Hood grateful for second chance

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Daniel Hood, Tennessee's newest and most controversial football signee, wishes he could take it all back and somehow undo the unspeakable harm inflicted that fateful night of Aug. 11, 2003.

He wishes he had acted decisively and courageously.

He wishes he had done something, anything. That is, anything other than freezing.

Only 13 at the time, Hood didn't know how to react and stood there and watched in his bedroom as a 17-year-old friend, Robert Sanico, raped Hood's 14-year-old first cousin with a foreign object after she had been tied up with duct tape by both Sanico and Hood, according to the victim's testimony.

"I witnessed a brutal rape that I'm guilty of not being able to stop," said Hood, his eyes ripe with remorse. "I didn't participate in it, but I was in the room. I was there … and I didn't stop it."

Hood was tried as a juvenile and found to be delinquent by the Sullivan County (Tenn.) Juvenile Court and placed into the custody of the Department of Children's Services (DCS). Hood appealed to a trial court, which after a jury trial found him to be delinquent on the basis that he had committed the adult offenses of kidnapping and aggravated rape.

"There's no getting around what I did. It was terrible," said Hood, who signed scholarship papers with the Vols on Tuesday. "I've not lived a life merited to be a scholarship athlete at UT. Luckily, through Christ, I've become someone different from who I was, and who I am now is not who I was when that happened.

"The only thing I ask is that people give me a chance to prove who I've become."

After months of research, interviews and background checks, Tennessee officials determined that Hood, 19, deserved a second chance. He was notified by mail Tuesday that he had been admitted to the university, and he signed his scholarship papers later that day.

An offensive lineman/tight end, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Hood has been attending Catholic High School in Knoxville since he was a sophomore. His first year there, he lived in a group home in Knoxville and was transported to and from high school in a van.

The last two years, Hood has lived by himself in Knoxville in a townhouse paid for by his father, who is a bail bondsman and bounty hunter in the Kingsport, Tenn., area. Otherwise, Hood would have been forced to make the 200-mile round-trip commute every day from Kingsport.

Prior to enrolling at Catholic, he was required to complete a rehabilitation program at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Dandridge, Tenn., which is a facility for juvenile delinquents.

His days there were filled with therapy, counseling and work around the center. He hadn't played any organized sports for three years when he showed up at Catholic, but he quickly blossomed and was named the Class 3A Mr. Football in the state of Tennessee this past season while leading Catholic to its first state championship.

"We didn't go about this lightly," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "We spent a lot of time researching the issue and talking to a lot of people who are well-respected in the community. Everyone spoke very highly of Daniel. He's a very bright young man who wants to move past this incident and be a good representative for the team, the university and the community."

One of the things that sold Tennessee on the idea of taking Hood was how many people at his high school went to bat for him, including an impassioned plea by school principal Dickie Sompayrac. Hood, a member of the National Honor Society, carries a 3.8 GPA and scored a 27 on his ACT.

"If we didn't feel as strongly about Daniel as we do, we wouldn't put our school's reputation on the line, and we do that without hesitation in this particular case," Sompayrac said. "I'm really happy for him because it's been a journey, and that journey is going to continue for him. He will have to deal with the naysayers probably throughout his career, but he's an unbelievable kid.

"We certainly don't want to minimize the terrible incident he was a part of six years ago. But it was six years ago. We would have never taken a chance on Daniel had it not been for all the character references he received and everybody that came forward. He's exceeded all of our expectations here at Catholic and has been a model student. The support he's received within our community is really unprecedented."

Tiffany Carpenter, Tennessee's director of public relations for athletics, said judges, attorneys and several others who had come into contact with Hood during his time in the juvenile corrections system were consulted as part of Tennessee's research on whether to take Hood.

"Everybody we talked to had glowing things to say about him and felt like he deserved this opportunity," Carpenter said. "Catholic gave him a second chance, and he had a flawless record at Catholic. He knows he's on a very short leash here, but I'm not sure he ever even received a demerit at Catholic."

One of the clinchers for Tennessee, according to Carpenter, was that Hood's cousin, the victim of the rape, sent a letter on behalf of Hood and asked that he be given a chance.

Sompayrac said he also spoke to the victim before Hood was allowed to enroll at Catholic.

In her letter, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.com, the victim writes of Hood: "He is becoming a very mature adult and will be a great asset to any college and to society as a whole. If anyone has any concerns about our relationship or Daniel's remorse about the situation, feel free to contact me."

At one point, there was a court order barring Hood from having any contact with her. But that order is no longer in effect, and the two have spoken and visited with each other in the last couple of years.

"I feel terrible for her that all this is going to come back out again, that she's going to have to relive it," Hood said. "But when she told me that she supported me, I felt like that was the green light for me to pursue my dream."

Besieged with several media requests Tuesday when news broke that he had signed with Tennessee, Hood did his best to meet the tough questions head-on.

He knows there will be massive scrutiny and that his every move will be watched. He also knows that Tennessee will catch some grief for taking him.

"I've never tried to avoid it," Hood said. "In a way, I've tried to carry it with me as a reminder. The day I start to put it away is the day I do much worse to my cousin and what happened to her that awful night."

Hood says he has not spoken with Sanico since the trial. Sanico was tried as an adult and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. He and the victim were dating at the time of the rape.

One of the reasons Hood thinks he froze that night was because he'd always heard that Sanico was part of a gang and carried a gun.

"I thought if I did something, like going and waking up my father [who was sleeping in another room], that [Sanico] might go on a killing spree and kill us all," Hood said. "I know that's not logical thinking, but I was only 13 and thinking the worst-case scenario."

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said Hood shouldn't have to keep paying for a "terrible mistake" he made as such a young kid.

"He's very remorseful and has worked very hard to turn his life around," Hamilton said. "Catholic High gave him a second chance, and he lived up to expectations. We feel like he has earned the chance to continue that."

Hood said he was receiving serious interest from 27 schools at one point during his senior season. But as schools began to learn about his troubled past, that interest waned considerably. He said Ole Miss and Georgia Tech remained interested if he would agree to pay his own way during the fall semester and go on scholarship in January. Auburn was also offering a full ride, according to Hood.

Other schools just stopped calling, and some were up front with Hood that their administration simply wouldn't allow them to sign him given his past. He said South Carolina was one of those.

"I can remember when schools first started cutting ties with him," Sompayrac recounted. "I felt badly for him and thought maybe that I needed to give him a pat on the back. But he just said, 'You know what? The way I look at it is that every time a door closes, I believe another door opens somewhere along the way.'

"I think that tells you a lot about Daniel's perspective."

Hood There's no getting around what I did. It was terrible. I've not lived a life merited to be a scholarship athlete at UT. Luckily, through Christ, I've become someone different from who I was, and who I am now is not who I was when that happened.

-- Daniel Hood

The door that eventually opened was the one Hood had hoped would open all along. Having grown up in nearby Kingsport, he was orange to the core and had been a Vols' fan as long as he could remember.

The former Tennessee staff had been recruiting him. But last May, one of Phillip Fulmer's assistants called Hood's dad and told him that they were no longer pursuing his son at that point.

"I took it as they were dropping me," said Hood, who had planned to commit to the Vols that next week.

When Kiffin came aboard, he contacted Hood a little more than two weeks after taking the job and arranged a meeting.

"He didn't promise me that they were going to take me. He just said that there were a lot of layers they had to go through," Hood said. "But I think it says a lot about his character that he would come in during his first year and say, 'I believe in this kid. I want to give him a shot.'

"Even then, I sort of thought it was dead in the water. But then I met with Mike Hamilton in late February and things started to kick up again. You go through that whole process thinking you might not get an offer from anybody and then Tennessee comes through with an offer.

"It's like, 'Wow.'"

Hood plans to enroll in the first session of summer school and is already pinching himself thinking about what playing in that first game in Neyland Stadium will be like.

He has earmarked the tickets he receives for that Sept. 5 opener against Western Kentucky for his cousin, who is now married, has a child, and lives in Virginia.

"The first tickets I get are hers," Hood said. "Without her support, I wouldn't have this second chance. It's opened a lot of doors for me.

"She could have hated me for the rest of her life, but she's chosen to forgive me and we've been able to become family again."

Chris Low is the SEC blogger for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.