Cloaked in darkness, 10 Drug Enforcement Administration agents close in on a rickety trailer in rural Navarro County. They're about 55 miles south of Dallas just off Interstate 45 in a typically barren, woodsy section of North Texas, unspectacular in its rustic appeal--or its drug problem. Like any other county in any other state, whether replete with big cities or septic tanks, Navarro has a fair share of degenerates mixed among its 40,000 or so upstanding citizens. Somewhere inside the trailer are four to six troublemakers who are currently nurturing a most unstable, potentially explosive blend of methamphetamines in a do-it-yourself lab. The obvious objective is to refine the intoxicating chemicals for sale to street pushers at an impressive profit.
This, of course, is why the DEA, with the assistance of the Navarro County Sheriff's Office, is here.
Slowly, carefully, the raid team makes its way toward the trailer's door. Only a stream of cold breath on this chilly evening six months ago gives notice of their nighttime arrival. Among the party crashers is Special Agent Keith Bishop. He is an eight-year veteran of the DEA--not that the experience quells his anxiety. It's a prerequisite, the heightened awareness and accelerated heartbeat--as common a companion as the all-black, flame retardant clothes and boots, or weighty handcuffs and retractable baton.
"You never know what to expect once you go through the door," Bishop says months later, recalling the operation. As his eyes narrow and focus, it's as though he's there again, in Navarro County, readying to bust down the door instead of recounting tales of the sortie from this nondescript room in this uninteresting office building that the Dallas DEA calls home. "It's a real team effort. There's a lot of trust that goes into an operation. You have to have complete faith in your group because everyone has a different responsibility. Everyone who goes in reacts off of what the first guy through the door does."
On this particular seizure attempt, Bishop is slotted to be one of the first four guys through the entrance. Attached to his hip is a Glock .45 caliber pistol; slung over his shoulder is an M-16 fully automatic assault rifle; protecting his chest is a bullet-resistant Kevlar vest. Notice that's not bullet-proof--DEA agents wear bullet-resistant jackets because they're lighter and allow for more maneuverability, though the vests don't have the stopping power of the other models. Lucky them.
But he isn't worried about being vulnerable. Bishop, in fact, thinks none of that stuff--neither the Kevlar nor the firearms--will be needed. Still, the adrenaline whips through his veins and his senses are fully alert. He lives for this rush, or maybe the rush lives for him. After all, he's a constant catalyst for action. His whole life has been spent this way, doing things the rest of us only dream about or catch on TV. Here, now, he seems more than 10 years removed from his former occupation as an All-Pro offensive lineman with the Denver Broncos. One who went from being a relatively unknown sixth-round draft pick out of Baylor University in 1980 to a starting guard on three AFC Championship teams before retiring in 1990. One who let fly, from usually pursed lips, the most famous words on the most famous drive in playoff history. One who protected the invaluable right arm of John Elway throughout the latter-half of the '80s and in three Super Bowls. One who was as revered for his pleasant disposition as he was feared for his enormous ability and stature.
Professional football, to be sure, was exhilarating in its own right--the travel and fame and adoration of 60,000-plus screaming fans--but ultimately it was just a game. Miss a block, what's the big deal? What's the worst that could happen? A few people grumble? His teammates are pissed? The head coach chews him out?
It wasn't like this, where he's a Tom Clancy character come to life, where one mistake could prove disastrous. Miss a bad guy with a loaded weapon and things could go horribly awry. For Keith Bishop, that kind of misstep might mean the difference between kissing his wife, Mary, and his three children goodnight, or becoming a statistic. Or, just as grimly, watching a dear friend and co-worker suffer the same undesirable fate.
It's funny. He was a celebrity not long ago, a flesh-and-blood deity in Denver, as were most of the Broncos. He could have retired to a ranch in a neighboring suburb, could have bought a car dealership or coached a college team or wasted away on a veranda sipping lemonade and milking the glory years for all their worth. It's an existence so many of us fantasize about while we're stuck on congested roadways or arguing with incompetent superiors.
If only I had the money and the time, I'd...
Keith Bishop could have made our fantasy a reality. But that would have been a hollow, shallow existence, more death than life. Only now has he found true purpose, working to put drug dealers away and trying his hardest to rid countless communities of a particular ill.
In a very real way, Bishop is saving lives--and risking them, as he is about to be reminded.
As the agents announce themselves to the vagrants inside the trailer, they hear clamoring but no audible response. No one bothers to answer the door (if you were making a bunch of illegal narcotics and someone yelled "Police!" outside, would you play Suzie Homemaker and see who'd just come knocking?).
Needless to say, the raiding party has to double as its own welcoming committee.
"Yeah," says Jimmie Spencer, a captain with the Navarro County Sheriff's Department, who regularly works with the Dallas DEA and Bishop and was present that night, "we had to go and open the door ourselves."
That, Spencer says, is when things got animated.
Once inside, the agents order the suspects to stay where they are and raise their hands. They comply. That is, most of them comply. While the others stand motionless, one of the "chemists" chooses a more proactive option, grabbing a nearby rag and setting it aflame.
"He was trying to blow us all up, the lab and all of us," Bishop says. No doubt some of his graying, thinning hair comes compliments of the incident. "All that stuff is very combustible, not just the chemicals, but the vapor. If there had been ether where he was aiming that rag..."
He trails off, but you know the rest. There's no ref here, no one to call a penalty for unnecessary roughness by a meth freak. The consequences could be dire.
Fortunately, as the suspect does his best to flambé the unwanted guests and everyone else present, Bishop notices the individual and immediately responds. At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, the 43-year-old still has the quickness that made him one of the best linemen in football nearly a decade earlier. Bishop swiftly reaches the would-be pyro and "detains" him (which is probably DEA-speak for "ass-whuppin' ") before the trailer home goes kaboom. No one was there with a stopwatch, but you suspect it would have made for an impressive time in the 40. Good thing, too, because if Bishop had been a second or two too slow, they might all be fricasseed.
"That situation kind of aroused our attention," Spencer, who's been with the Sheriff's Department for nearly 27 years, says matter-of-factly. "There's always that chance that something could go wrong. Luckily, we've all come out OK. DEA does one thing: It takes great precaution in protecting their agents and accompanying law enforcement. They're highly trained."
Maybe, but that wouldn't make the average Joe sleep any more soundly if he'd almost gotten killed on a drug raid. Too much drama. But Keith Bishop isn't most of us, he's always been special in one way or another. He says he doesn't think about that stuff. Says he doesn't let it bother him. Says if he did, it would affect his job and the livelihood of his group.
"It's a team effort," Bishop repeats through gray-blue eyes. Wearing a baby-blue button-down shirt, blue jeans, and reptile-skin cowboy boots, he looks and talks like the Midland native he is, though his wit and intelligence belie any stereotype you can think of about country boys. "In those situations, you revert back to your training. Hopefully, you've trained well and you've developed good habits. You hope your team has, too. There's a lot of trust that goes into it. It's not about one person, it's about the team."
It's a cliché, that team thing, but you excuse it because, well, in Keith Bishop's world it's not rhetoric, it's truth. Always has been.
While most NFL players worry about contracts and endorsements, television appearances, and statistics, Bishop managed to avoid all that hubbub. Some of it had to do with the anonymity associated with the position he played--how many high-profile offensive linemen can you name off the top of your head?--but most of it had to do with the kind of person he is. Ask around and you quickly discover that Bishop was the anti-neo-jock, that he worried about the Broncos and his family more than he worried about himself. Strange, especially seeing how plenty of athletes would gladly Gillooly their mothers for an extra hundred grand in signing bonuses.
It's that quality, that us-first-me-never attitude, that no doubt endeared him to his teammates, the Denver faithful, and his coaches. In a 1997 Denver Post story, Adam Schefter wrote that "there was a reason offensive line coach Alex Gibbs loved Keith Bishop; though he had limited skills, Bishop was a massive overachiever and a two-time Pro Bowl selection."
Neither of which defines his career on the field. Rather, Bishop will forever be remembered for one particular sequence of one particular game.
In 1986, with 4:25 remaining and 98 yards between Denver and the end zone, the Broncos had the weight of the world, or at least the mile-high community, on their shoulders in the AFC championship game at Cleveland. Things seemed bleak at best, hopeless at worst. The team was tight, unsure, nervy. To compound their problems, the Dawg Pound (the Browns' notoriously vocal cheering section) began throwing batteries and eggs at the Broncos. Both found their mark, intermittently smashing against Bishop's helmet.
With chaos surrounding him and plenty of tension in the huddle, Bishop broke a glacier's worth of ice in the huddle with a joke, saying "We've got 'em right where we want 'em." Everyone laughed. Funnier still, his statement proved prophetic. The Broncos, thanks to some theatrics by Elway, moved smartly down the field for a game-tying score that eventually propelled them to their first Super Bowl. It was such an incredible comeback that the feat is simply and widely referred to now as "The Drive." (Meanwhile, in the Mistake by the Lake, they still hold support groups for disconsolate fans.)
After that, all anyone wanted to talk about was "The Drive" and "The Quote." Did you really say that, Keith? Huh, huh, did you say it, huh? Come on, you didn't really say it, did you, huh?
Lots of press for a solid but otherwise unnoticed offensive lineman. Lots of opportunity to lose sight of himself and bask in the warm glow only a camera crew's lights can afford. He could have done it with a little help, could have sold out and parlayed the celebrity into serious coin and a famous mug. Surely a lot of us would have been tempted.
Not Keith Bishop. Not his style.
Instead, he answered questions in a polite Texas drawl and kept to himself, all the while delving into his newfound "hobby."
Some of us paint, some listen to music or jog or lift weights. Some of us do drugs or drink or go whoring. Again, Keith Bishop's not most of us. He didn't do any of that as stress relief. He rode in police cars.
Now, upon hearing that, what with him being an NFLer and all, you'd think he was getting a lift to the Pokey. (Considering all the trouble players and former players like Rae Carruth and Michael Irvin have had, the boys in blue are more chauffeur than peace-keeper to the National Football League these days.) But no, it was nothing like that. He was merely interested in what they did, wanted a first-hand look, a behind-the-scenes COPS episode for himself.
When Bishop was playing, NFL teams began using off-duty police officers to serve as plain-clothes, unarmed bodyguards of sorts. The Broncos employed several of these, including now-Deputy Chief Dave Abrams, Sgt. Mark Lewis, and technician Kenny Overman. In time, the trio was taken on the road, acting as liaisons to security details in other cities. Through the course of their travels, and during home games at Mile High Stadium, each of them became friends with Bishop, who, according to Spencer, "never meets a stranger." Being curious about law enforcement, Bishop asked if he could tag along one night. His new pals were only too happy to oblige.
"I was working night shift back then," says Lewis, who has been in Denver's Metro SWAT for 13 years, "so he'd come along usually on a Monday because they'd have off the next day. If anything major happened while we were out, he'd sit in the back seat.
"But he was always very professional. He always wanted to know how we did things. He'd inquire about the ins and outs, how paperwork got done or how it went through the court system. And when we'd see him after a game, he'd ask us about such-and-such a case, wanting to know what happened, who got probation or jail time. He was very good with specifics about cases. He was always interested, especially with the victims. He wanted to know how they were doing, if they were OK. He was concerned about people. You could just tell that."
He wasn't the only Broncos player to garner such special treatment--Steve Watson and Billy Brian, who now works for the FBI, also tagged along at times--but he was the most frequent addition to Denver's Finest. Once or twice a month he'd hitch a ride with Lewis or Overman or someone else and pick their brains. Most of it was routine--bar brawls or domestic disturbances and the like--not quite the sexy stuff you see on NYPD Blue. Regardless, whether he knew it or not at the time, Bishop was going through an informal training that would funnel his post-football career into something altogether different.
"It was kind of like for us, he was so excited to see what we do, and we were so excited to see what he does, so we all got along great," says Lewis, 50. "You could see that he respected us. He never touted himself as a pro player. He never tried to big-time us. You could see the respect was mutual. It was great to know that we got that kind of acknowledgment from him, and then for him to follow up and go into the DEA, that was very rewarding for us."
And so it was for Bishop. Eventually.
You don't just up and join the Drug Enforcement Administration like you would your local Blockbuster. They don't just hand you a badge and a gun and a book of clever one-liners (for after the really good busts) and send you on your merry way. Even for applicants with a professional athlete's pedigree, there are painstaking steps to go through.
Upon retirement in 1990, and inspired by Lewis, Overman, and Abrams, Bishop decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. His father, George, used to discuss the frightful effects of drugs with his son, used to tell him about the plague they visit on people, how they cause society to deteriorate from within. Those talks, coupled with the anti-drug stance of his Midland Lee High School coach, Jim Acree, made the DEA a good fit in Bishop's opinion.
There was only one problem. He didn't have a college diploma--the DEA requires its agents to have a four-year degree. When Bishop entered the NFL draft nearly 10 years earlier, he was 15 credit hours shy of a bachelor's in education. But, due to time elapsing and course requirements changing, when he returned to Baylor to finish school, he was informed that he owed 27 hours.
While he polished off the remaining course load, Bishop served as a volunteer assistant coach with the Bears football team. At the same time, five days a week he'd run and lift weights, preparing for possible acceptance into the DEA's strenuous training program in Quantico, Virginia.
"I slimmed down to about 240 pounds," says Bishop, whose square jaw and thick neck give him a don't-mess-with-me look. "I was in the best shape of my life." (His playing weight was a muscular 280 to 285 pounds.)
The hard work didn't go unrewarded. After earning his degree and undergoing a nine-month background check, he shipped off with 40 others for 14 weeks of training courtesy of the DEA. It wasn't easy. Each prospective agent had to pass aptitude tests ranging from a two-mile run in under 10 minutes, 30 seconds (you're not that fast) to push-ups to sit-ups to firearms. If that and the lack of sleep and physical exhaustion weren't enough, the DEA instructors caught wind of the fact that Bishop was a former NFL star. Unlike his friends in Denver's Metro SWAT, the boys at Quantico didn't think it was such an endearing quality.
"They got on me pretty good," Bishop laughs, remembering the verbal abuse. "Afterward, we got to be friends, and they told me about why they did it. They had the agency's best interests at heart. They wanted to make sure I was sincere in wanting to join the DEA."
Today, after eight years with the DEA, Bishop is seen as one of the key figures in the Dallas branch office. He's had his share of run-ins and close calls, like the Navarro County raid and an incident during a car stop. After a lengthy surveillance of a suspect, agents targeted a vehicle with a good sum of money in the trunk and pulled it over. When Bishop and his team approached the car, wearing full gear, the woman in the driver's seat put her hand inside her purse but stopped when the DEA shouted to cease her movement--good thing, too, because she was going for a pistol.
"You're not thinking 'Oh, I could have gotten hurt there,'" Bishop says, already forming 5 o'clock shadow at a little past 10 a.m. "It's more 'I'm upset that someone might have forced me to kill them in order to defend myself and my group.' I would have to live with that for the rest of my life. That's the hardest part."
So far, he hasn't been forced to fire his gun. Primarily, he works with wiretaps, helping to coordinate joint efforts between his agency and local law enforcement. In 1997, he worked on Operation META, which targeted the Amezcua-Contrara drug cartel from Mexico. It was the largest methamphetamine sting in DEA history. Bishop, local police and sheriffs departments, the FBI, customs, and DEA branches that had wires in 17 cities from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, were involved in the investigation. By the time it was all over, Operation META resulted in the arrest of 121 members of the trafficking ring and the confiscation of 1,765 pounds of marijuana, 1,100 kilograms of cocaine and 133 pounds of methamphetamine. At the time, the street sale for the bounty, using Dallas-area drug prices, would have been approximately $20 million (the cost of narcotics has since gone down, making it a buyer's market for all you interested parties out there). It's the type of effort that would have been difficult to organize without proper cooperation.
"Nowhere in law enforcement are egos bigger than in narcotics," says Dallas narcotics detective Paul Ellzey, who worked on Operation META. "And when you have local guys dealing with Feds, the right hand doesn't always know what the left hand is doing, know what I mean? But at least in Dallas, with Keith, there was an open door policy. There always is with him. Everything is on the table. With other agents, they don't always let you know what's going on. With Keith, it's not like that at all. I've worked narcotics for 23 years and bar none, he's probably the ace No. 1 guy. He has an outstanding reputation."
"He's one of those guys who always says what 'we' did," agrees Dallas sergeant Rod Bray of the Interdiction Group, who has frequently worked with Bishop. "He doesn't mind the long hours. He'll fall out of bed at four in the morning, do 'round-the-clock investigation, put in his 12-to-18 hours with everyone else, do his paper work the next day and then ask if you need a hand."
Bishop's motivation has served him well. He recently received a promotion that will make him a staff coordinator (a supervisory position) with DEA headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., in Crystal City, Virginia. It's a big step.
"As far as we're concerned, we're losing a very talented agent," says Mike Dromgoole, assistant special agent in charge at the Dallas DEA office. "It's great for the DEA, though. It's a position a lot of the senior guys want. Keith is probably two or three years ahead of what you'd expect for that type of move, especially for somebody without any prior law enforcement experience."
Whereas most of us would have careened off the track and smacked into the wall on turn three, he's had no trouble negotiating the learning curve. Already he's moving up, already he's proved more worthy than the rest.
But, like we said, Keith Bishop isn't most of us.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.