The day of the arrest was worst. That's when the sadness and the embarrassment washed over Peter Warrick like nothing he had ever felt. On the morning of Thursday, Oct. 7, the Florida State senior flanker had been arrested for felony grand theft in connection with three incidents in which he accepted steep discounts on clothing at a Dillard's department store in Tallahassee. That afternoon he was back at his small off-campus apartment, suspended indefinitely from the Seminoles' football team and alone with his mother and stepfather, Joann and Charles Williams. They had driven four hours from the family's home near Bradenton, Fla., not, as once planned, for the weekend's big game against Miami, but instead to chastise and comfort a wayward child. "Boy, if I could spank you, I would do it right now," said Warrick's mother. Then she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him as hard as she could.
This was supposed to be a special year for Warrick. The Seminoles would win the national championship that they should have won in 1998, and Warrick would lead them. Through a long summer in Florida's punishing heat Warrick had been the first player to show up every day in the weight room and for voluntary outdoor running sessions. He had been the last to leave. He'd added eight pounds of muscle. Gotten faster. Gotten stronger. "Everybody was amazed at how hard he worked," says Florida State senior offensive guard Jason Whitaker. Best of all, he was there by choice. Last January, Warrick, who had already spent four years in Tallahassee, shocked the football world by delaying his departure to the NFL to get his degree and play another year for the Seminoles. "I stayed because I felt the love for college football in my heart," he said. It's the kind of thing Peyton Manning had once said. Warrick would be not just a hero this season, but a role model, too.
That notion died at Dillard's. Six weeks have passed, and Warrick has returned to the Florida State lineup after missing two games. He will play this Saturday in college football's regular-season game of the year, between the No. 1 Seminoles and their bitter in-state rivals, the No. 3 Florida Gators. A berth in the Sugar Bowl—this season's national title game—hangs in the balance for Florida State (and perhaps for Florida, too), but that is all that remains of Warrick's dream season. His reputation was shredded by the Dillard's affair, and so were his hopes for the Heisman Trophy, as well as the flattering comparisons to Manning. He had known this since the moment of his arrest. In mid-afternoon on that Thursday, Warrick's lawyer, John Kenny, arrived at Warrick's apartment to find his client distraught. "In my heart I know I shouldn't have done this. I know it was stupid," Warrick said to Kenny. He paced the room, flogging himself. "What have I done?" Warrick asked his parents and his lawyer. "What have I done?"
Warrick isn't just good, he's scary good. He is 6 feet, 195 pounds and runs like a dot of mercury on a marble countertop. "He starts, stops and then starts up again in another direction, and it's like he never stopped in the first place," says Georgia Tech safety Travares Tillman. According to the stopwatch Warrick runs a relatively pedestrian 4.45 seconds for the 40-yard dash, which is a bigger joke than Donald Trump's running for president. "Throw that 4.45 out," says Denver Broncos director of college scouting Ted Sundquist. "Warrick is electric with the ball in his hands." Says Duke senior safety Eric Jones, "Trying to tackle Warrick is like trying to kill a gnat with a machete. You might kill the gnat eventually, but you're going to be bloody."
At Florida State, Warrick redshirted one year and then caught 136 passes for 23 touchdowns over the following three seasons. In the Seminoles' 23-16 loss to Tennessee in last year's Fiesta Bowl national championship game, however, he had a dismal night, catching just one pass for seven yards. He hated the thought of leaving on that note. A week later, on the eve of the declaration date for the NFL draft, Warrick sat in front of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's immense oak desk and said, "I'm confused. I don't know what to do." Bowden told Warrick, who is helping raise his three-year-old daughter, "Son, if you're confused, you might want to think about staying here." Warrick's stepfather, a minister at Mount Raymond Full Gospel Baptist Church in Palmetto, gave him the same advice. So Warrick stayed. "Everyone was wondering why," said one AFC scout before the season began.
As if in response, Warrick played the first five games of this season like he wanted to win the national championship all by himself. In a 41-35 win over Georgia Tech on Sept. 11 Warrick lined up at wide receiver, running back and quarterback, caught eight passes for 142 yards and one touchdown and rushed three times for 25 yards and another score. Against Duke on Oct. 2 he caught three touchdown passes in the first half. Players in other parts of the country cleared out TV time to watch Warrick in action. "You can talk all you want about the good players in our conference [Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, Wisconsin tailback Ron Dayne]," says Minnesota All-America cornerback and Thorpe Award favorite Tyrone Carter. "There's no doubt Peter Warrick is the best player in college football. No doubt whatsoever."
Warrick seemed to have taken control of the Heisman race with his performance against Duke. However, the seeds of his comedown had been sown three days before that game, when Warrick and Florida State split end Laveranues Coles went shopping at Tallahassee Mall. According to police reports Coles and Warrick were charged only $21.40 by Dillard's clerk Rachel Myrtil for clothing priced at $412.38. Because the total exceeded the $300 limit for petit theft, and because Warrick admitted to having received goods on two other occasions from Myrtil, whom he knew, at a similar discount under similar circumstances, Warrick—along with Coles and Myrtil—was arrested on Oct. 7 for grand theft, a third-degree felony.
Florida State athletic department policy mandates that any athlete arrested for a felony be immediately suspended, which left Warrick out of the Oct. 9 game against Miami (a 31-21 Florida State victory). Kenny began trying to arrange a plea bargain that would allow Warrick to get back into uniform. The ensuing two weeks left Florida State's athletic department in the ticklish position of trying to maintain institutional dignity while also attempting to expedite the case of an accused felon who happened to be its best football player. "Up there on campus," said state's attorney Willie Meggs, "it seemed like all that was important was getting Peter Warrick back on the field as quickly as possible."
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, four days before Florida State's game at Clemson, with Warrick having already missed two games, Meggs offered a deal in which Warrick would plead no contest to a felony charge and serve five days in jail, or enter a program that would allow the felony to eventually be sealed on his record. "We couldn't take that deal, because Florida State won't allow a felon to play," says Kenny. He countered with an offer for Warrick to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and have him serve 30 days in the county jail after the season. Meggs was agreeable.
At this point, however, Florida State president Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte got involved, telling the local media he didn't want any football players representing his school while awaiting a jail sentence. D'Alemberte's statement blindsided his own athletic department and evoked an emotional response from fans, alumni and students who flooded his office with E-mails, excoriating the president for everything from being too high-minded to meddling to—worst of all—getting a law degree from the University of Florida, home of the hated Gators.