Sports

The departed: The other side of Syracuse football’s 28 player exodus

When Lamar Middleton remembers his time at Syracuse, he thinks about all of the opportunities he had. Growing up in the desolate city of Newark, N.J., they were opportunities Middleton never thought would come.

So when he thinks about it, he remembers the relationships that he built. With his friends and coaches in the Syracuse football program. With professors and teaching assistants in his classes. With students in his drama and acting minor.

Before the opportunity of coming to Syracuse was presented, Middleton never thought any of this would ever be possible. That’s why he remembers when it was all taken away from him: April 18, 2009, when he was kicked off the football team and effectively out of the university.

‘Everything was rolling,’ Middleton said in a phone interview a little more than one year later. ‘And my focus level was so high, I didn’t think it could’ve been broken. And once that happened, that really sent me down because that was my life.’

After being let go from the team for a curfew violation, Middleton became one of 28 players The Daily Orange has found that have vanished from the program in the past year. SU head coach Doug Marrone said he did not know the exact number, but said it was ‘somewhere in the numbers (The Daily Orange) mentioned.’

As the departing players piled up in a turnover of massive proportions, no reason was given for their exodus. It became Marrone’s policy to not discuss players who were no longer with the program. Nothing more than an e-mail from the program or a passing statement from Marrone accompanied each player’s exit. A day later, each player was removed from the team’s official roster.

Some turnover has come to be expected with new coaching regimes. More than 10 players left the Michigan program when Rich Rodriguez replaced Lloyd Carr as head coach following the 2007 season. At Tennessee, 11 players departed the football program by the end of spring practice during former head coach Lane Kiffin’s first season on the job.

But with each passing day, the number at Syracuse flew beyond the norm. One after another they disappeared, and Marrone saw the number of scholarship players on his 2010 spring roster dip to just 49 non-specialists.

A coincidence became a trend. Marrone would vaguely address who, what and when. But he would never discuss why. And so the question became why. Why the mass exodus from the Syracuse football program?

‘I don’t know. You would have to get that from them,’ Marrone said. ‘I think it’s important for them in life to explain what their situation was. … I think you’ll find out there are a lot of reasons for each individual person.’

‘We’re talking about curfew

Lamar Middleton just wanted to read Doug Marrone the letter. The letter that explained why he should remain on the team. The letter that admitted he was wrong about what had happened that night at 231 Slocum Heights.

‘He wouldn’t let me read him my letter,’ Middleton said. ‘… Basically, Coach Marrone was treating me like I was some bum off the street asking for a dollar. He didn’t want to speak to me. He told me that ‘you’re done.’ He said you have to move on and go play with somebody else.’

Middleton penned the letter after he was let go by Marrone due to what Middleton describes as a ‘simple misunderstanding of one night last spring semester of the curfew situation.’ Marrone confirmed Middleton’s dismissal but wouldn’t comment on the specific case, saying only that it was a ‘violation of team rules.’

Middleton’s ex-teammates, Donte Davis and Nico Scott, similarly describe the situation. Because they were both there that one night at 231 Slocum Heights. In the four-apartment complex, they lived upstairs, and Middleton lived directly below them.

The situation arose, all three say, as they came back from a T-Pain concert in Goldstein Auditorium on April 17, 2009, the night before the spring football game.

It came one night after Middleton says he was in the hospital for what turned out to be a ‘stomach bug.’

He ended up missing a 6 a.m. meeting the next morning, and said it added to another previous misunderstanding he had with the coach — Marrone, Middleton said, believed him to be an alcoholic.

‘(Marrone) thought I was an alcoholic because I told him that I had a Long Island ice tea,’ Middleton said. ‘After that, he tried to put me on alcoholic counseling. I said, ‘OK, if that’s what I need to do to gain your trust back, then I will do that.”

Marrone would not comment on specific incidents with his former players. But he did say that if he feels a player is in ‘trouble or is struggling’ for a variety of reasons, he will determine whether to direct those players to the appropriate counseling services.

‘If I saw a player that had given me any types of signs for anything — and it’s such a wide range — yes, I’m going to contact our trainers,’ Marrone said. ‘And I’m going to contact the player to encourage him to go for counseling.’

That night, coming back from the concert, Middleton and Davis engaged in an argument with a graduate assistant checking their apartments at curfew time, which both said was at 10:30 p.m. Walking into his apartment, Davis said, it was 10:15.

Middleton got the call to Marrone’s office the next morning, the day of the spring game. There sat Marrone, the graduate assistant and the rest of the Orange defensive staff.

That was it. He had missed curfew, Marrone told him. Just like that, Middleton was gone. He didn’t get a chance to speak in the meeting.

‘Basically, he was saying that he gave me enough opportunities,’ Middleton said. ‘And that was it.’

He, his teammates and good friends were stunned. He went into a ‘shell,’ Scott said, composing the letter and begging Marrone to read it. When it happened, Middleton saw it all slipping away.

‘When I got kicked off the team, we’re talking about curfew, man,’ Middleton said. ‘We’re talking about curfew. And a curfew that I really didn’t miss. We’re talking about curfew. We’re not talking about a rape charge. We’re not talking about DUI. We’re not talking about any of that. We’re talking about curfew.’

For Marrone, once again, he would not delve into specifics. But he talked about the importance of making the imposed curfew.

‘We do have curfew restrictions for the players for their benefit,’ Marrone said. ‘From the standpoint of whether they’ll be able to go out on the field and perform at a level where they will not have injuries occur to them, so they get the proper amount of rest or to a standpoint of them being home at the right time so they can start school the next day and go to classes fully alert.

‘I’m not going to go back to a ‘he said, she said,’ but we do have a curfew for our players at different times during the year for different reasons.’

‘Boot camp’

JohnMark Henderson’s sanctuary was the Manley Field House parking lot.

Drained from a grueling practice and admittedly tired of every rule Marrone’s staff enforced, Henderson would often retreat with some of his teammates to the parking lot. For them, it seemed like the only place they could gather and just vent.

‘After practice, we weren’t happy,’ Henderson said. ‘So there was a lot of moping around. After practice sometimes, the only thing keeping us together was to go out in the parking lot and talk about how much we hated it and wished it wasn’t like this.’

Henderson couldn’t accept the tight-shipped Marrone. It just wasn’t what he was used to.

As he came into Syracuse, Marrone instilled a system built around the components of discipline and structure. Two elements he says are necessary to keying the success of any organization.

‘When you look at any successful organization,’ Marrone said, ‘whether it be in sports, whether it be in business, or whether you want to say it has discipline or structure, it has those components in both. And I just think that when you get in, you go ahead and you try to build a trust factor between player and coach.’

As Randy McKinnon says, players either ‘love it or hate it.’

For McKinnon, a safety who recorded 11 tackles last season, it was not a reason he left the program. (He says he hopes to graduate early this May and focus on pursuing a master’s degree at Southern Methodist.) Growing up in an Army-heavy family that enforced strict discipline, McKinnon just thought of it as a continuation of his roots. That’s why he didn’t have a problem with the rules other players thought were petty.

Marrone’s disciplinary structure included rules that barred players from growing facial hair or any hair that hung out of their helmets during the season. Last season, the players weren’t allowed to wear wristbands or any accessories during games.

Marrone says the rules are strictly meant for safety. He repeats the word over and over, giving the same speech to all his players and recruits.

But the combination of those restrictions with the demanding practices, Henderson couldn’t take it anymore more. The game he grew up loving, playing since he was a 6-year-old, wasn’t fun anymore, he said. And so in October, Henderson decided to transfer to Prairie View A&M, becoming the 21st player to leave the program since Marrone’s hire.

‘I did feel a little disrespected. That’s what it was,’ Henderson said. ‘Because I wasn’t told any of this when I came here. I wasn’t told I would have to cut my facial hair. I wasn’t told they were going to strip every little thing away from us like accessories.

‘It felt like a boot camp. It just wasn’t fun at all.’

‘Thank You’

Coming out of high school and into the Syracuse football program in 1983, Marrone says his attitude was just like the players he coaches now.

In the strict disciplinary system of legendary SU head coach Dick MacPherson, a coach he now fondly refers to as ‘Coach Mac,’ Marrone did not always see eye to eye with him. In the other role now, though, he gets it.

‘When I was a player here, there were a lot of things Coach Mac did that I did not agree with,’ Marrone said. ‘And all of a sudden, when I left college and went along in my career and became married and had children, I’m always calling Coach Mac and I’m always saying, ‘Hey, I get it now. Thank you.”

This is the basis of Marrone’s system today. With a penchant for discipline and structure, he knows not every player is going to agree with his style.

But he believes that down the road, he’ll get those calls like his to MacPherson. Calls he says he already gets from former players who go through the NFL Draft process.

‘That’s what we’re trying to do,’ Marrone said. ‘We’re just trying to do the right thing for the players so that we’re trying to have the consistency for the long haul.’

It’s a system that former players agree is exceedingly different from Greg Robinson’s, the coach Marrone replaced last season.

Mike Jones, an ex-Orange running back who made noise by leaving the team just hours before the start of spring practice on March 22, is an advocate of the way Marrone ran the program. Jones said he left the team because he wasn’t happy with where he was headed academically at Syracuse.

Jones pointed to an incident in March 2008 in which SU players Paul Chiara and Mikhail Marinovich were chased on foot by police after allegedly breaking into Manley Field House. After deliberation, Robinson decided to keep both on the team. (Marinovich, a rising junior, is still on the team.) Under Marrone, Jones said, that wouldn’t be the case.

‘Yeah, I don’t think they would’ve been anywhere near the team anymore,’ Jones said. ‘Even in the past year, the little things that people do wrong, they get punished for.

‘There’s no bullshit allowed.’

So even though they lament the fortune of their good friend and teammate Middleton, and though they may not have agreed with the ultimate verdict, Davis and Scott defer to their former head coach. They respect his system and his decision-making.

‘Coach Marrone came in and what he wanted to do was instill discipline on the team to help better the program,’ Scott said. ‘He set rules and boundaries for the team to abide by. If you follow the rules, everything else will take care of itself. I’m going to leave it at that.’

‘I mean, I think he didn’t have to go that far,’ Davis adds. ‘But then again, I was seeing what he was trying to do. Because coming off (Robinson), we got away with a lot of things. (Marrone) was just a stickler on doing the little things right.’

‘Dolls’

Middleton, the player who missed curfew and was removed from the team, had just gotten the script. He was about to immerse himself in it for the next three months.

In addition to likely starting at defensive tackle, Middleton was a drama and acting minor at SU. He was likely to earn one of the lead roles in a production called ‘Dolls’ at Syracuse’s Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company last July.

‘Dolls’ was one of the things that Middleton lost when he was forced to leave Syracuse. Without a scholarship, he and his family couldn’t afford to pay the bills themselves. Telling his mother and seeing the devastation on her face, he almost couldn’t take it.

He still imagines himself up on that stage, the crowd clapping for him for something other than football. Acting still remains one of his true loves. But like his football career at Syracuse, his acting career and his life at the university vanished when he was kicked off the team.

‘He didn’t just kick me off his football team,’ Middleton said. ‘That was my life.’

Middleton has found a second opportunity at James Madison, where he recorded two tackles in limited action last season.

But he yearns for it all back. To be with his old friends and teammates — his ‘family.’ To read Marrone the letter. To go back to his life.

‘I never got to talk to Marrone after that,’ Middleton says. ‘… I love Syracuse. I still want to go back after all that.’

bplogiur@syr.edu

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