Despite Charges, Prep Football Standout Remains Tackle-Eligible
Friday, September 8, 2006
They have decided, as a team, that Pat Lazear's troubles no longer exist. He and four friends were never arrested for the robbery of a Bethesda smoothie shop. Police never charged Lazear with two felonies. The Montgomery County school system never forced him to transfer from Whitman High School before his senior year.
None of the incidents is relevant to Lazear's new football teammates at Wheaton High School, so they've instituted a simple rule: Treat Lazear as if his life began Aug. 15, when the All-Met linebacker arrived at Wheaton's practice field and revived the school's football team.
More than five months after he allegedly drove the getaway car in a felony robbery and three months after Whitman forced him to finish his junior year at home, Lazear, 17, has reclaimed his place in football's hierarchy. More than 20 Division I colleges have offered Lazear scholarships, and he will likely choose between Alabama and Ohio State. Coaches at Wheaton consider Lazear's arrival to be the luckiest incident in the team's recent history. Teammates voted Lazear captain, even though the Maryland judicial system forces him to wear a black ankle monitor so it can track his whereabouts.
Lazear will face armed robbery charges as an adult in a trial set for Nov. 29, but his football community has already rendered its own verdict: His guilt or innocence hardly matters, Wheaton players and coaches said. Lazear has transformed Wheaton into a playoff contender, and he will start on offense, defense and as the punter tonight in the season-opening game at Seneca Valley.
"We're going to keep the past in the past and let him focus on football," said Tommy Neal, Wheaton's first-year football coach. "I told him: 'I don't care what happened in the past. Let's make this situation the best for everybody.' "
Lazear had worried briefly that his high school football career had ended May 18, when police came to Whitman, an academically acclaimed school that draws its students from upscale neighborhoods in Bethesda. They arrested Lazear for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery -- charges that each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The charges stemmed from an incident March 30 when, police said, Lazear met three friends -- Justin Schweiger, Tommy Ashley and Robert Warren -- with plans to rob the Smoothie King in downtown Bethesda where classmate Alex Krouskas worked.
According to charging documents, Lazear provided a gun -- his attorney claims it was a replica not capable of firing -- and dropped Warren off at the smoothie shop. Warren allegedly showed the gun and left the store with $463. According to testimony and police statements, the Whitman classmates then switched into a different car, divided the money and met Krouskas at a pizzeria later that night. Lazear refuses to talk specifically about the charges until his trial.
In May, Whitman asked Lazear to finish his school year at home. Whitman principal Alan Goodwin recommended expulsion, but an arbiter overturned that recommendation. Montgomery County reassigned Lazear to Wheaton, where he can attend classes and play football.
"I'm just going to go out and prove what I can do on the field," Lazear said. "People can say whatever they want to say to me, but after one play they're not going to be talking anymore. A player is a player no matter where you are. That's my philosophy. I'm just trying to put this all behind me."
Lazear learned last week that moving on might be more difficult than he had hoped. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge denied Lazear's motion to move his charges to juvenile court despite a long list of character witnesses who testified on Lazear's behalf. One witness after another stepped to the stand and characterized Lazear as an athletic leader: a former judge who met Lazear at a gym; a personal trainer; a youth football coach; a Whitman wrestling coach; a Wheaton football assistant who testified in his Montgomery County police uniform.
But in his ruling, Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. said Lazear's track record contradicted that depiction. The judge referenced Lazear's previous offense -- the use of a stolen credit card to buy a $130 pair of sneakers in November 2004 -- and the ensuing 90 days of court supervision.
"Ten months later, not only is that all forgotten, but you're involved in a robbery with a dangerous weapon," Dugan said while delivering his verdict.