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Saved by Sports
L. Jon Wertheim
June 27, 2005
Fourteen years ago a high school junior named Jermaine Ewell was beaten into a coma by a former schoolmate and his crew. Both the victim and his assailant were athletes, and that was the key to Ewell's survival--and, in the end, to his attacker's redemption
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June 27, 2005

Saved By Sports

Fourteen years ago a high school junior named Jermaine Ewell was beaten into a coma by a former schoolmate and his crew. Both the victim and his assailant were athletes, and that was the key to Ewell's survival--and, in the end, to his attacker's redemption

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He spent most of his 20s in a fog that seemed impenetrable at times. He has no doubt about what enabled him to disperse it. "Being an athlete is what saved me," he says. "It saved me that night, and it saved me throughout this whole process. Put a goal in front of me, I'm gonna reach it and then go for the next one. That's pretty much the essence of what an athlete does."

In time he was walking without his cane and putting on muscle. His stamina and equilibrium improved. "Who knows," he confided to a friend one day, "I may even play football again."

If there's anything worse than going to prison, it might be going to prison as a suburban white kid convicted of an assault with racial overtones. Shannon Siegel was braced for the worst. But after spending the last 13 years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., he says he hasn't had so much as a heated argument with another inmate. The guards back him up on this.

See, being an athlete has saved Siegel too. Smallish, somewhat pasty and prone to stammering when he gets nervous, inmate 93A1482 may not cut an imposing figure, but when other prisoners saw him throw a perfect spiral or go deep in the hole to field a ground ball or pull up on the fast break to pop a jumper, he gained a measure of status. Siegel figures he plays sports 20 hours a week, mostly during yard time, prison's version of recess. It falls to him to fashion balls out of tape and other items. It also falls to Siegel, a former New York Mets spring training batboy, to arbitrate discussions about the best teams.

"I know you always hear it, but sports really do break down barriers," Siegel says. "You might not think that growing up on Long Island is the best preparation for maximum security prison, but sports, you know, make differences go away."

He also uses the sports calendar to keep connected to the outside world. He has never surfed the Web or used a cellphone or downloaded tunes onto an iPod. His slang is stuck in the early '90s, and he makes references to television shows that have been off the air for years. But as long as he can read Knicks box scores or turn his transistor radio at the right angle to pick up Mets games late at night--"Go ahead and quiz me about any New York team," he pleads--life isn't completely whizzing by him.

Like Ewell, Siegel has made the best of his circumstances. He earned a college degree by correspondence and became the first inmate in Clinton's history to receive an advanced degree--an MBA from City University in Bellevue, Wash. His prison job is to help other inmates earn their GEDs. More than 100 men have done so under his tutelage.

Still, Siegel has had oceans of time to try to make sense of June 1, 1991. What could account for his lapse in humanity? How could a college baseball player with no police record, a new Corvette and a newer girlfriend beat another man's brains out? "I was drunk, I was young, I was stupid," Siegel says in a tone that suggests he's frustrated that there's no more satisfying answer. "I was making bad decisions, hanging out with [people] I shouldn't have. This eats at my soul every day."

Siegel also spends time wondering why the parole board regularly turns him down. He is supposed to be released next St. Patrick's Day, by which time he'll have served 14 years. Some rapists and even killers have served less time. How could that be, especially when Jermaine Ewell's four other attackers combined didn't spend 14 years in the joint? Is the board, Siegel asks, "trying to show that middle-class kids don't get special treatment?"

He's not alone in thinking he's no longer in arrears to society. Franzese and Lieberman, the other two victims, have sent letters to the parole board seeking clemency for Siegel. In 1998 Clinton superintendent Daniel Senkowski wrote to the state's Executive Clemency Bureau on Siegel's behalf. "Shannon Siegel's demeanor while incarcerated has been exemplary," Senkowski asserted. "It seems unlikely that [he] could derive any further benefit from continued incarceration. However, society is currently being deprived of the positive contributions he could be making."

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