This week, the NFL held its annual Broadcast Boot Camp, which gives current and former players exposure to the media business and performing various on-air functions. While I was there, I took out a moment to speak with my former Baltimore Ravens teammate, Donte Stallworth.
While driving his car on the morning of March 14, 2009, Stallworth struck and killed a construction worker, Mario Reyes, who had just finished his shift and was attempting to catch a bus in Miami Beach, Florida. Tests later showed Stallworth had been under the influence of alcohol at the time. Stallworth pled guilty to DUI manslaughter charges and received a sentence that included 30 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service and a lifetime suspension of his driver’s license.
In the aftermath, Stallworth has been working to be sure the lessons from the tragedy don’t go forgotten. He is scheduled for an appearance at this Sunday’s NFL Rookie Symposium, where he will deliver a message that should resonate with the league’s young players.
Brendon Ayanbadejo: How were you invited to speak at the Rookie Symposium?
Donte Stallworth: Initially, I think it was last November when I met with Commissioner (Roger) Goodell and Debbie Weir (CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and we talked about formulating a plan on how to really get the attention of guys from the NFL and raise awareness on DUIs, driving under the influence. It has been a major problem in the NFL and has been a major problem in society, as well. We are trying to formulate a plan on this issue.
BA: Take us through what happened in your life that made you so passionate about this issue.
DS: (On) March 14, 2009, I had been out the night before with a couple of friends. We had had some drinks. I ended up going home, I slept for an hour or hour-and-a-half. I woke up out of my sleep and I had no food at home, nothing to eat or drink at home, so I decided to drive across the bridge to South Beach — to the only place I knew at the time because I had just moved into my place — to go to a place that was open 24 hours. Not even five minutes driving when I was on the bridge on Interstate 395 when a crane operator by the name of Mario Reyes was rushing across the highway to catch a bus on the opposite side of the freeway and I hit him.
At the time I was very concerned about him. I didn’t know the extent of his injuries. Initially, I called 911 and wanted to do everything I could to provide some kind of assistance for him. And as time progressed and I found out that he had passed, I was really heartbroken. Not because of my own sake, but just the simple fact of something that happened that I was a part of and could have totally been prevented. These things are totally preventable. I’ve heard some people call them accidents. They are not an accident. It is not an accident when you decide to drive after you have been drinking.
We’re all grown enough to make decisions. So that means you are grown enough to formulate a plan before going out and you know you are going to have drinks, or you know there is an opportunity or chance for you to have drinks, then you should plan ahead. And that is one of the biggest messages I want to get across to these guys. DUIs are not accidents. They don’t happen by accident. You don’t drink alcohol and get in your car by accident. If you plan ahead, I think that it is one of the issues I am going to try and hit home with the rookies when I speak to them.
BA: What are your points of emphasis going to be on and off the field for the rookies?
DS: One of the major points I want to hit with them as far as on the field is to take advantage of every opportunity. These opportunities don’t last long. These windows are small in the NFL. I played 10 years in the NFL and it feels like just yesterday I was in my rookie season. I want them to understand the opportunity they have. No one is promised tomorrow. The average life of an NFL player is 3.5 years, and that is the shortest career of any profession in the world. You want to take advantage of every opportunity you get.
Off the field, guys need to make better decisions. There is a stigma, so to speak, that as an NFL player we are barbaric and we are just out here in society as a wild bunch and that is just not the case. The statistics in society pretty much correlate with the statistics in the NFL for a myriad of social and domestic issues, but we should be held to a higher standard as professional athletes such as NFL players, specifically.
The issue I want to touch on with these guys is you have to make better decisions. Something that can seem so innocent as you waking up out of your sleep at 2:30 in the morning — as I did that night — going to meet your friend for his birthday party, have a couple of drinks and you go home. And something like that can turn into something so much more devastating and something you would never want to be a part of and something that is totally preventable. And that is the key that I want to hit to these guys: All these issues are totally preventable.
As a young NFL player, or as a human being as well, it is OK to go out, it is OK to have fun, but just be smart about the things that you do and make great decisions. Something that seems so minor and small initially can turn into an issue (like the one) that I had. I want to be able to tell my story and have it resonate with these guys.
BA: When we played together in Baltimore in 2009, you weren’t driving. Have you started driving yet?
DS: My driver’s license is banned for life. I have been taking taxis, catching car services. This is part of my story, part of my life. I can’t complain at all. It is something that is another part of my story that I want to relay to these guys and let them know how fast things can change in an instant from a terrible decision.
BA: Your situation happened in 2009. You talk about as a football player we are programmed to fight through things, whether mental pain, whether it is things that are going on in your every-day life. As a person, what do you struggle with from 2009? Shed some light on that.
DS: It is an everyday struggle for me. It is something I will live with for the rest of my life. It is something when I eventually have children one day that I will have to explain to them why their father made this decision and what they can learn from my mistake and my decision.
I want it to resonate with these young guys. DUIs are totally preventable. As I stated before, a lot of people get caught up in it as accidents or whatnot, but the Center for Disease Control has a statistic: Before someone gets pulled over, they drive under the influence 80 times. Eight-Zero times. And a lot of people don’t know that. I did not know that. And that is scary. And that is Eight-Zero times before they get pulled over and get arrested. That is dangerous within itself.
The chances are, at the rookie symposium there will be guys who have driven under the influence. I want them to know that it can’t be tolerated. All it takes is one time to ruin someone else’s life, one time to ruin your own life or both. That is something no one wants to live with. That is the message that I want to relay to those guys and I hope that it sticks.