Quarterback’s Re-emergence a Matter of Heart
By THAYER EVANS
Published: November 28, 2008
ABILENE, Tex. — As a young quarterback at Tulane in 2002, Billy Don Malone developed a reputation as a first-round N.F.L. talent. His future was considered so secure that his coach called him C.E., for the contract extension that Malone would surely earn him.
Billy Don Malone was a top prospect in high school. He turned down colleges like Texas and Tennessee to sign with Tulane.
But a heart problem ended Malone’s career at Tulane before it ever really got off the ground, sending him into a downward spiral. He left the university with a grade point average below 1.5 and with what he later acknowledged was a marijuana habit. He soon found himself milking cows on an 800-acre dairy farm while living with his mother in Paris, Tex.
Six years later, Malone — the quarterback with the cannon arm and a 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame — has re-emerged as a pro prospect. He is 25, married with two children and is turning heads from an unlikely place on the rolling plains of West Texas: Abilene Christian University.
Malone has led the Wildcats to an 11-0 record and a final regular-season ranking of No. 2 in N.C.A.A. Division II. During his team’s record-shattering 93-68 victory last Saturday against No. 9 West Texas A&M in a second-round playoff game, he passed for 383 yards and 6 touchdowns. Abilene Christian plays Northwest Missouri State in a quarterfinal Saturday.
That added to Malone’s almost mythical status in Texas, where dozens of N.F.L. scouts have visited Abilene Christian’s campus of 4,800 students to see him play.
“I knew when he left we would hear from him again,” said Chris Scelfo, the former coach at Tulane who is now an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons. “I didn’t know where, when or how.”
Malone’s winding path from the verge of stardom to the 4 a.m. starts on the farm to a potential N.F.L career is, literally, a matter of heart. In March 2005, a doctor in Dallas cleared his heart for the rigors of football. From there, he has shown enough metaphoric heart to have gone from hating the sport to thriving in it. He has passed for 2,944 yards and 34 touchdowns this season, with just six interceptions, and leads Division II in passing efficiency.
Everything changed for him on Sept. 19, 2004, when he was eating cereal and watching a television documentary. The program sent his mind racing, and he said his heart began to beat so rapidly that he dropped his cereal on the floor. He said he thought he was going to die.
He walked to Ashley, his girlfriend at the time, who called for his mother in another room.
“You could see his heart beating through his chest,” Rhonda Malone said in a telephone interview.
After stepping outside for fresh air, Malone said, he returned inside and threw up. He then asked to be taken to a hospital. On the way there, he confessed his misdeeds, like smoking marijuana, to his mother.
“I was just telling her that I was a bad person,” Malone said.
He was examined and told that he was O.K.
But within a week, he said, he dedicated his life to God at Victorious Life Church in Paris and married Ashley.
Soon after, Ashley’s grandfather saw all of Malone’s awards from high school and suggested that he try football again. They prayed about it, and a former high school coach of Malone’s, then at Abilene Christian, gave him a call that December.
It was a much more humble position than he was in after his celebrated high school career, when he was among the nation’s most coveted quarterback prospects.
Malone verbally committed to the University of Texas the summer before his senior season. He rescinded his pledge in December 2001, less than a month before another talented quarterback from Texas, Vince Young, announced he would sign with the Longhorns.
Malone said he withdrew his commitment because Texas Coach Mack Brown had discouraged him from visiting Tulane, which was recruiting his brother, Gary. The brothers graduated from Paris North Lamar High School in 2002, and their mother wanted them to play together in college.
In February 2002, Malone passed on nearly a dozen programs, including Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana State, to sign with Tulane.
During his freshman season, he redshirted behind quarterback J. P. Losman, who went on to become a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 2004 draft. Yet he immediately made his presence known.
Scelfo said Malone was the best freshman quarterback he had ever been around, including Losman and other players who made it to the N.F.L., like Chad Pennington, Patrick Ramsey and Quincy Carter. Scelfo was fired by Tulane in 2006, which would have been Malone’s redshirt senior year.
Malone’s vast talent still stands out to his former Tulane teammates.
“He had all the tools,” Losman said in a telephone interview. “He had the size. He had the heart, which was probably the key. He was a very tough guy. He had the arm. He had the smarts. He understood football.”
But the temptations of New Orleans got in the way. Malone said he began binge drinking occasionally in 2003. Then his heart started bothering him from what he thought was acid reflux. He said he went to see a local doctor, who told him he had an abnormal kink in his left coronary artery and that he could not play football anymore.
Tulane refused to let him step back on the field.
So he stopped attending classes and his carousing increased.
“With all due respect, it not just crushed him, but I think he quit and gave up,” Losman said. “He was very frustrated with life in general. He started reverting back to his older ways.”
That summer, Malone was arrested and charged for his part in a fight that sent two men to a hospital in Paris. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case.
He returned to Tulane on scholarship as a part-time student in the fall of 2003. He initially helped out with football but stopped attending practices and games.
He said he smoked marijuana for the first time in November 2003 in a Tulane dorm room and continued the habit a few times weekly, mostly with Green Wave football players. It was a common activity among the players, he said, and a few of them even used a prosthetic device filled with clean urine to pass drug tests.
Malone was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence in December 2003 and received deferred adjudication. That spring, he visited Tennessee with the idea of transferring, but he said he never heard back from the Volunteers after taking a drug test.
Once spring classes ended in 2004, Malone intended to attend the summer session at Tulane, but he ended up staying in Paris and never returned to pick up his belongings. He departed having not even completed 24 credit hours in two years.
He was living with his mother when he got the job at a nearby farm owned by the father of friends. He drove a tractor and worked with the cows.
“He caught on real fast in whatever we needed done,” said Irby Winston, the farm’s owner.
Malone would sometimes throw a football with Winston’s sons, who complained that it hurt to catch his passes.
“I knew he wasn’t done with football,” Winston said. “It’s just what he was made to do.”
That summer, Malone reunited with Ashley, his high school girlfriend, and she became pregnant. He said he also continued smoking marijuana.
Then, in September, he experienced his religious awakening. He said he stopped smoking marijuana. And not long after, he received some welcome news: Dr. Eric Eichhorn, a cardiologist in Dallas, cleared Malone to play football again in March 2005.
“The kink, even though it was there, was not functionally important,” Eichhorn said in a telephone interview. “He was able to exercise at a high level without having any chest pain or shortness of breath or anything else.”
Malone went to Texas A&M University-Commerce, less than an hour from Paris, to retake classes he had failed at Tulane. Then he opened the 2005 season as Abilene Christian’s starting quarterback.
He truly blossomed in 2006, when he passed for 3,136 yards and 27 touchdown passes with six interceptions while leading Abilene Christian to its first Division II playoff appearance. Last season, he threw for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdown passes with 14 interceptions.
“He’s been the glue of this thing,” Abilene Christian Coach Chris Thomsen said. “He’s got unbelievable passion. This program has grown up around him.”
Malone is projected as a second-day pick for the N.F.L. draft in April, but he is ascending on teams’ draft boards in what could be a weak quarterback class, said Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive and an analyst for NFL.com.
These days, Ashley works as a radiology technician at a local hospital to help support the couple. She gave birth to their second daughter in late October, a milestone that Malone missed because of a road game. They named their daughter Criss, after Thomsen.
“I don’t regret anything that happened,” Malone said. “It all happened for a reason.”