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Forget March Madness -- The real trouble goes on in February

Little-known fact: February takes its name from the Roman "februum," which means "purification," which strikes me as ironic, considering how many college football players seem to view the month as a four-week window to get polluted.

Even by the Dionysian standards of this sport, Feb. 2009 brought an inordinate number of DUIs, OWIs (Operating While Intoxicated), MIPs (Minor in Possession), and YGTBFKMs (You've Got To Be Freaking Kidding Me) -- the only appropriate response to the story of Iowa defensive back Shaun Prater, whom cops pulled over in the wee hours of Feb. 28. After blowing a .134 on the Breathalyzer (the state's legal limit is .08), Prater told police the bartender "must have put alcohol in my Coca-Cola."

Perhaps it was the same saboteur who slipped Frank Solich a mickey in November '05. Over the last five weeks at least a dozen D-I players were busted for drinking or smoking or being in possession of substances they ought not to have been. Together they beg the question: What is it about this time of year that leads to so many guys getting their pictures taken from the front and the side?

"You see this happening when guys don't have that daily structure" that football provides, says Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "You see it in their academics, too. They're more at risk, they get more careless. And while you do see them fairly frequently, you don't see them every day. They're not under your watchful eye."

There was some sadness in Venables' voice. Sooners wide receiver Corey Wilson sustained critical injuries last Friday afternoon when his SUV rolled over on the freeway. Alcohol was not involved, but Wilson wasn't wearing his seat belt. (Wilson's condition has since been upgraded to "serious," but he reportedly suffered an unspecified spinal cord injury).

Because they live in fear of such bad-news calls, coaches are as proactive as possible to avoid getting them. During the season, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wears his players out at team meetings with the same message: "Bob tells 'em, 'Be where you're supposed to be, be who you're supposed to be,'" says Venables. "'Buckle up. And remember, nothing good happens after midnight.'

"But there's always a few guys sitting there thinking 'He's talking about these other guys, not me. I'm still bulletproof.'"

Or, in the case of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, invisible. A refugee from Michigan widely expected to earn the starting job this spring, the 6-foot-7 Mallett failed to escape the notice of Fayetteville police early on the morning of March 1. The junior was "visibly swaying" outside a night club. In addition to reeking of alcohol, Mallett gave off "the faint odor of marijuana," according to the arresting officer. Asked if he'd been partaking, the future leader of Razorback Nation echoed another famous Arkansan, denying that he'd smoked, but admitting he'd been hanging out with some people who did.

Marijuana was present in a urine sample provided by Florida State wide out Preston Parker, who was taken in after officers found him passed out at the wheel, engine still running -- Solich-style -- in the drive-through lane at McDonalds. It was Parker's third arrest in three years at FSU. He was thrown off the team two days later.

The golden arches played a supporting role, likewise, in the arrest of Washington State quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, who was taken inside the Pullman Police Department after officers found him in the drivers seat of a pickup in front of the building early on the morning of Feb. 22. "He was slumped over with a grocery bag of vomit between his feet," one officer told the student paper, The Daily Evergreen. Cougfan.com disputed the account, insisting the quarterback was not "passed out." He was asleep, OK? There's a difference. And that bag at his feet? It contained "some McDonalds wrappers and other garbage, but no vomit."

While the fan site's loyalty is admirable, an absence of puke wouldn't exactly leave Lobbestael, who is 19, on the moral high ground. The freshman was charged with being a minor exhibiting the signs of having consumed alcohol, a gross misdemeanor, and was suspended from the team.

Ball State kicker Ian McGarvey also earned a suspension after being charged with a DWI, although his case wasn't a slam-dunk. Before failing the "horizontal gaze nystagmus" test, he'd passed the "one-leg stand," and "walk and turn" tests. (His travails remind me of a Pac-10 gymnastics coach who was pulled over after a night of revelry many years ago. Instructed to walk a straight line, the coach vaulted into a handstand, walked the line -- forward and back -- on his hands, at which point the cops told him he was free to go.)

Moralists and teetotalers will disapprove of that story, because the coach escapes punishment. I share it anyway because, truth be told, imploring young people to party responsibly is a tough, tough sell. They will nod in solidarity during the seminar on binge drinking, then a few days (or hours) later, raise their voices -- and glasses -- to the chorus of Asher Roth's I Love College:

Drink my beer and smoke my weed/with my good friends is all I need.

My message for ball players entering the alluring saturnalia of the offseason: Guys, if you're going to party, find the golden mean. Seek moderation in all things. You're an athlete, your body is your meal ticket. Be good to it. Don't pollute it.

Because, next thing you know, spring football will be upon you.

"We start today," Venables said Wednesday. That's a short off-season, I sympathized, but he wasn't having it. "I love it," he said. "It's an exciting time." And a relief, I suspect, to impose a bit of structure on the lives of some guys who can use all they can get.

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