Underwood Goes AWOL
Blindsided by the Lord
At dusk on Sunday, outside the Little Mt. Sinai I Pentecostal Church in North Philadelphia, the Reverend Eileen Underwood clutched the number 66 Vikings jersey of her 22-year-old son, Dimitrius. "Lord, we pray that he's safe," she said, her head bowed, her hands trembling. Maybe it was the holy water Eileen sprinkled on his jersey, maybe it was just luck, but within hours Dimitrius, a first-round pick in April's draft, turned up after a six-day disappearance that was among the more bizarre episodes in NFL history.
The 6'6", 272-pound defensive end from Michigan State had reported to the Vikings' training camp in Mankato, Minn., on Aug. 1 decked out in Army fatigues, saying he was ready to "go to war." A day later he went AWOL, leaving behind all his clothes and a Bible. After a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter tracked him down on Sunday night, Underwood, who was down to his last $8, said he had been struggling over whether to play football or become a full-time minister. "Not being a part of the Minnesota Vikings goes against me, but doing the will of God also pulls me," he said. "I wish I was man enough to confront Coach [Dennis] Green and look him in the eyes and tell him what I've been going through."
"From our conversations, he felt that he had been called into the ministry," says the Reverend Moses Townsend, Underwood's childhood pastor in Fayetteville, N.C., whom Underwood called as often as twice a week during the past two months. "He was excited about what the Lord was saying to him, and he wasn't as excited about football as he used to be. I told him football would enhance his ministry—if he was a football player he would get on The 700 Club."
But if Underwood wanted to discuss reconciling religion and sport, why didn't he speak with new teammates Randall Cunningham and Cris Carter, both well-known evangelists? Why bolt from camp a day after signing a five-year, $5.3 million contract?
Craig Domann, Underwood's third agent so far this year, confirmed to the Star Tribune that Minnesota doesn't want his client back. But if Underwood decides he wants to play football, some team in the all-forgiving NFL will certainly give him a shot. "It'll have to be a team with a lot of guts, because this guy's resume is so bad," says a prominent general manager, referring to Underwood's relatively meager football credentials as well as his recent odd behavior. The Cowboys, the Raiders and the 49ers might take such a chance. So might Carolina under former Niners coach George Seifert, or Jacksonville, one of the few teams beside the Vikings to show interest in Underwood before the draft.
By Monday afternoon Eileen still hadn't been reunited with Dimitrius, who had yet to reveal his next step. Reflecting on the ordeal, Townsend recalled a recent discussion he had with Dimitrius: "He talked about how Samson, whose eyes had been gouged out, relied on a small boy to take him to the pillars. The lesson was that you could have all the strength in the world and still not have the sight to lead you to the right place."
The Sad Case of Peter and Paul
Five days after he started the Mets' 1997 opener, Pete Harnisch told manager Bobby Valentine that he couldn't go back out there. Harnisch was anxious and unable to sleep, effects he thought were caused by ending a 13-year chewing tobacco habit. Later, though, Harnisch learned he was suffering from depression. The 1991 National League All-Star went on the disabled list for four months while undergoing treatment.
According to Harnisch, Valentine had accused him of being "afraid to pitch," a cruel charge in light of more recent events. In fact Harnisch showed immense courage in fighting a disease that now threatens to tear his family apart.