Where did it all go wrong?
Elizabeth Merrill [ARCHIVE]
December 18, 2012
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They left for college on an early summer day, bound for a five-story dormitory on Blossom Street. It seemed fitting that Columbia, S.C., is called The City of Dreams. The freshmen at East Quad came early because they couldn't wait to be stars. One was all-county, another all-state, and the third ran so fast he could've been an Olympian. Who knows if they were nervous, or if they felt the eyes and hopes of their hometowns following them all the way to the University of South Carolina. One thing seemed true: These were three of the finest receivers in the country in the Class of 2005, and they could not fail.

Carlos Thomas was the first to drop his bags, dreadlocked and full of cocksure. The four-star recruit did just about everything with his shoes untied. His dad hugged him, said goodbye and told his youngest boy to focus. Thomas was concerned with just one thing that summer of 2005: himself. But soon, he would care just as deeply about his roommates at East Quad.

Teammates would come to call Thomas, Kenny McKinley and O.J. Murdock the Three Amigos, and it was surprising how they bonded so quickly. When one of them picked a fight with a 315-pound lineman, the other two freshmen jumped into the scrum. "Brothers stick together," Thomas said.

That first night on campus, none of them could sleep. They sat in the living room of their four-bedroom dorm suite and made plans. To take over the football program. To make it to the NFL together, three first-round picks from the University of South Carolina.

Then they walked out into the night, through the courtyards, past the palmettos and pines. It was 3 a.m.; they were strong and naive and 18 years old. Time didn't matter. They had no way of knowing that time already was running out.

It's just after lunch hour on an autumn day in Atlanta, and Carlos Thomas agrees to meet at a Red Lobster near his gym. The dreadlocks are gone -- those were part of his younger days -- and his nonchalant swagger has been replaced by a purposeful gait.

He's 25 and married now, to a girl he's known since elementary school. They're thinking about having kids but it's tough. He spends nearly half the year playing football in Canada; she's at their home in Atlanta. The CFL was supposed to be a quick detour, but now it's a long interstate stretching out four years.

His NFL dream dims with each year that passes, and Thomas, a cornerback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, knows that. But he spends most days rehabbing his shoulder and training for another shot. "I know that's where I belong," Thomas says.

He spent a spring and summer in 2009 with the San Francisco 49ers, made it through training camp, and when Thomas got an interception in a preseason victory over the Oakland Raiders, he thought for sure he'd made the team. He was cut a week later. Thomas believes, in his heart, that he's so close and just needs one break.

The waitress comes, and Thomas orders scallops, shrimp, lobster and a piece of cheesecake, which he eats first. He pokes a fork through his food and leaves nearly half of it.

Where does he start? How do you sum up friendships and dreams and what life does to them? What Thomas had with Murdock and McKinley is rare, he says. Maybe it's the kind of friendship that he'll never have again, the kind that comes only in college, when dreams are young and life is uncomplicated.

"Our first night ... that kind of brought us together," Thomas says. "I was like, 'OK, these are the boys I'm going to ride and die with through my college career.'"

They were part of Steve Spurrier's first recruiting class at South Carolina, one that still goes down as possibly his best. There was so much potential that year, so much fun to be had. They'd sneak out on Friday nights before game day, clubbing all night, slinking back to the team hotel just before wake-up call. And then they'd run routes in those games, bodies be damned, flying off talent and fumes.

There was no pressure back then. Freshmen aren't supposed to carry a team, so whatever good came their way was gravy.

Everything after that got complicated. This is what Thomas has a harder time talking about, so he generally doesn't.

"I'm fine, you know," he says. "I haven't asked myself why. Why they did what they did.

"We came in together, but now I'm the only one left."

Their dorm suite was surprisingly orderly and clean. Had their parents popped in for a surprise visit, they might have been convinced that McKinley, Murdock and Thomas were perfect roommates. In theory, it made sense to house them together. They were all receivers, so they'd be in the same meetings and run the same drills. Maybe they'd study their playbooks together.

In reality, it was as unproductive as all-day recess.

The team had summer conditioning workouts each morning, bright and early, and McKinley, Murdock and Thomas slept through all of them their first week on campus. After a few days of this, assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr. had had enough. He went to their rooms, woke them up and barked something to the effect of, "This ain't no summer vacation."

The boys laughed after he left. Knuckleheads. That's what they were freshman year. They worked hard but seemed unfocused. They wanted big things but didn't want to sacrifice their fun.

When they finally hit the practice field that fall, McKinley, the least ballyhooed of the three, showed flashes of being a star. Perhaps the recruiting gurus didn't expect it from a 150-pound high school quarterback with the nickname of "Skinny McKinley." But the people of Austell, Ga., did. No one at South Cobb High was tougher than McKinley. He refused to let his high school career end until seven overtimes, when he couldn't do any more in a 70-68 loss. McKinley cried that day, which was kind of a surprise. The happy-go-lucky kid was hardly ever seen without a blinding smile. There's a picture of him on signing day senior year that ran in the local paper. He's wearing a black suit and red tie, cracking a joke to the kid next to him, who's laughing hysterically.

McKinley weighed 130 pounds as a high school freshman, and even then, South Cobb offensive coordinator Derek Cook knew he was going to be something. He took him up to the press box for the varsity opener so McKinley could see what the coach saw on Friday nights.

"He stepped out," Cook says, "and when he came back in, he had a plateful of chicken wings and he was getting after it. He had orange sauce all over his face and clothes. I'm sitting here trying to teach him something, and I'm going to have to give him a bath before we turn him loose with a clipboard."

The next week, McKinley was starting on varsity.

Whatever shenanigans took place that freshman year at South Carolina, they did nothing to sully the opinion of Kenny...
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