Stallworth: 'Be cognizant of your decisions'

WESTMINSTER, Md. – Sometimes, early in the morning, just as the sun climbs over the water, Steve Boucher rises to take the drive. He does not know why he does this, except that he has done it more than 30 times since the accident. Soon he is rolling across the causeway toward Miami's South Beach, past the silhouettes of cruise ships and darkened husks of harbor cranes until, at last, he reaches the point where Donte' Stallworth's(notes) car hit a crane operator named Mario Reyes as Reyes dashed across the highway right before dawn more than a year ago.

Then Boucher stares into the gauzy light and tries to understand what it felt like that morning when Reyes died and his friend's life would never be the same. Yet understanding doesn't bring comfort.

He sighed into the phone one recent afternoon. Everything that happened on and resulted from the morning of March 14, 2009, is so incongruous with the man he knows: Stallworth, legally drunk with a blood alcohol content level of .12, subsequently was arrested, convicted, sentenced and suspended from football.

Overshadowed, though, is what Stallworth did after it was clear he had accidentally killed a man with his car. He ordered his lawyers to accept a plea deal that convicted him of a felony even when evidence showed he had an excellent chance of being found innocent. He said Reyes' death was enough of his fault that there shouldn't be a trial and Reyes' family shouldn't have to sit in a courthouse and relive his death all over again.

"He did the right thing," said Boucher, who has known Stallworth since his rookie year of 2002. "I'm more proud of him as a friend for the way he handled this than I was before this situation happened."

Perhaps, in this world of athletes who can't be trusted, it is hard to believe Donte' Stallworth is getting a second chance at football. An athlete convicted of second-degree felony manslaughter is rarely worthy of our respect. Michael Vick(notes) and Plaxico Burress(notes) spent far longer time in jail than Stallworth's 24 days – and they never killed another person. But in the aftermath of one bad decision came many good ones. And it is on those which we should judge too.

[Read more: Troubled athletes who have made comebacks

"He could have taken 15 different approaches," Boucher said. "He could have had people persuade him to take a more aggressive [defensive] position. He wouldn't do that. He took responsibility.

"His biggest concern was for the gentleman's daughter. He wanted [Reyes'] family to know he was remorseful."

Over and over, members of Stallworth's elite team of attorneys shouted at him to fight the charges. They said there was no way to prove who was at fault. Reyes, after all, dashed across a busy freeway to catch a bus near a green light that rarely turns red. There was other evidence, never released to the public, Boucher said, that the lawyers wanted to give that would aid Stallworth's case. Still he said no.

"The irony," said one of Stallworth's attorneys, David Cornwell, "is that a lot of the media and public was angry with the deal that he took. And the thing they wanted, for him to go to trial, was the thing he was trying to avoid for the family."

Stallworth stood this week just off the side of the practice field at the Baltimore Ravens training camp. He signed with the Ravens in February, not long after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had lifted his suspension. It seems a perfect fit: The Ravens (who had yet to acquire Anquan Boldin(notes)) were in desperate need of receivers, and Stallworth needed someone to give him a chance.

He did not want to talk about the accident, having discussed it so many times before. This is a time for football, for a new team, for a rebirth. For a moment, he seemed to gaze at the Maryland hills which roll into the distance.

"Any little decision you make will have a subsequent reaction," he said softly. "Be cognizant of your decisions."

He said he says this to everyone he meets now: teammates, friends, children.

"To anybody who will listen," he said.

Stallworth pled guilty on June 16, 2009 and immediately began his jail sentence.
(The Miami Herald/AP Photo)

Then he added: "With guys being on the stage and the amount of money we get, you tend to trust that certain things will happen to you in life. It's only human nature to think that way."

But he is quick to say he never thought of himself as entitled. He never saw himself falling out of control. He simply made a bad decision – one he wishes he could take back, one he knows he can never fully repair.

On that morning he woke up thirsty, a source close to Stallworth said. He looked around his apartment for water. Finding none and seeing it was almost morning, he decided to go for breakfast. Minutes later, his car collided with Reyes.

"Everything has been challenged," Stallworth said. "My faith has been tested. My character has been tested. I try to think positive for everybody."

He's always been a little different than most other football players. When teams needed someone to go to schools and clinics and youth camps, he was the one they called. He always said "yes."

When he was with the Saints, his first NFL team, and Katrina roared through New Orleans, he was one of the most active players in the rebuilding. Even after the Saints traded him to Philadelphia before their first season back in the Superdome, he kept returning, offering support.

In his year away from football, he read. He loves politics. Cornwell remembers walking into Stallworth's apartment and spying a biography of John Foster Dulles lying on the coffee table.

"Are you reading this?" Cornwell asked. Stallworth nodded.

But Stallworth's particular fascination during his time away became 9-11. Almost a decade after the attacks, he is obsessed with the way the world turned and policy changed that day.

"I don't know how to say this nicely, but everything's a conspiracy to him," Boucher said with a laugh.

Stallworth shook his head at the thought. But he admitted he has read most of the Sept. 11 theories out there. He has opinions. He has seen freedoms lost in the name of security and it bothers him. He talks about it with friends. He brings it up to teammates. And often they smile and shake their heads.

"A lot of people don't always like my opinions on these things," he said.

Then he smiled.

"I'm not going to believe everything I am told," he said. "I'm going to find it out for myself."

The Ravens are Stallworth's fifth team in eight seasons.
(Maxwell Kruger/US Presswire)

Still, a curious mind in a game where players are rewarded for not asking "Why?" is hardly a defense for what happened that morning in Miami – just as the fact Stallworth tucked a few old copies of The Economist in his bag for reading during lulls in camp isn't enough to win over a public skeptical of athletes who find themselves in trouble.

Conversely, the way he handled the accident and Reyes' death should say something about character, and perhaps say he is someone worthy of a second chance. That is why Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was quick to pursue Stallworth after Goodell lifted his one-year ban in February. Baltimore needed a receiver, and Newsome had asked around about Stallworth. Ravens receivers coach Jim Hostler had coached Stallworth in New Orleans and head coach John Harbaugh was a defensive backs coach with the Eagles when Stallworth was with Philadelphia. They enthusiastically supported the pursuit.

Newsome had dealt with similar situations in the past, when Ray Lewis(notes) was charged with manslaughter and running back Jamal Lewis(notes) was arrested for helping set up a drug deal. He knew the team could handle any aftermath of Stallworth's accident. Then he began interviewing receivers coming out of college. Several said they had worked out in the previous months with Stallworth in Miami, and raved about the advice and help he gave them. Newsome was sold.

"Is he humbled by it?" Newsome asks in reference to the accident. "Yes. Nobody understands what he is going through internally."

Newsome went to the other Ravens executives and said: "Just spend a half hour with this guy; you will see."

Stallworth, released a week earlier by the Browns, was signed on Feb. 17. Stallworth, the team's No. 3 receiver behind Derrick Mason(notes) and Boldin, has sparkled in camp. The other day, he reached behind cornerback Fabian Washington(notes) to tip a pass into the air and then catch it, all while running full speed – a play that left the coaching staff stunned.

Yet football offers only a temporary escape. There are reminders everywhere, even in simple things such as asking teammates for rides since he is not allowed to drive – a fact he does not disclose as a complaint but simply a reality of what happened that morning in 2009.

"What he's going to get out of this, he is going to be able to teach a lot of people," Boucher said. "They are going to be able to say: 'I'm going to make a better decision than Donte' did that day.' "