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But if you fold into the story other myriad peculiarities, you begin to wonder. One proctor, Terri Guion, photocopied Manuel's answer sheet because, she says, she knew someone who wanted his autograph. Guion also says that other Lafayette students told her that Shearer had later boasted around school that he had helped get Manuel into Kentucky. Manuel's mother and high school coach say Eric recalls signing his name twice that morning, once on an answer sheet and again when someone asked for yet another autograph. Sean Sutton was also in the cafeteria that morning; he was taking the ACT even though he had already met his Prop 48 requirement. He said his mother, Patsy, wanted him to retake the test, "for the pride of having a higher score."
When the Manuel defense team tried to track down the answer sheet Guion had photocopied, and sought Shearer's help in reconstructing what had happened that morning—including what might have transpired between the time the test concluded around noon Saturday and Monday morning, when the answer sheets were mailed to ACT headquarters in Iowa City—it was rebuffed. Shearer's father, Ron, told Ed Dove, the public defender who represented Manuel during the NCAA investigation, "You're not coming around my kid." Shearer, currently a junior at Kentucky, declined to be interviewed for this story.
So one is left with this: Something fishy clearly took place. Yet Manuel—an unassuming Southern youngster who defers to adults and does what he is told—has maintained his innocence while refusing to implicate anyone else. This is what the Manuel case has distilled to three years later: a Kafkaesque and self-perpetuating chain of events that figures to be broken only when someone's conscience has had enough guilt.
Dove subscribes to the theory that there were two answer sheets that morning. That Manuel signed both, taking the test honestly on one, while the other was "taken care of" and forwarded to Iowa City. Thus, Manuel may have been an unwitting "third man" in the scenario. "Eddie Sutton wanted Eric to call a big press conference to proclaim his innocence," says Dove. "But they [the investigators] had the smoking gun. The poor child would have been made a laughingstock."
This reporter, working with Armen Keteyian to research the book Raw Recruits, commissioned a documents examiner to check the authenticity of the signature on the answer sheet that the ACT has on file. After comparing it with contemporaneous samples, the expert concluded it was "highly probable" that Manuel did indeed sign the sheet. That doesn't rule out Dove's theory, however, that his client signed two sheets, and that a second sheet was filled out later by someone else, unbeknownst to Manuel.
"We know there were lots of people with an interest in him being eligible," says Mark Hammons, the Oklahoma City attorney who argued Manuel's court case pro bono. "UK and its boosters and affiliates—they had much more to gain by altering his test score than Eric did."
Surely the NCAA knew that. Yet its committee on infractions assumed that Manuel was stonewalling investigators by pleading innocence. Faced with its first test-fraud case since the advent of Prop 48 in 1986, the NCAA gave him a good hidestrapping.
But what if Manuel really didn't know anything? And even if he did, can a teenager in the care of powerful adults really be expected to drop a dime and bring them down? "Eric was just a pawn in all this," says someone who was closely involved with the Kentucky program at the time. "He's paying a huge price for something he did not do."
They call it the Trail of Tears, the route taken by the Cherokees and the Creeks in the early 19th century as they made their way, by government order, from their homes in northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee to the badlands of Oklahoma. That is roughly the route Manuel has taken since the NCAA turned him out: from Macon to Hiwassee College, a juco in Madisonville, Tenn., and on to Oklahoma City University, a United Methodist school with a fine academic reputation.
In August, Oklahoma City coach Darrel Johnson offered Manuel a scholarship. He did so after checking the NAIA rule book, which states that a player is athletically ineligible if he has "completed eligibility" at any four-year school. NAIA regulations go on to specify that graduation, 10 semesters of attendance or four seasons of athletic competition all constitute completion of eligibility. Manuel had, at Kentucky and Hiwassee, spent a total of six semesters enrolled as either an active player or a redshirt. To Johnson and other Oklahoma City officials, he seemed to have two seasons left.