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Rison Flagged, Penalty on Kids. Family Struggles, Ex-Falcon Behind

by Steve Hummer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 21, 2004

So, whatever happened to Andre Rison anyway? Remember, the star of so many local headlines featuring touchdown passes, a raging home fire, a late hip-hop star, gunfire at the Kroger and the recurring trials of a deadbeat dad.

He was rather difficult to overlook.

Age and the inevitable erosion of athletic celebrity are overtaking Rison these days. This evening in Ottawa, Rison will be on the Toronto Argonauts sideline during their Grey Cup scrum with the British Columbia Lions. As he has done during the entire postseason, the 37-year-old is likely to be in street clothes, a deactivated American watching the championship of a longer, broader, odder form of football.

Regardless, Rison will squeeze out one last payday before the CFL hibernates, and that could mean much to a mother and her two sons in Stone Mountain. Some of those Canadian dollars are being exchanged for long overdue support payments for the quieter, overlooked part of Rison's Atlanta legacy.

There is at least one Argonauts fan in Atlanta. "Any bonuses, any winners' share, as far as we're concerned, the family is entitled to all of that money," said local family law attorney Randy Kessler, who has been chasing child support money from Rison since 2001.

His football career is stalled at a foreign crossroads. Meanwhile, the former Falcons star receiver, once the highest-paid pass-catcher in the NFL, continues to face legal problems in DeKalb County. And two sons, both at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, grow up sharing little with their father but a name.

Whatever happened to Andre Rison? It is a question Raycoa Handley often has asked while raising two of his four children (two others are with their mother in Michigan). Since Rison stopped collecting an NFL check three-plus seasons ago, Handley has struggled with Rison to settle financially. Through parts of 19 years, she has held out the hope he would strike some sort of connection with the boys.

Rison still owes more than $120,000 for two-plus years of back child support, interest and attorneys' fees. He owes DeKalb County 20 days in jail for criminal contempt -- longer if he doesn't come up with the money. DeKalb Superior Judge Cynthia Becker issued the latest bench warrant for Rison's arrest on Aug. 9.

She later set aside the warrant to enable Rison to finish the season in Canada and send a portion of that pay to his family here. Another hearing is scheduled for Dec. 8, when, Kessler said, the arrest warrant likely will be reinstated.

To Rison's defense

Rison's agent insists the story is skewed in his client's case. "Andre has taken care of a lot of people, yet when he walks down the street all he hears is, 'There's the guy not paying his child support,' " Los Angeles-based Bill Thies said.

Handley tells her part of the story haltingly, barely above a whisper and sometimes with tears. There are many parts to it that she would like to underplay, like her health problems and the debt spinning off from them. She is adamant about keeping pictures of herself or her sons out of the newspaper and off TV.

"I want all this to end. I want this to go away because I'm tired," Handley said. "I didn't put [Rison] in this situation. I didn't make the courts want to put him in jail. He did that to himself."

Through his agent, Rison said he would not answer questions about his entanglements in DeKalb County Superior Court or anything concerning Handley and their teenage children, ages 19 and 15.

And there hasn't been much to say about his Canadian football experience. Rison signed with the Argonauts on Aug. 21 for a reportedly modest $60,000 Canadian -- a about $50,000 U.S. dollars. In five games, Rison caught 14 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown.

From Rison, there has come only sporadic outlandishness in Canada. To one Toronto columnist, he suggested he was a greater receiver than Jerry Rice. He likened being deactivated to Michael Jordan sitting on the bench allowing lesser-known teammates to take over.

Of more substance has been the portion of his bi-weekly CFL checks he has sent south in the first effort in more than two years to meet his $3,500-a-month child support obligations.

Teens, then parents

Rison and Handley met as teenagers, attending different Flint, Mich., high schools and seeing each other irregularly. "He was just another kid, about where my kids are now," she said. "He wasn't anything big. Maybe to some people he was, but I didn't know him like that."

There has been half a lifetime for Handley to reflect upon the relationship and to stew over her own choices. Whatever dreams she may have had when she was seeing Rison were shelved long ago, replaced by the grinding reality of supporting her children.

"I would never have chosen him or this for my kids," Handley says today, breaking into tears. "This is not the Andre I knew. I never thought he would be that kind of father. He was raised by his mom. I'd think if your father wasn't there, you would want to give everything to your children, make sure they had what you didn't have as far as having a relationship with your father."

She had her second child by Rison in 1989, shortly before he was drafted out of Michigan State by the Indianapolis Colts. Initially, Handley said she believed Rison would attempt some involvement in his son's lives, but emotional support has proven sporadic. The last time Rison spent any time with his sons, Handley said, was Father's Day 2003, during a one-day family reunion in Michigan.

Rison was traded to the Falcons in 1990. Drawn here by a more employment-rich environment, Handley settled in the Atlanta area in 1997.

In five seasons with the Falcons, Rison four times went for more than 1,000 receiving yards. In addition to his flamboyant play, Rison was involved in a series of bizarre off-field incidents. In 1994, after an argument with the late member of TLC, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the singer burned down Rison's home at the Country Club of the South. Nine months earlier, Rison fired a 9mm gun outside a Buckhead Kroger after another dispute with Lopes.

Falling behind

The child support issues simmered beneath these more public episodes. Once Rison's NFL career began to ebb -- appearing to dry up in 2001 after he was suspended four games for a repeat violation of the league's substance abuse policy -- they became more acute.

Kessler has a stack of court orders dating to 2001 compelling Rison to honor his child support commitments. Twice before he has faced brief jail sentences because of his failure to pay support.

"Lisa bailed him out once for $100,000. Another person bailed him out with another $80,000. Lisa's gone, and there's no one else to bail him out if he goes to jail," Rison's attorney, Max Richardson, said. "There's this impression that he's sitting on millions of dollars, but that's not the case."

"We have sat down and talked about this; he's aware of his responsibility," Thies said. "He's not the highest-paid wide receiver in football anymore. But he does have a definite income now we can work with."

After the NFL paycheck was gone, Rison petitioned the DeKalb court for a reduction in his child support payments but never appeared to plead his case. A similar reduction was arranged in Michigan concerning his other two children, Thies said.

Said Handley's attorney, "What's most amazing to me, 99.9 percent of the time when you have an indignant person who doesn't want to pay support, once they're put in jail and they see the judge will actually do it, that's usually it. What amazes me, he has been put in jail and he still blatantly disregards a court order.

"We still think he has access to money -- every time he's gone to jail, he has paid."

When Rison left Atlanta for Cleveland in 1995, his new contract made him the highest paid receiver in the NFL, complete with a $5 million bonus.

For Handley, money has been an even more critical lately, after she lost her job and was forced to go on disability after a serious stomach operation. She currently is working part-time when her health allows -- she has Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the lower intestine -- barely clearing minimum wage. And teenaged boys have expenses that can't wait on the solutions of family court.

Owed a torrent of money, Handley is seeing but a trickle now. It has done nothing to eat into a mounting debt owed her children. Handley can't help but wonder about the impact this long struggle has had on the two who really matter.

"I want the boys to be able to go to school and focus on school and not worry about what's going on at home," she said. "Just the small stuff that they shouldn't be concerned about. They are at an age when they should be going to school and getting ready for college, and they can't do that because they have so many other things to worry about."

As for Rison: "Andre hurts inside that he can't watch his kids play [the youngest son plays basketball]. But, hell, if he comes down here, he'll get arrested," Richardson said.

The child support payments end when both children are out of high school, but the missed back payments remain, earning 12 percent interest per year. "There is no statute of limitations on child support, and it's not dischargable with bankruptcy," Kessler said. "It's a very high priority debt."