In the fall of 1999, nearly every program in the country wanted Sammy "The Bull" Maldonado. What coach worth his whistle wouldn't? He was a Parade All-America with 99 touchdowns and a then-state-record 7,581 rushing yards for Harrison (N.Y.) High. He had to sift through 3,000 recruiting letters-all of which still rest in a U.S. Postal Service bin in the family's basement-before narrowing his list to Ohio State and Syracuse.
On a fall Friday morning, Buckeyes coach John Cooper sat down with Sammy's family in their living room. Rafael Maldonado, a street-tough native of Puerto Rico who'd gone from washing cars to owning a chunk of 55 New York City parking garages, didn't pull any punches. "You're getting a very good football player," he said. "But you're also getting a pain in the ass."
Cooper belly-laughed; he knew the type. Sammy, a B-student with 960 SATs, was a good kid, if a bit aloof. That didn't deter Cooper. A few weeks later, there was a press conference at Harrison High. Maldonado was going to become a Buckeye.
That fall, Maldonado lugged his first handoff seven yards off tackle for a touchdown against Penn State. He would rush 22 times for 50 yards as a freshman behind senior Derek Combs and junior Jonathan Wells. Buckeye fans chanted for The Bull whenever he saw the field, and even pestered his parents for autographs after games.
But after another loss to Michigan, Ohio State fired Cooper, and Jim Tressel-architect of four national titles at Division I-AA Youngstown State-took over. Within a year, Maldonado would be roadkill, unwanted by the team he played for and unable to play for anyone else.
Despite a solid spring and summer that got him up to No. 2 on the depth chart before that next season, Maldonado was on the sideline when August camp opened. He was asked only to participate in sprints at the end of practice, while Wells, now the starter, and freshman Lydell Ross, one of Tressel's first recruits, shared the running back duties. "I didn't know what I'd done wrong," Maldonado says. "I think Tressel wanted the guys he recruited, not the players who were already there."
Sammy's mother, Nereyda, came to campus in September and videotaped two weeks of her son standing with his arms crossed during all the drills. Then Rafael flew to Columbus for a face-to-face with the coaches. He says when he asked Tressel why his boy wasn't playing, the coach told him Sammy made too many mistakes in practice. Pressed again, Tressel insisted the kid sat because of blunders.
"You're a liar," Rafael shot back. "I've seen two weeks of tape, and Sammy hasn't even put on his helmet."
The Maldonados say that Tressel looked stunned when running backs coach Tim Spencer (now with the Chicago Bears) confirmed that Nereyda had attended practice, and they add that the head coach quickly shuffled them out of his office. Sammy barely spoke with the staff the rest of the season; he finished with 39 carries for 168 yards. "I was just some body," he says, "basically a walk-on." (Ohio State has declined to discuss anything about Maldonado.)
He was at a loss. A superstar talent from a privileged upbringing, Sammy wasn't used to not getting what he wanted. On a bleak February day in 2002, increasingly worried about a son who seemed defeated, Rafael Maldonado called Sammy's cell phone. Sammy had slipped into his own world, most days rarely leaving the couch in his off-campus apartment. He got up in time to watch Jerry Springer at 11, then played video games the rest of the day. Football was a past life. Sammy answered his phone but told his dad he couldn't talk because he was in class. "No you're not," Rafael said. "You're on the couch beside your roommates."
A minute later, Rafael was barging into the apartment. He shut off the PlayStation and chased the other guys out. Then he presented two options to his son: find a D1-AA program, where he could play right away, or transfer to Maryland, where Rafael could try to mine connections with coach Ralph Friedgen, a Harrison native. "I don't know," Sammy told his dad. "You decide."
Rafael asked Cooper, who'd become a family friend since his dismissal, where he should steer Sammy. "Your son is a Division I football player," Cooper said. "Period."
So the Maldonados asked Harrison's coach, Art Troilo Jr., to talk with Friedgen. "He's the best player I've ever had," Troilo told the Maryland coaches. "And a damn good kid." Friedgen wasn't sold. "I have enough headaches," he said to the Maldonados over the phone. "I don't need your son."
But the family and Troilo kept chipping away. Finally, Friedgen told Sammy he could come to College Park.
Then Maryland got a look at his transcript.
IN SIX academic quarters at Ohio State, Maldonado had earned a decent number of credits (his 57 were the equivalent of about 40 at a semester school). He compiled a 2.3 GPA and had never lost his eligibility. But his coursework included four credits for playing football, three for Tressel's Coaching Football class, 10 for remedial reading, 10 for remedial math and three for Issues Affecting Student Athletes. Six other credits wouldn't transfer because he earned D's in two classes. Maldonado couldn't understand how he had earned only 17 transferable credits in two years. Even today the number pinballs around his head. "What kind of degree can you get from Ohio State if none of your classes count at other colleges?" he asks.
Not much of one, according to The Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog. Members of the organization refer to schools like Ohio State as "football factories" that offer soft courses designed to keep players on the field. "The purpose isn't to educate and graduate," says Drake Group associate director David Ridpath. "They're eligibility mills."
Maldonado figured that Friedgen wouldn't even offer a spot once the coach got wind of his transcript. The player needed to crunch the equivalent of 43 semester credits into one year just to become eligible at Maryland. He underestimated Friedgen, but just barely.
When the Maldonados flew to College Park for their first meeting with the skeptical coach, he delivered an ultimatum the family now calls Friedgen's Ten Commandments, establishing the uphill path Sammy had to travel. "We'll take you on a conditional basis," he said. "You have to pay your own way, you will go to class, you will go to study halls and you will get good grades. Do it my way or get lost."
The coach told Sammy he had to get B's in six credits of summer coursework. If he was late, or missed one class or a study hall, there would be no scholarship. Assistant coach Dave Sollazzo, another Harrison native, repositioned his desk to overlook the steps outside Byrd Stadium. Every morning at 7, Maldonado climbed down the 50 steps from the street above, gave a tired wave, then wobbled over to study hall. Sammy got his B's-and his scholarship.
Friedgen was impressed. He had seen his share of transfers over the years, but none with such a barren transcript. "It wasn't his fault," the coach says. "They had him in a bunch of classes that he shouldn't have been in."
Maldonado says the curriculum was not his idea. "Over there, they just put you in classes," he says. "I let them take care of my schedule.
I wish I wouldn't have."
But even after Maldonado worked his soft body and softer academic record into shape, Friedgen still regarded him as little more than a favor. Relegating him to the scout team, the coach decided to make Sammy despise him, to keep The Bull on edge. He made sure Maldonado became well acquainted with Maryland's Dawn Patrol, in which every slip-up, on or off the field, was rewarded with a 6 a.m. exploration of Byrd's lower bowl. "Twenty-eight aisles, 28 steps each," Maldonado moans.
After one unfocused midseason practice, Friedgen called Sammy into his office. "You're not good enough to play here; go to UMass," he said, dropping his eyes to some paperwork on his desk. A seething Maldonado stomped to the doorway before spinning around. "I'm not a I-AA player," he spit out. Friedgen didn't look up. "Talk doesn't go far with me," he said. "Show me, don't tell me."
Maldonado ran hard the next day, and the day after that, and damn near every day since. "I still get mad about it," he says. "I love the guy, but I look at Coach Friedgen and I'm afraid."
That's how Friedgen wants it. Maldonado surged to third on the depth chart, but when he bombed his first round of exams, Friedgen reverted to his drill-sergeant pose, suspending him for two games in the middle of the 2003 season. In the three games after the benching, Maldonado made the most of his 13 carries, rushing for 91 yards. But on the final play of the first quarter against North Carolina, he took a pitch, cut inside and felt his left knee give. He had torn his ACL.
Sammy's parents, worried that their son's confidence would sink again, checked him into a hotel after the surgery and took turns fetching ice and pain-killers. After a few days, Friedgen showed up with his wife, Gloria. She offered home-baked brownies, Sammy's favorite, and some encouraging words. But her bad-cop husband figured this wasn't the time to stop riding The Bull. "I told him he was a baby and he should suck it up," Friedgen says.
Sammy stewed for the rest of the week. The next Monday, though, he hobbled to a morning study hall in the mid-November chill before heading to class and practice in the afternoon.
He kept up with his school work and hammered rehab every day. This past summer he dropped eight pounds-he's down to 227-and opened preseason camp second on the depth chart behind Josh Allen. In the season opener against Northern Illinois, Maldonado churned out 84 yards and scored Maryland's first touchdown of the year. He got his first 100-yard game a week later against Temple. After nine games, he leads the Terps with 486 rushing yards and five scores. Most impressive, he's on target to graduate in May.
Maldonado doesn't need to read the stat sheet to know how far he's come. Walking to the football offices earlier this fall, he heard a bellow from across the street. "Yo, Bull!" He looked over to see a student wave and raise a fist in the air. Sammy was stopped in his tracks. "That felt good," he says. "Showed me people know what I went through."
Friedgen called him into his office the week before the Terps faced No.7 West Virginia in October. "Because I've been ripping you for three years now, I figured I'd tell you how good you've been doing," the coach said. "I want you to be a captain this week." Maldonado could barely speak; after the way that Friedgen always treated him, praise seemed too good to be true. He mumbled a meek "thank you" and began to rise from his chair.
But Friedgen wasn't through. "You gotta promise me one thing," he continued. "I don't want to hear that some NFL agent came in after the season and fed you a line of BS about getting your degree later on. Get it done." Maldonado stalked out, motivated all over again to show his coach what he could do.
Friedgen didn't look up, but he did smile.