It was a regular Monday in February, and I was back home in Fayetteville, N.C. I was exhausted from travel and a weekend in Atlanta, but it was my buddy’s birthday, so I went over to his girlfriend’s house and we spent the night catching up and playing the card game Tonk. When he went to the porch to FaceTime his daughter, that was my cue to head out. I said goodbye just past midnight. My mother’s house was just five minutes away. I had come home to celebrate her birthday.
My 2011 white Range Rover is parked on the street. As I get in and reach for the seatbelt, someone yanks my door open. There’s a man wearing a black ski mask and pointing an AK-47 inches from my face.
“Give me the keys!” he barks. “And get out of the car!”
I freeze, wondering if my buddy is playing a trick on me. I wonder if it’s a sick joke. I babble, but words aren’t coming out of my mouth.
“Give me your wallet! Your phone!”
I step out and hand over my belongings. Another man with a shotgun rushes toward me and shoves me into the back seat. Two other men with shotguns appear from the side of the house and hop in the car. The man with the AK-47 gets behind the wheel, and I’m squished between two of the masked men in the backseat. We begin driving around the neighborhood.
“Where’s the money at?” one shouts at me.
“I, I … I don’t have any money,” I stammer. “I don’t have a dollar on me.”
“Where’s the money at?” he says again.
“You can have the car, you can have anything you want,” I say. “Just let me get back to my family.”
“Why are you lying?” says the man in the front passenger seat. “Lie to me again and I’ll kill you.”
I can’t feel my mouth when I talk. I try to breathe. I think of my mom. I think of God. I stare straight ahead. I’m trembling.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” I say.
They ask me who is in the house and I tell them. Though I can’t see their faces, I can tell by their voices that they are young. They ask for my name.
“Earl,” I say. “Earl Wolff.”
“Wait,” one of the men says. “The one that plays in the league?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you’re telling me you have no money?”
One of the men next to me slashes me twice in the right knee with his gun. I’m bleeding.
* * *
Where I’m from, a lot of people don’t make it out. Of all my friends I grew up with, only one went to college.
I didn’t have a drink until I was 22, and I don’t get behind the wheel if I’ve had even one drink. Where I’m from, I can’t tell you how much marijuana I’ve been around, but I’ve never once taken a hit. I’ve never been arrested; I graduated from college in three and a half years; I’m terrified of getting in trouble. My main motivation: I don’t want to ever disappoint my mother.
My parents separated when I was in second grade, and though my father is still in my life, I’ve always been a momma’s boy. She was in the military, and she just retired after 31 years of service. The hardest year of my life was when she deployed overseas.
I was a junior at North Carolina State when she went to Kuwait. She didn’t have to go, but she volunteered because the job offered more money than being stateside and she wanted to provide for us. I know how dangerous it is out there. I called my mom every single day when she was deployed. When she didn’t pick up, I’d freak out.
Playing football, I knew I’d have an opportunity to provide for her. I also saw a way out of Fayetteville. I’ve always tried to stay humble, and though my NFL career hasn’t gone exactly how I imagined it would, I take pride in my attitude. I treat the janitors in Jacksonville the same way I treat head coach Gus Bradley. I try not to act better than anybody just because I’m a professional athlete. At the same time, I know I need to take some precautions when I return home.
“If you’re lying,” one of my captors says, repeating a numbing refrain, “I’ll kill you.”
I stay away from the hood. I usually don’t go to someone’s house if there’s at least one person I don’t know there. If people want to see me, they can come see me at my mother’s house. Often, I’ll just say let’s meet at the mall.
When I went to my car, I checked my surroundings. Everything seemed fine. And yet here I am, kidnapped after an innocent night at my friend’s house. We’re still driving. My heart is racing, my head spinning. All I’m thinking is, Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?
* * *
My financial advisor never allows me to keep too much money in my bank account. We usually add more in at the beginning of each month. So when one of my captors orders me to withdraw $10,000 I tell them it’s impossible.
“I only have $400 in my account,” I say.
I don’t know how, but something clicks and I figure out a way to prove it.
“Look, you have my phone,” I say. “Open the Wells Fargo app. Here’s my password. You’ll see there’s just $400.”
“If you’re lying,” he says, repeating a numbing refrain. “I’ll kill you.”
When they see I’m not lying, they ask if my friend has money at the house where they picked me up.
“Maybe,” I say. “If he does, he’ll give you whatever he has.”
We drive back to my friend’s house. I am led to the door with my hands in the air. I feel the AK-47 pressed against my back. My friend opens the door. He instantly slams it in my face.
I now think I am dead. I close my eyes.
My captors are panicking. I hear them conspiring, wondering if my friend has called the cops. They rush me back into the vehicle and secure zip ties around my ankles and my arms, which are tied behind my back. They put an itchy hat over my face. Now we’re driving and driving, and I have no idea where we are or what time it is. At some point, two other men get into the vehicle and five of us are crammed into the backseat. I am exhausted. I try to keep my faith. I try to think of my mom. I am numb, but she is all I have left.
The car jolts to a stop. I am pulled out of the back seat and shoved onto the road. Lying on my back, I think, I can’t die this way. And then, in the distance, I hear the faintest sound of police sirens. The men hear it too, and they scurry into the car and speed away.
I am left alone.
I am alive.
I manage to shimmy out of the arm ties, and then slide the hat off my face. I’m surrounded by the woods. I can’t free my legs because those ties are too tight, so I begin to hop. I hop and hop and hop down the road. I am looking for a house with lights on, but everything is dark. There are no cars driving by, just silence.
I eventually come across a trailer park. At the second trailer, the lights are on. As I hop closer, I can hear the sound of laughter and chatter, and so I knock on the door, back up, and wait with my hands up.
“Who is it?” a man barks from behind the door.
“Sir,” I say. “I’ve been in a terrible situation and I need some help.”
He opens the door and stares at me.
“This is not a joke,” I say. “There is nobody around me. I have just been robbed and kidnapped, can you please call the police?”
Another man appears in the doorway and points a handgun at me.
“Look, I play for the Jaguars,” I say, pointing to the team-issued shorts I’m wearing.
He’s still pointing the gun at me. I know they don’t trust me.
“OK,” I say. “All I did is ask for help, if you’re not going to help me please let me leave.”
I anticipate a shot being fired, so I fall down and roll on the ground. There’s a loud bang. Shot fired. I hear the men close the door, and I realize I can still feel my body. The shot was likely a warning, to scare me or anyone else who might have been lurking in the shadows.
But I am alone.
I am on the ground.
I don’t know how long I stay down, but I suddenly get a rush of adrenaline. I manage to get my legs out of the ankle restraints and start running. I can feel the air pass by me and I see an intersection. I stand in the grass as cars pass by. I wave my hands asking for someone to stop, but no one does.
Then I see a gas station. It’s lit up, but nobody is there. The payphone has a broken cord hanging from it. I crumble to the ground, defeated again, when a couple pulls in. I think they might be having car trouble.
“Are you OK?” the woman asks, rolling down the window.
“I was robbed and kidnapped,” I say. “Please, I just need some help. This is the longest night of my life.”
“That’s all you need me to do?” she says in a maternal way. “We are going to wait for the police to get here.”
“Yes,” I say. “Please. Thank you.”
Help, finally, is on the way.
* * *
I remember the seven police cars pulling into the gas station, which is about 25 miles away from my friend’s house where my evening began. I remember waking my mom up at 3 a.m., telling her I was safe when she had no idea there was a need to be worried. I remember sitting in the police station for 24 hours as they gathered every detail and tried to figure out who did this to me and why.
I’m told my car was found seven miles away from where I was released and that my credit cards were found in the back seat of a car belonging to a young man from the area. He was 21. He was arrested on March 3 and charged with seven crimes. The other gunmen were also charged for their actions.
Wrong place, wrong time. It can happen to anyone. I don’t think I was targeted because I am in the NFL.
The investigation is still ongoing. At first the police thought my friend had set me up—but that never crossed my mind. There’s a chance someone might have had a petty beef with my friend; or the kidnappers may have simply been attracted to my car. I don’t think I was targeted because I am in the NFL. Wrong place, wrong time—it can happen to anyone.
Every day I think about what happened that night, not because of the trauma, but as a reminder of how grateful I am to be alive. This experience refreshed my outlook on life, but I’ve always been a positive person. At North Carolina State, I never missed a game. I set the school record for the most career games played (51). I began my NFL career in Philadelphia, in 2013, on a great note, starting six games at safety and getting better every Sunday. I had 45 tackles and an interception as a rookie, but I injured my right knee, and it’s been a journey of recovery ever since.
At this point in my career, I know Dr. James Andrews so well that he’s like a father to me. He did my first microfracture surgery, in 2014, and my second surgery last August. The Eagles had just released me, and he was honest with me. “Earl, your knee is pretty bad,” he said. “What’s your plan after football?”
I told him that I was going to make it back, and we have both been so excited about the recovery. I joined the Jaguars’ practice squad late last year, and now I’m competing for a spot in camp. I didn’t need stitches after being struck in the knee with the gun, and there’s no scar either. I can honestly say I haven’t felt this good since my rookie year.
I live life every day with purpose and do it with a smile.
I am so blessed that I have a chance to compete.
I am so blessed to be alive.
This is my story, but it is far from over. I can’t wait for my mom to watch me play football again.
Question? Comment? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org