Jason Gwaltney: The rise and fall of a football legend
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Jason Gwaltney finished his high school football career at North Babylon as Long Island's all-time leading rusher. Fans compared him with the great Jim Brown, who played at Manhasset High and went on to become an icon of the sport.
As a high school senior, Gwaltney was a top-10 recruit and enthralled the nation's big-time college football programs. Coaches all but begged him to play for them. University of Southern California coach Pete Carroll called Gwaltney on the night USC won the national championship in January 2005 to offer him a chance to play for that football power, it was reported then.
"I'm for real," Gwaltney said in a packed North Babylon auditorium on the day in 2005 he announced to classmates that he was headed to West Virginia University on a football scholarship. "You'll see me in the NFL."
But Gwaltney's hopes for a professional career, which had been fading for years, all but ended last month when he was arrested with four other men on weapons and burglary charges in connection with a home invasion in Huntington. He pleaded not guilty. On Thursday, he was arraigned in State Supreme Court in Central Islip and was held on $75,000 bail. Gwaltney declined an interview request.
His attorney, Joseph Cozzo, told the judge at his arraignment that Gwaltney, 25, still hopes to take part in a scouting combine for the Jets in March.
But barring a dramatic turnaround, Gwaltney is likely to become another cautionary tale of unfulfilled and squandered athletic promise.
Gwaltney's half-brother, Scooter Berry, also went to WVU, where he played football before going on to a professional career. After the arrest, Berry said his family was "overcome with concern for the victims and for Jason's involvement in this incident . . . For those of you who may have a sibling, right or wrong, Jason is still my brother, and while I may not always love his choices or his actions, I will always love him."
Trouble following rules
Coaches at two of the three colleges where Gwaltney played say he did not have the discipline to push himself to succeed, either on the field or in the classroom, and that he had difficulty following routine team rules.
"The structure and discipline was hard for him initially," said former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, who now is head coach at the University of Arizona. "Even though you have a little more flexibility with freshmen in their growing-up stages, we weren't going to bend the rules for Jason or anyone else in the program. He had to conform to us, not the other way around."
Gwaltney's career at West Virginia lasted only six games, marred by academic problems and injuries, and he left the campus. He played in games at two smaller schools but never reclaimed his status as an elite player, and he never graduated.
In 2011, Gwaltney told the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail he believed he failed at West Virginia because he wasn't prepared to handle the responsibility of being a student and an athlete. "Talent-wise, there's no doubt I should have been playing for West Virginia in 2005," Gwaltney told the newspaper. "Mentally, I should not have been playing."
The coaches who once pursued him wondered where Gwaltney went wrong.
"He was an unbelievably talented football player, one of the most talented running backs that I had ever seen, and he had all the tools," said Herb Hand, the former West Virginia assistant coach who recruited Gwaltney. "It was very frustrating to watch things unravel."
Those who knew him in high school say they were not aware of Gwaltney ever using his star status to get out of academic work.
"I didn't see any of that, not at all," said former district superintendent John Micciche, who retired in 2005, the year Gwaltney graduated. "I saw him put in the extra time to pass the subjects he needed to pass."
Gwaltney holds Long Island career records for touchdowns (135), yards rushing (7,800), carries (948) and points (828). A big, powerful back, he averaged 200 rushing yards per game and 8.2 a carry. He is the first and only two-time winner of the Hansen Award, given to Suffolk's most outstanding football player, and was a three-time All-Long Island selection.
He gained 196 yards in a 35-0 victory over Centereach on Sept. 14, 2004, to become Suffolk's all-time leading rusher and scored three touchdowns. Six weeks later, he rushed for 406 yards and broke the state record with nine touchdowns -- despite playing only three quarters -- in a 61-14 win over Copiague.
A month after that, he scored five times, ran for 237 yards and helped his team win the Long Island Class II championship with a 43-14 win over Garden City.
On Feb. 2, 2005, Gwaltney signed to play for West Virginia and Berry joined him. Gwaltney played right away, but by late October, he had missed several weeks of practice with a sprained knee ligament. In six games, he ran for a total of 186 yards -- well below the goals he had set for himself as a freshman.
In November, Rodriguez said Gwaltney would not play until he addressed off-field issues, including extensive absences from class and rehab sessions for his knee. He would never again play for the Mountaineers.
"He came out for spring [practice] one day, never saw him after that," said former Nassau CC coach John Anselmo, who now is an assistant with the Buffalo Bills.
A year later, he re-enrolled at WVU and was eligible for spring practice. But he never went to practice, and in June 2007, he was arrested in Morgantown, W.Va., for underage consumption of alcohol, speeding and failure to produce a driver's license, records show.
In April 2008, he pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended or revoked license and was ordered to pay a $100 fine and $165.50 in court costs, records show.
When Gwaltney returned to WVU, Rodriguez said, the issues hadn't changed. "I still felt after the first time, 'Hey, he made a mistake, let's give him another shot,' " Rodriguez said. "But eventually there comes a point where, OK, you're not conforming, you're not doing what the rest of the guys do, so a decision has to be made."
Another missed chance
In fall 2008, still hoping to play college football, Gwaltney enrolled at C.W. Post on Long Island. He led Post in rushing with 709 yards in six games but was suspended twice because of practice issues and other unspecified reasons. In May 2009, Gwaltney left the team.
"He was certainly given the opportunity here to be part of a great program and institution," Post coach Bryan Collins said. "With being part of that, there's just consistency and rules and regulations that you need to adhere by to remain successful. When you don't adhere to them, then you can't be part of it."
The next month he enrolled at Division III Kean University in New Jersey. Gwaltney hurt his ankle in 2009 but returned in 2010 to set a school rushing record with 1,412 yards. He thought that performance might lead to a shot at the NFL in the 2011 draft. According to an NFL spokesman, Gwaltney worked out for pro scouts at Fordham University that March. On draft day, none of the 32 NFL teams selected him.
But Gwaltney still held on to the dream.
Chuck McGill, a sportswriter with the Charleston Daily Mail, said he received an out-of-the-blue text message from Gwaltney last March in which he said he was tempted to spend the next year training for the 2013 draft, to be held in late April.
"You think I should give it one more shot?" he asked McGill, who responded to the message but never heard back.
Hand, the coach who recruited Gwaltney for West Virginia, said: "I don't know how he got to where he got to the other night. I don't know what led him there."
Hand, who's now at Vanderbilt University, concluded, "He made the decision and he's got to pay the price, but I feel bad for the situation he's in and it's really a horrible waste."
With Steven Marcus