The Rise and Fall of Jeremiah Masoli (cont.)
Witnesses in that room told police that sometime after midnight Embry excused himself to go check out another party down the street. A few minutes later Max Wolfard was chasing him down the alley.
Wolfard is still surprised at himself for taking off after Embry that night. Nowadays, though, he just wants the whole thing to be over. He says he's gotten some online harassment for supposedly ruining the Ducks' 2010 season (Oregon was a national championship contender with Masoli). To say nothing of the sports cable network's truck that was parked outside of Wolfard's window for several days last month.
Wolfard is sitting in a Eugene coffee shop listening to a relayed version of Masoli's account of that night. At the end of it, he says, "By his version he didn't steal anything, and by mine it's not clear that he did."
Then why did Masoli cop to it? This is where even Masoli's fans get stuck. It's where Chip Kelly gets stuck. How could Masoli sit in court and plead guilty to something he swears he didn't do?
Here is how.
On March 1, Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner informed John Kim in a letter that his office was approaching both Masoli and Embry about cooperating with the prosecution, and that he would not be sharing the police report or any other discovery with Kim, despite's Kim's request for that information. "My view is that [Masoli] knows what his involvement is and can relate that to you ..." Gardner wrote. "At this point in the case I do not see this as Mr. Masoli needing to weigh the evidence against him." (Oregon law does not require prosecutors to release discovery until a suspect is arraigned.)
Kim and Masoli were offered a deal. If Masoli pleaded guilty to burglary two -- a felony that the D.A. promised to treat as a misdemeanor -- he would get a year of probation, and he and Embry would split the $5,000 restitution to be paid to the victims. "But the biggest factor," Linda Masoli says, "was if you lose [at trial] -- and, by the way, the D.A. wins a high percentage of their cases -- your son is facing a mandatory sentence of two to four years in prison."
Like his son, Kennedy Masoli projects a stolid Samoan stoicism. That wall crumbles as he and Linda recall the weekend in March when Jeremiah drove home to Daly City to decide with his family whether to plead guilty to burglary. Kennedy clears his throat several times and looks away, trying to hide his eyes. Linda sobs quietly.
"We changed our mind in our bedroom with our son at least six times," Linda recalls. "Just back and forth -- a lot of tears, a lot of praying as a family, together, and ultimately Jeremiah was the one who said, 'Football's one thing, this is my life. Prison? For two to four years?'"
In court on March 12, Masoli nearly changed his mind again. "We just sat back down from having to rise for the judge," he recalls. "I kinda looked at [Kim] and I whispered in his ear, 'What would happen if I said no to all these questions?' ... [Kim] said, 'That would not be good right now.'"
(Kim didn't return several calls and an email from SI.com.)
"On or about Jan. 25 [sic], 2010, in Lane County, Oregon," the judge asked Masoli, "did you unlawfully and knowingly enter or remain in a building ... with the intent to commit the crime of theft therein... ?"
"Do you want to plead guilty to the charge of burglary in the second degree?"
"Up to that point it was almost surreal," Masoli recalls. In the moments after his plea, he sat there thinking, Man, is this really happening to me again?
That same afternoon Kelly announced a season-long suspension for Masoli that he'd decided upon after learning that Masoli planned to plead guilty. Also that afternoon, Gardner released the police report to the public, then he presided over a press conference in which he deftly handled every question asked of him, except one:
"So if the prints didn't match up," a reporter asked, "what did you go on as far as deciding to charge Masoli?"
Said Gardner: "There was a lot of other evidence. He had been seen in the fraternity house. We had some surveillance from other locations, we had witnesses who have come forward. It was clear -- I think you probably all heard the 911 tape -- the reason the victim is out of breath is from having chased Mr. Embry. There were many other circumstances which made it clear who was present." (Gardner did not respond to numerous interview requests from SI.com by phone and email.)
Glenn Bunting would also like you to believe that Jeremiah Masoli isn't a thug. Formerly an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he spent 22 years, Bunting is currently managing director of Sitrick & Company, a crisis management firm. Sitrick's San Francisco office, which Bunting manages, was made aware of the case through a friend of the Masolis who was a local lawyer and knew its details. After meeting Masoli and his parents and researching the case, Bunting and a colleague agreed to represent the family. It was Bunting who noticed the line in the police report about Embry and his roommates giving another Oregon player a lift later that night. Bunting followed up by asking Masoli to approach the player -- long snapper Jeff Palmer -- and have him sign a statement as to what he witnessed.
Although the signed statement doesn't exonerate Masoli, it sheds new light on Embry's role in the burglary. Palmer recalls that when he saw Embry and his roommates riding around in Ferras' truck, he waved them down so he could get a ride to the hospital to check on Rob Beard, an Oregon kicker who'd been badly injured in a brawl that same night. "They stopped the truck when they saw me and said there was no room in the back seat," Palmer's statement reads. "So, I hopped into the bed of the truck and noticed a blanket partially covering some items in the back seat.
"En route to the hospital, the truck made a brief stop at a nearby residence. I then witnessed Embry remove two Apple laptop computers and a guitar from the rear seat of the truck and take the items inside the apartment. I was then dropped off at the hospital.
"I had no knowledge at the time that those same items were reported stolen earlier that evening from a fraternity house. I never came in contact with Jeremiah Masoli that evening or heard anyone in the truck mention his name. I was never questioned by police about the events I observed that evening."
(Palmer declined to be interviewed by SI.com but confirmed that his statement is accurate.)
Ferras, who was the designated driver for Embry and Rosenberg that night, told SI.com last week that he remembers Embry unloading some items from the back of his truck, but he "had no idea what they were." He added that he is no longer friends with Embry. "I don't hang out with people who bring me down," said Ferras, who is trying to catch on with an NFL team. "There was a point where I thought he was a good person. I never thought he'd do something like that." Ferras says he knows nothing about the involvement of his former junior college teammate Masoli in the burglary: "I never saw him that night."
Embry's other roommate, Alex Rosenberg, told SI.com via Facebook: "The reason i have been distant is i have been afraid. I want to help you two with this story. I have decided to help you." Two days later he cancelled a scheduled interview, writing: "My advisor thinks the only reason i would do this is to get back at garrett and for purposes that could screw me over in the long run ... This is nothing against you ..."
Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Rosenberg said he'd spoken with Ferras and they'd decided together to withhold further comment and "let the two of those guys deal with it on their own."
Spring practice had begun by the time Masoli asked Palmer, the long snapper, to provide his statement. Masoli, who had signed a deal with Kelly listing several conditions of his possible reinstatement, was allowed to dress out and run through drills as a backup receiver. One day, Embry showed up.
"He was on the sideline and everybody was shocked that he was even there," Masoli recalls. In the locker room afterward, Masoli "asked him straight up, 'Wassup, man? ... You know what happened. You're the only person that knows what happened.'"
"I told him, 'I know the whole court thing is over now, we can't go to the D.A. and tell him. Why can't you just go up to Coach Kelly and tell him what happened? Why can't you just help me out with this football situation? So at least my coach trusts me on some level. ... '
"[Embry] said he was scared to go talk to [Kelly] because he was not gonna get his release [to transfer to another school], something to that effect, and I just couldn't believe it. I said, 'You're sitting here looking me in the eye telling me that? That's your excuse? A transfer? Look at what really happened, man!'
"He really had nothing to say. Really nothing to say."
At that point, Masoli says, he decided to move on. Palmer's statement and his own impending graduation (in mid-July Masoli completed all requirements to receive his sociology degree from Oregon) buoyed the Masoli family throughout the spring. Then came the events of June 7, which prompted Kelly to dismiss Masoli from the team for good.
Masoli was pulled over at 9:30 p.m. that Monday night for failing to stop while exiting a Eugene-area gas station. In addition to discovering that his license was suspended, Springfield (Ore.) police found a small amount of marijuana in his glove box. Kelly dismissed Masoli two days later for "a failure to adhere to obligations previously outlined by [Kelly]."
(Kelly declined repeated requests from SI.com to talk about Masoli.)
Last week Masoli entered guilty pleas to possessing less than an ounce of marijuana and the failing-to-stop citation, both of which are non-criminal violations in Oregon. (The suspended license citation was dismissed.) Masoli paid $613 in fines, which according to his attorney Dan Koenig, "relieves him of all obligations to Springfield's municipal court." Koenig said it remains to be seen whether the citations will be viewed by Gardner as a violation of the probation Masoli was serving in the SAE burglary case.
Masoli declined to speak with SI.com about whether the marijuana found in his car that night was his. He also declined to answer questions about Darron Thomas, his passenger that night -- and the man most likely to replace him as Oregon's quarterback this fall. (At the press conference where Kelly announced Masoli's dismissal, Kelly was asked whether Thomas would be punished. "Darron wasn't charged with anything," Kelly replied.)
Masoli acknowledged that the marijuana was in his vehicle. "I was driving and I have taken responsibility for the citation," he said.
Has Masoli ever smoked marijuana?
"Yes," he said, "I've used marijuana in the past, just like a lot of college kids. I now know that's not the example I want to set as a student-athlete or a big brother."
Still, several of Masoli's former teammates support him.
"A lot of guys on the team still support Jeremiah," said Jeff Maehl, the senior receiver. "Some may look at him in a different light now, but as far as being a teammate on the field, he's one of the greatest teammates I've ever had."
"Nah, he's not a thug," said senior defensive end Tyrell Irvin, who competed against Masoli in junior college and called him "part of the reason I came to Oregon."
Masoli, who still has a season of eligibility remaining, can receive a waiver to play this fall because of an NCAA rule that allows athletes who have graduated to transfer and play immediately as long as their postgraduate field of study isn't offered by their previous school. First, Masoli will need to find a school willing to accept him. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech are the schools rumored to be interested.
Masoli and his parents reiterate several times that they hold no grudges against Kelly, his program, the university, or its supporters. "We're still Duck fans," Linda says. "It will always be a special place for us."
Indeed, her youngest, 14-year-old Zachariah, is wearing baggy Oregon shorts as he stands with a visitor on the cracked sidewalk outside their home following a June interview. At 6-feet Zach is already taller than his brother, and according to family and friends he'll be a better quarterback than Jeremiah one day. Zach and the visitor get to talking football and the spread offense. When asked offhandedly who his favorite quarterback is, Zach seems stunned by the question, then he jerks his chin upstairs, in the direction of the young man who remains, despite all, his hero.
Michael McKnight's first book, A Life Intercepted -- The Rise and Fall of NFL Cornerback Darryl Henley, will be published in 2011.