Aaron Maybin simply could not get on the plane.
It was the summer of 2013, and in the four years since he'd been drafted No. 11 overall out of Penn State, Maybin had watched many peers reach this point. He just had been released by the Cincinnati Bengals — his third NFL team — and he was looking ahead to a series of auditions for unfamiliar coaches who might or might not accept him.
He could fly to Indianapolis to begin that process. But did he love playing in the league enough to continue as a vagabond? Or was it time for the other Aaron Maybin — the artist with bold and sometimes messy thoughts about modern society — to cast off the chrysalis of his football career?
"I couldn't even bring myself to pack my bags," he recalls. "Different things had become bigger priorities to me — being a father, being a provider for my family on a more hands-on basis, the community work I'm doing, the artwork and the messages I wanted to get out. … I didn't want to be in a position where I always had to bend to what other people, society or people I was contractually obligated to, thought was OK."
Maybin, 27, recounts this personal reckoning perched on the arm of a leather couch in the first-floor studio of his house in Canton. His paintings — vibrant depictions of mentors and inspirations, racial strife and communal love, hope and disappointment — adorn the walls around him. Splashes of dry paint spatter the floor. Incense wafts from a stick propped a few paces from 80-pound barbells that evoke Maybin's athletic past. Jumbo boxes of diapers speak to a present brightened by the recent birth of his third child, Aria. Playing in the background, on mute, is the movie "Whiplash," a tale of the torments a young drummer will accept in pursuit of his art.
The young man at the center of this space still looks as if he could be part of a pro locker room — 6 feet 4, with rippling arm muscles and a prowling, restless stride. But this den of creative chaos, where he watches the sun set and then rise again as he vibes with his art, feels nothing like that old workplace. There, Maybin always felt crammed into someone else's box. Here?
"One of the best things about my life now is that I don't ever have that issue of having to answer to somebody for the things I say or do," he says.
"He's free," says longtime Baltimore artist Larry "Poncho" Brown, who has mentored Maybin since he was in grade school. "He can truly paint whatever the hell he wants to paint, and that's a rare, powerful thing."
So you'll hear no bitterness, no regret as Maybin describes the swift rise and fall of his NFL career. He knows he could Google his name and, in a matter of seconds, find dozens of articles and blog posts ripping him as one of the great busts in recent draft history. "It's quite possible that Maybin is the worst player in the NFL," a Buffalo News columnist once wrote.
But here he is, buoyed by the $14 million he made playing football, able to chase his kids without pain, doing the work he always dreamed of.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm really living the true American dream," he says.
He wants people, especially young African-Americans, to know that the NFL fantasy — one he shared and gave 15 years to — isn't exactly what it seems. There are trade-offs.
Ideas spill out of Maybin not in bites but in paragraphs. He lives at the center of a perpetual swirl — friends and associates passing freely in and out of the studio, television and music generally blaring at the same time, a James Baldwin novel clutched in one hand and a paint brush in the other.
He's a complex blend of sometimes contradictory traits — an introspective personality who can dominate a room with his physical presence and outspoken confidence.
"He lives in his own world, completely in his own world," says his younger sister, Connie, who has come to understand her brother by watching him work for hours at a time.
He couldn't be all this and an NFL journeyman. So he made a choice.
'This is what I want'
Maybin grew up in Baltimore, where his father, Mike, was a longtime official with the city Fire Department. From an early age, he expressed himself through art more easily than through words. He believes he inherited his artistic talent partly from his mother, Constance, who painted animals and city skylines.
When he was 6, she died while giving birth to Connie.
"I was at a pivotal moment," Maybin says. "A lot of people would use losing your mother like that as an excuse."
He was fortunate. Less than two years later, his father remarried, and Maybin's stepmother, an English missionary named Violette Grant, proved to be the person who understood best the way he used art to process his emotions. He had struggled to read as a young child, but he remembers how she patiently sat with him as they worked their way through a "Lion King" book. Something clicked, and he suddenly was transformed into a voracious reader and seeker of knowledge.
He sang in the choir, played the saxophone, acted in school plays — pursuits that did not exactly throw him in with the cool kids.
"Art is not the typical passion for an African-American kid growing up in Baltimore, especially not for a boy," he says. "I was an awkward, outcast, goofy kid."
He notes that as he grew and his superior athletic ability became apparent, his artistic activities became "dope" to the same people who'd ridiculed him. The hypocrisy of this clearly bothers him.
He believes we categorize young people too early and thus limit their horizons. It's an issue he ponders in relation to his 2-year-old son, Arian.
"He's kind of told what he's going to be by everybody else," Maybin says. "He's big, so it's, 'Oh, he's going to play sports. You're going to be a football player and go to the NFL.' People tell my son that all the time, and I clap back at them. Like, 'Nah, he's going to do whatever he wants to do. What if he wants to own a team?' He's not going to be raised by everybody categorizing him."
Through his nonprofit Project Mayhem foundation, he works to provide creative opportunities for students at Baltimore schools where arts programs have been de-emphasized. He wants art to serve as a form of therapy for kids as they cope with trauma in their daily lives.
From the time he was an adolescent, Maybin told people he would be an NFL player and then a professional artist.
Don't be fooled by Maybin's fixation on free expression; he's no flighty character. For years, he has set long-range goals and made detailed plans to meet them.
After his family moved to Ellicott City so that he could attend Mount Hebron, he routinely woke up before dawn, filled his backpack with weights and ran the 1.2 miles to school, where he worked out before the first bell. He repeated the routine in reverse every afternoon.
"People got to know me, and they would honk at me along Route 99," he recalls. "Even then, my attitude was, 'This is what I want. This is how I'll do it.' That's how I live life."
He really did love football — the camaraderie among teammates, the mental sparring with the player standing across the line of scrimmage.
He shared with his father the dream of earning a scholarship to Penn State.
But it was probably at the famed football school where he first grasped the inherent conflict between his individualism and the social demands of the sport.
Specifically, he clashed with coach Joe Paterno about his lack of playing time and his desire to pledge the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Maybin says he was determined to find a well-rounded college experience rather than live entirely within the football program.
"Joe, his thing was control," he says. "And I'm not a guy where you're going to tell me how to live my life."
So it's fascinating that Maybin keeps a portrait he painted of Paterno above the fireplace in his studio. He was also among the former Nittany Lions who publicly supported Paterno after the coach was fired because of the sex-crime scandal involving longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
He says he grew to respect the force of Paterno's old-fashioned convictions and to appreciate his late coach's efforts to protect his players.
"The guy he was helped make me who I am," he says.
When Maybin finally became a starter in his third year at Penn State, he quickly emerged as the kind of quick, relentless pass rusher NFL scouts adore.
"Of all the kids I've mentored and watched, Aaron Maybin was as athletically gifted as any of them," former Penn State and Washington Redskins star LaVar Arrington says.
Public struggle, private pain
The Buffalo Bills picked him in the first round, thinking he'd quickly jolt a moribund defense. But Maybin's rookie year began inauspiciously with a contract dispute that dragged into training camp.
"I started off behind the eight ball in the court of public opinion," he says.
He played sparingly as a rookie, then lost his chief advocate when coach Dick Jauron was fired. Jauron's replacement, Chan Gailey, made little secret of his disdain for Maybin's play. The Bills recognized he was in terrific shape and played hard, but team officials griped about his inability to put on weight and his resulting weakness against the run. Nicknamed "Mayhem," he was regarded as a loud and hyper presence in the locker room whose production did not justify his eccentricities.
Maybin also coped with tragedy in his personal life.
The same day his eldest daughter, Tacori, was born (now 5, she lives in Philadelphia with her mother), a son by a different mother was stillborn.
Beyond such private pain, Maybin sensed the Bills — and maybe the NFL at large — never would stop pressing him to become a tamer personality.
"It's never direct," he says. "It's always: 'Maybe you shouldn't spend so much time doing this. Or maybe you shouldn't go back to Baltimore in the offseason. Maybe you should train here instead.'"
He doesn't blame the institution.
"You understand that if you sign your name on this dotted line, you commit to be on this team and represent this franchise," he says. "It's all laid out there in black and white what's required of you. You're agreeing to go along with it. My whole thing is, I've never been a person who felt comfortable giving that much of myself away."
Arrington, now an NFL Network analyst, says Maybin's personality was not a poor fit for the NFL so much as Buffalo was the wrong spot for him to land.
"Some guys thrive in an environment where they're not winning; some guys don't," Arrington says. "He was a guy who needed more structure and more teaching, the kind he would have gotten in a place that already had a great system in place."
The one coach who never squelched Maybin's personality was former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whom he first met when he attended Mount Hebron with Ryan's children.
It was Ryan who called when Maybin hit a low point, having been released by the Bills and coping with the untimely death of his aunt, Dolores, who had been his personal chef and caretaker.
"We're playing in Baltimore this Sunday," Ryan said as Maybin listened from his parents' home in South Carolina. "Can you get to the quarterback?"
The call jarred Maybin from his depression, and he went on to his best NFL season for Ryan's New York Jets, leading the team with six sacks and forcing four fumbles.
"He sees guys for who they are and appreciates them for it," Maybin says of Ryan. "If he asked me to run through a brick wall for him, I would."
In interviews at the time, he spoke of becoming an even greater all-around force during the 2012 season. But it wasn't to be. His production dropped, and the Jets released him late in the season.
He went to training camp with the Bengals the following season and was cut again. Cincinnati was featured on the HBO series "Hard Knocks" that preseason, and clips of Maybin from the show suggest a player whose attention was already shifting to his art.
That made sense to his sister, who'd been so captivated by his artistic vision that she used to sneak into his childhood room to stare at his drawings and read his poems. She knew her brother would find a rich life beyond the game.
"I didn't want him to waste more years of his life," says Connie Maybin, now a student at South Carolina State.
Her brother had played his last NFL down.
'A reflection of the times'
As Maybin speaks, he periodically bounds up to add a touch of paint to an in-progress work he calls "The Willie Lynch Theory." It's based on a historical narrative he read about a British slaver who fancied himself an expert at creating social divisions in the slave population.
The work centers on a light-skinned figure and a dark-skinned figure, facing off with boxing gloves. Other images of division — man versus woman, black versus white, Africa versus the United States — fill out the canvas. A sinister image of the slaver looms in the background.
"I try to, in an eloquent way, paint terrible truths," Maybin says.
He thinks of artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, inextricably linked to certain epochs in New York history.
"That's what I want my work to be, a reflection of the times," he says.
For that reason, his first instinct when he heard of civil unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in police custody in April was to grab his camera and head for the front lines. He ended up documenting those unsettling days through hundreds of photographs posted on Instagram.
One of the most prominent pieces in his studio is a painting of eight clenched fists thrust in the air at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues, where angry residents burned a CVS Pharmacy.
He hopes to influence the times not only with his art — currently showing at the Joseph Gross Gallery in the Chelsea section of New York — but also through Project Mayhem and as an art curator for the One Baltimore initiative launched by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Brown, his artistic mentor, says Maybin's work has improved greatly since he left the NFL. He describes his protege as a mix of good technical ability, "hip-hop flair" and a probing desire to depict modern black consciousness.
He knows some people won't take Maybin seriously because he was a football player.
"They're going to be thrown that this guy who looks like Adonis can paint, and then they're going to ask why he's not still playing," Brown says. "In a weird way, he's still having to justify himself."
But Arrington says anyone who looks at Maybin's life and sees failure is off base.
"He's such a Renaissance man," he says. "I'm proud of him for being true to who he is. My prayer for him is to have peace with himself."
Maybin does not live lavishly, but the money he made playing football allows him to keep his parents in a nice house in Hilton Head, to help pay his siblings' tuition bills and to care for his children without worry. Unlike many artists, he never has to take a commission if his heart is not in the project.
"If anybody ever came in and said, 'I need a painting to match this rug or this couch,' I might spit at their feet," he says. "This is not that. This work carries a heavy message because I want the message to reach far."
When he's not painting furiously, he likes to take in the sweep of the city from his third-floor roof deck — the bustle of downtown office buildings on one side, the hulking industrial port beyond the waterfront, the surrounding rowhouses of East Baltimore. When he needs to dial down his multitrack mind, he heads up there to sit on his yoga mat or barbecue with friends.
He can see M&T Bank Stadium from the deck. But the NFL is far away.