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Tracy Fells never made it to the NFL. A lot of folks who saw him play when he was an all-everything defensive end for T.C. Williams High School assumed he would.

But, as things turned out, Fells’ football career peaked with the Titans in the 1987 season, when he led the school to its last state championship. The Hampton Crabbers had first and goal in the last minute of the game, but the defense Fells captained mounted a goal-line stand that secured the 10-6 win and the title for T.C.

Fells had a scholarship at Grambling State waiting for him. He never even made it to a college gridiron, however, let alone the pros. The only football Fells played after high school was flag football. In prison leagues.

“Flag football is real big here,” says Fells, calling from Beaumont Federal Corrections Complex in Beaumont, Texas. “That’s the big thing all over the prison system. You get a chance to run into the people you like or don’t like.”

Fells, now 34, has been on a lot of different flag-football teams since his 1989 conviction on federal drug charges related to an arrest for selling crack in Alexandria. Beaumont is his 10th prison. He’s left all the other government-subsidized residences in the same fashion: “Out the back door in handcuffs,” he says.

But when Fells leaves Beaumont, a minimum-security outpost, it will be through the front door, with no cuffs. According to the Bureau of Prisons, he’s slated to be out in September 2006. He admits he was “a bad guy” when he was younger and that he’s guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. But he thinks he should have been out of jail a long time ago.

There’s never been a good time to become a street drug dealer in the eyes of the law, but Fells’ timing, and choice of product to retail, couldn’t have been worse. The U.S. government was on an anti-cocaine high in the late ’80s, and in 1989, it launched a full-scale military attack on Panama to make a drug bust on Manuel Noriega. Further intolerance accompanied the mandatory sentencing laws for cocaine distribution that were being forced upon judges by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Football potential, like environmental factors and youth, wasn’t taken into consideration when Congress decided which punishments fit drug crimes. For his offenses alone, mandatory sentencing called for Fells to spend at least 10 years in prison.

He got 20.

“A message has to be sent to crack dealers,” said Judge James C. Cacheris, pronouncing sentence in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Fells appealed his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court. Among his arguments was that the government had bumped up his prison term illegally. Cacheris came at the 20-year sentence by using a rule in the mandatory sentencing guidelines that calls for stiffer penalties—a “four level adjustment”—for those individuals deemed to be “an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five or more persons.” To get the additional years, the court counted not only Fells himself, but the two law-enforcement officers working undercover when he was busted.

“I wasn’t asking for any favors,” Fells says. “I was just saying, ‘Follow the law!’”

Then-U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr directed the government’s case in the appeal. Starr’s report contended that Fells’ sentence should stand despite the counting of the police officers, because the trial record showed that the defendant had sold cocaine to 17 people who were not necessarily the “end users” of the drug. None of the 17 people were named during the trial or brought before the court during the case.

In June 1991, the Supreme Court declined to hear Fells’ appeal.

Parole is not permitted under the sentencing guidelines. With all the time his crimes and noncooperation with authorities brought him, Fells has had a lot of opportunity to reflect on everything that left him at the mercy of the courts. He says he thinks an awful lot about his family and his old school, and has yet to find anybody to blame but himself.

He cared too much about good clothes, he now sees, and went the wrong way in getting the money needed to buy them. And he realizes things could have turned out better for him if he’d listened to his mother and his coaches. He’s particularly fond of Bill Yoast, the Titans assistant coach immortalized in the movie Remember the Titans.

“My mother never even had a traffic violation before, so I got no excuse saying I didn’t have proper homing,” Fells says. “You pick the wrong side, you end up here. And as many bad hands as I had reaching out for me in the streets, I had good hands, in teachers and coaches, reaching out for me, also. But nobody was there for me like Bill Yoast. I remember he gave me this warning in the 10th grade. I was being promoted and publicized, and he kept saying, ‘Just take it slow. Take it slow.’ He was always there for anybody who had problems. You can brush off an old white guy: ‘He doesn’t know where I’ve been, how I struggled.’ But Bill Yoast was different. I can’t put it into words, but it was like he was here before. I didn’t listen.”

Fells still follows the Titans, who went 1-9 this year and haven’t had a winning season in years. And he’s pretty sure he knows why the team has hit the skids.

“They’re losing all the kids to the private schools,” he says. “When I was coming up, T.C. had a nice pipeline to all the rec centers. The coaches were working at the junior highs, starting early to bring the kids in. That’s not going on anymore.”

When he gets out, Fells says, he’d like to do whatever he can to bring the school back to the glories it enjoyed with him at defensive end. He thinks he’s still got the leadership tools he had as a kid, the ones that came in handy on the football field but betrayed him on the streets.

“I’m going to do everything to stay out there,” he says. “I’d love to work with kids, tell them whatever you do, be responsible for it, and that there’s no need to bring other people down for your own faults. I took mine on the chin. I say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’” —Dave McKenna