Reporters in Texas and Florida have spent the last week chasing the bizarre story of Jerry Joseph, a high school basketball player at Permian High in Odessa, Texas (of Friday Night Lights fame), who was accused by a high school coach from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of being someone else entirely: Coach Louis Vives spotted Joseph earlier this year at a tournament in Arkansas and was convinced the 16-year-old sophomore was actually one of Vives' former star players, Guerdwich Montimere, who graduated Dillard (Fla.) High in 2007.
Federal immigration officials determined through fingerprinting that Joseph and Montimere are not the same person. They also determined that Joseph, who enrolled at Permian last year as a homeless student and lives with his coach, is in the country illegally from Haiti, and is not related to the man who signed an affidavit claiming to be his half-brother when Joseph enrolled. And this isn't the first time this has happened in high school hoops this year.
The story is reminiscent of college football's greatest (modern) case of, uh, borrowed identity, Ron Weaver, the 30-year-old backup cornerback who convinced Texas he was a 23-year-old junior college transfer named Ron McElvey, right up until he was forced to bail on the team just days before the 1996 Sugar Bowl when his cover was blown by a newspaper in his hometown in California. Weaver started out as a junior college player at Monterey Peninsula College in 1984, and moved on to become an all-conference player at Division II Sacramento State, where he used up his eligibility in 1988.
From there, Weaver tried out with the Houston Oilers, failed to catch on in Canada and matriculated home to Salinas, Calif., to work in the family liquor store. By 1990, his football ambitions should have faded into the pleasant, respectable oblivion reserved for millions of aging athletes moving into the next phase of their lives. Weaver wasn't quite ready to let go:
... working in the liquor store felt like a dead end, especially to someone still adrift in his dreams, and except for a chance meeting there with a young man named Joel McKelvey, it provided no opportunity for a future. "It's a liquor store," Weaver says. "It would be there whether I was or not." So, in August 1992, when his coach from Monterey Peninsula College asked him if he was interested in helping out, Weaver jumped and became an unpaid assistant, coaching the defensive backs. And Weaver, running drills alongside these kids, thought to himself: I can still do this.
And with that thought, a scheme was born. Weaver would occasionally run into McKelvey, then a 20-year-old purchaser for Weyerhaeuser, at the liquor store and at a local gym where they both worked out. Weaver did not select McKelvey so much for his size or shape as for his color and age. "He was a young African-American," says Weaver, "and that was all I needed." In fact, McKelvey, an avid weightlifter, was roughly Weaver's size, but no matter. Because McKelvey is Jewish and wouldn't play on the Sabbath, he had never participated in any organized sport. For an alter ego, McKelvey wasn't much of a match. But for someone about to enroll in junior college, McKelvey's high school class of 1990 was about right.
McKelvey apparently gave up his name with the good-natured ease of someone who never expects the other guy to go through with the joke, but Weaver was serious: With only a fake name and an on-the-spot social security number, Weaver enrolled at Pierce College in Los Angeles, impressed the coaches there during a routine tryout (he wasn't recruited out of high school, he told them, because he was "a late bloomer") and quickly became one of the best athletes on the team. He switched the fake SSN with McKelvey's real number, got a job waiting tables under his name and set up a checking account in McKelvey's name. The Pierce team was terrible, but by his second season Weaver had improved enough to be an all-state pick and earn some attention from a few major schools – including Texas, which made him a late addition to its 1995 roster as Ron McKelvey.
He made it through admissions in Austin with only the associate's degree from Pierce, and stuck with the team – his fourth – throughout his seventh season of college ball. He played a little, mainly on special teams, but also got on the field on defense in blowouts, at one point costing the 'Horns a shutout on a blown coverage in a 48-7 win over Texas Tech. He asked to redshirt, to afford him another year on the team. The UT media guide listed his favorite movie as "Casablanca."
It wasn't until someone at a newspaper in Salinas, the Californian, happened to see "North Salinas High" next to McKelvey's name that anyone actually began to ask questions about his background. The paper got a hold of a few pictures of Ron Weaver, confirmed his identity through his mom (who thought her son was in Texas for a job) and somehow got Weaver himself to own up to the con from the team hotel in New Orleans, where he told a reporter he was undercover, "working on a book." The story came out in California on Dec. 30, and all hell broke loose: Weaver bought time with coach John Mackovic by promising to produce some positive ID, but wound up stealing away from his hotel room the day before UT was scheduled to play Virginia Tech. Because everyone associated with the team was deemed ignorant of the situation and Weaver hadn't remotely affected the outcome of any game, the NCAA declined to act against Texas for playing an ineligible player; Weaver, despite an initial FBI investigation, avoided jail time by pleading guilty to misusing a Social Security number. He backtracked on the claim he was writing a book, and none exists.
As much as it would make my year as a blogger, this story could never happen in today's plugged-in infoverse: With the obsessive tentacles of recruiting web sites, increased emphasis on compliance and vastly simplified background checks, inventing an identity out of whole cloth is inconceivable outside of a labyrinthine conspiracy of such high risk and modest reward that almost no one would dare to attempt. (If anyone who wanted to play that badly was actually good enough to make the team, he'd probably already be on the team.) It's amazing that Weaver's scheme made it as far as it did as late as the mid-nineties. Somewhere, way back in the dusty-paper-file days, maybe someone pulled it off. Maybe. Probably. If they've got a story to tell now that the statute of limitations has worn off, they know how to find me.