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The Strange Case Of Dimitrius Underwood

Former Michigan State Standout Has Been Making Headlines for Wrong Reasons Since Draft

October 09, 1999|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST LANSING, Mich. — At the breakneck end of a bizarre week in which Dimitrius Underwood stabbed himself in the neck, walked down the street bleeding, told an attending police officer "I am not worthy of God," checked into an undisclosed mental facility and left us with more questions than answers--one being, would anybody even be here had Underwood been a fifth-round pick instead of a first?--Michigan State Coach Nick Saban stood up from his oval desk at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building and concluded an interview that absolutely was not about Underwood.

Saban would not have sat down otherwise, that much was understood, although you sensed that in another setting, in any week other than the one his 5-0 team was facing 5-0 Michigan in the biggest game of his career, Saban might have let his guard down about his former defensive end.

Maybe next spring, over drinks, in a dark place where two guys could talk; in the least, a setting removed from the short distance Saban stood Sunday relative to where Underwood took blade to neck.

Some day, maybe.

But not today.

After a professional handshake, and a move toward the door, all the cursory doesn't-Michigan-look-tough talk exhausted, Saban is hit with an exit volley; one must lie in the weeds with these sensitive queries.

A brief comment, for the record, on Dimitrius?

Saban heaved a sigh, more out of exasperation, it seemed, than anger.

"We want to do anything we can to help Dimitrius Underwood get back on track," he said as if reciting from prepared text.

Then, though, a more personal response.

"I feel bad, as the guy who coached him, that we couldn't do something to get him back on track," Saban said. "Even back then, a year ago. Maybe none of this would have happened."

"This" is a saga, still unresolved and volatile, of a talented defensive end torn between football, religion and reality.

"This" is a story teeming with shadowy figures, fame, religiousness, greed and regret.

"This" is about the school that recruited Underwood, Michigan State; the NFL team that drafted him, the Minnesota Vikings; the team that claimed Underwood on waivers, the Miami Dolphins, and the consequences of all those decisions.

Naturally, "this" is a story about blame.

Luckily, Underwood will survive his self-inflicted wounds.

"Thanks to Jesus for allowing me to live," he said in a statement released through his agent. "Without his hand, I would not be alive. I am getting help and looking forward to a full and rapid recovery."

The Dolphins last week put Underwood on their reserve non-football injury list, making the 6-foot-6, 290-pound end ineligible to play this season.

But he does plan to come back.

It cannot possibly be as simple as that: Cut your throat on a Sunday, five days later vow to be in Brett Favre's face next September.

Can it?

There is a slow boil percolating in East Lansing that is largely unspoken at a university searching for closure to this unwieldy public spectacle.

The feeling here is that none of this should have happened and that it's all the Vikings' fault.

"If he was a fifth- or seventh-round draft choice, like he should have been, you wouldn't cover it," said Joel Ferguson, a member of the Michigan State board of trustees.

Ferguson, echoing the thoughts of others, says the Vikings dropped the ball on Underwood, were wooed by his imposing physical talents but ignored some obvious off-the-field shortcomings.

Ferguson says the Vikings did not do their homework, did not check out the facts, did not realize Underwood used the story about quitting football to enter the ministry to mask his real problem.

"This had nothing to do with religion," Ferguson said. "It was about the fear of failure. He was afraid he could not play at the level he thought he was going to have to play."

Ferguson and others, who did not want to go on record, claim Underwood faked an ankle injury that kept him out for the entire 1998 season at Michigan State.

It has been described as a "high ankle" (translation: not serious) sprain.

Ferguson wonders how the Vikings could have been so naive.

Had the Vikings known of Underwood's emotional problems, Ferguson says, they would not have made him a first-round choice, would not have thrust upon him expectations that might have pushed a fragile psyche beyond the precipice.

"They put that kid under a spotlight he wasn't ready to handle," Ferguson said. "He wasn't even able to handle an ankle sprain."

The Vikings, of course, say these claims are ridiculous.

"I just have to laugh," said Roger Jackson, the Viking scout who tracked Underwood through the NFL draft. "We did our homework. That's all I can say. If he fooled us, then he fooled everybody in the league."

Jackson said you should have seen the NFL men drooling over Underwood at a workout for scouts in January.

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