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Dry Run

College football: After spending time in jail, UCLA quarterback Paus will try to take it one game at a time without drinking.

September 06, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As UCLA begins the first week of a new season, Cory Paus begins his 11th week of sobriety.

The senior quarterback is abstaining from alcohol, confronting a problem that resulted in two convictions for driving under the influence the last three years, and two stints in jail in the last year.

"I realize I can't go out and drink, not even like an average 22-year-old," he said. "It's strange that I actually know how long I've been sober. The biggest reason I'm doing this is to guarantee that drinking won't have a negative effect on my ability to perform.

"Even a couple beers with friends, that's not going to help me win a game."

Quarterbacks typically meet for hours a day, to review plays, to study film, to decide when to meet next.

As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Paus sits through meetings that focus on 12 steps, not 11 players. He is approaching the season with a clear head.

A clean slate will be more difficult.

UCLA fans can't forget his most recent game, a humiliating 27-0 loss to USC last November in which he passed for a career-low 45 yards. It was the final and most disturbing of four consecutive losses after the Bruins opened 6-0.

Then came the sound bites of Paus under siege in the interview room at the Coliseum. He was peppered with questions not only about his dismal performance but also about the DUI convictions, which had come to light two days earlier in media reports.

Why had he failed to inform Coach Bob Toledo of the incidents? Did he really believe he could keep them secret, especially when he had been sentenced to jail time? How did he feel about letting down teammates already reeling from the suspension of tailback DeShaun Foster for committing an NCAA extra-benefits violation?

Paus, accustomed to standing tall under pressure, didn't flinch, answering every question and even shooing away a UCLA official who tried to pull him from the podium.

It was as if he believed that enduring a public flogging was part of his penance.

There was more to come. He spent four days in L.A. County jail in January, then did another 10-day jail term in Bridgeport, Calif., during spring break for violating his probation on the first DUI conviction--a wet reckless outside Mammoth Lakes two years ago.

"All I could do was sit there in a steel cell and think about my life," he said. "I know I am not a criminal, but I committed crimes that forced me to be there. It was a humbling experience.

"I saw things that go on, and the type of people who were in there, and understood how lucky I am to be in college and have special skills. It was a time for reflection."

He satisfied court-ordered community service hours by speaking at Boys and Girls Clubs and at a camp for children with muscular dystrophy. He started attending AA meetings, another condition of his probation.

Yet he continued to drink. Not every night. Not getting falling-down drunk. But still a few beers at home, a few beers at a bar, a few nights a week.

It's what everybody does, he believed. He'd been drinking since he was 16, growing up outside Chicago. He and his friends drank to keep warm on frigid winter nights, to cool off on sweltering summer afternoons.

When he first came to UCLA, there were nights of beery initiation with the resident star, quarterback Cade McNown. Beer was lubrication, and Paus bonded with teammates and lost that funny Midwest accent when his words were slurred.

He was required to attend AA meetings after his first conviction, but Paus wasn't open to the message. None of it applied to him, he told himself, not to the 19-year-old UCLA quarterback of the future who just partied like everyone else.

But last spring he found himself back at the meetings, again under a judge's orders. This time sitting in a circle with people gripping cups of black coffee gave Paus pause: Where had that future gone?

His career began with promise, seven starts as a redshirt freshman in 1999 before the season ended prematurely because of a broken collarbone against Washington. The next season he passed for 2,154 yards and 17 touchdowns, solid numbers considering he missed three games because of a separated shoulder and was knocked out of the Sun Bowl with another collarbone break.

Last season the problem was his right thumb, sprained in a summer workout when he foolishly stepped in at wide receiver "to show some guys some things." The injury nagged him all season and his production dipped to 1,740 yards and eight touchdowns.

He watched from the sideline as senior reserve Scott McEwan threw three touchdown passes in a season-ending victory over Arizona State.

A few months later he was stuck in idle again, sitting in an AA meeting listening to others relate their tales of woe. This time he opened his ears, and his heart.

"I'm not hiding, not faking it," he said. "The first time I didn't get anything out of it. This time it is much more beneficial."

Paus vows not to drink during the season, raising the question: What about the rest of his life?

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