Boy is my face red. And not because of sunburn from our recent heatwave.
A year ago I wrote a column about artist Drew Hill, a homeless former football star with 14 seasons in the NFL. Drew was at the beach painting a life-size canvass of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shooting his patented skyhook. It was so real I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
As Drew painted. I sensed his riches to rags story would make a compelling column. I checked what he’d told me, his high school, college and pro statistics and even his hometown on the Internet. I also found a 30-year-old photo. Everything matched.
But Monday, as I was reading an L.A. Times sports column by Jerry Crowe (Crowe’s Nest) I nearly choked on my Cheerios. Crowe revealed that the former NFL player Drew Hill currently resides in Atlanta. “My” Drew Hill currently resides at L.A. County Jail. Whoops.
I’ll try to explain but first back to August 2009.
The deceiver Drew’s luck changed dramatically when Susan Weinberg, an artist with a studio on the boardwalk by the pier, gave him free housing. Susan acted as his mentor and the combination yielded wonderful results.
As for me, I was gratified that my column had helped. I was more pleased when deceiver Drew told me that two NFL Hall of Famers, Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson, who were in Santa Monica, had read it and were so concerned about his well being that they rushed over. He posed for a photo with them, which wound up displayed on the wall at Big Dean’s Bar. (My favorite bar in Santa Monica.)
At Susan’s, fake Drew’s artwork flourished. He created quality paintings after quality painting, almost daily. Within two months, Susan felt it was time for an exhibition of his work. I even wrote a second column mentioning the upcoming art show.
At the show he talked about his football career and also mentioned his ongoing battle with cancer. The football career was wholly imagined. I can only hope the same is true for the cancer.
Among the first question friends ask now is what about the photo with Bradshaw and Johnson? Wasn’t that proof of something? Yes. It was proof that deceiver Drew was clever, if nothing else. My guess is that when he spotted the two football legends walking blithely on the boardwalk, he asked them for a photo, just like any fan might. Drew said they had read my column and had come over out of concern for him. A more plausible explanation might be that they were on the Santa Monica Pier to get some cotton candy.
So how did the façade finally surface? After the art exhibition, fake Drew began acting erratically. For those close to him it became obvious he was using crack.
The next I heard of bogus Drew was in December. He had been arrested on robbery charges and was in L.A. County Jail.
With the misleading Drew incarcerated, forever the do-gooder, I contacted the NFL Players Association to see if they could help with his legal defense. Luckily, they never returned my calls or I might have had substantial egg on my face (trying to get them to bail out a man who never played in the NFL).
At some point I contacted Jerry Crowe, a well-known sportswriter for the L.A. Times, hoping that publicity might be helpful to Drew’s case. In between phone interviews with him, Crowe was informed by the Sheriff’s Department that they had an imposter on their hands. When Crowe confronted Drew he admitted that he was “not the football player.”
To his credit, Drew hasn’t been languishing in jail. Using a pencil, Skittles for color, toothpaste for texture, coffee grounds for skin tone, etc. — the artist Drew created an impressive body of work.
His works were such quality that they were included in an exhibition of mail art this summer at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. There is even talk of featuring his work in a solo exhibition at the Armory.
So what lesson should I draw from all of this? That next time I interview a subject for a column I should hook him or her up to a lie detector?
Actually I’m not mad at the con artist. Nobody is. Not even the real Drew Hill. He’s of the opinion that it’s a shame that, as talented as this Drew is, he didn’t feel he could find success just being himself. Who knows, maybe now he will.
When Jack isn’t being hoodwinked, he can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.