By Eli Saslow and Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"My take on the seriousness of the offense and your role in it weighs very heavily against you going to juvenile court. Good people do not do this. This is not 'boys will be boys.' "
Schweiger also had his motion to move his charges to juvenile court denied last week; next week, Ashley, Krouskas and Warren will have similar motions heard.
The same week that Lazear's motion was heard, his new teammates submitted their choices for team captain, and they picked a player who is still working to memorize his teammates' names. It was a selection that said less about character than ability, Lazear admitted. Just by showing up, Lazear transformed a mediocre team into a threat to make Maryland's 3A West Region playoffs. Wheaton, which won its only state title in 1996, has not had a winning varsity season for three years, and Lazear has infused the team with optimism that it will end that streak.
"They know this is a way better team with me," Lazear said. "I'm a captain because I'm going to be a leader on the football field. I'm going to make sure we go out every Friday night and get things done."
On Aug. 14, the night before Lazear practiced with Wheaton for the first time, a handful of Wheaton players gathered to talk about their new teammate. Elijah Davis, a talented running back, invited four starters to his house and logged on to a recruiting Web site. They replayed 10-second clips of Lazear's highlights for almost an hour. "We were all gathered around the computer just like in shock," Davis said. "It was like . . . 'This guy is going to make us good.' "
Without so much as playing in a game, Lazear has already earned a reputation as his team's hardest hitter and most athletic offensive threat. At 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, Lazear runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He made 124 tackles at Whitman last season, and he gained 1,068 yards and scored 18 touchdowns as a running back.
Lazear said his ankle monitor is light enough that he hardly notices it when he plays, and it will not encumber him. Even though Maryland high school players are not allowed to wear jewelry on the field, Lazear will be able to play with the monitor. "The umpire will inspect it before the game and make sure it is adequately padded," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Wheaton coaches said Lazear fits well in their offensive and defense schemes, which Neal designed to spread the field and maximize the importance of speed. Lazear will start at inside linebacker, and he'll rotate with Davis, a senior, at fullback and running back.
"I'd be a fool to take him off the field," Neal said. "He'll play both ways all the time and do everything for us. Pat sees this as an opportunity to put Wheaton back on the map."
That Lazear gets that chance has generated little controversy. A few parents called Wheaton's athletic director, but he said most feedback remained positive. The county school board received about 10 letters in June pertaining to the charged students, and most consisted of family friends offering support. The letters echoed a common theme: Even teenagers who make mistakes need to participate in school.
"He wouldn't be playing on Friday or Saturday or anytime" in Prince George's County, said a football coach from that county who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "That just isn't happening. Let's be real."
In Lazear's hearing last week, the judge asked Angela Lazear if she considered punishing her son by taking away football. "We don't look at football as an extracurricular activity," she said. "We look at it as an opportunity . . . to pay for his school. . . . We have never considered that. It would ruin his future."
After his arrest, Lazear said he worried that colleges would rescind scholarship offers. North Carolina State stopped its recruitment, Lazear said, and a Notre Dame coach visited Whitman to tell him the school would no longer pursue him. But Lazear still receives frequent text messages from coaches at Alabama and Ohio State among others.
"Coaches have said pretty much, 'We hope you can get it taken care of,' " Angela Lazear said during testimony last week. "It's been a hanging threat over our heads."
Lazear's attorney, the prosecutor and the judge debated Lazear's college prospects at the hearing. Said Dugan: "It depends how good he is. Even if he is convicted of armed robbery, some school out there will take him."
The judge will allow Lazear to visit Ohio State in early October, so long as a parent stays with him at all times, because he is also attending a family function. Although Paul Kemp, Lazear's attorney, told Dugan in court that he doesn't anticipate requesting any other college trips, Lazear said otherwise. "I might take some of my official trips," Lazear said, "like just as vacations."
It's been a long time since Lazear enjoyed such freedom. In May, the court issued a curfew that forced Lazear to be home by 7 p.m. Dugan extended that curfew to accommodate practice and games. "The curfew sucks," Lazear said. "I was going to have this great summer -- go on fishing trips, get a job, go to the beach. I couldn't do any of it."
Lazear said the focus of his next four months is simple: "I want to get a [championship] ring, finish school and just get to college," he said. Lazear is taking an English correspondence course through Brigham Young University that will enable him to graduate in December. He hopes to enroll in college in January to spend an extra semester taking classes and practicing with the football team.
Lazear anticipates going to trial in November, but Kemp, who once defended boxer Mike Tyson, said a plea agreement is possible.
Lazear will wait for the resolution of his criminal charges before making his college announcement. He said the ESPNU television network is interested in a live broadcast of the announcement.
"Even if the punishment is worse, I just want to get it over with and move on," Lazear said. "If this drags on . . . it might mess up getting to school and getting started with football."
Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this story.