By his own count he had played in 70 college football games at four colleges under two names. There was a pathology to it, no question. Living in a college dorm at the age of 30, shuttling between two identities, remembering not to order his preferred Absolut martini on dates, maintaining the ruse for one reason: to be a reserve cornerback. Lines, legal and ethical, were definitely crossed when he copped an acquaintance's Social Security number and accepted a full scholarship at the University of Texas under an assumed name. But Ron Weaver did get to play Division I football, which was all he ever wanted.
Whether you regard Weaver's hustle as unethical, as criminal or as part of that great American tradition of becoming whomever you want to be depends on how much of a stickler you are for the law and for the NCAA's rules of eligibility, which say that a student-athlete generally has no more than five years to play four seasons of football. The view from Texas is unequivocal: Officials there wasted little time pinning the Longhorns' 28-10 Sugar Bowl loss to Virginia Tech on Weaver, whose true identity was discovered on the very eve of the Dec. 31 game. The team, say those officials, was deflated by the revelation and played poorly as a result. The school then proceeded to float rumors about Weaver, who, the officials said, was involved in gangs, gambling and general skulduggery. Texas, which hasn't backed up any of those charges, is threatening legal action, possibly to recover the value of Weaver's scholarship.
But Weaver, who broke a weeklong silence to speak to SI last Saturday, tells a sweeter tale. Well, bittersweet, really. A high school receiver of modest talent—he was all-league at Monterey (Calif.) High—Weaver enrolled at Monterey Peninsula College in the fall of 1984, then at Sacramento State, which was a Division II program, in '88. Four years later he reversed his field and, under the name Ron McKelvey, matriculated at Pierce (Junior) College in Woodland Hills, Calif., on his way to living his dream and playing big-time football at Texas. "You can't understand what the experience is like," he says, wistful to the end. "Playing in front of 80,000 people. To be recruited. To have someone wash your stuff and put it back in your locker...." It already seems like a long time age to Ron Weaver. Or whoever he is.
How Ron Weaver became Ron McKelvey, and remained Ron McKelvey for three years, involves less intrigue than you might think The deception was born of a whim and carried out fairly clumsily. There were no doctored transcripts, no conspiracy on the purity of coaches or schools, and hardly any thought as to where this might all lead. The whole enterprise was governed by a single principle Weaver wanted to keep playing football. Possibly it was the purity of motive that kept this thing on rails as long as it did, because there is not much evidence that planning kept it in motion.
It all began following Weaver's second and last season at Sacramento State in 1989, where he was an All-Western Football Conference receiver. Still, he was only 5'10" and 175 pounds, couldn't run faster than 4.6 in the 40 and couldn't bench-press more than 250 pounds. He flunked tryouts with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League and with the Houston Oilers. In 1990, Weaver says, he attended a tryout camp for the Montreal franchise of the World League, but he was frozen out of a spot on the roster because of a surfeit of wide receivers. Football was over for Weaver, as it is for thousands of men just like him, and he returned to Salinas to help run the family liquor store.
But working in the liquor store felt like a dead end, especially to someone still adrift in his dreams, and except for a chance meeting there with a young man named Joel McKelvey, it provided no opportunity for a future. "It's a liquor store," Weaver says. "It would be there whether I was or not." So, in August 1992, when his coach from Monterey Peninsula College asked him if he was interested in helping out, Weaver jumped and became an unpaid assistant, coaching the defensive backs. And Weaver, running drills alongside these kids, thought to himself: I can still do this.
And with that thought, a scheme was born. Weaver would occasionally run into McKelvey, then a 20-year-old purchaser for Weyerhaeuser, at the liquor store and at a local gym where they both worked out. Weaver did not select McKelvey so much for his size or shape as for his color and age. "He was a young African-American," says Weaver, "and that was all I needed." In fact, McKelvey, an avid weightlifter, was roughly Weaver's size, but no matter. Because McKelvey is Jewish and wouldn't play on the Sabbath, he had never participated in any organized sport. For an alter ego, McKelvey wasn't much of a match. But for someone about to enroll in junior college, McKelvey's high school class of 1990 was about right.
So over beers at his house one night, says Weaver, he laid out his plan to McKelvey. "What if I use your name, go down to Los Angeles and play football under your name," Weaver says he suggested to McKelvey. As Weaver recalls it, the younger man laughed and said, Go ahead. McKelvey will neither confirm nor deny Weaver's account.
Soon after this conversation Weaver appeared at the office of Pierce College coach Bill Norton, introducing himself as a recent high school graduate whose college matriculation hail been delayed a couple of years while he went to work. He said his name was Joel Ron McKelvey—call him Ron, though—and he was shopping junior colleges.
"I told him we were looking for cornerbacks," says Norton. "He said, 'I've never played defensive back, but I'd be interested in working out and seeing what you think.' With that kind of attitude, he already had me interested."