Even though he signed a big contract two years ago, Cincinnati Bengal defensive end Jason Buck still
gets buyer's remorse, still shops at K mart and still asks for prices before he orders room service.He can't help being cautious after having known what it's like to call a hay truck home, when his wardrobe used to consist of one shirt and one pair of jeans and his toes used to stick out of taped-up shoes.
"Some things," Buck says, "never leave you."
All the money and all the success cannot change that. Not winning the 1986 Outland Trophy at Brigham Young University. Not being a first-round draft pick in 1987. Not starting in the 1989 Super Bowl.
It is imperative to Buck that he remember that his failures set up his successes.
Two decades ago, Sid Buck was faced with a proposition. He could continue a comfortable farming life in the West. Or he could take a chance. He could be one of a handful of farmers to begin growing Idaho potatoes in Michigan. So Sid packed up the wife and kids and headed east. "My dad," says Jason Buck, "wanted to set the world on fire."
Instead, Sid Buck's dreams went up in flames. About 31/2 years after arriving, the Bucks were broke. For the next three years, the Bucks stayed in Michigan. Surviving. Barely.
Finally, the Bucks moved West again, to their native Idaho. Jason had loved it in Muskegon, where he could "run all day" on the 2,200-acre Michigan farm. "For me," he says, "it was the perfect world." Now, at age 10, it was like he was losing his world.
"I remember locking up the gates," he says. "I was sad, lost. It felt terrible. When I left, I remember this tremendous sense of having something to prove."
The Bucks purchased a small plot in Idaho but had no place to live. Sid Buck had rented a house, but, as he puts it, "The guy had a fight with his wife, and they decided not to rent it."
So until the Bucks could move into a trailer home, they lived on a hay truck for a month. The kids would sleep alongside it - or under it. But Jason didn't mind. At 10, that's a kick. For a while.
Says Jason Buck: "I was perfectly happy until I went to school. I don't think anybody in the world can be much crueler in a grade school than someone who singles somebody out and really derides him. It was every day. But I would fight. I was in the principal's office constantly, because I wouldn't suffer the indignation."
Jason was an easy target. Jason would go to school with dirty clothes. Jason would speak up for himself. Jason was a Mormon.
His freshman year of high school, Buck made the varsity as a quarterback. His classmates, knowing his religion, would hang centerfolds on the walls, cuss, tell Mormon jokes.
A year later, another tragedy struck. Jason's older brother, Sid Jr. - Jason's protector, provider, "everything" - was dead.
Killed in a car accident.
"To this day, I still really haven't overcome it," says Jason, his eyes glassy. "I've learned how to block out the pain so I don't lose it anytime I think of it. The family's never recovered from it."
This family has had to overcome so much. The loss of their money. The death of Jason's brother, as well as the infant deaths of two of his other siblings. The later divorce of Sid and Moeena Buck. But somehow, Jason always pulls through. After his brother died, Jason continued to play football.
"I believed in the values that football taught," says Buck. "I knew my brother would have wanted me to go on."
But come time for college, there were no offers. The only alternative was Ricks Junior College in Rexburg, Idaho. And so, the 205-pound quarterback tried out. He was told he should put on weight and try coming back as a defensive lineman.
He did not have the money to attend college. His friends would tell him to give up, to come and work with them. They did not understand Buck's drive to succeed. Instead of quitting, he worked two jobs, still making time to lift weights.
After two years, he was ready to try out at Ricks again.
"I ran into him playing city-league basketball," says Ricks defensive coordinator Dave Walker. "He was on one team, and I was on another, and we had a knockdown, dragout battle on the floor. I asked someone later who this big stud was. Later, I told our head coach about this kid, but he already knew about him."
At 235 pounds, Buck learned how to play defensive line - learned it so well, the next season he came back at 250 pounds and set a national junior-college record for sacks with 25. He then would go on to Brigham Young, where he would become an All-American.
Says Walker: "He's worked his behind off to get where he's at. He's the epitome of the self-made successful athlete."
Jason Buck had something to prove. The Jason Buck now is not much different than the Jason Buck then. He remains a deeply religious man who will speak to churches about how "rags-to-riches" stories can come true, but who will not force his beliefs onto others.