The untold story behind Jeremiah Masoli's past, downfall at Oregon
But here's the thing with Masoli: there are always extenuating circumstances. Less than 48 hours after Oregon coach
Masoli admits that he lied about whether he was at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house on Jan. 24, 2010. He lied to Kelly, to police, to his parents. He lied, he says, for reasons he hopes others will understand. He also admits to poor judgment. He is where he is today, "because I let all this happen. I put myself in some bad situations. That was the whole mistake." But he insists that he did not steal. His misdeeds took place in that wide area between black and white, between absolute guilt and innocence. He is asking you to see the gray.
Around 12:40 a.m., on Sunday, Jan. 24, Oregon sophomore
Wolfard later told police that he was "elated to see Masoli in the fraternity house." Then he brushed past Embry and noticed him trying to hide a digital projector close to his side.
"Hey, that's mine," Wolfard said to Embry. "What are you doing?"
Masoli and Embry said nothing, exiting the house through a door at the foot of the stairs and heading in opposite directions. Masoli walked toward Taylor's Bar & Grill -- a popular campus hangout across the street from SAE -- and Embry sprinted around the frat house and into an alley. Wolfard hadn't seen anything in Masoli's hands, so he took off after Embry.
The most plausible reason that Wolfard, a biology major who played high school football only briefly, caught up with a Division I-A receiver like Embry, is the one corroborated by several sources (including Embry himself in a phone call recorded by police) -- that Embry had been drinking heavily that night. After about four blocks, Embry stopped, turned, handed Wolfard his projector, and according to what Wolfard told police, said, "You got it back, just get out of here."
As Wolfard walked back to the house, his heart rate descending, he thought about letting the incident slide. Then he returned to his room and found his Apple MacBook laptop and electric guitar missing. Another SAE brother said his MacBook was gone too.
The Eugene policeman who responded to Wolfard's 911 call moments later found Wolfard (who described himself to police as a "huge Duck fan") "visibly upset that [Masoli and Embry] could be involved with the stolen property," according to the police report.
"I asked Wolfard if he saw Masoli with anything in his possession," the report continued, "and he said he did not ..."
The story Masoli tells from his parents' couch is that, yes, he was there that night, but he didn't steal anything. He admits that's not what he told Kelly when the coach called about nine hours after the incident to ask about the burglary rumor going around town. "Masoli said he didn't have anything to do with it ... " Kelly later told police. "Masoli denied being at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house."
It was the first of several lies that Masoli would come to regret, including his identical lie to police the next day. But although it notes these initial dishonesties, the 52-page report compiled by the Eugene police department offers little else to contradict the story Masoli tells today about his lack of involvement in the burglary. What the report does reveal is an incomplete investigation that does not describe how Masoli and Embry converged from their separate, unrelated social agendas that night to meet up at the SAE house and commit a burglary. Nor does it account for the phone records that show no calls or text messages between Masoli and Embry on the night of the burglary, and no contact in the weeks before it. The report also fails to explain why the police searched Masoli's vehicle, his apartment, even the dumpster and recycling bin behind his apartment, but makes no mention of searching the residence or car of Embry. (The two MacBooks and guitar were never recovered.)
(The Eugene Police Department did not respond to SI.com's questions about the case.)
So if Masoli didn't steal anything that night, why did he lie?
"I just didn't want to affiliate myself with anything like robbery or anything that had to do with that," he says, "because I had been through it all already. I had been through that whole ordeal already."
An American combat veteran who has twice been deployed to Afghanistan recalls the robbery that landed Masoli in trouble in high school. The soldier, who asked that his name, rank and branch of service not be disclosed for fear that his military career would be jeopardized, was driving the truck in which Masoli, then 16, and two of their football teammates from Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., were riding that day in June 2005, along with two other juveniles. It was after an off-season workout, the soldier says, and they had pulled up outside Hillsdale High to pick up a friend when the guys in the back hopped out, walked over to a kid who was smaller than they were, and told him to hand over his wallet. As Masoli describes it: "I was sitting in the shotgun seat, and we pulled up and parked and these guys in the back got out, and I got out too ..."
Masoli and the driver independently recall that Masoli got out of the vehicle last, and with hesitation, before the victim gave up his wallet, which according to redacted juvenile records reviewed by SI.com, contained $10 cash and a Jamba Juice card. Those same records indicate that Masoli was not the instigator in the robbery and didn't say anything to the victim. Masoli told police that when he looked inside the wallet as it was being passed around, he was relieved to find it empty.
Masoli appears to still harbor remorse as he describes how he failed that day. He says he should have been the leader his father had raised him to be; should have herded the guys back to the truck and told them how stupid this was; should never have gotten back in the truck with the stolen wallet and the guys who stole it.
Because he did none of those things, he knows that by the letter of the law he was as guilty as the other guys. So he doesn't complain about the guilty plea he entered, or the nearly three months he spent in a youth detention center wearing a jersey with the facility's name stenciled across his back. Instead, he expresses what he told a San Mateo police officer in 2005. "If given the chance to speak with the victim," the confidential police report states, "[Masoli] said he would 'apologize for what we did. ... I mean, I'd just like to really say I'm sorry.'"
"He did not initially understand why what he did was illegal," the report concludes, "but he understands now."
Masoli and the driver also stated independently of one another that they didn't know the guys in the back of the truck as well as they knew each other, and they didn't know that two of them had committed such robberies before. A snowball of inaccurate reporting as to this last fact is why years later, at the peak of his football fame, Masoli would be described erroneously in several media accounts as having been involved in a series of robberies as a teenager. Confidential sources (and the
According to confidential probation records, Masoli's high school disciplinary record at the time "consist[ed] of three entries, one for ... tardies, and two for dress code violations." He spent his 17th
He had been a 3.0 student and was a football star at private, academically rigorous Serra before he was expelled following the robbery. Harvard and Yale had been among the schools recruiting him. After his expulsion, the recruiters stopped calling.
Soon thereafter, his father,
When he was at Serra, Masoli had worked out with the football team at City College of San Francisco, and was given an open invitation to play there by coach
After the 2007 season Rush sent an unsolicited DVD of Masoli's highlights to Oregon, with whom Masoli later signed. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Masoli arrived in Eugene in 2008 with a surgically-repaired throwing wrist and a spot so low on the depth chart -- fifth-string -- that it later became part of his legend. Due to a rash of injuries, he was the starter by Game 4 that fall. In the final three games of that year he gained more than 1,000 yards, scored 13 touchdowns and threw just one interception. The Ducks won the Holiday Bowl and Masoli was named the game's MVP. Oregon had a new hero.
"Off the field, Jeremiah's a real quiet guy," Oregon receiver
The reticence of the face of the Ducks was due in some measure to the Samoan culture held dear by his family, which values silence over soundbites and helps explain the lack of in-depth profiles on Masoli. Five days after he led Oregon to its program-defining 47-20 victory over USC, the local newspaper in Eugene ran a story that referenced Masoli's "role in several strong-armed robberies" as a teen. Masoli's mother, Linda,
In April 2010 a cover story in the
A key part of the Eugene Police Department's investigation into the SAE burglary was the security footage from Taylor's Bar & Grill, which showed Masoli and his 21-year-old cousin
There were no cameras on Masoli just prior to his arrival at Taylor's, however, a crucial window of time for which the police had four eyewitnesses.
The first witness is Lefiti, who like his cousin was less than honest with police following the burglary. The account he gave to SI.com, however, in a interview separate from his cousin's, mirrors Masoli's to the letter. Both Masoli and Lefiti recall that as they were approaching Taylor's that night in Masoli's car, they saw Embry standing outside the SAE house flagging them down. When Masoli slowed, "[Embry said] something like, 'Come check this party out with me,'" Masoli recalls. "And I said all right, and then I go park my car."
Masoli and his cousin decided that Masoli would size up the frat party while Lefiti peeked inside Taylor's. Then they would decide which scene was better.
Masoli says that he "walk[ed] behind Garrett to the SAE house," where Embry opened the same side door they would emerge from moments later. "We walk up this back stairwell," Masoli says, "and up like a flight of stairs or two and then there was this room just completely open." Masoli recalls loud music and a couple of drunk students sprawled in the hallway.
The second eyewitness, SAE member
(In his interviews with police and SI.com, Bohne said he remembered seeing Masoli wearing a backpack that night. Wolfard also remembered Masoli wearing a backpack, although he did not mention one during his first interview with police, when he noted only that upon seeing Masoli in the stairwell "Masoli was wearing baggy clothing and the other items (the laptops and guitar) might have [been] taken before [Wolfard] saw them." Masoli and Lefiti denied that Masoli wore a backpack at any point that night. Video surveillance does not show him wearing one at Taylor's Bar & Grill.)
"And then Garrett goes in this room and comes out with a projector," Masoli continues.
It was a situation not unlike the one outside Hillsdale High on June 16, 2005. Something bad was happening -- what would Masoli do? Stay with his teammate, or walk away?
"Something about the situation told me to get out of there," Masoli said, "and I walked right in front of [Embry], didn't say one word to him, just walked right out of there."
Embry followed Masoli into the stairwell, the projector hidden behind his hip, where they encountered the third eyewitness, Wolfard.
The final witness, of course, is Embry, who seven weeks after the crime pleaded guilty alongside Masoli to second-degree burglary. Embry declined to speak with police during their investigation and turned down several requests made through both his attorney and his mother to be interviewed by SI.com.
Masoli was walking to class two days after the SAE theft when he got a call from Lefiti informing him that two Eugene police detectives were at his apartment and wanted to talk to him. During his 10-minute walk home Masoli was referred to a legal services hotline by a family member, and was put in touch with a Eugene-based defense attorney named
Masoli told the detectives that he and his cousin had driven to Taylor's Bar & Grill on Saturday night. That much was true. But he said "he was never at the fraternity house," which was not true.
"I asked Masoli if he was sure," wrote the detective, "and he maintained his statement of denial."
Asked about Embry, Masoli said, "I didn't see him at all."
Until the SAE burglary, Garrett Embry was best known as the Duck who'd been punched by his own teammate,
Embry caught a total of two passes for -4 yards in 2009. Some teammates recall him as a "stand-up guy" and a "good dude." Others say Embry partied too hard, studied too little, and was late to practices and meetings far too often. One Ducks player recalled Embry's father showing up to practice one day to watch his son, only to have Kelly walk over and ask if he knew where Garrett was. Embry's dad had no idea.
Masoli says he didn't know Embry well and didn't hang out with him. Other Ducks players vouch for this. The two had a class together, Military Science, and while they spoke from time to time in class, in the huddle, or in the locker room, that was the extent of their relationship.
According to the police report, in the hours leading up to the SAE burglary Embry was out on the town with his two roommates, Ducks defensive tackle
Witnesses in that room told police that sometime after midnight Embry excused himself to go check out another party down the street. A few minutes later Max Wolfard was chasing him down the alley.
Wolfard is still surprised at himself for taking off after Embry that night. Nowadays, though, he just wants the whole thing to be over. He says he's gotten some online harassment for supposedly ruining the Ducks' 2010 season (Oregon was a national championship contender with Masoli). To say nothing of the sports cable network's truck that was parked outside of Wolfard's window for several days last month.
Wolfard is sitting in a Eugene coffee shop listening to a relayed version of Masoli's account of that night. At the end of it, he says, "By his version he didn't steal anything, and by mine it's not clear that he did."
Then why did Masoli cop to it? This is where even Masoli's fans get stuck. It's where Chip Kelly gets stuck. How could Masoli sit in court and plead guilty to something he swears he didn't do?
Here is how.
On March 1, Lane County District Attorney
Kim and Masoli were offered a deal. If Masoli pleaded guilty to burglary two -- a felony that the D.A. promised to treat as a misdemeanor -- he would get a year of probation, and he and Embry would split the $5,000 restitution to be paid to the victims. "But the biggest factor," Linda Masoli says, "was if you lose [at trial] -- and, by the way, the D.A. wins a high percentage of their cases -- your son is facing a mandatory sentence of two to four years in prison."
Like his son, Kennedy Masoli projects a stolid Samoan stoicism. That wall crumbles as he and Linda recall the weekend in March when Jeremiah drove home to Daly City to decide with his family whether to plead guilty to burglary. Kennedy clears his throat several times and looks away, trying to hide his eyes. Linda sobs quietly.
"We changed our mind in our bedroom with our son at least six times," Linda recalls. "Just back and forth -- a lot of tears, a lot of praying as a family, together, and ultimately Jeremiah was the one who said, 'Football's one thing, this is my life. Prison? For two to four years?'"
In court on March 12, Masoli nearly changed his mind again. "We just sat back down from having to rise for the judge," he recalls. "I kinda looked at [Kim] and I whispered in his ear, 'What would happen if I said no to all these questions?' ... [Kim] said, 'That would not be good right now.'"
(Kim didn't return several calls and an email from SI.com.)
"On or about Jan. 25 [sic], 2010, in Lane County, Oregon," the judge asked Masoli, "did you unlawfully and knowingly enter or remain in a building ... with the intent to commit the crime of theft therein... ?"
"Do you want to plead guilty to the charge of burglary in the second degree?"
"Up to that point it was almost surreal," Masoli recalls. In the moments after his plea, he sat there thinking,
That same afternoon Kelly announced a season-long suspension for Masoli that he'd decided upon after learning that Masoli planned to plead guilty. Also that afternoon, Gardner released the police report to the public, then he presided over a press conference in which he deftly handled every question asked of him, except one:
"So if the prints didn't match up," a reporter asked, "what did you go on as far as deciding to charge Masoli?"
Said Gardner: "There was a lot of other evidence. He had been seen in the fraternity house. We had some surveillance from other locations, we had witnesses who have come forward. It was clear -- I think you probably all heard the 911 tape -- the reason the victim is out of breath is from having chased Mr. Embry. There were many other circumstances which made it clear who was present." (Gardner did not respond to numerous interview requests from SI.com by phone and email.)
Glenn Bunting would also like you to believe that Jeremiah Masoli isn't a thug. Formerly an investigative reporter for the
Although the signed statement doesn't exonerate Masoli, it sheds new light on Embry's role in the burglary. Palmer recalls that when he saw Embry and his roommates riding around in Ferras' truck, he waved them down so he could get a ride to the hospital to check on
"En route to the hospital, the truck made a brief stop at a nearby residence. I then witnessed Embry remove two Apple laptop computers and a guitar from the rear seat of the truck and take the items inside the apartment. I was then dropped off at the hospital.
"I had no knowledge at the time that those same items were reported stolen earlier that evening from a fraternity house. I never came in contact with Jeremiah Masoli that evening or heard anyone in the truck mention his name. I was never questioned by police about the events I observed that evening."
(Palmer declined to be interviewed by SI.com but confirmed that his statement is accurate.)
Ferras, who was the designated driver for Embry and Rosenberg that night, told SI.com last week that he remembers Embry unloading some items from the back of his truck, but he "had no idea what they were." He added that he is no longer friends with Embry. "I don't hang out with people who bring me down," said Ferras, who is trying to catch on with an NFL team. "There was a point where I thought he was a good person. I never thought he'd do something like that." Ferras says he knows nothing about the involvement of his former junior college teammate Masoli in the burglary: "I never saw him that night."
Embry's other roommate, Alex Rosenberg, told SI.com via Facebook: "The reason i have been distant is i have been afraid. I want to help you two with this story. I have decided to help you." Two days later he cancelled a scheduled interview, writing: "My advisor thinks the only reason i would do this is to get back at garrett and for purposes that could screw me over in the long run ... This is nothing against you ..."
Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Rosenberg said he'd spoken with Ferras and they'd decided together to withhold further comment and "let the two of those guys deal with it on their own."
Spring practice had begun by the time Masoli asked Palmer, the long snapper, to provide his statement. Masoli, who had signed a deal with Kelly listing several conditions of his possible reinstatement, was allowed to dress out and run through drills as a backup receiver. One day, Embry showed up.
"He was on the sideline and everybody was shocked that he was even there," Masoli recalls. In the locker room afterward, Masoli "asked him straight up, 'Wassup, man? ...
"I told him, 'I know the whole court thing is over now, we can't go to the D.A. and tell him. Why can't you just go up to Coach Kelly and tell him what happened? Why can't you just help me out with this football situation? So at least my coach trusts me on some level. ... '
"[Embry] said he was scared to go talk to [Kelly] because he was not gonna get his release [to transfer to another school], something to that effect, and I just couldn't believe it. I said, 'You're sitting here looking me in the eye telling me that? That's your excuse? A transfer?
"He really had nothing to say. Really nothing to say."
At that point, Masoli says, he decided to move on. Palmer's statement and his own impending graduation (in mid-July Masoli completed all requirements to receive his sociology degree from Oregon) buoyed the Masoli family throughout the spring. Then came the events of June 7, which prompted Kelly to dismiss Masoli from the team for good.
Masoli was pulled over at 9:30 p.m. that Monday night for failing to stop while exiting a Eugene-area gas station. In addition to discovering that his license was suspended, Springfield (Ore.) police found a small amount of marijuana in his glove box. Kelly dismissed Masoli two days later for "a failure to adhere to obligations previously outlined by [Kelly]."
(Kelly declined repeated requests from SI.com to talk about Masoli.)
Last week Masoli entered guilty pleas to possessing less than an ounce of marijuana and the failing-to-stop citation, both of which are non-criminal violations in Oregon. (The suspended license citation was dismissed.) Masoli paid $613 in fines, which according to his attorney
Masoli declined to speak with SI.com about whether the marijuana found in his car that night was his. He also declined to answer questions about
Masoli acknowledged that the marijuana was in his vehicle. "I was driving and I have taken responsibility for the citation," he said.
Has Masoli ever smoked marijuana?
"Yes," he said, "I've used marijuana in the past, just like a lot of college kids. I now know that's not the example I want to set as a student-athlete or a big brother."
Still, several of Masoli's former teammates support him.
"A lot of guys on the team still support Jeremiah," said Jeff Maehl, the senior receiver. "Some may look at him in a different light now, but as far as being a teammate on the field, he's one of the greatest teammates I've ever had."
"Nah, he's not a thug," said senior defensive end
Masoli, who still has a season of eligibility remaining, can receive a waiver to play this fall because of an NCAA rule that allows athletes who have graduated to transfer and play immediately as long as their postgraduate field of study isn't offered by their previous school. First, Masoli will need to find a school willing to accept him. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech are the schools rumored to be interested.
Masoli and his parents reiterate several times that they hold no grudges against Kelly, his program, the university, or its supporters. "We're still Duck fans," Linda says. "It will always be a special place for us."
Indeed, her youngest, 14-year-old