It was only a few weeks ago that Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne delivered an upbeat, optimistic progress report on Scott Baldwin, a former Cornhusker running back whose then-undiagnosed mental illness had already led to one tragedy--the vicious and unprovoked beating of a Lincoln, Neb., woman last January.
But then on Saturday evening, less than eight hours after the Cornhuskers opened their 1992 season with a convincing victory against Utah, Baldwin suffered what appears to have been another psychotic episode and was later shot in the lower left chest during a fight with Lincoln police. There are fears that the bullet might have caused paralysis.
A spokeswoman at Omaha's St. Joseph Hospital, where Baldwin is recovering from lung surgery, said the former Nebraska player is in serious but stable condition.
However, after visiting Baldwin Sunday morning, Osborne said, "There is a strong possibility of permanent injury."
"He feels really bad," Osborne added. "His legs aren't working. We just hope and pray that they do at some point."
The hospital spokeswoman said a neurosurgeon is monitoring his condition and that the shooting might have left Baldwin, who turned 23 last Tuesday, paralyzed from the waist down.
Stunned Cornhusker athletic department officials were left numb by Saturday evening's news.
Everything had looked so promising for Baldwin. After the January incident, doctors discovered that Baldwin suffered from severe depression. The condition was so acute that he was later found not responsible by reason of insanity for the beating of the Lincoln graphic artist. Baldwin was then placed in a psychiatric care program, where he apparently was recovering.
"He should be able to lead a normal life," said Osborne recently in the athletic department's N Club Lounge. "He's doing fine."
But then Osborne added a soon-to-be prophetic qualifier.
"He's just like you or me," Osborne said, "as long as he's on medication."
According to a team psychologist who spoke with him after the incident, Baldwin quit taking his medication last Wednesday and had been drinking alcohol before the fight.
The incident is the latest in a nine-month string of often bizarre and always tragic twists involving Baldwin, a former all-Big Eight Conference honorable mention who last played for the Cornhuskers in a 1991 game against Iowa State. This would have been his senior season.
According to Lincoln police, they were first alerted Saturday night after 911 operators received an 11:18 p.m. call from Mickey Joseph, a former Nebraska quarterback, who said Baldwin suddenly jumped out of his car and fled on foot. Shortly after that, police were contacted about a disturbance at a local bar, where a man identified as Baldwin had been asked to leave the premises. Soon thereafter, police received several calls concerning the actions of Baldwin, who was naked and making his way eight blocks to a Lincoln residence.
Police found Baldwin as he tried to enter a home. The two officers, both women, attempted to calm the 6-1, 205-pound Baldwin. Baldwin was advised of his rights and then, as the officers tried to arrest him for disorderly conduct, he tried to wrest the gun from one officer's holster. The second officer then pulled her pistol and shot Baldwin.
In ways, this most recent incident mirrors Baldwin's arrest in January. Back then, he was also in a car with a Nebraska football player when the mental dysfunction was triggered. And even with the January temperatures dipping to 23 degrees, Baldwin was found nude when confronted by police. Then, too, he fought with police and, according to Lancaster County prosecutors, tried to pull an officer's service revolver from its belt holster.
And once again, Nebraska football officials found themselves searching for explanations as to what could have caused Baldwin's latest outburst. Baldwin's decision to ignore his medication schedule and later drink alcohol was prominently mentioned in Osborne's statement. But he also offered another theory.
"Scott had an airplane ticket and had planned to go home to New Jersey on Thursday and return Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday, but the judge felt that it was too soon to allow him to leave Nebraska," Osborne said. "Scott had not been home for two years and his not going home as anticipated may have affected him to some degree. He had also been disappointed about not playing football. It hit him hardest on Saturday in view of the fact that he wasn't able to play."
Just last week a Lancaster County judge ruled that Baldwin was still capable of threatening and dangerous behavior and ordered that he remain in an outpatient treatment program supervised by the St. Joseph Center for Mental Health. Under the terms of that ruling, Baldwin was allowed to continue attending school at Nebraska and remain free as long as he underwent counseling and took his daily medication.
The county attorney had argued unsuccessfully that Baldwin should have been confined to a Lincoln mental health center.
Baldwin's former teammates had tried to provide support and encouragement after his January ordeal. He was invited to eat at the team's training table and treated as if he were still on the roster. The same will undoubtedly be true after this latest event.