Jury's Out Can Mark Chmura, acquitted of sexual assault, rebuild his reputation?

February 12, 2001

When they came for him, it suddenly didn't matter how rich or
famous or handsome a man he might be. When they came in the
middle of the night, two cops standing in the doorway signaling
that life as he knew it was finished, the championship ring and
that full trophy case in the basement didn't matter anymore. This
was a nightmare.

In the months following his arrest last April 10, Mark Chmura
found himself waking with a start at all hours, waiting in the
dark of his big house for the sounds of them coming back.
"Whenever the doorbell rang?" he says. "I'd absolutely freak.
I'll never forget that as long as I live: That doorbell ringing
at two o'clock in the morning. The doorbell rings, and I put my
clothes on and look out the back window. I open the door, and
it's, 'Mr. Chmura, may we come in? We have a warrant for your
arrest.' I thought it was my buddies playing a stupid joke on me.
Then they said, 'sexual assault,' and they said her name, and
then I knew it wasn't a joke anymore."

Chmura is almost relaxed as he speaks now. He's sitting in the
basement of his Hartland, Wis., house, legs slung over the arm of
his chair, shoes off. It's Sunday afternoon, just two hours after
he broke down sobbing at a news conference while apologizing to
the public and promising that "nothing like this will ever happen
again," and less than a day after he heard the two kindest words
in American jurisprudence. Until he was found not guilty on
charges of sexual assault and child enticement late Saturday
night in Waukesha, Wis., Chmura had almost forgotten what it's
like to live without tension. In the first months after his
arrest, he says, the emotional strain left him fleeing to the
nearest empty room to cry, requiring heavy doses of the
antidepressants Prozac and Xanax and seeming so overwhelmed that
friends removed his handgun from his house for fear he might
commit suicide. "Yeah, they took my weapon," Chmura says, "but I
don't care how bad life is; nothing is worth taking your life
over."

Still, until last Saturday, the 31-year-old Chmura wasn't sure
what his life would be. Charged on May 15 with sexually
assaulting a 17-year-old girl--who had worked for him and his
wife, Lynda, as a babysitter for their two children, ages 4 and
6--in a bathroom during a postprom party, Chmura, a three-time Pro
Bowl tight end for the Green Bay Packers, faced a maximum of 40
years in prison and the prospect of being labeled, as defense
attorney Gerald Boyle put it, "a pedophile." He lost 20 pounds,
his hair began to fall out, and for six weeks after his arrest he
almost never left his house. His older son, Dylan, came home from
kindergarten and asked if it was true that his father had been in
jail, and Mark had to say yes. When he finally ventured out, he
disguised himself behind a goatee, sunglasses and a baseball cap
pulled down low.

It wasn't enough. "Everywhere I go, I've got to worry about what
cook is spitting in my food," he says he told his friends. "When
I go to Communion, I've got to hang my head because people are
looking at me like I'm some child molester."

Though Chmura's accuser is still mulling a civil suit against
him, the 12-person Waukesha County Court jury cleared him on the
criminal charges after deliberating for just two hours and 15
minutes. Chmura says that a handful of NFL teams have already
contacted his agent, Eric Metz. Chmura is sure he'll play
football somewhere next season, and for someone who just six
months ago wanted never to suit up again because he was terrified
at the thought of entering a stadium and being "attacked" by
abusive fans, someone who was bitter at the Packers for cutting
him on June 5 and rooted against them last season, this is
progress. Asked at his house on Sunday when he expects to start
getting his old life back, Chmura smiles and says, "Today."

Rebuilding his reputation will be another task. Viewed through
the lens of the 11 days of courtroom proceedings, no one--not the
parade of boozing and/or obnoxious kids from Catholic Memorial
High in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb of 60,000, a 15-minute drive
from Hartland; not the ambitious and ham-handed prosecutor, Paul
Bucher; not Chmura's accuser, who testified openly to her
membership in a group of teenage girls who called themselves the
SBs (for Sexy Bitches) and tripped over inconsistencies in her
story--came off looking noble. Certainly Chmura did not.
Regardless of the verdict, he must live with the fact that one
night last spring he got drunk and hung out in his underwear with
teenage girls in a hot tub at 3:30 a.m. "If you can go to jail
for being stupid, I belong in jail," he says.

"I disappointed a lot of people, and for that I'm really sorry,"
Chmura said at his press conference on Sunday, "because I am a
role model, O.K.? I let a lot of people down." Indeed, while the
case boiled down to a he-said, she-said showdown in which he said
nothing and she said too much, the subtext of hypocrisy will
haunt Chmura.

It was he, after all, who had set himself up as a paragon of
conservative values during the Packers' heyday of the mid-1990s.
A Catholic who served as an altar boy from childhood through high
school, he famously refused to attend a '97 White House reception
for the Super Bowl champs hosted by President Bill Clinton. "I
knew it all along," Chmura told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. "It doesn't really say
much for society and the morals [Clinton] sets forth for our
children." Ten days before his arrest Chmura attended a Waukesha
rally for George W. Bush. Someone snapped a picture: Mark and
Lynda and the future president.

That set up the classic tale: a hero hoist with his own petard.
It was covered with all the trimmings of a big-time sports event.
Court TV was there live. A Waukesha pub played the broadcast,
offering one-dollar shots every time a lawyer objected. Just
hours before the verdict came in, a group of tailgaters huddled
in the courthouse parking lot, roasting brats and rehashing the
juicy details.

There were plenty. Early on the morning of April 9, Chmura, after
a night of heavy drinking with his 43-year-old friend Bob
Gessert, showed up at Gessert's house, where Gessert's
17-year-old daughter, Jamie, was hosting a postprom party. When
she heard Chmura was coming, his accuser, according to court
testimony, told one of her friends at the party, schoolmate Mike
Kleber, that she hated Chmura, calling him "a sick f---" and
repeating a rumor that he had fathered a child by another former
babysitter. Chmura walked downstairs and, according to the
testimony of his accuser and of one of her friends who was at the
party, said to the gathered teenagers, "You call this a party?
Where are you hiding the alcohol?" There ensued a game of
drinking Ping-Pong with his accuser and several other teens and a
hot-tub session in which Gessert allegedly sexually assaulted
another teenage girl. (Gessert, who has pleaded not guilty, faces
trial on a charge of sexual assault.) According to several
eyewitnesses, Chmura was drunk, red-faced, giggling.

Despite the inconsistencies in her story, Chmura's accuser,
referred to in court only as Allison M., nevertheless delivered
indelible responses to questions about what happened when she and
Chmura were alone together in a Gessert bathroom that morning.
"The point was that I'd been raped," she said under
cross-examination. "I don't know how my legs got apart so he
could rape me.... But they were apart because he raped me." Said
one of the jurors (who requested anonymity) on Sunday, "We
[jurors] all believed something happened in there. But we had no
evidence to prove it." (Chmura, who never took the stand, says
that once the threat of a civil suit has passed, he'll give his
account of what happened in the bathroom.)

By the time Allison M. testified last week, however, the Chmura
who sat in the courtroom was not the same man who'd been pitying
himself just a few months before. In June, while visiting Holy
Hill, a Catholic shrine in the Milwaukee area, Chmura had bumped
into a priest who had worked in Chmura's tiny hometown of South
Deerfield, Mass., when Chmura was a boy. Chmura took it as a
sign, the first of many over the ensuing months that convinced
him that the accusations were a trial God meant him to endure. He
and Lynda say that they both began smelling roses--a sign among
some Catholics that one is in the presence of the Virgin Mary--in
church, in their bedroom; once, says Lynda, she was even awakened
by the scent. Chmura went to Mass every day. During the
summations at the trial, Lynda clutched a Rosary.

"I know. I hear it every time something happens to an athlete: He
goes to God," Chmura says. "That's not how it is. Most people
take what they want out of the Bible. It says, 'Don't get drunk'?
Well, I can do it this once. That's the way I was before. I
applied what I wanted to apply. But this was my wake-up call."
Now, Chmura says, he's setting his feet on a different path.
Where to? "Follow the roses," Chmura says.

One day in September, Chmura stood on a golf course and took it
while a friend told him how wretched he looked, and something
clicked inside. The next day he contracted for the construction
of a $20,000 gym in his house. He wanted to play football again.
"It just hit me: I'm not going to let this ruin my life," Chmura
says. "I didn't do anything. Whether I play one more game or one
more year or five more, I'm going out my way."

That he even has that choice now is attributable to many people,
from Kleber, the Chmura-worshipping all-state lineman (who
testified that he'd told Allison not to go into the bathroom but
that she'd gone in anyway, turning to smile at Kleber before she
opened the door) to Boyle to Lynda, who has known Mark since the
second grade and called his mother when he was arrested to assure
her she wouldn't leave him. When Lynda took the stand last
Friday, she testified that Mark had "never" had a baby with a
babysitter, and she called their marriage as solid "as a rock."
As for rumors, raised by the prosecutor, about Mark's womanizing,
Lynda said, "We've dealt with these for a long time, and it's
strengthened our relationship because I know the truth about my
husband and love him very much."

Mark's mouth trembled as Judge Mark Gempeler read the verdict,
and then he wept into his right hand. It was late and snowing
when he and Lynda walked out of the courthouse and down the dim
stairs. They walked side by side into the parking lot, past the
10 TV trucks, with their high antennae broadcasting the news to
the world. Spotlights shone in their faces. He wore a huge
camel-hair coat, and the snow dusted his hair and the tan fabric
and Lynda's eyelashes. The air smelled nothing like roses. Mark
closed the car door on his coat, and the mud and slush spattered
onto the hem as he drove away, dirtied but free.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM LYNN Putting it behind After the verdict was handed down, Mark walked out of the courthouse hand in hand with Lynda to face the future. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Dirty laundry His career upended and his name smeared by tawdry details of the trial, Chmura relied on the support of Lynda and Boyle (below, with witness Molly Lese). COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PETER ZUZGA/AP/POOL [See caption above]

"If you can GO TO JAIL FOR BEING STUPID," says Chmura, "I belong
in jail."

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)