster family in New Orleans.
Coulter spent the next five years with Elizabeth Merrity, his first real home.
"I just remember, he was the most cheerful little boy," Merrity said.
It wasn't long before Merrity saw something was wrong with that new bright-eyed boy that had come to live with her.
For school one day, Coulter had to write an essay. He retreated to his room to compose it, and awhile later, came out and read it to Granny. Impressed, she suggested he read it to Granny's daughter, who also liked it, but suggested they sit down and make some corrections.
"We asked him to show us the paper to correct it, but when he did, it was just a blank sheet," Merrity said.
Without parents that made sure Brian did his schoolwork, Coulter hadn't learned how to read or write.
"Brian's mother was a smart woman, an educated woman," Merrity said. "I think, with all that happened, she just couldn't take being a mother anymore."
Merrity focused on helping Brian learn, and by junior high, he had caught up to his classmates.
Although Coulter refers to Merrity as "Granny," the two's relationship is more like mother and son. Almost daily phone conversations are common. Girls, school, friends or football, if it's going on in Coulter's life, Merrity knows about it. Before they hang up the phone, though, Merrity makes sure Coulter knows one thing. She'll be there for him. Always, no matter what.
Coulter last saw his mother before Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of millions on the Gulf Coast. Merrity was forced to move to Houston. Coulter's mother, Mary, hasn't been seen by the family since. Coulter says he doesn't have plans to try and contact her until he at least graduates.
"I don't know where she's at or what she's doing, I just pray to God she's okay," Coulter said. "Hopefully, you know, she's watching the games or going on the Internet and reading up on me, and she'll know that I'm okay."
This wasn't the same Brian Coulter who Tiger fans had cursed at through their TV screens a week earlier. With starter Tommy Chavis out with an injured ankle, Coulter was finally getting a chance to showcase his skills for more than a few plays at a time.
On a punt return, he put unsuspecting Colorado offensive lineman Justin Drescher on his back. By halftime, he had three tackles, two for losses.
And then it happened.
On a third-and-10 midway through the third quarter, Coulter toyed with Nate Solder, the Buffaloes left tackle. Quick off the line, he pushed Solder into the backfield, then swam his way inside toward an unsuspecting Tyler Hansen. He wrapped his arms around the quarterback, and refused to let go until both bodies hit the ground.
Count Sackula had earned his cape.
Back in Louisiana, the Jackson living room morphed into a mob scene. The same Coulter who Mitch Jackson's 14-year-old daughter Miracle sought to emulate by wearing his No. 2 on her school's volleyball team, the Jackson's Brian, had his first sack.
Nearly 300 miles away in Houston, the Merrity roar nearly shook the whole house. Granny had her whole family, Coulter's family, over to watch that little boy with that unforgettable smile chase those quarterbacks.
Maybe, somewhere, Mama got to see her Brian.
But those thoughts were for another time, another day.
Back on the field, Coulter was mobbed by his teammates, including Weatherspoon and his roommate, Jaron Baston.
In the middle of that huddled throng of shoulder pads and helmets, Coulter's index finger rose above all else around it. Straining to reach the sky, a celebration. For Mama. For God. For Granny. For Mitch.
Leaving home behind
It took Coulter years to summon the courage to drive to that house in New Orleans. The questions raced through his mind every day. Would Antwan and Leslie blame him for what happened? What would their new parents think of him? What would he think of them now?
Granny came with him, but when it came time to ring that doorbell, only Coulter stood on the doorstep.
"One day I just said, ‘Forget it,'" Coulter said. "I didn't care what was going to happen."
And as Coulter sat on that living room couch answering their questions, the answers to his own became clear.
Finally, it was time to go. The slow saunter to the door was littered with hugs. Two steps towards that doorknob, one step back for another hug. Finally, he stepped through the threshold and shut the door behind him.