Discounted His Heisman hopes dashed by a theft conviction, Florida State's Peter Warrick is trying to salvage what looked to be a dream season

November 22, 1999

The day of the arrest was worst. That's when the sadness and the
embarrassment washed over Peter Warrick like nothing he had ever
felt. On the morning of Thursday, Oct. 7, the Florida State
senior flanker had been arrested for felony grand theft in
connection with three incidents in which he accepted steep
discounts on clothing at a Dillard's department store in
Tallahassee. That afternoon he was back at his small off-campus
apartment, suspended indefinitely from the Seminoles' football
team and alone with his mother and stepfather, Joann and Charles
Williams. They had driven four hours from the family's home near
Bradenton, Fla., not, as once planned, for the weekend's big
game against Miami, but instead to chastise and comfort a
wayward child. "Boy, if I could spank you, I would do it right
now," said Warrick's mother. Then she wrapped her arms around
him and hugged him as hard as she could.

This was supposed to be a special year for Warrick. The
Seminoles would win the national championship that they should
have won in 1998, and Warrick would lead them. Through a long
summer in Florida's punishing heat Warrick had been the first
player to show up every day in the weight room and for voluntary
outdoor running sessions. He had been the last to leave. He'd
added eight pounds of muscle. Gotten faster. Gotten stronger.
"Everybody was amazed at how hard he worked," says Florida State
senior offensive guard Jason Whitaker. Best of all, he was there
by choice. Last January, Warrick, who had already spent four
years in Tallahassee, shocked the football world by delaying his
departure to the NFL to get his degree and play another year for
the Seminoles. "I stayed because I felt the love for college
football in my heart," he said. It's the kind of thing Peyton
Manning had once said. Warrick would be not just a hero this
season, but a role model, too.

That notion died at Dillard's. Six weeks have passed, and
Warrick has returned to the Florida State lineup after missing
two games. He will play this Saturday in college football's
regular-season game of the year, between the No. 1 Seminoles and
their bitter in-state rivals, the No. 3 Florida Gators. A berth
in the Sugar Bowl--this season's national title game--hangs in
the balance for Florida State (and perhaps for Florida, too),
but that is all that remains of Warrick's dream season. His
reputation was shredded by the Dillard's affair, and so were his
hopes for the Heisman Trophy, as well as the flattering
comparisons to Manning. He had known this since the moment of
his arrest. In mid-afternoon on that Thursday, Warrick's lawyer,
John Kenny, arrived at Warrick's apartment to find his client
distraught. "In my heart I know I shouldn't have done this. I
know it was stupid," Warrick said to Kenny. He paced the room,
flogging himself. "What have I done?" Warrick asked his parents
and his lawyer. "What have I done?"

Warrick isn't just good, he's scary good. He is 6 feet, 195
pounds and runs like a dot of mercury on a marble countertop.
"He starts, stops and then starts up again in another direction,
and it's like he never stopped in the first place," says Georgia
Tech safety Travares Tillman. According to the stopwatch Warrick
runs a relatively pedestrian 4.45 seconds for the 40-yard dash,
which is a bigger joke than Donald Trump's running for
president. "Throw that 4.45 out," says Denver Broncos director
of college scouting Ted Sundquist. "Warrick is electric with the
ball in his hands." Says Duke senior safety Eric Jones, "Trying
to tackle Warrick is like trying to kill a gnat with a machete.
You might kill the gnat eventually, but you're going to be
bloody."

At Florida State, Warrick redshirted one year and then caught
136 passes for 23 touchdowns over the following three seasons.
In the Seminoles' 23-16 loss to Tennessee in last year's Fiesta
Bowl national championship game, however, he had a dismal night,
catching just one pass for seven yards. He hated the thought of
leaving on that note. A week later, on the eve of the
declaration date for the NFL draft, Warrick sat in front of
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's immense oak desk and said,
"I'm confused. I don't know what to do." Bowden told Warrick,
who is helping raise his three-year-old daughter, "Son, if
you're confused, you might want to think about staying here."
Warrick's stepfather, a minister at Mount Raymond Full Gospel
Baptist Church in Palmetto, gave him the same advice. So Warrick
stayed. "Everyone was wondering why," said one AFC scout before
the season began.

As if in response, Warrick played the first five games of this
season like he wanted to win the national championship all by
himself. In a 41-35 win over Georgia Tech on Sept. 11 Warrick
lined up at wide receiver, running back and quarterback, caught
eight passes for 142 yards and one touchdown and rushed three
times for 25 yards and another score. Against Duke on Oct. 2 he
caught three touchdown passes in the first half. Players in
other parts of the country cleared out TV time to watch Warrick
in action. "You can talk all you want about the good players in
our conference [Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, Purdue
quarterback Drew Brees, Wisconsin tailback Ron Dayne]," says
Minnesota All-America cornerback and Thorpe Award favorite
Tyrone Carter. "There's no doubt Peter Warrick is the best
player in college football. No doubt whatsoever."

Warrick seemed to have taken control of the Heisman race with
his performance against Duke. However, the seeds of his comedown
had been sown three days before that game, when Warrick and
Florida State split end Laveranues Coles went shopping at
Tallahassee Mall. According to police reports Coles and Warrick
were charged only $21.40 by Dillard's clerk Rachel Myrtil for
clothing priced at $412.38. Because the total exceeded the $300
limit for petit theft, and because Warrick admitted to having
received goods on two other occasions from Myrtil, whom he knew,
at a similar discount under similar circumstances,
Warrick--along with Coles and Myrtil--was arrested on Oct. 7 for
grand theft, a third-degree felony.

Florida State athletic department policy mandates that any
athlete arrested for a felony be immediately suspended, which
left Warrick out of the Oct. 9 game against Miami (a 31-21
Florida State victory). Kenny began trying to arrange a plea
bargain that would allow Warrick to get back into uniform. The
ensuing two weeks left Florida State's athletic department in
the ticklish position of trying to maintain institutional
dignity while also attempting to expedite the case of an accused
felon who happened to be its best football player. "Up there on
campus," said state's attorney Willie Meggs, "it seemed like all
that was important was getting Peter Warrick back on the field
as quickly as possible."

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, four days before Florida State's game at
Clemson, with Warrick having already missed two games, Meggs
offered a deal in which Warrick would plead no contest to a
felony charge and serve five days in jail, or enter a program
that would allow the felony to eventually be sealed on his
record. "We couldn't take that deal, because Florida State won't
allow a felon to play," says Kenny. He countered with an offer
for Warrick to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and have him serve
30 days in the county jail after the season. Meggs was agreeable.

At this point, however, Florida State president Talbot (Sandy)
D'Alemberte got involved, telling the local media he didn't want
any football players representing his school while awaiting a
jail sentence. D'Alemberte's statement blindsided his own
athletic department and evoked an emotional response from fans,
alumni and students who flooded his office with E-mails,
excoriating the president for everything from being too
high-minded to meddling to--worst of all--getting a law degree
from the University of Florida, home of the hated Gators.

On the night of Thursday, Oct. 21, D'Alemberte met with Warrick
and Kenny. The exasperated lawyer said, "Tell me what I need to
get [as a plea bargain]." Answer: misdemeanor, and there could
be no football until jail time was served. Kenny went back to
Meggs and offered to plead to a misdemeanor and convert the 30
days in jail to 30 days in a work program, in which Warrick
would be required to perform such tasks as cleaning trash on the
side of Leon County highways. Meggs agreed to the bargain.
Warrick is scheduled to begin the work program sometime later in
the fall semester. The sentence might seem light, but Myrtil
pleaded no contest to the felony and got just 10 days in the
work program (converted to 150 hours of community service).
Coles pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and also got 10 days.
"Peter Warrick got hammered in this deal," says attorney Richard
Greenberg, who represented Myrtil. Just minutes before Florida
left for Clemson on Friday, Oct. 22, Warrick was cleared to
rejoin the team.

He had been in limbo for two weeks. Normally a vocal, animated
team leader, Warrick had become withdrawn. "It broke him. You
could see it in his eyes," says Florida State strength and
conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger.

Some were quick to excuse Warrick. Florida State athletic
director Dave Hart disingenuously called Warrick's crime "a
student-athlete making a poor choice." Chardonnay with steak is
a poor choice. Warrick broke the law, albeit somewhere south of
murder if north of jaywalking. (It was his second arrest in 15
months, following one in the summer of 1998 for disorderly
conduct and resisting arrest without violence, a charge that was
dropped.) Meggs is certain he could have made a felony case by
proving Warrick and Myrtil were in cahoots on all three
occasions, with thefts totaling $593. Kenny argues Myrtil was
seeking Warrick's friendship by giving him huge discounts. "It's
clearly a case where this young lady was enamored of the
players," Kenny says. In response Myrtil's attorney, Greenberg,
says, "Peter Warrick did not walk up to that register and get
pleasantly surprised by a discount." When police asked Warrick
if he understood that what he had done was wrong, Warrick
answered, "Did I know it was wrong? I mean, anybody would know
that."

He has publicly spoken about the incident at length only once.
Two days before his arrest Warrick gave an interview to a group
of media and, near the end of it, said, "It's not like I killed
the president," a colossally insensitive statement that Kenny
says Warrick regretted as soon as it left his lips.

Two weeks ago Warrick wrote a letter of apology that was
published by the Tallahassee Democrat. In it Warrick wrote, "I
don't want to send a message to young people that it is okay to
break the law.... Learn from my experience so you will not have
to experience it yourself."

Last week Warrick politely declined to be interviewed by SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED. "Every time I open my mouth, I wind up looking like
a bad guy," he said. Pressed further, Warrick said, "I'm
straight, man. I'm straight." Straight is Warrick's favorite
word. During a summer interview, his decision to return for his
senior year, hot Florida weather, nice clothes, Bowden, Florida
State's junior quarterback Chris Weinke, Dayne and UCLA wideout
Danny Farmer were all described by Warrick as straight.

His teammates are clearly straight with him. "Face it, what
Peter did, every one of us would have done," says Whitaker.
"He's a celebrity, they gave him a discount." Weinke, the
27-year-old former minor league baseball player who has made
Warrick his favorite target (who wouldn't?), says, "I was
disappointed in Peter. But I saw him walking around with his
head down after it happened, and I told him, 'Pete, what's done
is done. Everyone on this team supports you.'"

On the Friday before the Clemson game Warrick was rushed to the
airport in time to join his teammates, and they congratulated him
lustily. Warrick settled into his seat and said to a small group
of teammates, "From now on, I'm shopping at Burdine's."

On a clear, windless evening last week Warrick ended practice
with a series of sprints, gliding over the grass in a T-shirt
and football pants like a hummingbird on gentle winds. Four days
later he would catch nine passes for 134 yards and three
touchdowns as the Seminoles crushed Maryland, 49-10, to run
their record to 10-0. Warrick's pro future is safe, as long as
he pays full price. "Are you kidding me? We're the ultimate
whores," says one NFL general manager. "Of course [the arrest]
is not going to affect where he's drafted. Hey, this is a
business." Jerry Angelo, director of player personnel for the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says, "Without question, the kid's going
to be a high first-round pick."

Warrick gathered up his jersey, shoulder pads and helmet and
jogged into the twilight. The autumn has left him damaged, with
a lesser reputation, a longer rap sheet and no shot at the
Heisman. Yet the storm has passed. There is a season left to
finish, even if it is nothing like the one he had planned. That
much is surely straight.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SMITH COLOR PHOTO: MARK FOLEY/AP Tough crowds Taunts in Tallahassee (above) and insults at Clemson have left the normally ebullient Warrick chastened. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: COLIN HACKLEY/TAMPA TRIBUNE The right moves Prepping for the Florida game, the elusive Warrick tormented Maryland with nine catches and three scores.

"Trying to tackle Warrick is like trying to kill a gnat with a
machete," says Duke's Eric Jones.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)