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News » Teammates defend Stallworth despite his 'terrible mistake'

Teammates defend Stallworth despite his 'terrible mistake'

Teammates defend Stallworth despite his 'terrible mistake'
By now, you've got Browns receiver Dont? Stallworth all figured out, right? The braids, the Bentley, the history of substance abuse, the DUI manslaughter charge.

Just your typical, spoiled, rich, partying athlete who has little regard for others or the law.

But those close to him say that's not the case.

"Dont? is the complete opposite of the image you may believe right now," said former Browns center LeCharles Bentley, who has known Stallworth since they were both rookies in New Orleans in 2002.

Stallworth's friends and team-

mates say he's devastated over the death of pedestrian Mario Reyes, 59, whom Stallworth struck and killed with his Bentley on the morning of March 14 in Miami Beach, according to authorities there.

He will be arraigned April 23 on charges of DUI manslaughter and faces four to 15 years in prison if convicted.

He also faces a probable suspension by the NFL for violating its conduct and substance-abuse policies.

In one fateful moment, Stallworth ended a life and altered the course of his own.

"Of course, Dont? made a poor choice, and you can never get back a life," said Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "No one knows that more than Dont?. But people should know that Dont? is a great person who made a terrible mistake, not a terrible person."

Stallworth had a blood-alcohol level of .126 - over the legal limit in Florida - according to the toxicology report.

Four days after the tragedy, he returned to Cleveland to resume working out in the Browns' off-season program. His mother, Donna, and brother Larry joined him in Cleveland for support.

At practice, Stallworth was welcomed with open arms by his teammates.

"He's one of the most well-liked guys in the locker room," said Jackson.

Signed by the Browns last off-season, Stallworth was a psychology major at Tennessee who got into long debates with his Browns teammates about religion and politics. Last fall, he was often overheard in the locker room encouraging his younger teammates to vote in the presidential election and giving them advice.

"Dont? didn't just encourage guys to vote, he basically told them they had to because it was their civic duty," said quarterback Brady Quinn.

Quinn remembered the first day Stallworth spent with the Browns.

"He got up to get some water and asked if anyone else wanted anything," the quarterback recalled. "He came back with 12 waters and Gatorades, even for some of the rookies. He was so humble and so different than I thought he'd be."

Recently, Quinn and Stallworth discussed the U.S. Treasury and the country's economic meltdown, and Stallworth came back with research he had done on the bailout.

"He's so much deeper than people would think," said Quinn.

Stallworth and Bentley, who often vacationed together, talked for hours about how to solve the world's problems.

"Dont? is extremely intelligent and civic-minded," said Bentley. "People don't know that about him because he's quiet. He doesn't let people into his inner circle easily."

A voracious reader, Stallworth often shared books with Bentley and other friends. Four of his favorites are "Strength to Love," by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; "The Alchemist," by Paulo Coelho; "The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson," by Kevin J. Hayes; and "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol," by Neil Painter.

He also mentored younger Browns such as receivers Josh Cribbs and Steve Sanders on how to be a good pro.

Of course, Stallworth wasn't always the model player and teammate he was with the Browns before the accident.

A first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints out of Tennessee in 2002, Stallworth came out as a college junior and was admittedly immature. That year, he was arrested in Miami for having someone ride on the outside of his car and pleaded guilty in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

In January 2006, he was arrested again in Miami Beach for an expired license tag and for resisting arrest after refusing to shut off his engine or hang up his cell phone. According to the police report, Stallworth told the officers "this was going to cost us a lot of money and that he would have our jobs." Stallworth was charged but never prosecuted.

In the spring of that year, Stallworth clashed with Saints coach Sean Payton and was sent home from minicamp for being late to a team meeting. By the end of training camp in August, Payton had had enough of Stallworth and traded him to Philadelphia.

Afterward, friend and Saints receiver Joe Horn was quoted as saying: "He knows in his heart why he got traded. He has to take that with him and take it to Philadelphia and be a better person, be a better receiver, be better than he was last year."

Once in Philadelphia, Stallworth said he had taken Horn's advice and matured. But the Eagles made little attempt to keep him after one season. What's more, the Philadelphia Inquirer, citing unnamed sources, reported that Stallworth was involved in the NFL's substance-abuse program and could face a suspension if he violated it.

Stallworth acknowledged his involvement in the program a week later when he signed as a free agent with the Patriots. "All that stuff is in the past," he said at the time. "There was a situation a couple of years ago, but there is nothing going on now that will affect me in preparing to help this team win."

The Patriots structured his contract so that they could easily part with Stallworth after one year. At the time, a Patriots executive said the team did so "in case Stallworth is sidelined by off-the-field problems."

But Stallworth vowed to be the consummate pro in New England.

"I made some immature decisions, and it came back to really haunt me in the past couple of years. I'm getting old," he told the Hartford Courant. "I'm 26. I only have a few years left in this game. You just begin to realize what the opportunities are. And as the years go by, the window gets smaller and smaller."

Despite apparent compliance with his program, the Patriots set him free after a year rather than pay him $8 million in bonuses. The Browns, led by then-General Manager Phil Savage, ignored some of the red flags throughout Stallworth's career and signed him to a seven-year deal worth $35 million, including $10 million guaranteed. Unlike the Patriots, the Browns didn't protect themselves in the event Stallworth veered off course.

His star-crossed tenure with Cleveland began in training camp when he inadvertently gashed fellow receiver Braylon Edwards' stocking foot with his cleat while they were running after practice. Edwards missed the final three preseason games and never returned to his 2007 Pro Bowl form. But it was Edwards who had to console Stallworth after the incident because Stallworth felt so bad.

Then, during warm-ups for the 2008 season opener against Dallas, Stallworth pulled a quad muscle and had to sit out the game. He missed the next three games and never really recovered, finishing with a career-low 17 catches for a season-low 170 yards.

Knowing he wasn't cutting it on the field, Stallworth spent as much time as possible mentoring the other players and trying to set a good example.

"He was never late for a team meeting, always willing to block somebody and go the extra mile," said Quinn.

Toward the end of the season, Stallworth vowed to rebound in 2009. On March 13, he earned a $4.5 million bonus from the Browns and went out to celebrate. The next morning, he was involved in the fatal accident.

The Browns said in a statement that they were "disappointed he put himself in this position" and might ultimately decide to cut him.

"Everyone is going to rush to judgment in situations like this," said Bentley. "But no one other than the Reyes family is more distraught about this than Dont?."

Plain Dealer reporter Bill Lubinger contributed to this story. To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: mcabot@plaind.com,216-999-4670

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 7, 2009

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