Back when he was a collegiate wrestling champion at the
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Carlton Haselrig used to
summon a strength few athletes can comprehend. Haselrig would
scale the gymnasium bleachers while carrying another wrestler on
It's a remnant of his past to which Haselrig, with his future
now so uncertain, probably doesn't give much thought. Once
again, the talented 29-year-old New York Jet guard has buckled
under the weight of unmet expectations, legal troubles and the
horror of chemical dependency.
For the fifth time in the last two years, Haselrig, a former
Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro who had been named a co-captain in
his first season with the Jets, has disappeared. In the summer
of 1994 Haselrig was missing for more than three weeks before
police found him alone in a cheap motel room near the Pittsburgh
airport. That episode cost Haselrig his job with the Steelers.
As of Monday the 6'1", 290-pound lineman remained one of
America's fleshiest fugitives. There had not been a confirmed
sighting of him for 14 days; he was thought to be in possession
of a vehicle that had been reported stolen; he had received a
one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse
policy; and there was a warrant for his arrest in Pennsylvania
for failing to appear at a Dec. 4 hearing in Allegheny County to
answer charges that he had driven his Jeep up the steps of a
seminary a year earlier.
What began in July as one of football's most inspiring comeback
stories has degenerated into a dark mystery. "Every time I hear
the phone ring," says Bruce Haselrig, Carlton's uncle, who is
the executive assistant vice president for student affairs at
Pitt-Johnstown, "I get a knot in my stomach."
"Hell, he might be in Florida some-damn-where," says Fred
Haselrig, Carlton's father. "He might even be down around that
"For all I know he could be on the moon," says James Ecker,
Carlton's Pittsburgh-based attorney. "Everything seemed to be so
wonderful for him, and all of a sudden he's gone. It could be a
homicide, a suicide, a kidnapping. Someone's got to go out and
find the guy before it's too late."
When Haselrig vanished on Nov. 27, shortly after receiving a
letter from the NFL informing him of his one-year suspension, he
undoubtedly was racked with guilt. "I think he's embarrassed
because he feels he's let a lot of people down," Haselrig's
estranged wife, Sara, told the New York Post last week. "And the
way he handles that is he isolates himself."
Most significantly, Haselrig let down Sara and their two
children--son Jordan, 5, and daughter Jade, 3. Although the
Haselrigs were separated, family members say that Carlton had
been discussing a possible reconciliation with Sara, who lives
with the children in Atlanta. This past summer Haselrig cited
Jordan and Jade as his reason for wanting to return to football,
saying, "I wanted them to have a father who was a something
instead of a nothing."
Haselrig also betrayed the trust of his close friend Donald
Evans, a teammate with both the Steelers and the Jets. Evans, a
defensive lineman, had vouched for Haselrig's character before
the Jets signed him last summer. Evans leased a 1995 Nissan
Altima for his friend so that Haselrig could get around. Last
week Evans reported the car stolen, hoping that might help lead
the police to Haselrig, who was allegedly driving the vehicle
last month when it was involved in a minor hit-and-run accident.
That Nov. 4 accident, in New Jersey, apparently touched off a
monthlong downward spiral for Haselrig that culminated in his
disappearance. During that time Haselrig was arrested, missed
two court dates, a team flight and two games, skipped a drug
test and subsequently tested positive for alcohol and/or cocaine
at least once. Based on interviews with friends and family
members, as well as news reports, here is a chronology of recent
events in Haselrig's troubled life:
In the early morning of Monday, Nov. 6--several hours after
Haselrig had played in a 20-7 Jet loss to the New England
Patriots in East Rutherford, N.J.--he was pulled over in
Bayonne, N.J. Haselrig became enraged at a police officer and
was arrested and cited for tailgating, driving without a license
and disorderly conduct. Police say that neither alcohol nor
drugs were involved. "In my mind, that incident triggered
everything," says Haselrig's agent, Steve Weinberg. "I think it
set off something in his mind: Here we go again."
On Nov. 9, during the Jets' bye week, Haselrig failed to show up
for a court hearing in Bayonne on the charges related to that
traffic incident. That same day he missed his mandatory, weekly
league drug test, which he was required to take because of his
history of substance abuse. Haselrig told Jet officials that he
skipped the test because he believed none would be administered
during the bye week. The Jets evidently believed him, and he was
excused from practice the next day so that he could take a
On Sunday, Nov. 19, Haselrig started his 11th consecutive game
at right guard in a 28-26 Jet home loss to the Buffalo Bills.
The following Thursday, he took his drug test, which
subsequently came back positive. While awaiting an official
response from the league, the Jets told Haselrig that he could
continue to practice with the team and could accompany the Jets
to Seattle for their upcoming game against the Seahawks.
When Haselrig failed to show up at the airport for the flight on
the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 24, the team sent an official to
his apartment in Long Beach, N.Y. The official, according to a
source, found Haselrig "in another world."
On Nov. 25 Haselrig spoke with Jet coach Rich Kotite in Seattle
and said he had checked into a rehabilitation facility in
Amityville, N.Y. It was at least the sixth time he had entered a
rehab center in the last 2 1/2 years.
On Nov. 27 Haselrig checked out of the rehab center and appeared
in Bayonne, where the disorderly conduct charge was dismissed,
and he paid a $132 penalty for the other infractions. Later that
morning he spoke to Sara by telephone and told her everything
was fine. He went back to his apartment, where a letter from the
NFL informing him of his suspension awaited him. He vanished
If the guilt at having failed to meet expectations weighs
heavily on Haselrig, that may be because so many people were
rooting for him. A soft-spoken giant who made friends and
strangers and especially children feel at ease, Haselrig had
risen from obscurity to become the only six-time NCAA wrestling
champion, then made it as a pro football player though he had
not played the sport since high school. By 1992 he was a Pro
Bowl guard and was on his way to becoming the best player at his
position in Steeler history.
"You could pencil him in for the next six or seven Pro Bowls,"
says Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' director of football operations.
The son of an alcoholic father--who has not had a drink for 16
years--and a drug-addicted mother who deserted the family when
Carlton was five, Haselrig was nonetheless able to develop a
remarkable work ethic while growing up in Johnstown, a
blue-collar community about 65 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Although his high school had no organized wrestling team, in
1984, his senior year, Haselrig entered the state tournament as
an individual and won the heavyweight division. Recruited to
play football by several schools, Haselrig chose tiny Lock Haven
University but transferred after one unhappy semester to
Pitt-Johnstown, a school with no football team. It was there
that he piggybacked his wrestling teammates up the bleachers and
often subjected himself to three workouts a day, finishing the
last session with a nine-minute ride on a stationary bike set at
the highest possible level.
For three straight years Haselrig won the NCAA Division II
heavyweight title and the Division I tournament as well. An
injury kept him from competing at the 1988 Olympic trials, but
by then he had set his sights on football. After working out for
three NFL teams before the '89 draft, Haselrig was selected by
the Steelers in the 12th round. Pittsburgh placed him on its
developmental squad that year as a nosetackle. In 1990 Haselrig
was switched to guard and the following year was in the starting
lineup to open the season.
As heartwarming as Haselrig's story seemed, his life was filled
with trouble. In 1988 two Pitt-Johnstown students were convicted
of raping another student in a campus dormitory the previous
year (although both men served minimum sentences, the
convictions were subsequently overturned). The victim testified
that Haselrig had cut off her exit and locked the door, but no
criminal charges were filed against him. In '89 Haselrig served
two days in jail after he was convicted of punching another
Pitt-Johnstown student, who suffered a brain bruise. Haselrig
was arrested for drunken driving in 1991 and was convicted two
On Sept. 26, 1992, Haselrig totaled his car while driving to the
Pittsburgh Airport, where the Steeler charter was waiting to
take the team to Green Bay for a game with the Packers. Fearing
that he would be late for the flight, Haselrig had sped the
wrong way down a one-way street and had collided head-on with
another car. Haselrig's head smashed through the windshield, and
his chest broke the steering wheel. After a large gash in his
forehead was stitched up, Haselrig caught a commercial flight to
Chicago, then passed out at the airport there and missed his
connection. He paid $500 for a 200-mile cab ride to Green Bay,
arrived after 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and started that
afternoon against the Packers. "I was seeing two of everything,"
he told SI several months later. "And of course my chest was
hurting where I broke the steering wheel."
By February 1994 Haselrig had been a patient at the Betty Ford
Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and at the Gateway
Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa. The latter stay forced
him to miss four games of the '93 season. His third rehab stint,
at the John Lucas Residential Treatment Center in Houston, came
after a short disappearance early in '94.
On Aug. 14 of that year he vanished from the Steeler training
camp in Latrobe, Pa. After Sara filed a missing-person report
three weeks later, a tip led authorities to the Econo-Lodge
Motel near the Pittsburgh airport. Anthony Griggs of the Steeler
training staff went to the motel on Sept. 6 and urged Haselrig
to return to Gateway. But Haselrig went home to Johnstown
instead, where he began training with the Pitt-Johnstown
That fall Haselrig disappeared again, surfacing in December
after driving his Jeep up the steps and across the lawn of the
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Police found a pistol in the
Jeep and said his blood-alcohol level was 0.17--well over the
legal limit. He was charged with DUI, malicious mischief and
possession of an unlicensed firearm. He posted bail and went
AWOL again, failing to show up for a preliminary hearing in
January. Spotted by police officers the following month in a
Pittsburgh bar, Haselrig resisted attempts to handcuff him, and
it took nine officers to bring him in.
By this past March, Haselrig was making ends meet by unloading
refrigerated trucks for a Pittsburgh grocery store. When
approached by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
Haselrig began talking about his family and burst into tears. In
January, Sara had obtained an order of protection against her
husband and had moved with the children to Atlanta. "Carlton has
changed so much," she told Bouchette. "It's like Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde. It's sad. He's such a good person. People instantly
like him. Drink and drugs turned him into something he's not."
By summer Haselrig, through his charm and apparent dedication,
had once again persuaded someone to give him another chance.
This time, after a stay at the Harvard Medical School's
rehabilitation facility, Haselrig won over the Jets. Shortly
before training camp he signed a two-year, $450,000
contra--with playing-time incentives that could have doubled
the amount. With Evans as a big-brother figure, Haselrig
appeared to be a model citizen and was named a co-captain.
Haselrig often joined the other offensive linemen for
Thursday-night get-togethers at a Long Island restaurant owned
by former Jet linebacker Greg Buttle. "He would usually eat
quickly and then leave," Jet center Cal Dixon says. "The rest of
us usually play cards and have some beers. I don't think he
wanted to be around that temptation."
Apart from Evans, Haselrig's Jet teammates knew little about
him--except that he could play. "He was far and away their best
lineman," the Steelers' Donahoe says.
It was Donahoe who had told Haselrig last December, shortly
after the seminary episode, "You're going to wind up dead."
Haselrig said nothing in response. Now many people close to him
share Donahoe's concerns.
Said Sara, "My biggest fear is finding him in a hotel room dead
somewhere." Two of Haselrig's ex-Steeler teammates, Miami
Dolphin tight end Eric Green and retired guard Terry Long, also
are concerned for Haselrig's well-being. "He's battling
something tough," says Green, who served a six-week drug
suspension in 1992. "He's a loner right now, but he needs to
surround himself with people who will look out for him."
Says Long, who attempted suicide after testing positive for
steroids in 1991, an episode that led to Haselrig's ascension to
the starting lineup, "I can understand why he retreated. Your
name's all over the paper. It's like a nightmare. You're afraid
of what your friends or family members might think."
Neither the Jets nor the NFL will say whether they have hired
detectives to search for Haselrig. "We've taken the steps we
think are appropriate to look for him," says Jet president Steve
Gutman. Lawyer Ecker has urged both Sara and Fred Haselrig to
file a missing-person report, but as of last weekend both had
declined. "If I don't hear from him as the holidays near, I'll
probably hire a detective or file a missing person report," Sara
said on Sunday. Fred says he worries that if police are
searching for his son, it might push him deeper into hiding.
According to the New York Post, Sara believes that a caller who
has been ringing her number and hanging up after a few silent
seconds is Haselrig--"just to let me know he's alive," she said.
And if he surfaces, should Haselrig be granted yet another
chance by the NFL? Is football the best thing for a person whose
psyche is so fragile? Bruce Haselrig believes his nephew would
be better served by a lower-profile existence. "We sometimes
wonder if it's football that made him go the other way," Bruce
says. "He's had a lot of success. Did he succeed too quickly,
and does he feel guilty about that success? I went home last
night and hugged my kids and told them, 'Just be a regular Joe;
you don't need those pressures.'
"He's still Carlton, still the person we love. He's got a lot of
life to live. Regardless of what he's done, it's important for
him to come back to us and start trying to be a normal person."