Credit: Photograph by Peter Yang

The player had never punched his girlfriend, failed his twice-a-year piss tests, or taken a tree limb to a preschool child – and by the Grand Guignol mores of the National Football League, that made him a prince and a scholar. Granted, he hadn't lived up to his billing out of college or his mammoth signing bonus, but he was a plug-and-play starter for a perennial winner, a lunch-pail type on time for team meetings and off-season training. For sure, he was the last of Denise White's clients who would call her in high panic on his off-day. White was up to her neck in fire-walking stars who couldn't stay out of trouble at 3 AM, and she was hoping to get through one weekend away without some fresh foolishness popping off.

But there she was at the 2012 wedding of Vince Young, a client with his own share of backfield drama, when her phone began growling in her bag. "Denise, she says I raped her, and it wasn't like that," babbled the player as White ran up the aisle to an empty room. "She came back with me from the club, and we did it a little while, then I asked her to leave. That's all there was, I swear. End of story."

White, the NFL's frontline crisis manager serving dozens of marquee players – Jared Allen, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson, among others – had been hearing some version of that puerile story for most of her firm's 16 years and reflexively launched the kind of inquiry that most women have never broached with a man: What kind of sex did you have with the girl? Was it rough? Consensual? Are there marks on her body? Will cops find your DNA in her? "The sex was 'basic,' he said, but he hadn't worn protection, like way too many of my guys," says White. "I tell them over and over until I'm blue in the face, but most of them are kids still, with millions of dollars, and think they're untouchable. Then the girl goes and hires an attorney, and it's 10 grand a month for 18 years. Or 21 if the kid goes off to college."

Over the next couple of days, White did what she does: doused a fire before it leaped over containment. First she called the girl to get her version of events, but White found her "high off her ass and unintelligent," a whack job who set her scam detector ringing. "Let's be clear about this: I've had clients who probably did it," she says, "but after talking to her, I knew that this one didn't." White got on the phone with one of her go-to guys, a prominent trial attorney in the player's town. The lawyer was friends with a vice squad captain whose cops had had run-ins with the girl; the captain pulled her rap sheet and sent over a squad car to monitor the accuser's movements. "She was holed up in a motel, stoned all weekend, and had a long list of priors, mostly drugs," says White, who missed most of Young's wedding and the starry reception to work the phones from the beach. "Turned out this was her M.O., going town to town and making false accusations for a payoff."

Still, the girl was cogent enough to get a rape kit done and would certainly have a tawdry story to tell if no charge was filed against the player. "Even when it's open-and-shut fraud, it's sometimes better to write the check than to fight it in civil court," says White. But the player had a spotless rep and little exposure at home, being an unattached man without kids, so White shot the moon in his defense. She retained the trial lawyer to confront the girl and give her the high-noon speech: Either get lost and withdraw her claim or they'd post her mug shots on every media outlet and expose her, the league over, as a bunco artist. Sensing she was in over her head this time, the girl dropped the charge and ran back to East Texas. Elapsed time from panic to problem solved: 48 hours of around-the-clock phone calls and favors pulled in from three sources.

That Monday, White rang the player at home to tell him the happy news. Then the woman they call Momma Bear let the player have it: "I told him what an ass he'd been, bringing a young girl over for sex and treating her like an unpaid call girl. Do you know that he tossed her out of there at 4 AM and didn't give her money for cab fare home? I mean, I love my guys and move mountains to help them, but really now: How were you raised?"

White, a former contestant in the Miss USA pageant – she won Miss Congeniality in 1994 – tosses her head in disgust. "You know, people made a fuss about the Blind Side kid, like he was a one-of-a-kind deal. Well, 90 percent of my clients are the Blind Side kid and need every bit of mothering they can get."

Even from a wealthy businesswoman with a house by the beach in Marina del Rey, California, and a staff of six running her Los Angeles office? "Oh, you don't know drama until you've heard my horror story," she says. "I'm the only woman manager in the NFL – hell, the only woman, period, in this godforsaken league. How do you think I landed all these guys?"After the horrors this fall, is there anything left to say about the NFL's off-field transgressions? We've pulled the sport's numbers on spousal assaults and had the national talk about partner abuse, scanned the photos of Adrian Peterson's son and denounced the vile practice of child "whooping," and X-rayed the league's boneheaded reactions until we elevated our risk for rare cancers. Ignore the pious cant from the league and the player's union about a few bad actors staining the shield. This is a game and a culture steeped in blood from its birth in the 19th century, when dozens of players died on the field and street goons were recruited to carry the ball and break each other's bones in scrums. It's not an NFL problem; it's a football problem, and it starts the day nine-year-olds don the pads and knock one another senseless in tackle practice.

"We train these guys from boyhood up to be the fastest, fiercest men on the field, but spend no time whatsoever training their souls to distinguish between war and peace," says Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of  Virginia and author of the newly published Why Football Matters, a brilliantly timed book about the sport. Edmundson has a theory and a word for this malevolence: the Greek term thymos, as deployed by Plato. Although it lacks an exact cognate in common English, the word denotes, he says, the warrior spirit raised to the highest pitch, tuned to meet resistance with maximum force, even in neutral settings. "We used to worship soldiers, but don't anymore, and we transferred that adoration to players. The NFL teaches them to fake it for us: Wear the mask of the humanitarian off the field, but unleash the savage lion on Sunday."

When you pair that mind-style with a hectic past – a single- or no-mom household, gangsters in the stairwell, and the routine crack of gunfire after dark – what you produce, all too often, is a nihilist on the loose, a man with a buccaneer's taste for spoils and the fear that the world will claw them back the second he shows weakness or turns his head. Absent a reboot of their nervous systems or a fundamental shift in the way we prep them, football players will go on testing limits – and go on seeking the help of Denise White.

For reasons that are clear to exactly no one I asked, there has never been anyone like her in the game, and no effort has been made by the commissioner's office to employ her and her staff when trouble outs. Until recently, in fact, no team or league official would acknowledge what she did for her players, and the agents who negotiated contracts for them were annoyed and dismissive of White. "First they described me as 'that pushy girl who'll probably blow away in a year,' " she says. "Then I began adding all these future Hall of Famers – Dwight Freeney, Willie Roaf, Antonio Gates, Terrell Suggs – and it was, 'Oh, she must be sleeping with them.' Then they saw all the sponsor money I got them, and it was, 'Damn, I better call her to see what's what.' "

What they found was a self-taught scrambler who had identified a niche and promptly filled it. "She carved out this special thing for herself by doing the stuff that we didn't have time for, like crisis management," says Tom Condon, the king of NFL agents, who reps the Mannings, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, and hundreds more at the Creative Artists Agency and who once tried to bring White and her clients to CAA. "We try like hell not to sign bad guys, because you waste your days fixing their messes. But Denise is great with those clients and goes to war for them, and she's salty enough that they really respect her."

White, whose first job, in the late Eighties, was traffic reporting from a Cessna over rush-hour Portland, Oregon – she was the woman known as U-Turn Laverne to listeners – pulled a U-turn herself in the early Nineties, becoming a personal assistant to entertainers. One of them was Samuel L. Jackson, who spotted her moxie and hired her to do a sponsor deal for him. She signed up other actors, then landed a football player: Tony Gonzalez, a struggling rookie tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. "It was a fluke that it even happened – I'd been working for Robin Givens, and Tony saw her at a party and wanted to date her. Well, he had to go through me to get her number, and we wound up hanging out and becoming friends."

(White with San Diego tight end Antonio Gates in 2009. - Courtesy Denise White)

Gonzalez, who went on only one date with Givens (on the bright side, she didn't sue him for palimony), was painfully shy, spoke poorly on camera, and had no one to polish his edges. White sat with him for hours, practicing interview answers while she honed his phrasing and cadence. Then, because his agent, Leigh Steinberg, couldn't be bothered, she began calling merchants in Kansas City to drum up endorsements for him. "It shocked me to see that agents didn't do that, because when they pitched the high draft picks, it was always, 'Oh, we'll do your branding and get you into movies, too,' " she says. "Well, maybe for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning they did, but everyone else was riding the bus."

She landed Gonzalez a print ad with Sprint, then booked gigs with Coca-Cola, Reebok, and other brands that plastered his handsome face on billboards. Casting directors noticed, and soon he was all over Kansas City TV, and even started landing national gigs. In an equally shrewd move, White then hustled Gonzalez to Tom Condon and away from the nosediving Steinberg, a once-great agent who had badly lost his way, drinking himself and his practice down the drain. Gonzalez's teammates also started flocking to White. Donnie Edwards, Brian Waters, and others may not have been breakout icons like Gonzalez, but all were game to roll up their sleeves and take the entry-level gigs she sent their way, like appearances at car shows, autograph signings, and guest spots on sports-talk stations.

Word got around the league that White could grow your profile, or create one where it didn't exist. "I was no one at the time," says Ephraim Salaam, the personable former Falcon who's now a star on the rise at Fox Sports 1. "I was an O-lineman and a Muslim, but she knocked on every door for me and probably busted a few down while she was at it. Then she got me on Ellen, where I became a regular correspondent and built my brand for mainstream, not just football."

Meanwhile, White was still so green she had no notion of what to charge her clients: "I was billing these millionaires by the hour, not the month, and barely making the rent on my one-bedroom." Hilariously, some of those millionaires bitched and moaned when she hiked them to $1,000 a month. Her monthly fee is now a multiple of that, plus a percentage of the promo deals she strikes. (If that doesn't sound like a lot, know that she gets the DeSean Jacksons hundreds of thousands, cash, just to tweet.) But as her clientele grew and she began adding staff, she found herself representing name-brand players who'd come through serial crises as kids and were still steeped in chaos as pros. "Guys whose dads had been incarcerated forever and they'd never even seen outside of prison," or clients saddled with blood-sucking crews or crooked agents and accountants. "By the time I got Vince Young, he'd been ripped off for millions," she says. "Everyone had their hooks in him, including his uncle." Young, now out of football, sued his agent and his financial planner, alleging they stole $7 million from him. (The case was settled.)

For this class of player, something new was required: a wall-to-wall deep-clean of their lives. "We're talking homeboys or cousins who'd been with them since high school and were ruining their brand or trying to profit," says White. "One of my biggest clients had his house safe stolen, with hundreds of thousands in cash and jewelry taken." No arrests were made, but it was "clearly an inside job – they knew exactly when he'd be out and for how long." White sat him down and vetted his hangers-on, most of whom were useless or worse. "They were boys of his in high school who'd had his back but had zero job skills or market sense," she says. "They'd post shots to his Twitter of him with a porn star or in nightclubs with big bottles of alcohol." One even created a fake Facebook page to draw donations to a charity with no charter. "As tactfully as I could, I told him, 'Enough is enough: I'll handle your marketing from here on out. If you want to help your friends, pay 'em to get your cleaning, or stake them the cash to open a Wendy's."

Burdensome as it was to be the bad cop in their lives – evicting a crazy girlfriend who'd moved in with a player and whom the player lacked the courage to kick out; confronting a financial planner who drove a Bentley around town but never seemed to deposit her client's checks – White was soon faced with a stickier wicket: saving players from the lifestyle hustlers who always had a hand in their pockets. "Rap music 'deals' are the big loss leaders. Some guy in a club says, 'Yo, I produce for Snoop; I'll make you a hit record for a hundred grand.' " Many of her clients have fallen for that; one lost a couple million dollars backing an album that never got made. Other money pits: TV pilots and action flicks that languish, unseen, in someone's basement, and sportswear lines and nutritional products that tank before they even hit production. "Guys come to me all the time: 'But this is my dream. How can you sit there and tell me no?' I say, 'Because none of my guys has ever made a dime, but if you have to live your dream, start with $50,000 down or whatever you won't feel when you lose it.' " Dicier still are the dreams of wives and girlfriends begging to be funded by their men. "If I had a buck for every spouse who's an 'undiscovered' designer, I could've bought an NFL team," White jeers. "They have never taken a class, can't draw a friggin' dog, but need a million bucks to start up the factory." White does what she can, but she loses that fight more often than not. "At the end of the day, they gotta go home, and they gotta keep mama happy."

(White representing Oregon in the 1994 Miss USA. - Courtesy Denise White)

Then there are the jobs that she hates like poison but have become a staple of her practice: the late-night distress calls from players. "I had a very well-known star, one of the nicest you'll ever meet, get jammed up in a strip club at 2 AM." A dancer there took him to a bathroom in back, promising a blow job on the house. "He thinks he's getting serviced, but she has a change of heart, so he says, 'No worries,' and goes back out to watch her dance," White says, conceding that this was the player's version and that she never got to hear the dancer's side. "Later that night he gets a call from the cops: She claims she was sexually assaulted by him."

This happened 12 years ago and served as White's window into the netherworld of hustlers gaming athletes. "You find them in every town with at least one major sports team: women at crappy strip joints and hotel bars, or loudmouths trying to start trouble in clubs, hoping my guy hits them so they can sue. I had a recent case where the player showed restraint, but then someone in his party hit the guy. Well, the person goes out and gets an attorney, saying he's now disabled for life. But he didn't sue the friend, of course: He sued the player, and will probably get a check when it's all done."

In the strip-joint matter, no charge was ever filed; the police and the district attorney deemed the charges baseless. But word leaked to the local media that something had happened, and the player's reputation hung by a thread when White called all the outlets in town. "I said, 'There's nothing to this story, but it'll hurt him if it airs; run it, and he'll never speak to you again.' " Every outlet fell in line except for one local affiliate, which floated a mention of the claim. No rivals took the bait, though, and the story drifted away, never casting shade on the player. Meanwhile, the stripper hired a bottom-feeding lawyer: His office was one door down from where she danced. "We ended up paying her a little to stay out of court, but it never made the papers or happened again" to her client. In the end he bought himself a dear lesson cheaply: "Nothing good can happen in a nightclub or strip joint after midnight – nothing," says White, who bemoans the time and labor she's wasted tamping down those 2 AM eruptions.

She won't say how many claims she's paid out or even ballpark the size of the checks players have written – "I'm not giving those girls one drop of extra incentive," she sniffs – but over time it has become a steady sideline operation.

Whether guiding her clients through paternity dramas – "First rule: Always take the swab-kit test; 60 percent of the time the kid is someone else's" – or walking them through the minefield of jilted girlfriends who threaten to go public with charges, White spends many mornings armed for battle, going from skirmish to skirmish. "She's the world's most expensive babysitter, because some dudes keep repeating childish things," says Salaam. "And trust me when I tell you, she steps to them strong, but there's that handful of guys who don't hear it first time out. Or the third or fourth time, either."

Of her 30-plus clients, White puts the number of problem cases at "about six or seven." This suggests, if nothing else, that she's pretty good at getting her point across in that first-day sit-down, and that she's also choosy about whom she reps. (She wouldn't, for instance, take on Michael Vick, saying, "I don't help guys who hurt children or animals," and has turned down other hot-button stars, none of whom can be named here.) "I start with my own story, which usually does the trick. They're like, 'If she can come through that all, what's my problem?' " Moved by her candor, they'll often then open up about things they've told no one else – the dire hardships growing up or betrayals by their camp, like the parent forging checks from their account. Then, before they leave, White tells her clients: "Not that you're one of those guys, but if you do find yourself in trouble for any reason, your first call is to your lawyer, and your second is to my cellphone. Any hour, day or night. Sleep's overrated."White's sitting on the deck of a venerable seafood place, with her back turned to the yachts in the marina. That she's here in Marina del Rey, on this miracle of a summer evening, dining cheek by jowl with surgical blondes and men tanned the color of Mayan kings, is the longest of long shots that came up flush. Given the hell she grew up in and the blows that kept raining, it's a wonder she didn't end up living under a bridge or working a dingy corner in Venice. But all of this – the new Range Rover and the seven-figure billings; Patrick Peterson on line one, checking in – this just doesn't happen.

Except it did.

White was one of five kids born near San Diego to a wildly unstable mother named Sharon Hoksbergen, a nurse's assistant struck in her mid-twenties with acute, and misdiagnosed, mental illness. In 1966 Sharon's husband, Jimmy Hoksbergen, up and left her flat, taking their three children and the couple's possessions and leaving Sharon a note and exactly one penny. Denise and her twin, Diane, born two years later, were raised to think he'd abandoned them, too, and didn't learn the name of their biological father until Denise did some snooping at age 16. By then, though, they had encountered every form of loss and took the news as just one more cross to bear.

White has brought along some papers in a moldering file: state documents of her abuse at the hands of an unwell mother; her multiple removals to a children's shelter; and the belated grant of custody to her maternal grandma, Lois Golden, the woman, she says – through tears – who saved her life. "Mom would just leave us there, hungry for days, and we had to fend for ourselves," says White. "Once, I was on a stool cooking rancid hamburger for me and my sister to eat. It was green in the middle, totally infested, but it was all there was in the fridge, and I was five."

A willful child, Denise stuck hairpins into sockets, getting burns on her hands from the shocks, and darted through traffic across a busy street to swipe Scooter Pies off the shelves of a 7-Eleven. "The clerk there knew but let us take the food. He saw we were just trying to survive."

After the umpteenth admission of their mom to a locked psych ward, there were a couple of hard years with loveless foster families. "Diane and I used to suck our blankets to get to sleep," says White. "Well, the woman there showed us a thing or two: She poured hot sauce on the ends, which broke that habit." Then, when they were eight, the state split the twins, placing Denise with her grandma in nearby Escondido, and Diane with a family of strangers 30 miles east in Miramar. Forbidden by court order to be in touch with each other, they fell out of contact until age 19, when Diane showed up at a beauty pageant to watch Denise compete for Miss Escondido. "I'd seen an article about the contest with her picture in the paper, and was sitting in a row behind her friends," says Diane Blakeley. A success story herself, with a job in financial services, a house in San Clemente, and season tickets to the Chargers, she had been adopted by a loving single mother and raised two hours away in Claremont. "She didn't recognize me until I reached for her in the aisle," says Diane. "Then we all started hugging and crying, including my grandma, who was in the audience, too."

Though armed with resentments from their years-long remove, and as different in temperament as twins can be – "Denise is a scrapper and a tough guy with her players; me, I'm the boring, cautious one," says Diane – they built back their friendship, stone by stone. "The thing is, I had a brilliant [adoptive] mom who helped me every step of the way. But Denise, she did this all on her own, had no one to walk the walk with her. I couldn't be any prouder of what she's done."

An encounter with their birth dad was less exalted. At 16, White found a name in the folder that her grandmother had locked in a cabinet. She looked up Jerry Cascioppo in the San Diego phone book and paid him an unannounced visit one night. "He answered the door, disheveled, in just his boxer shorts and T-shirt; I ran back to my car without saying a word," says White. The ne'er-do-well son of a wealthy San Diego family, he'd been in a car crash that damaged his brain sometime after the twins were born. "He wasn't all there and was being supported by a trust, which I learned from talking to his parents later on."

But White, whose mother was irreparably ill, in and out of hospitals until her death in 2002, eventually screwed up her nerve to confront him. "He was married to an evil woman who made me bribe her just to let him out for dinner." White liquored him up over lobster and steak and got him to take the paternity test that established him as her father. She eventually forgave him and reached out again when his wife divorced him last year, leaving the addled old man in a fog. White installed him in a senior facility near San Diego, paying his bills and checking in on him when she's down there. Asked about her kindness to a father who showed her none, she shrugs and notes that there's no one else to help now and this is what you do for aging parents. But this isn't about family and a bereft daughter's love. Not really, not for him; that's just duty. White has a family – the one she's built herself from the players she reps and protects – and they check in all the time on Momma Bear, more out of fondness than commerce.

"She's kinda like the mother I never had," says Tyrann Mathieu, the stellar young corner for the Arizona Cardinals, whose problems with marijuana cost him two years of college and many millions in the 2013 draft. He barely knew his father, who is locked away for murder; had spent little of his boyhood with his mother; and was being badly underserved by an agent and marketer when he sat down with White last spring. "I don't talk to a lot of people, but I felt her out and saw I could trust her to help me." She paired him up with Condon, vouching for the kid; bolstered his league-minimum salary with gear endorsements; and will chaperone him through stardom and beyond, hovering in his ear, giving counsel. "That woman stays on a brother," DeSean Jackson says from Redskins camp. "She don't let nothing slide." Her takedowns of his Twitter posts and harangues about the club scene? "That's all done out of love," he says. "I mean, don't get me wrong – I love my mom a ton, but no one watches out for me like that one."Shortly after Roger Goodell's bumbling press op, in which he tried – and failed – to fall on his sword after botching the Ray Rice horror, I called up White for her take. It incensed her to note that, with a blank check to write, he couldn't even hire a capable crisis manager to walk him through the chore of taking blame. "It's what I've been saying for years about this league: It's a bunch of old men in their echo chamber – and none of them know a thing about these players."

She was no less galled by the league's laughable hires of four corporate women as policy wonks. "Are they out of their minds? Have any of these women ever met a player, let alone heard what makes them tick? You can't legislate this stuff from the top down. You've got to get inside these guys to change their thinking and to help them make amends for what they've done."

(White did damage control while Brandon Marshall was in the throes of an undiagnosed mental illness, she rehabilitated his image. - Getty Images)

Amends-making is, for White, a stock in trade. At least four times this year she's been asked to clean up after a star found himself in a hot stink. In February she was retained by the NFL sack champ Robert Mathis, who was facing a four-game suspension from Goodell for taking Clomid, a banned hormone, late last season. Mathis, a meticulously clean player with the Indianapolis Colts, had a persuasive reason for taking a fertility drug, which he offered to Goodell as defense. "Robert and his wife were trying for a baby so his mother, who has stage IV cancer, could see the child," says White. "He took it for a month, then she conceived and he stopped taking it. And by the way, it has zero effect on muscle growth." But Goodell, in his wisdom, declined to even meet with Mathis, though he had plenty of time to sit with Rice and lend an ear to a spouse-abuser. So White went around him to the court of public opinion, getting Mathis a spot on Good Morning America as the sympathetic face of male infertility. She hammered home the point with appearances on other shows and touted his foundation as a leader on the issue, making grants to indigent couples for hormone treatment. Although Goodell didn't reduce the ban, White's campaign saved Mathis' rep in Indianapolis, where he'd become a beloved figure and community leader.

In April she had to scrub an uglier kind of stain: the canard that DeSean Jackson was an L.A. gangster. Last season the then Eagles receiver got into a spat with the Redskins' DeAngelo Hall during a Monday Night game. Returning to his huddle, Jackson flashed Hall a gesture that looked like an inverted peace sign. Although he'd thrown that signal in scads of off-field photos, White ordered him to knock it off. Jackson explained that the signs were merely a tribute – not a threat or a gang sign, but a shout-out to the guys on his block in Compton who'd had his back as a kid. "I said, 'Tell that to Procter & Gamble,' " says White. "I'm trying to get you ads for Gillette razors."

Deeming the matter settled, she thought no more about it until a phone call three months later from, a New Jersey news website. "They were running a story about DeSean making gang signs and wanted me to reach him for a comment. I told them, 'Here's your damn comment: He's the farthest thing from gangster, and if you run this, you're a bunch of fucking dopes.' " Several days later, the story was published – on the morning the Eagles announced they were cutting Jackson and gave no context for the move.

It was a devastating blow to Jackson's reputation, suggesting to every team with an interest in him that he was an Aaron Hernandez in the making. Infuriated, White went to wartime footing. She helped him craft a statement torching the story as an unsourced smear, then booked him on every strategic venue to deny the claim in person. In a chat with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, the Mister Softee of talking heads, and then in spots on Arsenio and 106th and Park, Jackson came across as sensitive and well-meaning, putting down any fears he was a Blood. He promptly signed a deal with Philly's bête noire, the Redskins, where he'll torment Eagles coach Chip Kelly for years. "I hope he burns them bad," sneers White, still riled. "All they had to do was call [his release] a money decision. Instead they hung that poor guy out to dry."

With players like Jackson – highly spirited kids who haven't quite finished growing up – White's challenge is to keep their whims in check until they learn to do it for themselves. Then there are guys with problems they can't outgrow, that portion of her clientele with mental illness. One of pro football's best-kept secrets is the shockingly high number of active players with one or more clinical ailments – depression, bipolarity, antisocial disorder, et al. Brandon Marshall, the brilliant receiver beset by borderline personality disorder, says that there "are probably 10 to 12 guys in every locker room" with an affliction, the great majority of them undiagnosed and untreated.

Marshall, the first player since Ricky Williams with the courage to go public about his illness, came to White as a Bronco in 2009, when his then girlfriend told ESPN that the 6-foot-5 Marshall had roughed her up. White drilled him on the facts for an appearance on ESPN's Outside the Lines – "I never put a hand to her, and the charges have all been dropped" – but his mood and demeanor played poorly on-air, undercutting his message. Afterward, White worked to build back his brand, running his fund-raising dinners and free football camps for underprivileged kids in Denver.

But Marshall, whose illness hadn't yet been detected, kept her very busy for a while. There were publicized problems between him and a coach in Denver; a suspension for kicking the ball away from a ball boy in practice; then a bizarre episode at his home in Miami two years later, when he wound up with serious stab wounds to the gut. "I knew there was something going on with Brandon," White says. "We were always on eggshells around him. But I kick myself now, because even with my background, I didn't get how serious this was."

Happily, Marshall did, and he chose to save himself before exhausting his chances. He checked into a Boston hospital last year for evaluation and treatment. Three months later he came out with a diagnosis and the resolve to be a leader of a movement. He wanted, with White's help, to tell his story proudly, to roll back the shame and stigma of mental illness, and, above all, to be a resource for others.

White was overwhelmed. "For most of my life, I hid my mentally ill mom and the damage she caused. For Brandon to step forward . . . well, I hugged him for it, but at the same time I was really worried." She warned Marshall of the maelstrom that was sure to follow: the taunts from fans and players; the loss of his off-field income and, potentially, his career as well. "He said, 'You know what? It couldn't be any worse than what I've dealt with up until now.' "

With the utmost care, she brought him out in stages, testing the message and the market. There was a written statement after his hospital release, then a series of brief appearances during Super Bowl week. The reactions were positive, so White booked a bigger stage for him. In the green room before he went on The View to do his first national sit-down, Marshall, usually a ham, was terribly nervous, rehearsing his message with her. Suddenly he looked up and saw White bawling. "He asked me, 'What's wrong, Denise?' and I said, 'I'm just so proud: You're speaking for me and all the people like us around the country.' Well, he teared up, too, and said, 'You just made this real for me.' Then he went out there and brought down the house, just knocked them stiff with his story."

In a watershed moment for the player and his sport, Marshall spoke soulfully of his illness and rescue, signed his new Bears contract in front of his hosts, and wrote a million-dollar check to fund treatment for others, going from "patient to provider" in a matter of months. Not bad for a guy who, with all his talent, was dumped by two teams as a cancer. And not bad, either, for the former foster girl who cried herself to sleep in strange houses. Small wonder she stands for men who've walked the low road to hell. She knows that route by heart and can help them climb the hill. Though if it's all the same to you, she'll fly first-class.