On a warm night in the desert, Anthony Vontoure could only sit and sweat while a freshman took his place against Arizona State. Vontoure had been suspended, sort of. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Coaches would announce that their star cornerback was being punished, then say, no, no, it isn't really punishment, it's this or that. Sportswriters tried counting his disciplinary episodes, but how do you count something that is, then isn't? This time, Vontoure had been late to a team meeting. But his suspension came with an asterisk. "We decided we'd put him in if it was necessary," Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel told a reporter after the game. "We decided it wasn't necessary."
With his talent and personal struggles, Vontoure seemed always to be creating problems -- for other teams, or for his own team. Against Miami, he sacked the quarterback on a corner blitz, forcing a fumble that he recovered. Against Colorado, he stripped the ball to kill a last-minute drive. But tonight, he sat. After trailing early, Washington rebounded to beat the Sun Devils 21-15 in what one newspaper called "the ugliest football game in history." The teams combined for twelve turnovers, eighteen penalties, and two blocked kicks. But a win is a win, and this win moved Washington to 5-1. The Huskies were now 2-1 in conference play. The Rose Bowl remained within reach.
After the team flew home, Vontoure returned to the studio apartment where he lived alone, with nothing but an air mattress and his crippling self-doubts. Vontoure's position coach at the UW, Chuck Heater, has a résumé that includes stops at Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Florida. He's coached for more than thirty years, working mostly with defensive backs. More than twenty of his players have made the NFL; at least four were first-round picks. So when Heater calls Anthony Vontoure "the most talented kid I've ever had," the words mean something.
Neuheisel saw it too. "An unbelievably gifted athlete," he said of Vontoure. Kyle Benn, a teammate, called Vontoure the best athlete he ever saw, "hands down." "I watched him in a dunk contest, him and Tuiasosopo going at it. I was in awe. He was doing 360s; tomahawk dunks. His head was up by the rim. If he was 100 percent, he could have been
Vontoure came to Washington in the fall of 1997, the year after Curtis Williams. Like Williams, Vontoure was a high school star in California. He impressed the scouts -- "He could be an All-American,"
It may have been different, were it not for what happened in January 1997, three weeks after Vontoure's high school team wrapped up another perfect season.
Vontoure grew up in California, the youngest of three sons. His parents moved to the Bay Area when he was two, but divorced soon after. When he was seven, Anthony moved in with his dad. At eight, he begged to play organized football. When he was nine, his father relented.
Anthony's oldest brother, Mike, went to De La Salle, an allboys Catholic school in Concord, east of San Francisco. The motto of the school, run by the Christian Brothers, is "Enter to learn, leave to serve." Ninety-eight percent of its graduates go on to college. Mike starred in basketball and track. Chris, the family's middle brother, also attended De La Salle. In 1992 he starred in football; that year the Spartans went 13-0, starting the longest winning streak in football history. In a book on the streak, sportswriter Neil Hayes wrote of Chris: "He was a gifted athlete who struggled in other areas. He was kind-hearted, soft-spoken, and always made his teammates laugh. But Chris could also be volatile and temperamental."
Mike Blasquez, an athletic trainer at the school, worked with Chris. The two cut a deal: If Chris committed himself in the weight room, Blasquez would take him rafting. Chris followed through. Rafting that summer, the two hit white water. Their raft capsized, and Chris went under. His body turned up five days later, nine miles downriver. He was just shy of seventeen.
Anthony was thirteen when his brother died -- a loss he would replay and recount for years to come. He entered De La Salle a few months later and traced his brother's steps. Anthony starred in football -- playing both ways, at cornerback and receiver. The school had retired Chris's number, 23, but made an exception for Anthony, letting him wear it. Like Chris, Anthony had a temper. When he would erupt in practice, an assistant coach would make him walk across the field to the head coach. The walk seemed to calm him.
"He was a talented kid, young and immature," says Terry Eidson, the defensive coordinator at De La Salle. "He was no different than a lot of high school kids. He had trouble keeping his mouth closed, and knowing when to talk and when not to talk. ... He was his own worst enemy." Vontoure also found trouble away from football. On his fifteenth birthday he was arrested for burglary, accused of stealing a car stereo.
At De La Salle, the football team stresses humility, discipline, and respect for one another. Bonds are tight, the rules and expectations clear. The head coach, Bob Ladouceur, turns "selfish teens into selfless teammates," Hayes wrote. "He has created a culture, a community, based on timeless values where teenagers hold themselves and each other accountable." Each player fills out a commitment card -- listing goals for weight lifting, practices, games, and life -- and hands the card to a teammate or coach, who makes sure those goals are met. Vontoure, on his card, dedicated himself to being the best person he could be.
By the time he was a senior, Vontoure "got it," Eidson says. He understood his role and responsibilities. A high school team has forty-some players, not a hundred or more, as in college. Vontoure felt loved and supported, Eidson says. Football was fun, the pressure manageable. In the locker room, he became a leader. On the field, his play drew scouts from all over. In 1996, Vontoure returned eight kickoffs -- four for touchdowns. De La Salle finished 14-0 and extended its winning streak to sixty-six games.
In January 1997, soon after De La Salle's final game of the season, Vontoure accepted a scholarship to Washington.
That same month, Mathew Clark, a nineteen-year-old Chico State freshman, was at a birthday party in Danville, California, celebrating his friend Darcy's seventeenth. It was a family party, with pizza, M&Ms, turns at the piano. Clark played Nintendo with Darcy's thirteen-year-old brother, chatted with her seven-year-old sister. Then, after dark, a black Jeep Cherokee, its lights off, pulled up with several other cars, and twenty to thirty people piled out. The group approached the house, hooting, and someone in front said, "Hey, hey, any of you got a problem with Mike Stadelhofer?"
Stadelhofer was looking for a guy named Trevor, to settle some ill-defined score. Clark's friend Gavin was out front, alone. He said Trevor wasn't there, that there were parents inside, no drinking, nothing worth crashing. Stadelhofer's friends called Gavin foureyes. They called him p----. Eight, maybe ten, guys circled Gavin and began throwing punches. Clark rushed outside. Vontoure, who was with Stadelhofer's group, jumped in front of him. Clark didn't know Vontoure, Vontoure didn't know Clark. "Don't step, don't step, you're going to get your ass kicked, don't step," said Vontoure, who had been drinking for hours now. Clark pushed past and grabbed Gavin. But when Clark turned for the house, Vontoure punched him, once, twice� "What are you doing? Don't do this," Clark said -- and the two wrestled to the ground. Clark regained his feet, but the group closed on him. Someone hit him from the side, someone else knocked him down. Then they began kicking.
Clark heard someone yell, "Hey, watch this." The kicking stopped. Clark, on his hands and knees, felt a crack on the back of his head, a bright flash, everything went white, and as he collapsed, he heard it, he remembers it to this day, the sound of a brick hitting the ground, bouncing off the concrete. They kept kicking him, in the eye, in the nose, he felt his nose break, he remembers the left side of his head becoming wedged against a fire hydrant and a black boot slamming his head into steel that had no give. They dragged him through rosebushes, ripping his clothes, cutting his back. His friend Jeremy ran over, and Clark looked up, tried to say "help," and Jeremy saw blood pour from his mouth like water. Blood soaked Clark's shirt and pooled on the concrete. "I thought I was watching someone die," Darcy's dad says. The beating stopped only when Clark's friend Josh ran up, and the crowd turned on Josh.
The attackers split before police arrived. Clark's right eye swelled to the size of a softball. To examine the damage, doctors pried it open. Doctors reconstructed his nose -- putting a metal rod up his nostril, to break it clean -- and stitched up his head. His skull was fractured, hairlines radiating from his eye socket. "My head was a mess," he says. "There were little splinters going off in all different directions." For a month his right eye registered nothing but fuzzy light, and he suffered headaches, sharp and relentless.
For Clark, the emotional injuries were ten times worse. Posttraumatic stress. Nightmares, waking up screaming, dripping sweat. Anger, humiliation, the endless questions and doubts. Clark's mother drove him home from the hospital. When they pulled up, a black car was in the driveway. They didn't recognize it, and Clark got scared, thought it was them again, back to finish up. He begged his mom to drive away. But your brother's in the house, she told him. Fear seized Clark, fear they might be inside, attacking his younger brother. He was desperate to help, but the fear was greater. Paralyzed, he did nothing. The car backed out of the driveway. It was his brother's friend. The friend stared at Clark's face, which was unrecognizable. Clark cried the whole night. The shame stayed with him for years.
Witnesses identified Vontoure as the person who hit Clark with a brick. Police arrested Vontoure an hour or two after the fight. He was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, No. 22. He was still drunk. He staggered a bit and spit a lot. He denied throwing the brick, then admitted it, he said the guy he hit was "some fat f---," he said he only "lobbed" the brick, that he only "tossed" it, and even then it was self-defense. "I was just saving my ass," he said. To the cop, Vontoure seemed excited, erratic, a fount of obscenities. Vontoure told the cop how he had been hitting on some girl that night, he even got graphic about it, describing just what he wanted to do to her. Calm down, the cop told Vontoure, and Vontoure calmed.
Vontoure was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. He was seventeen, an age at which he could be tried as a juvenile or adult. One of the area's top lawyers, Bill Gagen, defended him. "He had great potential as a person and as an athlete," Gagen says. "The goal is not to ruin his life." Gagen managed to keep the case in juvenile court. A De La Salle coach spoke on Vontoure's behalf. So did a priest. Clark remembers how determined everyone seemed to be to preserve Vontoure's playing career, to make sure he could still suit up for Washington. "I can't remember if the judge or lawyer said it, but they said he needs to be up in Seattle by this date," Clark says.
Vontoure served two months in a juvenile facility, doing time with "a serious bunch of guys," Eidson says. Washington's coaches knew of the attack, but elected to stand by their scholarship offer. Vontoure went from being in custody in California to walking onto the practice fields at the UW -- and without a word of the assault being reported in the Seattle newspapers.
Vontoure wrote the UW an essay, saying he would seize all that Washington had to offer: "I'm very excited about the opportunity that I have to receive a first class education from a premier school in the nation. ... I plan to take full advantage of this opportunity to become the student I'm capable of. I hope to graduate one day and say I'm a Washington Husky and I love what I've become."
Before Vontoure left for Seattle, Eidson took him aside and issued a warning: "With your personality, you really can't be involved in drugs and alcohol. It's really not good for you."
In his first year at the UW, Vontoure shared a dorm room with J.K. Scott, a backup quarterback from suburban Los Angeles. "I've tried to make sense of that time living with him," Scott says. "Honestly, a lot of it was very difficult. He was very depressed. He drank a lot. He had some sort of malt liquor in his drawer, and every day, he would start the day off with that. He often missed classes. ... In fact, I don't remember him going to many. ... And he slept more than anyone I've ever met. He often talked about how he didn't like it there, and loved home."
Vontoure and Scott lived in McMahon Hall, one floor above Marques Tuiasosopo and Pat Conniff -- two players who had gone to high school together and were tight friends. "Whenever we would go out to a party or something, we'd invite Anthony," Scott says. "It was a coin toss if he would come or not, and how he would act. You would never know if he was going to be mad, pissed off, quiet, or jovial, joking Anthony.
"I've been trying to recall our conversations. It's interesting, because a lot of them had to do with, 'Do the guys on the team like me? What do they say about me?' He would ask about that all the time. He had this one shirt he always wore, it said, 'Chicks hate me.' He was proud to wear it. But he really wished it wasn't the case. . . . Every night, all the time, he'd be, 'Why can't I get a girl?'"
Vontoure talked often of his brother who had died. He talked of messages in the music of Common Sense, a rapper. He embraced philosophical conversations, venturing into religion, economic inequality, social injustice. "He was not a shallow guy," Scott says. "I enjoyed that about him."
His freshman year, Vontoure and two friends walked into a party in some dormitory lounge and walked off with a keg of root beer. Police tracked the three to another dorm, where Vontoure tried holding the lobby door shut to keep the officers out. Once police got through, Vontoure mounted a struggle before being handcuffed. A silly stunt turned into charges of third-degree theft and obstructing a police officer. Vontoure later told police he was too drunk to know what had happened. Prosecutors dropped the obstruction charge in exchange for a guilty plea to the theft count. Vontoure received a deferred sentence and was fined $150.
On campus, Vontoure tooled around on a BMX bike, wearing Chuck Taylor All Stars and a De La Salle sweatshirt. In the locker room he held court, offering his opinion on anything and everything. There, he seemed brash -- cocky, even. Vontoure talked football as war.
At the UW, Vontoure found a father figure in Abner Thomas, "Big Ab," a Vietnam veteran and football operations assistant. Some days, Vontoure talked five, maybe six times with Thomas. "I've never dealt with a student like Anthony," Thomas says. "He needed mentoring. If you could be around him, he'd just about depend on it for daily activity." One time, Vontoure dressed up to attend the team's kickoff luncheon. When he discovered that other players had dressed down, he was so mortified that Thomas had to console him. From then on, Vontoure left his nice clothes in the closet.
Maybe because of his high school days, Vontoure expected never to lose. As Vontoure kept track of De La Salle's streak -- watching it stretch to 78 games, to 90, to 102, to 115 -- Thomas would tell him, nothing lasts forever.
Looking back, Thomas sees now that he missed some signs. "To this day I wish I had an opportunity to see if I could save him. ... I could have helped him more really, but I didn't, I didn't know."
Vontoure came to the UW with a high school GPA of 2.5. His ACT score was 19, a little below the national average. In his first quarter at Washington he took only two classes for credit: Introduction to Anthropology and Introduction to Composition. In the anthropology class, Vontoure blew off the first exam, which was worth a quarter of the class grade. But the professor didn't dock him. Instead, he conceived an alternative. "Since you missed the first exam and made little effort to complete this work, we have a new assignment for you that parallels the value of that exam," the professor wrote to Vontoure. "We think you will enjoy this assignment."
Vontoure was asked to write a four-page paper about Latrell Sprewell, an NBA player who had been kicked off the Golden State Warriors for choking his coach, P. J. Carlesimo. "What is the public conflict here? Is it really about race? Or is there another, more private conflict?" Vontoure was instructed to "expose the hidden societal problem. Is Sprewell guilty? Carlesimo? The Warriors? The NBA? Since American society glorifies professional sports and athletes, what is Sprewell really guilty of? Is American society not also guilty?"
The professor gave Vontoure four weeks to do the paper -- and sent a copy of the assignment to Ron Milus, an assistant UW football coach. The university's file on Vontoure doesn't show how he fared on this paper. But for the course he received a B-.
Like Curtis Williams, Vontoure struggled with grades. Heading into the 2000 season, he had completed twelve quarters; six times, he fell below the 2.0 line, threatening his eligibility. But each time he recovered. Vontoure took five Swahili classes, good for twenty-five credits. He took two Paper Science classes, good for seven credits. The bulk of his classes were in sociology, the most common major among the football players on the 2000 team. But he also took History of Jazz, Introduction to Dance, and Dinosaurs. His highest grade, a B+, was in "Sexuality in Scandinavia," a class that hundreds of students pack every year.
On the field, Vontoure emerged as one of the most exciting, most unpredictable players the UW had ever seen. He redshirted his first year, and broke a finger his second. Before Vontoure's third year, Neuheisel became coach, replacing Jim Lambright. Neuheisel shifted Vontoure from safety to cornerback, saying he could be "sensational" in that role. "He's got moxie," Neuheisel said. "You better have some confidence at that position, and he's got that." The cornerback position can isolate players, leaving them to cover some wide receiver one-on-one. Pressure magnifies. If a corner gets beat, everyone knows it.
From the get-go, Vontoure put on a show -- up, down, in, out, hero, goat. In 1999 the Huskies opened at BYU. Washington rallied late from 13 down -- a comeback made possible by Vontoure, whose interception set up the Huskies' go-ahead score. Then, with a minute left, Vontoure got beat. His man hauled in a long touchdown pass, and the Cougars pulled the game out.
Two games later, Vontoure, with a minute left, made a gamesaving interception in the end zone. The game after that, he sat -- suspended. Neuheisel didn't detail why, but reporters learned that Vontoure had erupted in practice, screaming at his position coach, Chuck Heater. The week after that, Vontoure returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown, and forced one fumble and recovered another. "We welcome him back with open arms," Neuheisel said.
Against Stanford, Vontoure made two acrobatic interceptions -- a one-handed tip job and a diving grab -- that had Husky fans buzzing. "Both of those catches, I guarantee you, are as fine of catches as you'll see any offensive or defensive player make," Neuheisel said.
Despite missing two games -- one to suspension, the other to injury -- Vontoure finished the season with six interceptions, the most by a Husky in eight years.
His spectacular play in 1999 fueled expectations for 2000. One publication predicted he would be a first-team All-American.
From afar, Mathew Clark kept up with Vontoure's career. A year after he was beaten, Clark developed a tumor behind his right ear. Doctors told him he had bone cancer. Clark went through three surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation. For Clark, the beating faded in importance. He let the anger go. At Chico State he became a resident adviser in the dorms and met students who had known Vontoure in high school. "It was hard for them to believe that Anthony could have been involved in that. They said he was a really good guy. ... I didn't know him. It was one night, and he could have made a huge mistake. My parents had much more of a hard time with it. The newspapers, every day, in the
In Seattle, Vontoure's erratic behavior threatened to spoil his football prospects. Sometimes, his coaches at the UW would sit him down and get his former coaches from De La Salle on the phone. "The coaches there were like parents to him. He really was like a little kid with those guys. He wanted them to pat him on the head all the time," says Wayne Moses, the UW's running backs coach."It was when he was down, not feeling real good, feeling homesick and stuff. He had a lot of respect for those guys down there. ... They knew all the buttons to push."
By Neuheisel's second year at Washington, the coaching staff started to understand the depth of Vontoure's problems. The team had arranged for counselors, who reported back that Vontoure likely had bipolar disorder. Trainers can deal with muscle strains, coaches with lousy fundamentals, but how does a football team deal with mental illness? "Any person with that kind of chemical imbalance, they can't function in the structure of the team. It's an awful situation," Heater says. "It's an issue, it's a disease, a sickness. First off, they have to admit they have a problem, and they need to admit they need to do what needs to be done. It's a major deal, to deal with someone who is up and down. You are asking him to be consistent every day. It's impossible."
When Heater learned of Vontoure's disorder, he backed off on his demands. He just hoped Vontoure would show up to practice each day -- with some energy, and a good attitude. "He was a beautiful kid," Heater says. "I loved that kid." Vontoure had been prescribed medication, but he wasn't taking it. Heater doesn't know why. "We never really did get that together. I know it didn't happen. It was a learning experience for all of us. ... We were dealing with something we didn't really have a grasp of. And by the time we got our hands on it, it was probably a little late."
As the 2000 season approached, Vontoure seemed more scattered than ever. On the way to football camp in Olympia, he was pulled off the team bus because he hadn't finished a sociology assignment. He missed two days of camp. When he arrived, he overslept and missed another practice. Neuheisel demoted him -- temporarily.
The following week, Vontoure took an open-ended leave of absence. He considered leaving the team, citing "the pressure of what was expected." "It was about what it takes to finish one of these seasons," Vontoure told the
In 2000, Vontoure moved into a studio apartment, where he lived alone, sleeping on his air mattress. Friends couldn't call. Vontoure didn't have a phone. If friends visited, they'd find no place to sit. Some teammates offered help. They'd buy Vontoure sandwiches to make sure he was eating, or drive him to a pay phone so he could call home.
Back in California, Vontoure's old coaches worried about what was happening to him. He seemed to be withdrawing from his team. He was getting harder to reach. "He needs to see someone, have someone to talk to," Eidson says. The coaches urged Vontoure not to become isolated. Neuheisel worried, too. He even arranged for Bob Ladouceur, Vontoure's old coach at De La Salle, to visit Vontoure in Seattle. "He was good to Anthony," Ladouceur says of Neuheisel. "He was searching for a way to reach him." In Seattle, Ladouceur told Vontoure: Get a phone, so I can talk to you. "He said he would, but he never did," Ladouceur says. "He just seemed to drift out."
After hearing of Vontoure's disciplinary problems, an old high school teammate went and saw Ladouceur. This was the teammate Vontoure had entrusted with his commitment card. The teammate told Ladouceur that he now planned to mail it to Vontoure, to remind him of his pledge to be the best person he could be. But despite all the efforts of his old coaches and teammates to reach out, Vontoure would continue to slip away from everyone, an enigmatic figure desperate for help, unable to find his way.