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Second chances

Junior college football rosters are full of comeback stories of players who ran into trouble or needed time off; some critics say that not everyone deserves another opportunity.

October 25, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

As soon as Mike Barrett got out of prison, he went to see a football coach but it didn't go so well. The coach asked straightaway: "How old are you?"

"Twenty-seven."

"You're not playing for this team."

Barrett still had the look, wide shoulders tapered to strong legs. A big jaw and chipped front tooth. If you squinted, you might see a ghost of the kid who had played almost every position while starring in high school a decade earlier.

So much had gone under the bridge since then. He'd been a construction worker who stayed close to football by coaching at his old school. After that, he'd just been a guy who missed the game.

Then came a night shortly before Christmas of 2000, one he says he still cannot remember clearly, that landed him behind bars for almost five years.

By the spring of last year, Barrett was ready to take care of unfinished business. Like so many young men, he looked to junior college football for a second chance.

After the first coach turned him down, friends suggested he call John Cicuto at Glendale College.

Cicuto is something of a football stereotype. Stocky and bespectacled, he talks about keeping kids in line and once backed it up by cutting an all-state running back for missing practice.

"Can you be here at one o'clock tomorrow?" he asked Barrett.

The next day they sat and talked for a while. Barrett had gotten himself in shape, running and doing push-ups because the prison didn't allow weights. But there was no kidding anyone -- he was a decade older, a decade slower.

Cicuto finally looked at him and said: "Do you want to come practice?"

*

Take almost any junior college team and you're likely to find comeback stories, guys hungry to play at a level that offers no scholarships. Maybe they ran into trouble or couldn't make grades in high school or just took a break from the game.

Guys such as Benjamin Soza, who had to support himself, working three years in a restaurant before enrolling at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Now he's playing safety and has three interceptions this season.

Gerald Washington caught only one pass in high school, then joined the Navy where he spent four years as a helicopter mechanic. He ended up at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga and earned a scholarship to play tight end at USC this fall.

At East Los Angeles College, Coach Reuben Ale has 12 players with criminal backgrounds, Ale, a probation officer during the day, insists it's not about winning.

"Everyone deserves a second chance and that's what the junior college experience is all about," Ale said. "We've got to keep our doors open to these kids."

Not everyone agrees.

Junior college football has produced disturbing headlines in recent years, players arrested on suspicion of murder, rape and burglary. Grossmont College in El Cajon won last year's state title playing part of the season with three team members who had been convicted in a felony beating.

Critics say some coaches overlook criminal behavior for the sake of athletic prowess. There is concern over lax enforcement of recruiting rules, schools accepting players without checking their backgrounds.

At Glendale, Cicuto has taken on his share of problem cases with the proviso they follow rules. Wear your uniform neatly, no excessive celebrating after touchdowns and, above all, go to class. While some have flunked out or been kicked off the team, more have succeeded.

That's why he agreed to meet with newly paroled Barrett in the spring of 2005.

"That's the beauty of junior college," he said. "A lot of these kids are trying to do the right thing."

*

There wasn't much of anything Barrett did wrong at Burbank Burroughs High in the mid-1990s, at least not on the field. Big and talented enough to play any position, he filled in wherever needed.

That meant leading the defense in tackles as a linebacker. Passing for 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns one season as a quarterback. Rushing for 225 yards and seven touchdowns in a game at running back. Coach Robert dos Remedios called him "the heart of our team."

But the all-star player never paid much attention to classwork and did not qualify for university.

After graduation, he took a job in computer programming, then switched to construction. Coaching part-time at Burroughs through the late 1990s, he quit only when his paying job grew too demanding.

On the night of Dec. 15, 2000, his company threw a Christmas party and Barrett recalls getting "really, really drunk." His Camaro sped through a red light and slammed into a van carrying a family.

A husband and wife were badly hurt, as was a mother-in-law. Two children escaped serious injury.

Barrett, who had never been in legal trouble before, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and causing bodily injury. The victims declined to attend his sentencing and, through prosecutors, requested he not contact them.

He wasn't looking for forgiveness -- he's still not sure he deserves that -- but realized he needed to do something other than wallow in guilt.

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