All Glenn Fletcher has ever wanted out of life is the chance to play football. He has thought of little else since he was 13 years old and scoring touchdowns for a Pop Warner team in Pasadena. The dream has dominated his thinking and twisted his perspective, and it will not go away. "Football is my life," he says. "That's where my heart is set."
In pursuit of his dream, Fletcher has gone to four high schools, two junior colleges and two universities, Purdue and Utah State. Even now, at 23, with his NCAA eligibility used up and without the slightest hope of being chosen in April's NFL draft, he longs for one more year of college football at an NAIA school or a tryout with a pro team in Canada. Football, you see, is all Fletcher knows and all he cares about. It is his anchor and identity, because despite all of his years in academia he still hasn't graduated from high school and he is not even close to graduating from college.
Fletcher does have his memories, though, and nobody can take those away. When he was a junior at Pasadena High he gained 125 yards in one game. He also was a starter in the defensive backfield on two winning junior-college teams, College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif. and Pasadena City College. He intercepted three passes for Pasadena, returning one of them 80 yards for a touchdown. "That was beautiful," he says. "I always think about that."
Purdue was even better—while it lasted. After transferring there from Pasadena C.C. in 1979, he went through spring practice and won a starting position in the defensive backfield for the upcoming season. Furthermore, for the first time in his life he performed well in the classroom. But that spring, at the end of the semester, a review of his academic record showed that he lacked enough hours to be eligible under Purdue's rules, and he transferred to Utah State. In Logan he once again became a victim of bad luck and poor judgment. When he and a teammate were considering whether to crash a party, they were arrested for trespassing at the Sigma fraternity house. (Fletcher served his eight-day jail sentence last month.) During the season he played on special teams and as a substitute. Academically, he was a washout.
March 31, 1980
Fletcher's life as a football nomad reveals a dark side of college athletics unknown to the average fan. Many administrators and coaches would have the public believe that their schools' teams are composed entirely of diligent, industrious "student-athletes." But as recent disclosures of transcript tampering and other academic improprieties at several schools show, some college officials are willing, even anxious, to accept and occasionally exploit "non-student-athletes" as well. Across America young men and women are routinely told that their only hope for a college athletic career depends on academic success in high school and beyond. But Fletcher and others like him are proof that this lofty standard is often ignored.
Glenn Robert Fletcher was born on Dec. 5, 1956 in Thibodaux, La., the fifth of nine children. When he was five, his family moved to Pasadena, where Glenn and his five brothers developed a special interest in athletics. Glenn's preference was football. When he entered John Muir High in 1971 he made the freshman team as a running back. He attended the school for only one semester, however, because he was caught pitching pennies outside the auditorium and was suspended. He finished the year at Foothill High and, the next fall, moved on to Pasadena High.
After the first week of preseason practice at Pasadena, Fletcher was promoted to the varsity. A few days later, however, he suffered a knee injury while trying to catch a pass, and he missed the entire season. In his junior year Glenn played in the offensive and defensive backfields for Pasadena, and his coach there, Tom Hamilton, recalls that Fletcher "did well and showed great potential." Hamilton says Glenn was unable to develop that potential the following year, because by then persistent truancy had made him ineligible. He spent the last year and a half of his high school career attending—or failing to attend—Granada Hills High, Foothill High (again), Pasadena High (again) and the Community Adult Training Center. He didn't receive a diploma, and along the way he made matters worse by getting into a fight in a bar and receiving an 18-month probationary sentence.
In discussing his past, Fletcher is open, saying he hopes others will learn from his mistakes. Recalling his chaotic high school days, he says, "I got on an ego trip. I said if they really want me to play they're going to give me some [academic] units. My brother Ned and my girl friend wanted me to go to class, but I wouldn't listen. I couldn't face reality. I'd blown my big chance, and it wasn't because people had taken it from me but because I'd thrown it away."
Fletcher's desire to play football remained as strong as ever. Although he knew he could not immediately go to a four-year university, he was aware that he could play at a junior college, as Ned and his brother Marcus had. California's community-college system is the largest in the nation, providing educational opportunities for anyone. A side effect of the system's openness is that it has also become a place where an athlete can earn his major-college eligibility without getting much of an education. A student does not even need a high school diploma to enroll in a junior college in California, or, for that matter, most states, and any state resident who enters a California community college is eligible to participate in the sports program as a freshman, provided he takes at least 12 semester hours. Aware of this, Fletcher wrote to coaches at five schools. When College of the Siskiyous responded, that was all the incentive he needed to pack up for Weed, 600 miles away. Unannounced and unknown, he made the squad as a starting defensive back in 1975.
"I didn't care what level of college it was," Fletcher says. "It was still college. I really felt good about being there. It felt good being in uniform again."
This enthusiasm did not carry over to the classroom. Fletcher attended class irregularly and withdrew after the season, receiving only one unit of credit for playing varsity football. Fletcher explains, "I was meeting people and seeing places I'd never seen before. It got the best of me." Siskiyous Coach Jim Ray was sorry to see Fletcher go. "Glenn was a good player, fast and strong," he says. "He was a nice quiet kid. and he worked hard."
It wasn't until the 1978 season that Fletcher played college football again. It took him that long to pass the 23 remaining hours of studies he needed to regain his junior-college eligibility.
A heavy dose of physical education courses like Advanced Body Building and Intercollegiate Sports at Pasadena City College helped Fletcher become eligible again. In the spring of 1978 he made the Pasadena team, but his visions of glory as a running back came to an end when he was assigned to the defense.
Two weeks before the season began, he broke a bone in his right hand, but he continued to play. "It hurt like hell," he says, "but one leg was going to have to fall off before I quit. Coach [Erik] Widmark gave me a pep talk. He said college guys and pros play like this every day."
So Fletcher played and played well, helping the team win the state championship and attracting the attention of recruiters from Colorado State, West Texas State, Nevada-Las Vegas and Purdue. According to Fletcher, Las Vegas made the most attractive offer. "I stayed at the Las Vegas Hilton on my visit," he says, "and even won a few dollars at the slot machines. One of the coaches talked about a job in the casino. He said all I had to do was sign. He said it would all be legal, too."
Legal or not, Fletcher chose the quiet of Purdue over the bright lights of Las Vegas. "I wanted to go there even before I visited," he says. "I'd heard of it, and I'd always wondered what it would be like." Fletcher accepted a scholarship and a challenge. "They told me if I didn't go to class I wouldn't play," he says. He entered Purdue in the spring of 1979.
Although Fletcher most certainly had proved himself worthy as a player, it is difficult to understand how Purdue or any university would approve of him academically. His Pasadena transcript from the spring of 1977 through the fall of 1978 shows that he received grades in 15 courses: Fs in English Essentials and Afro-American to 1865, D in Reading Skills, C in Tax-Return Preparation, B in vocational printing class and P (Passing) in an Experience Learning Seminar. His other nine grades were As in physical education. No math, no science, no foreign language and only one course each in English and history.
Nevertheless, Fletcher met the official—and unofficial—criteria for acceptance at Purdue and other major schools: he met the NCAA's minimum academic requirements and he was a recruited athlete. Never mind the nature of his junior-college courses or the absence of a high school diploma. Under one provision of NCAA rules, a J.C. transfer doesn't need a high school diploma if other grade and hour requirements are satisfied.
A member of the Purdue admissions office says, "Technically, Fletcher satisfied the transfer requirement...because he padded it [his curriculum] with phys ed courses. But there can be another factor, too, although I'm not saying it happened in Fletcher's case because I'm not familiar with it. But sometimes you run into pressure from coaches who say, 'We need this guy. We'd rather have him playing for us than against us.' "
Fletcher justified Purdue's remarkable good faith by doing the academic work expected of him. Of course, his classes showed that Purdue was expecting less of him than of other business-management majors, but that is also true of the courses he would later take at Utah State, where his major was business administration. At both schools the courses he was guided toward reflected a greater concern for his football eligibility than his degree requirements. More difficult courses such as banking, security analysis, financial strategy and accounting would come later, if at all.
Fletcher did so well at Purdue that his parents didn't believe him when he told them his grades. They weren't convinced until they received them in the mail: A in Minority Problems and Advanced Football Coaching, B in U.S. Since 1877, Art and Design and Contemporary Problems in Personal Finance for Minorities and C in Study Skills Seminar. Aside from the fact that these are far from the toughest courses offered at Purdue, Fletcher succeeded for three reasons: mandatory study halls, close monitoring of his academic progress and, for once, his wanting to do well. "I really was happy," he says. "Purdue was where I wanted to be."
Unfortunately, Fletcher would not be there very long. According to Bob King, Purdue's academic counselor for athletics, the coaching staff did not know when Fletcher was recruited that he had attended College of the Siskiyous in 1975. King says that fact was not discovered until Fletcher's Siskiyous transcript was received late in the semester. Because Fletcher had been in school in 1975, for eligibility purposes he would be a senior, which meant he needed 84 semester hours of credit to suit up in the fall instead of the 54 required of a junior. And when Purdue found it could not use Fletcher as an athlete, it didn't show that much interest in helping him continue as a student.
By the time Fletcher's status had been sorted out, the semester was over and he was home in Pasadena, eagerly awaiting the fall football season. His hopes disappeared when Assistant Coach Leon Burtnett, the man who had recruited him for Purdue, called to tell Fletcher he would not be eligible to play for the Boilermakers and that his athletic scholarship would be revoked.
"Purdue was the only place where I was ever a student-athlete," says Fletcher. "I was really upset. As far as I'm concerned, that was just a wasted semester. If I'd known what was going to happen I would've gone to Nevada-Las Vegas."
To Burtnett's credit, he continued to show concern for Fletcher even though he was no longer a Purdue athlete. Burtnett arranged a summer job for him as a clerk at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and made inquiries that led to his transfer to Utah State in Logan. Fletcher would not have a scholarship, but at least he would have a chance to prove himself again. Utah State accepted Fletcher because it was then one of the few schools in the country that did not require transfers to sit out a year. Utah State had recently joined the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and the league had waived the transfer rule for State that year, according to football Coach Bruce Snyder. The only catch was that under NCAA rules a transfer student would not be eligible to participate in a bowl game, but Utah State was not expecting a bowl bid, anyway.
Even without a scholarship, Fletcher thought he could get by with a Basic Education Opportunity Grant, a well-intentioned but easily abused federal program that had paid for his expenses at Siskiyous and had given him pocket money at Purdue. But that, like everything else about his stay at Utah State, went sour, too. He did not receive all the government money he was counting on, so he still owes the school $572.
Fletcher also came up short on the football field, where he was unable to earn a starting position. His biggest problem was that his late entry into the program—he had, after all, missed spring practice—made it difficult for him to pick up the Aggies' defensive strategies and techniques. Although Fletcher did earn a letter, Snyder says, "He just wasn't good enough to start. I knew he was trying to take his last shot, but a team is usually set coming out of spring practice. I'll say one thing for him, though. It would have been easy for him to pout and be a malcontent and blame others, but he didn't. He was a good guy."
Fletcher may have controlled his despair on the football field, but he lost his newfound determination in the classroom. Disheartened by his lack of playing time, he did his schoolwork poorly—or not at all. In one course, American Civilization, he let another student write some papers for him, and soon after the season ended, Fletcher withdrew from school.
Despite everything that has happened to him, Fletcher still persists in the belief, or at least the hope, that there is football in his future. "Another year of college football at an NAIA school would be good for me," he says. "And I feel I can play pro ball, too, if I put on a few pounds, because I have experience and speed. And I definitely think I have the ability. There's no question about that."
This kind of thinking is common enough among college athletes. "It's a sad commentary that so many are planning to go on to pro ball rather than to get their degree," says Snyder. "We've allowed them to think about the pros. It's not just the athlete's problem. There's a system that's been created that encourages them to think it's possible."
This situation is often only apparent to those on the outside, to people like Bridgette Saladino, a friend of Fletcher's who is a senior psychology major with a 3.5 average at Utah State. Saladino says that Fletcher is "extremely perceptive, sensitive and caring," and adds, "I know you have to say that he screwed up, because he has, but I'd like to see him described as a neat human being, a nice person to be around." Despite that glowing appraisal, she admits, "I don't pity him, though. The decisions he has made have been his own. What he needs now is that slap, that slap of reality that he's not going to play pro football. And when it comes it will stun him. It will be like the death of a family member."
Fletcher is not willing to face that reality now. Last week he was hanging around Logan, staying in shape, planning to go to a tryout camp for the British Columbia Lions. Even when he says, "I better quit jiving around and get down to business," it is easy to see what he has in mind. Doesn't anyone understand? Glenn Fletcher is a football player.