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by Mike Fisher    Fri, Dec 23, 2005, 03:38 AM

It's Christmastime, and look who is stuck coming down your chimney! It's. ... Jolly Ol' Saint Nate!

OK, so Nate Newton isn't a saint. The former Cowboys offensive-line star once warned his first wife that if she married him, it was at her own risk. Then came the six Pro Bowls and the three Super Bowls. And the arrest at a dog fight. And the DWI. And the strange charge of misdemeanor assault. And a charge of rape that was eventually dropped. And his X-rated participation in the team's "White House.''

"For 12 years,'' Newton told me recently, in his first print interview since his release from prison, "I lived on 2 ½ hours sleep. That’s the way I rolled: Butt-naked booty bumpin’."

Then came the drug-related arrests.

On Nov. 4, 2001, the retired-from-football Newton was getting deeper and deeper into the business of drug trafficking. He was stopped for a driving violation but arrested that day when Louisiana State Troopers looked in the back of his white van and found bags of marijuana that totaled 213 pounds.

Newton was released on bail -- and then five weeks later, on Dec. 12, got stopped again. This time it was in Ellis County in Texas. This time it was U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. This time it was his F-150 truck storing $10,000 in cash and 175 pounds of pot, street value $700,000.

And so there was Newton, sitting in the Seagoville Detention Center for eight months awaiting trial, the judge denying him bail. Then in August 2002 he listened while wearing ankle chains to his sentence: 32 months in prison and a $25,000 fine. Then came the stint in Louisiana’s Avoyelles State Prison, where, Newton tells me, "They don’t play around at that joint. I slept on a concrete slab, in a cell with 40 dudes … one toilet. I don’t even like to think about that place."

Ah, but think about it he does. No, Nate Newton isn't a saint. But he remains jolly, a bigger-than-life figure in more ways than one, fully willing to take the blame for his foolishness, his arrogance, his greed, his sins, while he attempts to recover his life.

Says Newton: "Weird thing is, I don’t even like pot. It just makes me hungry. If I smoked out, I’d weigh 800 pounds. ... but at the time I was going to Hell, full-speed. That’s just the way I do things, all the way. If I was a killer, I’d take ‘em all out. Everybody. Not just one or two."

I've known Nate Newton for 16 years now, and he's telling the truth: In his own way, he has always been doubly committed to being twice the man you are. So he became twice the athlete you are. (As a Jabba-the-Hutt-shaped offensive lineman who was only 6-2, he could nevertheless dunk a basketball.) He became twice the NFL player anyone ever dreamed he could be, plowing his way off the waiver wire to become a rarity, an offensive lineman whose identity was well-known. He was always twice as funny as you, twice as brutal at you, twice as devoted as you. ... even twice your size, during his playing days sometimes weighing in at as much as 400 pounds.

Like many jocks, he developed an air of invincibility. That trait is valuable in sports, dangerous in life. He became "The Kitchen.'' A party guy. A member of an infamous Family Tree of Cowboys. ... except that this tree grows funny leaves.

Newton fit right in with the franchise of "North Dallas Forty'' and Bob Hayes and Hollywood Henderson and Harvey Martin and Mark Tuinei and Michael Irvin and geez, even when the Cowboys go legit, they still go there with a joint between their lips. (Or have you forgotten that one of the bigwigs in NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, is old buddy Mark Stepnoski?).

But other teams, other people, tend to fake their way through apologizes for such behavior. ... once they get caught, of course.

Nate? Whatever you think of him, know this: Nate IS different.

What Nate said back then when the White House became public: "We've got a little place over here where we're running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible."

True responsibility escaped him for a while. Thus, the drug trafficking.

"I had blown a lot of money from football, but I wasn’t broke,'' Newton says. "(Drug transporting) just seemed too good to pass up.''

Did it seem like easy money? I ask him.

"It didn’t SEEM like easy money,'' Newton says frankly, "it WAS easy money.''

The jail time, however, was no picnic, was not funny. He hoarded cigarettes and traded them for Twinkies. He stood up for himself when confronted and didn't sense that his celebrity earned him any respect. And he didn't accept guests. Just as he had disassociated himself from some members of his family when he was involved in the drug trafficking -- believing that the less they knew, the less danger they'd ever be in -- he also declined visitors to prison. He discouraged the kids from coming. He turned down meetings with the likes of Deion Sanders and Barry Switzer.

I told Newton that I view his actions as unforgivable because while he didn't literally drive his van onto the school playgrounds of my two sons, he did do so figuratively. And so he knows that I view him as something less than a saint.

But he is jolly. And at 370 pounds -- "I probably need to lose about 40 pounds right now,'' Nate tells me -- he would get stuck in your chimney.

And as his Christmas present to you and to himself, he is trying to do the right thing.

After one year as a free man, he's trying to give back. He's a regional coordinator for O-D Sports football camp. He has a fine relationship with his ex-wife, and he is remarried. He's devoted to his children, including Tre' Newton, a star running back as a sophomore at national power Southlake Carroll High School. He spoke before the Tulane football team after the hurricane hit New Orleans, and he accepted the Cowboys' invitation to speak to their rookies this fall.

"I told those kids to only share their glory with the right people," Nate says. "Look at me and learn from my mistakes. Take control now, or lose control later."

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