All it takes is one thoughtless moment, a split-second when anger routs judgment, for the luminescence to start flickering. An altercation occurs and, suddenly, a dream once close enough to touch begins to fade.
Joe Mixon spent last fall as the best prep running back in California, a one-man offense for Freedom High in Oakley, on the edge of the delta about 40 miles east of Oakland. Many national recruiting services last season considered Mixon among the top-5 all-purpose backs in the country and a top-20 overall recruit.
Mixon, 17, was king of local high-school football. In the insular but intense world of college football recruiting, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior was a brilliant star.
Less than eight months later, Mixon is an 18-year-old freshman in Oklahoma facing the possibility of a prison sentence and the certainty of a tainted name.
Oklahoma University on Monday announced that it was suspending Mixon -- its most heralded recruit since Adrian Peterson a decade ago -- for the 2014 season after a July 25 incident in which he allegedly punched a female student in the face.
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"As the university has demonstrated in the past, we are committed to winning the right way," athletic director Joe Castiglione and coach Bob Stoops said in a joint statement. "As an example to others, OU sets the highest possible standards for its student-athletes, coaches and staff."
Mixon retains his scholarship, for now, but is dropped from the roster and excluded from all team activities. If he's guilty, he deserves nothing less.
While celebrating his 18th birthday at a Norman, Oklahoma establishment, Mixon was involved in a dispute that turned physical around 2:30 a.m. Mixon allegedly ended matters by using his fist on the face 20-year-old Amelia Rae Molitor.
According to the police officer's affidavit, which cited several witnesses and surveillance video, Molitor first pushed and then slapped Mixon, after which he responded by knocking her unconscious. Molitor was later treated at Norman Regional Hospital, where she was diagnosed with fractures to her jaw, cheekbone, sinus and orbital socket.
Mixon is charged with misdemeanor assault. He is pleading not guilty. His attorney, Kevin Findlay, issued a statement saying that his client "instinctually defended himself" after being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from a "very intoxicated and troubled young woman."
The legal system might operate a bit differently in Oklahoma -- because it’s the south and because Mixon is a promising football player. Molitor, fearing reprisal from fans, already has expressed concerns about her safety. As a young black man facing criminal charges in the south, Mixon surely has his own concerns.
Mixon is, in many ways, on foreign soil. According to multiple reports, Mixon was having trouble adjusting to college and the local lifestyle. What youngster from the greater Bay Area wouldn't feel he has entered another geographical dimension, if not another world altogether?
It's not too late for Mixon to overcome this awful self-generated predicament. He'll have opportunities to atone, perhaps even at Oklahoma.
Other schools are monitoring this case and likely have had internal discussions about their plans should Mixon wish to take his career elsewhere. Cal, as well as UCLA and Wisconsin, was among the four finalists for his services. Numerous other schools, including Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida State and Georgia, also had recruited Mixon before he committed to Oklahoma last January.
No matter the judicial outcome, Mixon's world has changed. Merely by being charged with this crime, he has joined the long list of celebrity athletes -- most recently Ravens running back Ray Rice -- associated with the shameful act of a hitting woman.
[RELATED: Ray Rice sorry for elevator incident]
There are lines a self-respecting man simply can't allow himself to cross, no matter how good an athlete he might be. No matter how young he might be. No matter how many tickets he might sell for his school or his team.
Woman-beaters pay a price, as they should, no matter what a judge and jury decide.
Mixon likely had no inkling what was in store as he dressed in anticipation of celebrating his 18th birthday. It's a milestone, the official entrance to manhood. The events of that night put him before a wall he might be able to scale but will follow him forever.
He knows too late that it can happen in a blink.