Posted: Wednesday March 2, 2011 7:32AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 2, 2011 10:18AM
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Crime and College Football (cont.)

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

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Kevin Claxton went to jail for his role in a 2007 robbery, but he rewarded Wisconsin for sticking with him by being a model student.
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

On March 22, 2010, Darling was arrested for burglarizing a residence in Miami. That day, 17-year-old Kimberly Lewis was home alone from school sick when she heard two men prowling around the outside of her house, locked herself in a room and called 911:

"He's at the back door ... he's trying to get in!"

The dispatcher tried to keep Lewis calm.

"They're in the house!" said Lewis. "I hear them in the kitchen."

Miami police responded quickly and Darling was arrested at gunpoint and charged with felony burglary of an occupied dwelling. He subsequently entered a pretrial intervention program and the charge was dropped, clearing the way for him to accept a scholarship to Cincinnati.

But the burglary wasn't Darling's first run-in with the law. In 2006 he was charged with a felony count of firing a weapon in Dade County (which was disposed in juvenile court) and in 2008 he pleaded no contest to possession of marijuana after being arrested by police in Orlando.

When SI contacted Cincinnati for comment on Darling, a football spokesman said he was unaware of the player's arrest in the burglary case. Bearcats coach Butch Jones declined to comment specifically on Darling but said in a statement: "When recruiting a prospective student-athlete, we do our due diligence in exhausting all avenues looking into an individual's background."

*****

Coaches contacted by SI/CBS News provided numerous reasons for not digging deeper. Some didn't know juvenile records were available in certain jurisdictions. Others said they trusted their ability to get to the bottom of a recruit's past without resorting to a records check. But most said they rely heavily on intelligence provided by players' high school coaches.

"We don't really go into anything outside of the school system," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. "Hopefully, through the school system we can find out just what we need."

It's an approach that makes sense on one level. After all, high school coaches often know more about their players than anyone. "I can tell you anything you want to know about my kids," said Bill McGregor, the coach at DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, which has had 10 or more players sign Division I football scholarships for 22 of the past 23 years. "We are zero tolerance on drug-related stuff or theft."

But there's a conflict when it comes to high school coaches passing this information along to recruiters. First, there are privacy laws that restrict what coaches can say about minors. Second, and more important, is that high school coaches are the biggest advocates for their players, making it difficult to share unflattering details that may derail a kid's chances of landing a coveted scholarship.

Consider the case of Viliseni Fauonuku, a 6-foot, 290-pound defensive lineman from Bingham High in West Jordan, Utah, and a University of Utah recruit. On March 31, 2010, Fauonuku carried a concealed weapon in his waistband when he and his 20-year-old cousin Sam Langi entered a detached garage, where a loose collection of five neighborhood teens and young adults were hanging out.

After a few minutes, according to police records Fauonuku's cousin inquired about buying some marijuana. That was a prearranged signal, Fauonuku later told police, for him to act. He pulled out what witnesses said looked like a 9-millimeter gun and pointed it directly at two 19-year-olds.

"I was shaking," one of the witnesses inside the garage told SI and CBS News. "All my friends were, too."

The boys complied while Fauonuku's cousin scooped up the marijuana and a wallet.

Before turning to leave, Fauonuku allegedly issued a chilling threat. "If I hear this on the news," one of the witnesses recalled him saying, "I'm going to come back and kill you."

In an interview conducted at his home in December, Fauonuku denied making the death threat, but admitted to brandishing a gun (he claimed it was a pellet gun) and committing a robbery.

"I was just like, 'All right, if we're gonna take the weed, then we're gonna take everything,'" he said. "I could tell they were really scared."

Police later arrested Fauonuku and his cousin, both of whom were arraigned in adult court on aggravated robbery charges. (Langi, who served 120 days in jail for the crime, could not be reached for comment.) But Fauonuku's case was transferred to juvenile court. It was a move that saved Fauonuku's football future.

The University of Utah has a policy against giving scholarships to felons. Although Fauonuku admitted to felony robbery in a juvenile proceeding on Nov. 4, 2010, the courts classify the incident as a "delinquent act," not a felony. That loophole paved the way last month for Fauonuku to sign a letter of intent to play football at Utah next fall.

Bingham coach Dave Peck didn't know the details of the crime, but was privy to tragic personal circumstances in Fauonuku's background. Initially Peck opted not to suspend him. Then midway way through the season he held Fauonuku out of two games after a local newspaper story mentioned that he'd been arrested. But the suspension, according to Fauonuku, was for violating the team's no-alcohol policy. "I knew there was an incident," Peck said. "I honestly didn't know a whole lot that happened at that point."

During the interview with SI and CBS News, Peck was handed a copy of the police report, detailing the robbery incident, which included the fact that Fauonuku pulled a gun on the victims. "I never heard anything like that," Peck said, after reading it.

*****

Cincinnati wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has had many chances. A Miami resident, Thompkins grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood considered one of Miami's most violent. Between age 15 and 18, Thompkins was arrested seven times for felonies ranging from battery to robbery, but most of his arrests were drug-related (some of the charges were later dropped). Thompkins was able to turn his life around after spending two trouble-free seasons at a junior college in California. Last year he signed with Cincinnati, where he redshirted this past season while earning a 3.9 GPA in his first academic term.

"He has come a long way in a short time," Bearcats coach Butch Jones told SI last year.

Thompkins could end up being a success story, an example of a high-stakes risk that paid off. That's why most college coaches are strongly opposed to a hard and fast policy that denies players an opportunity to earn a scholarship if they have a criminal record.

Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards worked with one of the strictest honor codes in the country during his 28 years in Provo. Still, he maintains that coaches must be free to accept troubled players on a case-by-case basis.

"My natural feeling is I really like to give a guy a break," said Edwards. "In my own mind I never draw a line. It has to be flexible. I don't like hard and fast rules."

Taking that same view, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema signed linebacker Kevin Claxton even though Claxton had been convicted in conjunction with a home burglary in November 2007. When he was 18, Claxton drove the getaway car after a small group of teenagers broke into a home near Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. He was a prized recruit at Boyd Anderson High at the time of his arrest, but his dream of playing in college seemed dashed after he was charged with felony burglary.

While Claxton was out on bail, his lawyer told the court that Claxton wouldn't receive a scholarship to Wisconsin should he be convicted of a felony. After spending weekends and spring break of his senior year in jail, Claxton was treated as a youthful offender and the charges were withheld from his record pending the completion of five years of probation, enabling him to keep his scholarship.

"We came to believe that this was one of those cases where an otherwise good kid made a mistake," Bielema says. "Since he's been here he has maintained the [grade-point average] that the court required and has done everything we have asked of him. He's been a great kid."

It's unclear how much Utah knew about Fauonuku's crime when the Utes recruited him and ultimately gave him a scholarship. But the fact is if Utah didn't take him some other school would.

The issue isn't that colleges should never accept a kid who has made a mistake; part of education is second chances. But too many football programs, out of a desire to win more games, either overlook a player's past or don't bother looking into it at all. That's a flaw in the system that has to change.

Emmert, the new NCAA president, has said that he's prepared to take up the issue. "Whether it's among student-athletes or the student body more generally, violent crime is something that we all need to address -- very seriously," Emmert said. "And if it involves student-athletes, then that's something that I as NCAA president want to work hard on."

It's unclear where this is headed, and reformers like Lapchick aren't sure the NCAA has the power to require athletic programs to conduct criminal background checks on recruits. But Lapchick and others are certain that the NCAA must act. Says Lapchick: "The new NCAA president could use this as a kind of bully pulpit to talk to the presidents of the universities around the country to ask them to do this on an individual school basis."

For additional coverage of the SI/CBS News investigation, subscribe to Sports Illustrated and buy a copy of the issue on atablet or smartphone.

Additional reporting by Andy Staples, Michael McKnight, Michael McCann, Jeffrey Gasser and Emily Rand

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