Donte Stallworth was on his morning commute last month, a five-block morning ritual in this attempt at a new life, when he walked past the White House’s north lawn. He smiled as he recalled an old memory.
Back in his old life — way, way back — when he was a football player, he and his University of Tennessee teammates were national champions and guests at the White House. Stallworth, a talented freshman wide receiver, hadn’t played that 1998 season, sitting out as a redshirt, but he joined his team anyway as it presented President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore with orange Volunteers jerseys.
That was August 1999, and back then Stallworth was just an 18-year-old with his future in front of him, a kid with a small role in something big. “Life,” he said, looking back on this November morning, “as a rookie.”
Stallworth, now 34, went on to become a star at Tennessee, a first-round pick in the 2002 NFL draft, and a 10-year NFL veteran scarred and stigmatized by a reckless mistake that left one man dead . But as he walked west on Pennsylvania Avenue, his thumbs looped around backpack straps as he waited to cross 17th Street NW, Stallworth is a rookie again — trying to make that difficult and unnerving transition from NFL life into the real world.
Three months ago, the Huffington Post, the internationally known Web site, named Stallworth as one of its national security fellows, a six-month internship of sorts that exposes hopeful journalists to the basics of reporting. He attends news conferences and forums, conducts interviews and writes stories, goes to budget meetings and works with editors who, at least for a while, found it difficult to look beyond Stallworth’s past. “I’m editing somebody who was [once] on my fantasy team,” senior politics editor Sam Stein said.
Stallworth is, beneath so many other labels, a news junkie with strong opinions he has had no problem sharing over the past five years, for better or worse. During an era in which ex-athletes make headlines for blowing great fortunes and making life-altering mistakes, bouncing without purpose as they seek a new identity after their retirement, Stallworth believes he has found his new calling.
“I never wanted to be defined by one thing,” said Stallworth, who, six years after signing a contract with the Cleveland Browns that guaranteed him $10 million, now earns $10 per hour.
Before this Monday’s shift began, he stopped for a mocha and an egg sandwich. He waved at an employee who recognized Stallworth from his NFL days, and he sat and took a bite when his phone buzzed.
“Holy [expletive],” he said. “Chuck Hagel’s stepping down.” Stallworth read an inter-office e-mail about how the resignation of the Secretary of Defense would be covered, curious if the plan would include him. “Give me a second,” he said, chewing as he consumed the words.
Fifteen months ago, Stallworth still saw himself as a football player, even after the Washington Redskins cut him during the preseason. He kept training as he always had, rising at 7 a.m. and immediately hitting the gym. Like many ex-players, denial was the prevailing emotion after his football career ended. He was certain the phone would ring with another contract offer.
Since he was an 11-year-old in California, Stallworth had identified as a football player, though he liked to think of himself as more complex. He studied psychology at Tennessee and came to enjoy writing and architecture and politics, later keeping a daily journal and, during meals at a team’s practice facility, turning one television from sports highlights and debate shows to cable news. He indulged his teammates with endless discussions about the issues of the day: Obamacare, America’s racial disparity, government surveillance programs.
“I’m sitting there, like: ‘The hell are you talking about?’ ” said Washington tight end Niles Paul, a former teammate of Stallworth’s and still a friend. “But he makes you question certain things. It challenges you as a man.”
Those interests, though, were hobbies and little more. Stallworth wore a helmet and caught footballs for a living, feeding his ego and fattening his bank account. He bought a house for his mother, bought expensive cars and, without fail, picked up the night’s dinner or bar tab, no matter how many friends brought friends. “You feel like it’s bottomless,” said Stallworth, who in 2008 signed a seven-year, $35 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.
During the early-morning hours of March 14, 2009, Stallworth awoke to his ringing phone. Friends were celebrating a birthday at a Miami bar, and Stallworth was in a festive mood, too: A day earlier, he had earned a $4.5 million roster bonus from the Browns. He joined the group, ordering a bottle of Patron for the table and draining tequila shots with his friends. After driving home and sleeping for a short while, he awoke and went in search of food, speeding in his 2005 Bentley down the MacArthur Causeway when a 59-year-old pedestrian raced across the road to catch a bus. “I’m thinking he’s going to stop,” Stallworth recalled. “He didn’t stop.”
The Bentley hit the man, a crane operator named Mario Reyes, killing him, and a test showed Stallworth’s blood-alcohol content was .126, above Florida’s .08 legal limit. Stallworth eventually pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter. He served 24 days of a 30-day jail sentence, had his driver’s license suspended for life and was suspended from the NFL without pay for the 2009 season. He later avoided a civil lawsuit by settling with Reyes’s family for an undisclosed sum.
He said recently that no punishment was as severe as the guilt that he still feels, imagining Reyes’s children growing up without their father. “You don’t want to live with what I live with,” said Stallworth, who has spent much of the past five years trying to atone further for his lapse in judgment, speaking to NFL rookies last summer about the dangers of drunken driving.
When Stallworth was reinstated, the Browns terminated his contract, turning Stallworth into an NFL drifter. He signed with Baltimore but broke his foot in the preseason. He turned 30. He grew slower. His reaction times diminished. The Ravens didn’t re-sign him. He joined Washington, which cut him after the 2011 season. He injured his hamstring. New England signed him and, after a foot injury ended his season after just one game, he did not return to the Patriots. Coaches’ promises, a source of hope, turned dim and desperate. Washington released him after training camp last year, but Coach Mike Shanahan told him to keep in shape and close to the phone.
Weeks passed. He kept training, and then one morning, he awoke at the usual time.
But rather than heading to the gym, he lay in bed, denial finally giving way to acceptance. He was no longer a football player, so he clicked on the television and watched “The Newsroom” for six hours, thinking the characters seemed to have interesting jobs.
Three months after Reyes’s death, Stallworth filled the summer hours by experimenting with Twitter, joining the service in June 2009 amid a suspicion it would be “too Orwellian” for him.
He tweeted often, and after a month he was comfortable enough to share a few political opinions and conspiracy theories, including his belief that a commercial jet had never crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, he admitted recently, he believed that Osama bin Laden had not been responsible for the terrorist acts on one of the most infamous days in American history. “NO WAY 9/11 was carried out by ‘dying’ Bin Laden, 19 men who couldn’t fly a damn kite. STILL have NO EVIDENCE Osama was connected, like Iraq,” Stallworth tweeted in July 2009.
He later shared his doubts about the purpose of vaccines and the “global warming hoax,” as he once put it, earning a following not just because of his NFL fame but because of his willingness to share his thoughts on any subject. Stallworth, a willing and thoughtful interview subject throughout his football career, began receiving requests to appear on cable news shows. Amanda Terkel, a politics managing editor at Huffington Post, later interviewed Stallworth for a story about marriage equality, and by October 2013, Stallworth had a standing invitation to contribute occasional blog entries for the outlet.
At the time, he was hoping to continue his NFL career, if no longer as a player then as a potential coach, and later interned on Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s staff. When Stallworth passed through Washington, he visited the Huffington Post office, chatting with staffers.
He was packing his things in Miami this past September, planning to move to New York, when his phone rang. Huffington Post offered him the fellowship, and Stallworth accepted; because he cannot legally drive, he asked a friend to drive him to Washington.
A few journalists saw the maneuver as a publicity-fueled gimmick, bringing on a former NFL player — with a complicated, well-known past — as a contributor in a click-bait environment. Ben White, chief economics correspondent for Politico, tweeted that Stallworth’s addition was “one of the stupidest media stunts I’ve seen in a while,” followed by a thorough lampooning by ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann.
Terkel, the Huffington Post editor who oversees the fellowship, said the program is designed to provide instruction and experience to potential journalists from various backgrounds and ability levels. “If anybody thought he was here as a publicity stunt, Donte doesn’t think that,” Terkel said. “He’s here to be a reporter.”
The morning after Stallworth’s fellowship was announced, he took to Twitter to post the following: “Just to be clear, I no longer feel the way I did in that tweet 5 years ago. After a lot of reading and researching on it, my views changed . . . and that’s okay.”
When Stallworth was asked about his theories, or former theories, he answered simply: “It’s what I believed at the time,” he said.
During the first two months of his fellowship, Stallworth borrowed a tape recorder from a colleague and learned that enthusiasm for transcribing interviews is among the first casualties of day-to-day journalism. He learned the curiosity and disappointment when Capitol Hill interview subjects breezed past without acknowledging reporters — “That used to be me!” Stallworth said — the fascination and satisfaction of a 96-year-old World War II veteran sharing her memories, the hope and fear of sitting down to write.
Stallworth’s introduction to full-time journalism was that it takes more than a casual interest to survive. He missed his first deadline, suffered his first thorough edit, reminded himself that a cliche was like a dropped pass and unverified sentences are like a fumble near the end zone. He asked questions, admitting that he is a former athlete in an unfamiliar environment.
“There are no pretenses to it,” said Stein, the politics editor. “He’s a person in a totally new field, who doesn’t want to embarrass himself.”
Stallworth, who played in Super Bowl XLII, volunteered to make a doughnut run for the staff and sat in a corner during a recent staff meeting. When he was walking toward his apartment shortly after President Obama’s immigration speech last month, Stallworth followed the remarks and, to his colleagues’ surprise, had the instincts to stop and interview strangers near the White House.
Stallworth said his fellowship has been like his first NFL training camp: humbling but essential. And like a training camp, these months will determine whether Stallworth is simply a brief guest in journalism or, after his fellowship expires in March, whether he belongs. He said he hopes to join Huffington Post on a full-time basis, calling it his dream job.
After his shift ended on a Monday in late November, he walked to a restaurant in Penn Quarter and sipped imported beer with his eyes fixed on televisions showing the intersection of Stallworth’s two worlds, a pair of NFL games and news coverage from Ferguson, Mo., where demonstrators had gathered and a prosecuting attorney was about to speak.
The Saints and Ravens, two of Stallworth’s former teams, were playing, the jersey numbers of a few friends flashing occasionally across the screens. Stallworth cheered when he saw them. Otherwise, he checked Twitter, sent texts, read e-mails.
“I just knew football wouldn’t be the end of my story,” he said as he watched the TVs, eyes fixed mostly on the one in the center, showing images that made him hopeful for the future, rather than the ones that reminded him of the past.