Between 2002 and '10, more than 40% of the players who enrolled at Oklahoma State left before exhausting their eligibility. The school had recruited many at-risk kids from troubled backgrounds in hopes that they could improve its football team. If they failed to perform, players say, OSU cut them loose, undereducated and demoralized
This is an article from the Sept. 23, 2013 issue
IT WAS a suffocatingly hot July afternoon in Bryan, Texas, and inside a chain restaurant on the North Earl Rudder Freeway, it wasn't much cooler. An angular African-American waiter in his mid-20s slogged through his four-hour shift, his eyes bloodshot, his face drawn. On top of his $2.13 hourly wage he would earn barely $15 in tips. As dreary as his day was, it was made much worse by an innocent question from one of his customers.
"Hey," the man asked, "are you Artrell Woods?"
In 2005, Woods had been a star wide receiver at Bryan High, and his decision to shun nearby Texas A&M for Oklahoma State was tracked and talked about with predictable zeal. The dropout rate for African-American kids from Brazos County is high, leaving them with less hope of advancement; Woods's older brother, Cedrick, was first convicted of burglary at 18 and is now serving a 26-year prison sentence in Huntsville, Texas. When Artrell left for Stillwater and, notionally anyway, a more promising future, there was a communal sense of accomplishment.
So he told the diner that, yes, he was Artrell Woods, then braced for the usual follow-up questions. "But this guy didn't ask anything else," Woods says. "He just looked down. It was like he was embarrassed for me. Everybody who knows my name knows it because of football. If you don't ask about football, you aren't asking because you don't want to embarrass me. That's worse."
It's a few hours after his shift now, and Woods has used his tip money to put $5 of gas into a borrowed car. Although the restaurant provides a 50% discount on food for its workers, Woods says he has not eaten in nearly two days. During a long dinner at a nearby restaurant, he raises—and answers—the question that his customer had sidestepped: What happened to Artrell Woods?
He waits tables part-time and lives with his mother and her foster children. He concedes that he drinks too much and smokes too much marijuana. He is spending more and more time with what he calls "hustlers," people he knows he should avoid and he thought he'd left behind when he went to Oklahoma State. He is also in constant pain from a back injury he suffered while in college, which he can't remedy because he doesn't have health insurance.
Woods left for Stillwater seven years ago strong and hopeful. Now he is spiritually and physically broken. "Every time I think I've hit bottom there is a new bottom," he says, searching for a position that will dull the pain needling his spine. "I'm the mother------ who wakes up every day and I think, F---, how am I gonna eat today? The bottom? S---, it's now. Every day is the bottom."
Scattered across Oklahoma, Texas and neighboring states are young men like Woods—former Cowboys from the last dozen years now damaged and downtrodden. Some are incarcerated or have bounced in and out of jail. Others have lived on the streets. Many have battled substance abuse; at least a couple have attempted suicide. Several reside in the purgatory of the unemployed, sitting on a couch all day, hoping to hear back about a position at Walmart or Target. Some with jobs see little future in them. One is a lumberjack; one works part-time at a food-processing plant; another is a bouncer at a strip club. Once vigorous men, their eyes now convey confusion and vulnerability.
One of the great selling points of college football is that it changes lives, that the athletes who receive scholarships—especially those from troubled areas and broken homes—have their fortunes enhanced just by taking part in the sport. Even if they don't make the NFL, even if they don't get an undergraduate degree, even if they remain on campus only a short time, they benefit immeasurably from the college experience and from the lessons imparted by the men who coach the game.
Many of the players Oklahoma State admitted over the last decade were abysmal students in high school, ill-prepared for college work; some had committed crimes. They were at-risk young men in need of extraordinary academic and psychological support. No football program can be expected to guarantee a bright future for every player it courts and embraces, and the athletes certainly bear significant responsibility for their fates. But in the past decade so many players have been kicked out or driven out of OSU, often returning in shame to neighborhoods and lifestyles they hoped desperately to escape, that the sheer number of those discouraged and embittered raises the question: How much did the program really care?
SI'S 10-MONTH investigation into the rise of the Cowboys' football program uncovered illicit payments, widespread academic fraud, a negligent drug policy and a double standard of treatment based on performance. Perhaps most alarming: the disregard the program showed for players once their services were no longer deemed necessary. Too often the discourse about corruption in college sports revolves around the players' ill-gotten gains—cash handouts, no-show jobs, free sneakers or tattoos. Lost in the discussion: the pain suffered by many of those same players, who leave school feeling hurt, used and abandoned.
Often, the names of the discarded will ring familiar only to a team's most ardent supporters—who really remembers Artrell Woods?—and that is the point. Says a former assistant under Mike Gundy, the Cowboys' coach since 2005, "They're basically being used. Once they're no longer of any use, they're gone."
Between 2002—the year of Les Miles's first full recruiting class at Stillwater—and 2010, 43.5% of the players who enrolled at the school left before exhausting their five years of eligibility, and that's not including one player who died and those who declared early for the NFL. Though oversigning is a widespread practice in college football, this is a staggering churn rate. Texas Christian, another fast-rising program in the Big 12, lost about 23.4% of its players during that time. (Oklahoma State says the number is inaccurate because it doesn't account for players whose careers ended for medical reasons, but SI didn't include those for TCU either.) Players told SI that their first two years in Stillwater felt like a tryout: Those who performed to the coaches' expectations stayed; those who didn't were run off to free up scholarships.
Like other schools, OSU usually offered one of an assortment of vague explanations for a premature exit. It was for undisclosed reasons or for a violation of team rules; the player was in search of playing time elsewhere or left for personal reasons. Due to privacy laws designed to protect the students and because the player's version of events was rarely solicited by the media, fans were left to assume either that the school had rid itself of a troublemaker or that the parting was mutual.
The explanations were rarely that tidy.
Kevin White was part of the Cowboys' 2005 recruiting class, a group that saw "only" 36.4% of its members exit the program early. A running back from DeSoto, Texas, White appeared in 10 games as a true freshman in 2005, making the move to linebacker after injuries depleted that position. He returned to running back, where he settled far down the depth chart.
White was also an oddity in the program: He was an introvert. He could drift through a day without saying much and seem comfortable in the silence. At first, White says, Gundy mocked him; then he called him out in team meetings. "You talk just as much as my four-year-old son," White says Gundy told him, "and that's not a lot." Later, White says, an athletics staff member suggested that he see a therapist, who determined there was nothing wrong. "I just wasn't the type of person that wanted to be around a lot of people," says White.
In September '06, White was a passenger in a car that police pulled over and searched. The officers found marijuana. Though White was the only member of the group not charged—and though OSU had a history of overlooking drug use and drug offenses among its stars—Gundy kicked him off the team. White says he offered to take a drug test on the spot, but Gundy was not persuaded. (Gundy declined to comment for this story.) The official reason given for White's departure: a violation of team rules.
That afternoon, White says, a graduate assistant drove him 65 miles to Oklahoma City, handed him a few bucks and put him on a bus home. After a tear-filled, five-hour journey, White was back in DeSoto, his career as an Oklahoma State football player terminated. He didn't even get to finish out the semester. (That November, White was charged with concealing stolen property after a resident in his old Oklahoma State dormitory was caught with a stolen bicycle and claimed that he was holding it for White. The charges were eventually dismissed.) When a backup like White is run off from a BCS school, the assumption is that he will be fine, that he can simply transfer to a lesser program. But that fails to account for the psychological impact of being devalued. What does it do to a young man to suddenly learn he is disposable?
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN Jonathan Cruz says his scholarship was revoked in the summer of 2003 because of academic troubles—troubles that many more prominent players avoided by having substantial coursework done for them. Cruz says he loaded a single bullet into a 9-mm revolver, spun the cylinder, put the gun to his head, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. "[I'm] hoping that maybe if it does go off [the Oklahoma State coaches] are going to find me," Cruz said in a taped, two-hour interview in April. "They'll know why this happened." After the gun didn't fire, Cruz cried for hours. "You want to reach out [to someone], but where do you go?" Cruz says. "I was so miserable, and nobody understood because, in my opinion at the time, nobody cared to understand." He says he became a cocaine addict and "a major drug trafficker," moving as much as 30 pounds of marijuana a week. Cruz enrolled at Northeastern State, a Division II school in Tahlequah, Okla., and eventually cleaned up. He now teaches and coaches at a high school in the Dallas area.
On the day in August 2005 when Gundy kicked him off the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules, defensive back Thomas Wright was so distraught, he says, "I took a whole bunch of prescription pills and bought a 20-pack [of beer] and got on the highway and drove. I couldn't stop crying. I didn't even want to live anymore." Worried that he might pass out and hit another motorist, he pulled over, got a hotel room and went to sleep, believing he would never wake up. "I tried to take my [life], and it didn't work," he says. Wright has been in and out of jail since leaving school, mostly for alcohol-related offenses. He has been living with his parents in Sweeny, Texas, and says he has regularly attended substance-abuse meetings, but his grip on sobriety is a fragile one.
For several weeks after he was bused back to DeSoto, Kevin White sat most of the time in a bedroom in his mother's home by himself. "Being told I couldn't play, that I wasn't good enough for that level, it took me to a down state. It's heartbreaking," he says. White considered robbing a bank. "When people get down, they think about doing a lot of crazy things," he says, his voice quivering. "I was just like, Anything can be better than this, even if it's short-lived. I lost value for my life." The idea of transferring was daunting: "I had entrusted my life to Oklahoma State, and it crumbled. I didn't want to push toward more people that probably were going to cut me down again."
About two years later White considered enrolling at West Texas A&M and called his old school for a transcript. He says he was told that he owed hundreds of dollars for miscellaneous charges, including a sofa he had allegedly stolen from his dormitory. ("I got on a bus," White says. "How am I going to take a couch on a bus?") Until his debts were paid, the university would not release his transcript. He never took another college class.
White works at a company owned by his uncle; he installs industrial battery systems at server farms and other places. He lugs batteries that weigh as much as 200 pounds, his clothes and skin splashed with acid. He calls the job "his last resort" and breeds pit bulls to make extra money to support his two-year-old son, Za'Mir.
"I'll let him play football," White says of Za'Mir. "I just won't let him go to a school that treats [players] the way Oklahoma State treated me."
BACK IN Bryan, Woods relives the incident that transformed him from a wide receiver with NFL aspirations to a player OSU would toss away.
It was a July morning in 2007, Friday the 13th, and Woods was in the weight room, preparing for his sophomore season. He was doing step-ups on a plyometric box with a 185-pound bar across his shoulders, an exercise players frequently undertook without a spotter. As Woods finished his set, he stepped back to rack the bar and rolled his ankle. As he fell, the bar came crashing down on his back, bending him in half.
Woods didn't scream; he simply asked a teammate to help him up. Then he tried to stand. "I couldn't feel my legs," Woods says. "After that, I lay back down, and that's when I started feeling all the pain."
Woods passed out and woke later that night in an intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, where he was told he had fractured two vertebrae. He was draped in tubes and unable to move the lower part of his body. When his mother visited, she just stood in a corner and wept. She couldn't bear to return to the hospital after that, keeping vigil from a nearby hotel.
Before the mishap Woods had been regarded as one of the Cowboys' most promising players. As a freshman he played in 13 games, exciting coaches with his speed on deep routes. He starred in the 2007 spring game with four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns, and he was penciled in as a starter. But none of that mattered now.
On his second day in the hospital Woods regained movement in his toes. Within two weeks, after physical therapy, he was walking. Doctors weren't sure whether he would play football again, but in time he began working out. According to Woods, one day an athletic trainer asked him if he was going to sue the university for negligence over his injury. Woods told the trainer he wouldn't do that because if he did Oklahoma State would surely revoke his scholarship. "I was delusional," Woods says.
Woods redshirted the 2007 season and made enough progress to return for spring practice in '08. But eight months earlier he had lost feeling in the lower half of his body, and with it his explosiveness. At the same time the school was trotting him out for interviews, building hype for his return. During the waning minutes of a 59--17 home rout of Iowa State on Nov. 1, Woods finally had a pass thrown in his direction, and he hauled it in for a seven-yard gain. The fans remaining gave Woods a standing ovation, a nod to the feel-good story.
Early in the spring semester of 2009, Woods was called to a meeting with Gundy and an assistant coach. According to Woods, Gundy told him that he didn't like his attitude and that he didn't see a future for him in Stillwater. Woods says he didn't think he had done anything that would cause his football career to be imperiled.
The school designated Woods a medical non-counter, which meant he could stay on scholarship without playing football. That may seem like a kind gesture, but it was merely a creative way for OSU to get Woods off the books: His scholarship wouldn't count toward the team's limit of 85. While he was still capable of playing—he had appeared in five games the previous season—he was no longer such a promising talent. Woods says the school saw no further use for him, particularly since his comeback story had been milked dry. He stayed in Stillwater through the fall semester of 2009. He eventually decided to transfer to Central Oklahoma, a Division II school in Edmond, where he would play again.
WHEN MILES, Gundy and their assistant coaches met with recruits, they often spoke of the family atmosphere in Stillwater, of how they would look after players as they would their own children. This is standard recruiting patter, but prospects and their parents take it to heart, especially teenagers who may lack a stable family life as well as those sufficiently self-aware to know that they need discipline and structure.
Herschel Sims was one of those teens. When he signed with Oklahoma State as a running back at Abilene (Texas) High in 2011, he had already experienced hardship. When he was a child, his mother was sent to prison for eight years for not reporting child abuse that Herschel had suffered at the hands of his stepfather, who was sentenced to 25 years for that mistreatment. Sims says his stepfather repeatedly tied his hands to a doorknob and his feet to the end of a bed to whip him. "This went on for two or three days," Sims says. "It was just screams and screams."
After his mother was imprisoned, Sims bounced among foster homes and lived with various relatives, spending one year in a rough part of Los Angeles. "It was scary," he says. "I used to beg my grandma to move back to Texas. There were so many [shootings]."
When the Oklahoma State coaches began courting Sims, they might have learned about the abuse he suffered from a basic background check, which some schools (but not OSU) conduct on recruits. Or if the coaches had ever asked Sims why he had bounced around so much, he would have welcomed the opportunity to answer. But with Sims and many other Cowboys, the staff's interest seemed to extend only to their ability on the field. The coaches sold the promise of helping troubled young men, but seldom bothered to learn what troubled them.
Defensive end William Bell says that before he enrolled in 2004, coaches didn't know that he was already a habitual drug user. In Stillwater he was dropped into a milieu where drugs were readily available and academics weren't a priority. He started selling marijuana and methamphetamine and was dismissed for a violation of team rules in May 2005 after a redshirt season. Linebacker Marcus Richardson joined a gang before his 12th birthday and sold drugs and committed robberies while growing up in Madison, Fla. Richardson was low on the depth chart in the spring of '08, when, he says, conflicts with coaches and a lack of playing time prompted him to leave and join his family in Seguin, Texas. He returned to the life of crime he had briefly escaped. Today he resides in the Ruben M. Torres Unit, a state prison near Hondo, Texas, three years into a 15-year sentence for aggravated robbery.
"It was a messed-up situation," Richardson says of Oklahoma State. "I've seen that college football is a business.... The only type of relationship [coaches] really have with the players is, O.K., if y'all don't produce, then I get fired."
Had Oklahoma State bothered to dig into Herschel Sims's past, his arrival in Stillwater might have coincided with counseling sessions run by qualified personnel, which a football program that generated more than $41 million in revenue should have had no trouble affording. "That would have really helped," Sims says. Perhaps if Sims were a star, Gundy would have been more proactive when Sims, toward the end of his freshman year, withdrew a total of $700 from a teammate's checking account. After Gundy found out, he ordered the two players to work out the problem themselves, Sims says. Later Sims asked Gundy to meet with him to help resolve the matter, since he had spent the $700 and could not repay his teammate. He says Gundy told him there was nothing to discuss. In June 2012, after Sims had still not repaid the money, the teammate went to the police. Shortly thereafter, Gundy kicked Sims off the team. Sims was later charged with two felony counts of second-degree forgery, to which he would plead guilty and receive a deferred sentence.
Sims's dismissal may have been warranted, but the school had shown a willingness to overlook serious transgressions if the player involved were someone the Cowboys wanted on the field. In 2010, Jamie Blatnick was a major contributor at defensive end despite having pleaded guilty that August to a misdemeanor assault and battery charge after he hit a former teammate in the face with a beer bottle. (The charge against Blatnick was reduced when the victim asked the prosecutor not to pursue the original felony charge.) Wide receiver Bo Bowling also played a prominent role that year after pleading guilty to two drug-possession charges; he initially faced a felony charge of intent to distribute marijuana, but a key witness refused to cooperate with the prosecution. During the 2006 and '07 seasons Chris Collins was a contributor at linebacker despite facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl. (He later pleaded guilty to one of them.)
Would Sims have been treated differently if he had been performing better on the field? "I wasn't playing much and I wasn't helping out the team much so it was easy for them to let me go," Sims says. "It was just all about football. They didn't care about anything I was going through."
Sims is now a junior at Abilene (Texas) Christian, where he says there is much more structure. He adds, "They care a lot here."
WHEN WOODS was at Bryan High, he developed a strong relationship with a basketball coach who also taught classes in animation. In 11th and 12th grade, he embraced those courses in a way he never had; it was the first time he can recall feeling great enthusiasm for school. He came to believe that if football didn't work out, perhaps he could work in animation, maybe even become a video game designer.
When he arrived at Oklahoma State he thought he would begin taking classes to implement that backup plan. Then he met with academic counselors and says he was told there were certain courses that football players should avoid because they conflicted with practice and/or were too taxing. "They were just telling me to take these classes, the ones they pick for you," Woods says. "They said don't worry about your major until you are a junior." He did what he was told, kept taking the classes put in front of him, never once speaking up about what he hoped to do if football failed him.
In 2010, when Woods transferred to Central Oklahoma, he finally told a counselor about his desire to design video games. He was informed that given the classes he had taken in his three years at Oklahoma State, to earn a degree in computer programming or a similar discipline would require several more years of college. Woods couldn't pay for that, so he pursued a degree in general studies. (According to the school he has yet to graduate.) Woods did take one course of his choosing, Beginning Programming, in his final semester, which he says he enjoyed. But the experience was brief and bittersweet. An introductory course in programming was, after all, a class he should have taken early in his time at Oklahoma State.
Near the end of a long and emotional talk, Woods says he still hopes to pursue a career in video game design. He shares a few vague ideas about how he can raise the money to buy the proper computer equipment—money that, he believes, the school owes him for his pain.
The question What happened to Artrell Woods? answered, he rises gingerly, walks to his borrowed car and eases himself in so as to not jar his back. Woods sighs and then slumps in the driver's seat, head down, in no hurry to turn the ignition and learn how little gas is left in the tank.
Read SI's five-part series looking into the Oklahoma State football program, hear from the writers and editors behind the investigation, and watch videos of former Cowboys talking about their experiences in Stillwater.