TUSCALOOSA | Gene Jelks had hoped to get through the day without being recognized.
There the former University of Alabama player was, wheeling pallets loaded with donations for Tuscaloosa's tornado disaster recovery efforts through the former Northport FoodMax that is now a temporary emergency services center, trying his best to feel normal.
"For a while there, I would have liked to have been in a disguise," Jelks said. "I want to be just a regular human doing a Christian act."
It was a dreary, rainy Friday morning, and Jelks was in Tuscaloosa for only the second time in 19 years. Even in one of college football's most passionate communities, most former Crimson Tide players, 20-plus years removed from their playing days and an out-of-state resident for nearly that long, could navigate a day in Tuscaloosa without too many 'Hey-I-Remember-You's.'
Some might miss that sort of adulation.
Almost 20 years ago, after a brief pro football career failed to sustain, the Gadsden native rocked the entire state with allegations against Alabama of receiving cash payments, potentially serious NCAA violations. It was a decision that cast Jelks out of favor with former teammates and fans alike. And the revelation that followed - that Jelks had also accepted 28 checks totaling nearly $37,000 to make the allegations from what Jelks described as "Auburn people" - decimated his standing with the Alabama Nation even more.
Over the weekend, Jelks was in town to volunteer to help tornado victims, and to speak to a church congregation about his mistakes, his trials and his eventual redemption. Jelks credits Noel Humphrey, pastor at Truth Seekers International in Atlanta, and the brother of former UA star running back - and Jelks' teammate - Bobby Humphrey,with helping him process what he calls "nineteen years of guilt and shame."
"Growing up with Bobby and Gene, I looked up to them and still do. I saw them as icons and I wanted to be like that," Noel Humphrey said.
"Now, I'm pastoring, and he's under my counselship and under the tutelage of me, and it's kind of weird."
Today, Jelks owns the mistakes of his past. His motivation at the time is all that he wants to clarify.
"I needed (the money) to feed my family and myself, and I took it. It was wrong," Jelks said. "It was not purposely to hurt the University of Alabama."
What Jelks quickly realized when the explosive controversy peaked, however, was that many teammates and fans would fail to see the difference. Setting foot in Alabama, much less Tuscaloosa, was anything but comfortable. He moved to Atlanta, but the heat coming from Tuscaloosa was so hot, a three-hour drive wasn't far enough away.
There were low points that included a physical altercation with former Alabama assistant coach Jerry Pullen, who had been named in Jelks' allegations, and death threats.
Jelks moved to California for six years, he said, to help secure his personal safety. He later moved back to Atlanta, but was never comfortable coming much closer than that.
Count Charlie Dare among those who felt betrayed and bitter when Jelks' allegations, and the payments for them, came to light. The former UA offensive lineman, who once blocked for Jelks, said he knows there are some former teammates that may never embrace Jelks.
He isn't one of them.
"What we have here is a broken man," said Dare. "What I see is that he's not the same man he was when he did what he did."
Dare worked alongside Jelks at the old Northport FoodMax throughout the day on Friday, and at one point, even joked with him about whether he would be needed to block for him during his interaction with the locals. It was the first time the two have interacted since their playing days, and Dare wasn't quite sure what to expect.
When bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen spent a day in Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks ago, some criticized him for making the trip more for image-repair than out of sincerity. Dare sized up Jelks with some of the same curiosity, but came away convinced.
"It wasn't a photo opportunity. We stayed and we continued to work and sweat, and he was right there with me," Dare said. "I was looking. I'm checking him out as we're going through the day, because I don't want to be fooled either. It's time to forgive Gene Jelks."
After volunteering throughout the day, Dare drove Jelks through some of Tuscaloosa's most weather-torn areas, such as Alberta and 15th Street. Jelks began calling former teammates that hadn't yet seen the damage, calling on them to help the victims.
"It's beyond my comprehension right now," Jelks said.
One of the teammates he called was Kerry Goode, who had an encouraging hand in Jelks' first trip to Tuscaloosa since the controversy. It came last August at a reunion for UA players of the Ray Perkins coaching era. Goode convinced Jelks to attend, and before Jelks arrived, it was Goode who spoke to the assembled former players and asked them to embrace a teammate who needed re-acceptance.
"Kerry was the spokesperson to soften their hearts," Jelks said.
"He was very reluctant, of course," Goode said. "I told him, 'A lot of these guys just want to look you in the eye and talk to you, and see what was going on in your life at that time.' … If they didn't warm up to him, I guess they just didn't approach him. But I didn't see anyone that was negative. Everyone I saw came up and shook his hand and hugged him. He was very excited. His spirit was lifted."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.