Thursday October 9th, 2008

One of the first things people told Rhett Bomar when he got to Huntsville, Texas: Don't pick up hitchhikers.

Situated in the Piney Woods, 70 miles north of Houston, Huntsville is the location of Sam Houston State, Bomar's second college. It's also home to eight prisons, including what was for many years the nation's busiest execution chamber. The Longhorns may boast only the fifth-ranked team in college football this week, but when it comes to capital punishment, Texans can proudly boast, "We're No. 1!"

Biblical scholars refer to Adam and Eve's original sin as a "fortunate fall." Many Sooners fans feel the same way about Rhett Bomar's sudden, stunning plunge from grace two years and three months ago. Bomar's exit led, indirectly, to the ascent of Sam Bradford, the supremely gifted redshirt sophomore quarterback who has led the Sooners back to No. 1.

While Texas and OU kick it off at 11 a.m. in the Cotton Bowl this Saturday, Sam Houston's game against Central Arkansas "isn't until six," notes Bomar, now in his second season starting for the I-AA Bearkats. "Sure, I'll probably flip through [the channels] and see how they're doing. It doesn't really bother me. I don't really think about it anymore."

Of course he catches plenty of Big 12 football on the tube. No, he can't help thinking, he admits, "I should be playing there, things like that. But, honestly, I put that out of my head. I've realized that part of my life's over, it's done with. I'm not gonna play there anymore, and I need to focus now on my teammates here, and winning here."

It is grimly appropriate that Bomar should have ended up plying his trade in "Prison City." He never committed a felony, but, looking back on the swiftness with which he was booted from the Oklahoma program in August of 2006, one wonders if he might as well have.

Bomar was a redshirt sophomore and the Sooners' returning starter at quarterback that summer. But he never made it to two-a-days. A University investigation revealed that Bomar and offensive lineman J.D. Quinn had held down no-show jobs at a Norman car dealership. While as many as two dozen OU football players had been employed at the dealership over the previous four years, according to published reports, only Bomar and Quinn were busted. Only those two were disciplined. And that discipline was draconian.

For purposes of comparison, remember that this was on the eve of the 2006 season, in which Troy Smith would lead Ohio State the BCS title game, winning the Heisman in the process. Left unmentioned on the stage at the Nokia Theater the night he accepted that award was the fact that, two years earlier, Smith had accepted $500 from a booster, causing head coach Jim Tressel to ... suspend him for two games.

I bring that up not to demean Smith, who obviously learned from his mistake, but to use it as a frame of reference. Here's another. Bomar's ill-gotten gains, the NCAA later reckoned, came in at some $7,400. Even as he was packing his bags, USC was in Defcon 3 over the status of Dwayne Jarrett, who'd been declared ineligible for receiving "extra benefits" totaling some $18,000 -- the amount of free rent he'd received from the father of a teammate. Since Jarrett had been chipping in $650 a month to defray the cost of his and Matt Leinart's $3,866-per-month lease, the All-American receiver thought everything was on the level. The NCAA ruled that, in this case, ignorance was an excuse. Jarrett's eligibility was restored.

Bomar, for his part, was called into the office of head coach Bob Stoops and kicked off the team. There was no talk of suspensions or probation or second chances, just Old Testament justice. He was gone. That's how Stoops rolls. I don't fault him for that, although it did seem like piling on a few weeks later when the head coach put a figurative boot in Bomar's backside, telling reporters that the young man who'd been on track to be a four-year starter for him was, in retrospect, no great loss: "The truth is we lost a guy who finished the year with 10 interceptions and 10 touchdowns. It isn't like you lose (ex-Heisman winner) Jason White who had maybe 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Now that's different."

Asked if he was guilty as charged, Bomar says, "To an extent, yeah." In the same breath, he insists that his malfeasance was "not as bad as everybody tried to make it out to be." He elaborates: "Nobody knows the whole deal, and I'm not gonna get into all that. It's just a lot of stuff that went on that nobody knows about. But, yeah, we made mistakes, and I guess had to suffer the consequences."

Despite the harshness of the penalty, "I didn't go out and rat anybody out or talk or anything like that, I just kind of moved on with my life."

That statement -- "I didn't go out and rat anybody out" -- strongly implies that one or more of his teammates went unpunished. Asked to elaborate, he responded with a polite no-comment. "I'm not gonna get into that one. I'm happy now, and it's going good."

Bomar called me Wednesday afternoon. He'd just finished classes, and was on his way to meetings to prepare for Central Arkansas. The Bearkats are 2-1, coming off a 49-33 win over Gardner-Webb in which Bomar threw for five touchdowns and ran for another. For this performance, he was named a College Sporting News National All-Star, as well as Southland Conference Offensive Player of the week.

He's already passed for 10 touchdowns this season -- equaling his total from '07, when he was knocked out in the ninth game with a torn ACL in his left knee. After that, he had to sit back and watch as backup Brett Hicks rallied the team to victory against Texas State-San Marcos. That smarted because, as Bomar noted, it was Sam Houston's sole TV game of the season.

Are any of Oklahoma's games not televised? That is just one more measure of the distance he had fallen; from Division I to I-AA; from 82,000-seat Memorial Stadium to 14,000-seat Bower Stadium.

Bounced from the big-time, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound, dual-threat signal-caller had at least one D-I option. There was interest from Houston, then coached by highly regarded Art Briles, an old friend of Jerry Bomar, Rhett's father and high school coach at Grand Prairie (Tex.) High. He took the I-AA path, unwilling to sit out a "transfer year."

His hope, in coming to Sam Houston, was that he might salvage half of his sophomore season. But the wheels of NCAA justice ground slowly. The NCAA needed info from Oklahoma, whose gumshoes, in Bomar's view, "dragged their feet a little bit ... they took it really slow, cause they really didn't care about us."

In the end he was ruled ineligible for the entire season. "I kept hoping all season, and then they just shot it down. It was kind of a rough fall."

These days, he says, his life is good. He sounds happy, if a bit jaded. Yes, his goal is to play in the NFL. Scouts, he says, are "coming through every week, and the feeback's good. I'm hoping to just go out, have a good year, and things will be all right for me."

I had a final question before I let him go. If he happens to have the Texas-OU game on, would he be pulling for one team or another? He unleashed his longest laugh of the interview.

"Yeah," he replied, "Maybe one way or the other. But I'm not gonna tell you which way."

The truth is, he doesn't have to.

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