Donte Stallworth tries to make most of opportunity with Redskins

Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST

Because he can’t drive, Donte Stallworth gets picked up most mornings before 7. Usually, fellow Washington Redskins wide receiver Jabar Gaffney will shoot by, or it’ll be Bobby Crumpler, the team’s director of player programs.

Because Stallworth is riding shotgun, the music is all over the map — from Notorious B.I.G. to R.E.M. — and because it’s Stallworth, so is the early-morning conversation. Football, sure, but also current events, philosophy and especially politics.

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“He’s into it more than any other athlete I’ve seen,” Gaffney said. “Any time I’m around his house, he tries to put it on CNN, and I change it quickly.”

Stallworth is midway through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and reads the Economist and U.S. News & World Report on a weekly basis. He estimates that 95 percent of his bookshelf deals with U.S. history or psychological self-help. His active Twitter feed reflects that, as he might discuss nuclear arms one minute and gay rights the next. He quotes Einstein, Emerson, Locke and that philosopher of the hardwood, John Wooden.

Stallworth tweeted on Nov. 9, “The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us,” quoting Voltaire.

It’s a good reminder for Stallworth, 31, a nine-year NFL veteran who drew national headlines two years ago when he drove drunk and hit and killed another man in Miami. Stallworth spent more than three weeks in jail, struck a plea deal and accepted a year-long suspension from the NFL. He’s had plenty of time since then to think.

He knew he couldn’t control how the world responded to his actions or whether they’d ever forgive him. The bigger question Stallworth faced: Could he forgive himself?

He had everything

Barred from football in 2009, Stallworth located a therapist in Miami with the NFL’s help. They met weekly and no topic was off-limits: the accident, football, childhood.

Stallworth grew up in Sacramento. His mother ran track when she was younger, so she taught all four of her children how to run. They practiced the long jump in the living room, and Donna Stallworth would measure their progress from year to year.

His parents separated when he was 9 years old, and Stallworth consumed motherly maxims about taking responsibility, being honest, maintaining a positive attitude.

“He always told me that he hated when I went to work,” said Donna Stallworth, a retired nurse. “ ‘I hate it when you go to work. One day I’m going to be a football player and buy you a big house and a big car.’ Those were his exact words.”

Shy and introspective, Stallworth’s speed was particularly loud. His potential was apparent early and anyone who saw him figured he was destined for at least a college career.

“He knew he was good, but he would never talk about it,” said Mike Alberghini, his coach at Grant High. “He just kind stayed in the background.”

Stallworth attended Tennessee, which won a national championship as he redshirted in 1998. Following his junior season, he decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL.

New Orleans selected him with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Former Saints head coach Jim Haslett said his blazing 40-yard dash speeds — timed 4.18 to 4.23 seconds in predraft workouts — put him high on the team’s board.

“His speed, his athleticism — he seemed to have everything,” Haslett said.

Bearing the burden

There’s still a stigma in many team sports when it comes to mental health, and Stallworth had to accept that his problems had become too big to handle on his own.

“Sometimes I get myself in trouble thinking I’m smarter than I really am, thinking I can deal with them on my own,” he said. “I found out, if you need help, it doesn’t mean you’re a nut case, it doesn’t mean you’re a loony. Everybody needs somebody to talk to.”

He and his Miami therapist, of course, discussed the accident. The details were never really in dispute.

Stallworth spent the early-morning hours of March 14, 2009, at a swank South Beach club. After hours of drinking, he took a taxi home. He didn’t stay long, though, and when Stallworth left the house about 7 a.m., he was still drunk.

His Bentley struck 59-year-old Mario Reyes, who had just finished working the overnight shift as a crane operator for a shipping company. Stallworth told police he honked his horn and flashed his lights but was unable to avoid Reyes. Stallworth stayed at the scene and told police everything. Blood results would reveal a blood-alcohol level of .126, and Stallworth was charged with DUI manslaughter two weeks later.

“It made it even worse to think that Mr. Reyes had a 15-year-old daughter and knowing that she’d never be able to see her father again and she’d grow up without him,” Stallworth says today. “That’s something that will always be with me.”

Stallworth faced up to 15 years in prison, but he eventually accepted a plea deal in which he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years of house arrest and eight years of probation. He also was ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service, lost his license for at least five years and reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the victim’s family.

“I will bear this burden for the rest of my life,” Stallworth told judge at the time.

It bought him little leniency in the court of public opinion. Stallworth served less time for killing a man than Michael Vick did for fighting dogs or Plaxico Burress for illegal gun possession. An ESPN poll revealed that two-thirds of football fans said they wouldn’t want Stallworth on their team. Though part of Stallworth’s plea called for donations to anti-drunk-driving organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving refused his money.

“A lot of people just don’t know he’s really a terrific person,” said Alberghini, Stallworth’s high school coach, “how sincere he was about how he felt about what happened.”

A painful exercise

With his NFL career on hold, Stallworth had a lot to process.

“When I first saw him it felt like he was a baby all over again,” his mother said. “It was heartbreaking to see him and know what he was up against.”

Stallworth knew if he was ever going to forgive himself, he had to understand how his actions impacted others. It was a painful exercise, but Stallworth had always prided himself on looking at all sides of an issue. He reads books authored by conservatives and liberals alike. “In 2008 when Obama was running for office, I would tell guys in the locker room: ‘Listen, don’t vote for him just because he’s black. Listen to what he’s saying; see if you like what he’s talking about,’ ” Stallworth said. “I always want people to think for themselves, not get caught up in the politics of life.”

He says he tried to express his contrition, tried to handle the case in a sensitive manner and hoped to somehow limit the pain he’d brought on the Reyes family. As prosecutors and Stallworth’s attorneys discussed a plea deal, the State Attorney’s office took into consideration the family’s wishes. Reyes’s widow and daughter apparently didn’t need to see Stallworth behind bars.

Neither the Reyes family nor their attorney responded to messages seeking comment for this article.

“That was very shocking that from everything they had seen and gone through, they realized I wasn’t this guy in the media: a spoiled, overpaid, out-of-control athlete who didn’t care about anyone else,” Stallworth said.

“That was probably one of the biggest reasons for me to start the process of healing and for me to forgive myself. I always look at things from someone else's perspective, if the roles were reversed — with them forgiving me, that was huge. That helped me out a lot mentally.”

Another opportunity

At Redskins Park, Haslett, now the Redskins’ defensive coordinator, will catch Stallworth around the facility often as the day winds down.

“What are you still doing here?” Haslett asks.

“Things I should’ve been doing nine or 10 years ago,” the player says, “taking care of my body.”

“Well, at least you’re doing it now.”

On Nov. 8, the Redskins released Stallworth. He returned to Miami uncertain if he’d ever play again. During his suspension, Stallworth never doubted whether he’d return to the NFL. But he’d had barely a half-dozen catches since 2008 and failed to make an impact with Baltimore in 2010 or Washington in 2011. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.

A week later, though, the Redskins lost rookie Leonard Hankerson for the season and Stallworth’s phone rang. Another opportunity. Maybe the last one.

Five days later, in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Stallworth posted 51 yards on four catches — equaling the most he’d had in a game since 2007. His first touchdown since ’08 tied the game and forced overtime.

Still, Stallworth knows life in the NFL is tenuous. He has all of 11 receptions since 2008. After showing promise in his rookie campaign, he never hit the 1,000-yard mark. Stallworth thinks he has plenty of football in him; he hopes it’s not too late.

“I just look back at my career now as a ninth-year player, a 31-year old man and I’m disappointed with what I didn’t do back then. I’ve told myself that will never happen again, not just in football but in life,” Stallworth said.

“You can’t change the past, but you can do something about the future. You have to take advantage of every opportunity when they come because you never know when it’s all going to be over.”

 
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