Laremy Tunsil was to be the star of a perfect script. A humble, hard-working young man from a small town in rural Florida made football coaches’ jaws drop with the agility springing from his 6-foot, 5-inch, 310-pound body. He had become the most coveted athlete in the NFL Draft.
A left tackle, Tunsil did not play a glamour position. But his run-blocking and quarterback-protecting talent was irresistible. Draftniks who analyze the NFL’s annual commodities auction projected him as the No. 1 pick until a couple teams traded up to choose quarterbacks. Still, Tunsil, a University of Mississippi junior, was sure to be among the top handful of selections on the night he had been dreaming of since he was a kid in Lake City.
Then, the perfect script got torn apart. Just before the draft began, a video from Tunsil’s Twitter account went viral. The 30-second clip showed him wearing a black gas mask and inhaling a substance that appeared to be marijuana through a bong as smoke filled the screen and laughter is heard in the background.
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It was a goofy college prank. But in the NFL, where a positive test for marijuana is penalized with a suspension, the video put image-conscious teams worried about bad characters on red alert.
Tunsil felt like one of those defensive linemen he pancaked onto their backsides. His stock plummeted. The Miami Dolphins were giddily stunned when Tunsil was still available at No. 13. Left tackle was not a pressing priority but they couldn’t pass him up. After an agonizing wait that will cost him $10 million to $12 million in salary, Tunsil was a Dolphin.
Draft night drama wasn’t over, however, as the vengeful hacker posted old text messages from Tunsil’s Instagram account in which Tunsil asked an Ole Miss athletics administrator for money to pay his rent and his mother’s $305 utility bill. Another viral uproar.
Tunsil, flanked by his mother and siblings, smiled as he held up an aqua Dolphins jersey. But he was shaken by the news that a saboteur had humiliated him on national TV.
“Man, it was a mistake. It happened years ago,” Tunsil said of the bong hit during a press conference at the draft in Chicago. “I’m going to show everyone what type of person I am.”
When asked about the texts and payments from Ole Miss, Tunsil said: “I’d have to say yeah. Those were true. I made a mistake,” before he was abruptly ushered out of the interview area.
The consensus is that the Dolphins got the steal of the draft. Tunsil will start as a rookie and have an immediate impact on a franchise desperate to climb out of a 15-year malaise and revive a brand once known for the Perfect Season.
But who is the man behind the gas mask?
He can bench press 225 pounds 34 times but can he handle the heavy expectations that will be thrust upon him?
He can dunk a basketball but can he keep a low profile off the field now that he’s an instant multimillionaire?
Coaches and friends describe Tunsil, 21, as amiable, respectful, quiet, diligent, a perfectionist when it comes to what Tunsil calls his “craft” as an offensive lineman. He hates to lose, whether he’s playing an NFL or NBA video game, a pickup basketball game or allowing a sack.
But he’s also been in the middle of controversies — including an arrest for a fight with his stepfather and an NCAA suspension for accepting favors — that gave NFL teams pause.
Tunsil is devoted to his mother, Desiree Polingo, a former prison nurse who enjoyed cooking sweet potato and pecan pies. She raised him and his siblings as a single mom. Money was tight in the small, aging house behind the Lake City hospital. She and Tunsil’s stepfather moved to Oxford, Mississipi, in 2014 to be closer to Tunsil and his younger brother, Alex Weber, who is an Ole Miss wide receiver.
“I can put Laremy’s motivation in one word: Mom,” said Fahn Cooper, an Ole Miss O-linemate who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. “Some guys do it for the money, some guys do it for the attention, some guys do it because they think they’re God’s gift to football. Laremy does it for his mother.”
Tunsil’s lawyer, Steve Farese, said he would be proud to have Tunsil as a son.
“Kids make mistakes,” Farese said. “You go to college, you experiment, you grow up. If everyone who has ever used marijuana voted for me, I’d be the next president.”
At Ole Miss, in the heart of Southeastern Conference territory where football is king, players are under relentless scrutiny, Farese said.
“What happened to Laremy is a sign of the times,” he said. “It’s a new world because of social media. Everyone is a paparazzi.”
At Lake City Columbia High school — located between Jacksonville and Tallahassee and not far from the Georgia border in a country town that originated as a Seminole settlement called Alligator Village — Tunsil was a model student-athlete with a 3.0 grade point average, said Doug Peeler, the athletic director, offensive line coach and history teacher.
“He was always in a good mood, always ‘Yes, sir, yes ma’am,’ never one to party on the weekends — not that there’s a whole lot to do here — but he’d rather stay home and play Xbox,” Peeler said. “South Florida will absolutely love this guy. I promise you won’t have any trouble with Laremy Tunsil.”
Columbia head coach Brian Allen, a former Florida State and NFL player, recalled how Tunsil attacked a killer workout called “The Beast” that required players to run both sides of the stadium steps, plus do bear crawls, pushups, situps and crab walks in the scalding heat of summer.
“An unusual talent, a determined kid,” Allen said. “He’s no pothead. That was somebody malicious trying to wreck his career. He’s the type of rock-solid guy that I would let my daughters date.”
But Tunsil has also been involved in problematic incidents and made questionable decisions.
He got into a fistfight with the stepfather he used to call Pops last June in Oxford. They were arguing about the visits of sports agents, including one who had come by that evening.
“These so-called agents were talking to him about strip clubs, prostitutes, making derogatory references to women, and they bought him jeans, gave him cash, took him to concerts,” said the stepfather, Lindsey Miller, who warned Tunsil he was endangering his Ole Miss eligibility. “I told him, ‘These guys are not professionals, they are shysters. Stay away from them. Everything will come to you later.’”
Tunsil told police Miller pushed his mother as the argument escalated and he retaliated. Miller said he was thrown to the floor and pummeled by Tunsil, who had to be pulled off him. Domestic violence charges against both were later dropped.
Miller met with an NCAA investigator in July and told him about other possible improprieties he had witnessed dating back to Tunsil’s high school recruitment, when Tunsil turned down Nick Saban at Alabama and Mark Richt at Georgia to sign with Hugh Freeze at Mississippi.
Miller claims Tunsil’s academic records were altered. He said Polingo used to receive Western Union deliveries of money from Barney Farrar, Ole Miss assistant athletic director for high school and junior college relations. An apparent reference to Farrar was made in the year-old text messages on draft night; when Tunsil asked the Ole Miss administrator for money, he responds, “See Barney next week.” Farrar has denied giving money to or being asked for money by Tunsil, Ole Miss is investigating and Farese predicts it will turn out to be “much ado about nothing.”
Cooper said he never noticed money changing hands at Mississippi, and he doesn’t understand teams’ reluctance to draft Tunsil. Quarterback Jameis Winston, accused of rape and theft during his years at Florida State, was drafted No. 1 last year.
“You don’t play at Ole Miss to get a cool car; there’s not even a mall nearby — it’s not flashy like USC or Miami, it’s a family atmosphere,” Cooper said. “People are trying to assassinate my friend’s character but it’s going to seem pretty stupid in the end.”
As a result of the NCAA investigation of Tunsil, he was suspended for the first seven games of his junior and final season. The NCAA said Tunsil was not initially honest but that five rules violations were confirmed: Tunsil improperly used three loaner cars without paying during a six-month period; received two nights’ lodging at a local home; accepted a free airline ticket; used a rental car for one day for free, and received an interest-free four-month loan to make a $3,000 down payment on a used car.
Tunsil issued an apology to Ole Miss and practiced with the scout team. He returned as dominant as ever, even catching a touchdown pass in Mississippi’s Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
Tunsil was a starter at Ole Miss from Day One. He loved the tradition of parading through the Grove on game days, hailed by loyal Rebels tailgaters.
“He moves like a wide receiver in a lineman’s body,” said Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke. “Very fast twitch, flexible, great hips, hands and footwork, conceptually intelligent. If he lost even one rep, it would eat him up and he’d study what he did wrong. Teammates gravitated toward him even though he wasn’t a vocal leader. He was very modest, kept to himself.”
Two other curious incidents occurred that would come back to bother Tunsil. On Dec. 13, before the bowl game in New Orleans, Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche — another highly-rated draft prospect — fell out of a fourth floor Grand Hyatt Hotel room window in Atlanta. Police found seven marijuana joints on a table and Nkemdiche was charged with possession, even though he said he was drunk but didn’t smoke pot and it didn’t belong to him. At the NFL Combine a month later, Nkemdiche said Tunsil was among the friends in the room with him.
In October, Tunsil parted ways with a financial adviser after he was told he was not registered with the NFL Players’ Association and was probably a “runner” trying to entice Tunsil to sign with a particular agent.
That mystery man is now the prime suspect as the draft night hacker. Tunsil’s agent Jimmy Sexton, who represents some of the biggest names in football, is trying to identify the hacker, who could face jail time and fines under federal law.
Someone tried to sell the bong video to Deadspin weeks before the draft but Deadspin declined, saying, “We will pay for a good story [email us!], but a college kid smoking weed is not a story at all.”
Two days prior to the April 28 draft, Miller filed a civil lawsuit in Lafayette County Court alleging Tunsil defamed him and caused “intentional infliction of emotional distress” during their fight in June when Tunsil accused Miller of mistreating his mother, and Freeze was quoted by the media saying Tunsil was protecting his mother.
What about the timing and motivation of the lawsuit?
“Because of money. Isn’t that the circular answer to everything?” Farese said. “If Laremy was working at a car wash I doubt any suit would have been filed.”
But Miller, a U.S. Navy veteran, former hazardous materials specialist for Honeywell, Red Cross community volunteer of the year and father of three, says his reputation has value, too.
He said he used to be close to Tunsil and Polingo. He helped the family in Lake City when Polingo was unemployed, attended Tunsil’s high school games, drove to his Ole Miss games, uprooted himself to move to Oxford, tried to be the father Tunsil never had.
“Laremy said, ‘I don’t know my Pops, will you be my Pops?’” Miller said. “When the water and electricity was about to be turned off, he’d call, ‘Pops, can you bring us some money and groceries?’ I took care of them, paid bills, took them to the beach, bought him school clothes and a TV for college, put thousands of miles on my car attending his games and never asked for anything.
“Everything was good until he started going around with those agents. They told him to disassociate from me. I’ve gotten death threats in this college town, but I’m just standing up for the truth and for my side of the story.”
Polingo did not return a message left through her lawyer. She filed for divorce from Miller on May 2.
When asked on the eve of the draft about the altercation with Miller and her son’s suspension, Polingo told Rivals.com, “All of that just made us stronger together. We prayed about everything and humbled ourselves.”
Tunsil says he’s not interested in revisiting past turmoil or errors in judgment. He smiles, says he’s “blessed just to be here,” and aims to help the Dolphins win, even if he has to move from tackle to guard alongside Branden Albert. He wants people to know his “true character.”
In Lake City, where everybody knows everybody, there are no doubts about Tunsil’s character.
“Laremy is a mama’s boy from a little farming town where we love Tiger football,” said Mitch Shoup, offensive coordinator at Columbia and a teacher. “A lot of big kids are kind of passive, and he was gentle in the school hallways but would control games from the left tackle position, which is unheard of. It was almost unfair the way he manhandled opponents. He had such a good heart that he had a hard time saying no during the recruiting process. He listened to every school, no matter how small.”
Aside from a weakness for his mother’s pies, Tunsil has a collection of distinctive socks.
“One Christmas I bought him a pair,” Shoup said. “Superman socks. He laughed and laughed.”