Donte Stallworth, the 29-year-old wide receiver signed by the Ravens in February, spoke to SI.com on Thursday and told me his side of the harrowing vehicular homicide story in which he drove drunk and his car struck and killed 59-year-old Miami crane operator Mario Reyes. It's a harrowing story.
A night that will live in infamy.
When the cell phone rang in his Miami condo around 2 a.m. on March 14, 2009, Stallworth had been asleep for five hours. He'd worked out hard the previous day, a Friday, and gone to bed early, planning to sleep through the night and fly to Cleveland that Saturday evening. Monday was the start of offseason workouts for the Browns, and Stallworth planned to show new coach Eric Mangini he was set to be a stalwart receiver and team leader after having signed a rich extension with the team.
Stallworth has thought about the phone call often -- during his 24 days in a Miami jail, during his long days of house arrest, during workouts, during everything.
"If I could change one thing?'' he said to me. "I wouldn't have gotten out of bed at 2 in the morning. The main thing I've learned through this is that everything you do, every decision you make, leads to subsequent actions and reactions, no matter how minute those decisions might seem at the time.''
But he did get up, and he drove from Miami into Miami Beach to attend a friend's birthday gathering at a nightclub, LIV, at the swank Fontainebleau Hotel. He arrived about 3. He bought a bottle of liquor for his friend's table, and had a couple of shots out of the bottle. Then, Stallworth said, he went to the bar, met some women and did a couple of shots with them. "Four shots total,'' he told me. After that, the party adjourned to his friend's hotel room upstairs.
I asked Stallworth about smoking marijuana that night, and he said he didn't. But he said he had smoked pot on a short vacation trip the previous weekend.
Some time after 5, Stallworth left the Fontainebleau and drove home. "There have been times if I felt I was incapable of driving I'd call a friend of mine, even at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, and I'd leave my car wherever I was,'' Stallworth said. "But on this night, I felt fine, so I drove home.''
He was back in bed about 5:45, but he slept only a short time. About 6:45, he woke up hungry. Because he was leaving for Cleveland that day, he said he'd cleaned out his refrigerator and had nothing to eat in the house. So he got back in his car, a Bentley, and drove toward the MacArthur Causeway, a six-lane, half-mile-long highway from downtown Miami to Miami Beach with several 24-hour restaurants. It was still mostly dark in the morning; sunrise on this day was 7:31 a.m., with Daylight Savings Time having gone into effect the previous weekend.
As Stallworth neared Miami Beach in moderately heavy morning traffic, he was in the far left lane of the three east-bound lanes of traffic. Coming suddenly from his far right, he said he noticed a shadow of a figure running across the right lane. He flicked his lights at the running figure twice and in a split-second had a decision to make -- slam on his brakes and risk a chain-reaction collision; swerve hard to the left into the concrete median; swerve right, which would take him into the path of the runner; or gently hit his brakes and hope the runner stopped. Even with the suddenness of the figure running across the road, he figured the runner would stop rather than try to beat a vehicle that wouldn't be able to stop suddenly enough to avoid a collision.
"Obviously, I wasn't expecting him to cross all the lanes,'' Stallworth said. "By the time I saw him, I thought I had time to gently apply my brakes and hope he'd just stop [in the road while Stallworth's car passed]. I couldn't turn left, because I'd go right into the concrete barrier. I thought maybe he'd see me and figure he should just stop and wait 'til I went by.''
The man didn't stop. Reyes, coming off a night shift for a construction company and running for a bus on the other side of the highway, thudded into the passenger side of Stallworth's Bentley.
"But he didn't die from the impact,'' Stallworth said, somberly. "His feet got run over by my tires, and he fell, and his head hit the concrete.''
Stallworth stopped in the left lane, put on his emergency flashers and reached into the back seat for his cell phone. While he looked out the back window and saw Reyes lying in the road, he dialed 911 and eventually figured out where to tell the operator to send help. He thought he'd be able to look down at the figure in the road when he walked back to the scene, but he couldn't look. By that time, a police officer was there, radioing for help.
"Shock was the first emotion,'' Stallworth said. "I drive that causeway all the time. I never see people running across it.''
When the police began questioning him, Stallworth answered everything. "I waived my Miranda rights,'' he said, meaning the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present during police questioning. "I just wanted to be 100 percent cooperative. It didn't hit me that I might be in some trouble until they gave me the field sobriety test.''
Stallworth's blood-alcohol content was .126. The Florida limit for driving while impaired is .08, so Stallworth was above the legal limit by 50 percent. He insists he did not feel impaired the night of the accident, and there's no certainty the accident would have been avoided had he been within the legal limit. But once he tested 50 percent over the limit, it was clear the combination of events would be linked, rightfully, in the eyes of the police.
From there, life unraveled. He pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter in June and reached a settlement with the Reyes family; I've heard Stallworth paid the family at least $3 million. In addition, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years of "community control'' confinement, eight years' probation and 1,000 hours of community service. ("Community control'' is less harsh than house arrest, which would have meant 24-hour-a-day electronic monitoring. Community control is more a strict probation; Stallworth is not allowed to drive for at least four more years, but he can leave home for work, church, medical, legal and community service activities, and for any approved activities by his probation officer.)
The 30-day sentence was reduced to 24 days for a couple of technical reasons.
Commissioner Roger Goodell added to that punishment by suspending Stallworth for the 2009 season. "[The commissioner] told me how much I hurt the [NFL] shield,'' Stallworth said. "But he also said it wasn't the end of the world.''
Immediately, there was intense criticism of Stallworth's sentence, for obvious reasons. He had driven drunk and caused a fatality with his car, and been given only 24 days? It seemed outrageous.
But there were mitigating factors, the biggest of which was that Reyes was trying to cross a well-traveled, six-lane road in poor light, and not using a crosswalk.
"I understood why people were angry about the sentence,'' said Stallworth. "I understand human psychology; I majored in psychology at Tennessee. Everyone wants every story to be black and white, but sometime they're not. It was an intricate case. People hear 'alcohol' and they hear 'deceased' and they tie the two together. But this case just wasn't that easy. I can tell you from being in the middle of it, the police did extensive investigation into the case, and they had no reason to let me off easy.''
Stallworth said he thinks about Reyes' 15-year-old daughter, Daniela, often, as well as the family. "One of the things on my mind has been that she's able to finish whatever schooling she needs and take care of all their bills,'' he said. "But I still realize that doesn't bring him back. It's something I still think about every day, and I always will.''
He served his time -- in solitary confinement mostly -- at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, hard by Miami International Airport. He read, mostly, and wrote in a journal. He read the 9/11 Commission Report and a spiritual novel about a man who meets God (The Shack) and a book about Albert Einstein's thoughts about the planet (The World As I See It) and his Bible. He had correspondence from Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel, his old bosses in Cleveland; from Steve Spagnuolo, who he'd known in Philadelphia. Chad Ochocinco ("I still laugh when I hear him called that,'' Stallworth said) visited, as did his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, his mom, his brother, attorney David Cornwell and a good friend from Cleveland, former Browns communications director Amy Palcic.
"They don't give you a schedule in there,'' he said. "When the lights go off, they go off. But I wanted to make sure this was not a period of despondency for me. I wanted to learn from it, and read and write. I also met a lot of guys in there who were great to me. They've written me since. I never had a high level of anxiety in there, and a lot of the guys basically told me, You don't want to be in here; go live life.''
When he got out and began to train again, he knew he wanted to play in 2010 if Goodell would allow it. Late in the 2009 season, the commissioner met Stallworth at a Dolphins game and told him how much the league loved success stories and comeback stories, but Stallworth couldn't afford even one slip. Goodell told him to do meaningful community service, and be an advocate for the right conduct.
He always figured one team would give him a chance. He just didn't know which one. With nothing to do after jail other than his community service projects, Stallworth worked out harder than he had in years, and when he went to work out for the Ravens in February, he ran the fastest 40 time they'd clocked at their new training facility -- under 4.4 seconds. He told coach John Harbaugh he was disappointed in his career -- he's never had a 1,000-yard season, nor exceeded 70 catches, despite being the 13th pick in the 2002 draft -- and would be determined to be the kind of success story Goodell wanted.
So let's say he is. Let's say Stallworth has a good season. Part of the work is going to be wearing blinders and earplugs.
"What are you going to do,'' I asked, "when people start yelling from the stands, 'Killer! Murderer!' You know it's going to happen.''
"I won't let it get to me,'' he said. "For some reason, I've always been heckled. I know it'll be different now. If anything, when I hear it, it'll make me want to do better. And if I let something like that get to me, I'd be doing my team a disservice. I know it's coming, but I'm not worried about it.''
So now his future is up to him. He can't drink, he can't go out 'til all hours anymore, he has to whittle down those hours of community service, and he has to prove he can fulfill the potential that accompanied his selection as the 13th pick in the draft in 2002. He's now permitted to have contact with the family, though he hasn't yet. (Stallworth's lawyer, Christopher Lyons, said Sunday by e-mail: "While the criminal and civil matters were pending, I informed him that he could have no direct contact with the Reyes family, although from day one he wanted to tell them how sorry he was for their loss and for his part in that. I, on many occasions, did express that sentiment to the Reyes family through their attorneys and was told on numerous occasions how much they appreciated Donte' reaching out to them.'')
In many ways, Stallworth's incredibly lucky. After making a decision that could have ruined his life -- drinking and driving and killing a man -- Stallworth stopped his car, admitted to everything, threw himself on the mercy of the court, tried to make reparations with the family as well as he could (luckily, he was a millionaire athlete who could make such reparations), served his limited time humbly, and set out to work to try to live his privileged life again. Was the sentence fair? Maybe not, but this is not a clean case either.
Last thing: A text message arrived to Stallworth's phone on the day of the accident. It read, "A lot of people know the kind of person you are. You're a good person.''
Tom Brady, his quarterback in 2007.
Now he'll have a chance to prove that. A lot of people will be watching.
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