KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Dwayne Goodrich was determined for his story to have a different ending.
He’d give anything if he could go back and rewrite the part of it that will haunt him -- not to mention several other grieving families -- for the rest of their lives, but that’s not possible. The only thing he could do anything about was the way his story ended.
So last Saturday morning, with most of his family in town, Goodrich graduated from the University of Tennessee.
It was a momentous occasion for him, coming some 15 years after he made a play that will live in Tennessee football lore forever and coming up on three years after he was released from prison.
As a convicted felon, Goodrich was wrought with emotion.
“I got teary-eyed, for several different reasons,” said Goodrich, now 35. “But most of all because I can’t bring those young men back.”
The young men he speaks of are Joseph Wood and Demont Matthews, two of three men who were trying to rescue an unconscious man in a burning car on a Dallas interstate in 2003 when they were struck by Goodrich’s BMW and killed. A third man, Shuki Josef, had his left leg shattered.
Goodrich, then a third-year cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys, had been out drinking that night and going to clubs. He was convicted of criminally negligent homicide with a deadly weapon and failure to stop and render aid. He served six years in the Wallace Unit of the Texas Correctional System in Colorado City, Texas.
Not a day goes by that Goodrich doesn’t think about all three men, although the terms of his parole stipulate that he’s not allowed to contact the victims’ families.
“We don’t know why things happen and why I got a chance to go on with my life and Joseph Wood and Demont Matthews did not,” Goodrich said. “But I do know that I want to be the best man I can be going forward.
“The careless decision I made to take those young men’s lives ... I can’t take that back. They were out there trying to help others. I can try and do the same thing with the rest of my life, to make a positive difference. I don’t want to be known only as the Cowboys player that killed somebody. I want my story to have a different ending, and one of the first steps toward making a difference in people’s lives was going back and getting my degree.”
Goodrich was one of the heroes of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. He intercepted a pass intended for Florida State’s Peter Warrick and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl to help the Vols win their first national title in nearly 50 years.
But when he returned to campus in January 2013, he wasn’t sure how he would be received. He was readmitted as part of RAC (Renewing Academic Commitment), a program that allows Tennessee athletes to return to school and pays for their tuition, fees and books.
“A lot of people would have just given up and let what happened on that terrible night define them, but Dwayne wasn’t going to let that happen,” said Al Wilson, an All-American linebacker for the Vols and teammate of Goodrich’s on that 1998 national championship team.
“I can see the growth," Wilson adds. "The Dwayne I see now is not the same Dwayne at the time of the accident. A lot of people talk about changing their life after they have things like this happen. Dwayne isn’t just talking about it. He’s going out and doing it, trying to make a difference in other people’s lives. I’m proud of him, proud to know him and proud to call him a friend.”
Goodrich earned his degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. He had 54 hours to complete and went to school full time for the last year and a half. He moved in with former Tennessee teammate Fred White, who also returned to school and earned his degree.
Already active on the speaking circuit, Goodrich talks to teams and groups about choices and the consequences of those choices. Among the college teams he’s spoken to are Tennessee, LSU, Florida State and Virginia Tech, and he’s also spoken to the Cowboys and Lions in the NFL.
“I’d like to make that a career because I feel like I can touch people,” Goodrich said. “My story is real and uncut, and I don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m not going to preach to you, but I’m going to share my experience and hope it can help somebody else.”
Goodrich has been moved by all the people from his past who didn’t treat him like a pariah. In particular, he mentioned former Tennessee football administrators Brad Pendergrass and David Blackburn and current associate athletic director Carmen Tegano. Goodrich said Pendergrass wrote him twice monthly while he was in prison.
In addition, Goodrich said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer has stayed in contact along with a long list of teammates. Donna Thomas, a senior associate athletic director at Tennessee, was also instrumental in making sure Goodrich got a chance to return to school when some at the university were leery about allowing a convicted felon to take part in the RAC program.
“Some people crawl into a hole and never want to see anybody they were associated with before when they go through what Dwayne has,” Fulmer said. “Others drown themselves with alcohol and drugs, but Dwayne chose the correct path. Good for him.”
Through it all, Goodrich had some extra motivation: his two kids, 11-year-old Jillian and 8-year-old Dylan.
“I realize that they’re going to have people say to them, ‘Your dad is the one who killed those two men,’ and that’s something I have to live with,” Goodrich said. “But I also want them to be able to say, ‘Yes, he is, but guess what my dad has done since.’”