On a hot, muggy day before Father's Day, a crowd of 4,700 gathers to watch the Philadelphia Barrage play the Long Island Lizards in a Major League Lacrosse game at the Mitchel Athletic complex in Uniondale, N.Y. Many are laxers; from pee wees, barely as big as their lacrosse sticks, to high schoolers, who showed what they could do for Empire Games officials and college coaches earlier in the day.
Sitting at midfield is Duke's interim lacrosse coach, 25-year-old Kevin Cassese. Next to him is Hofstra lacrosse coach John Danowski. Danowski has told Duke that he's interested in becoming the next head coach of its troubled lacrosse program. He is the only coach to publicly commit so far. He's also the father of star Blue Devil attack man Matt Danowski, a rising junior who, until the third and final indictment came down on May 15, was a suspect in the alleged sexual assault of an exotic dancer -- a crime that could mean up to 50 years in prison.
Both coaches are eager to see Barrage first-round draft choice Matt Zash, a local kid from nearby Massapequa. Approximately 20 relatives and fans are also there to see him play his third pro lacrosse game. Zash is one of the three Duke seniors who rented the house at 610 North Buchanan Blvd. in Durham, N.C., where the lacrosse players held a party that threw their lives into turmoil and resulted in the cancelation of their 2006 season. He, too, was a suspect: The accuser reportedly first claimed that one of her three assailants was named Matt.
On the field in Long Island, Zash is the second to last Philly player to have his name called. To those who are used to seeing him as No. 10 in blue and white, he looks odd jogging onto the field in a bright orange uniform, No. 44 on his back, in black socks and black cleats. But it's a lacrosse uniform, and Zash is back on the field. He's ready to play and ready to talk. Just a few weeks ago, that didn't seem possible.
"To me, rape is the most hated crime there is, and to be accused of that is completely horrifying," Zash says. "But nobody wanted to hear the truth. They wanted us to admit something that did not happen, and they wanted to see us pay for it."
It's two days before the Barrage-Lizards game, Zash is sitting on a small deck in the backyard of his parent's three-bedroom split level. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he's a typical college kid home for the summer. But not much in recent days has been typical. It has been almost three months since the Duke lacrosse story exploded across the nation's newspapers and television screens, turning Zash's Duke career and those of his 46 teammates into a referendum on sexual politics, race relations and underage drinking on college campuses.
Zash found himself in a world he did not recognize. People he thought liked and respected him were whispering as he walked by, or far worse. His university canceled the final season of his college career and shut down the program for the remainder of the season. The coach he admired greatly lost his job, and three teammates he considered brothers were taken to court in handcuffs. The Duke lacrosse season had turned into a morality play, with Zash and his teammates the major characters, all of it being played on the national stage.
"The way the media portrayed this pretty much determined whether we could go to class," he says. "If there were favorable media, maybe we wouldn't be harassed. It was tough to be a Duke lacrosse player on campus and all of a sudden a mob of students crowd around and start yelling at you to step forward and tell what happened that night.
"Maybe I was young and naive, but I thought that nothing bad is ever going to happen. The worst was when my name and home address was posted on a Web site, along with my picture and my parents' name, calling for vigilante justice. That really worried me. My parents live in that house and they were distraught. That's when it really hit me that anything could happen."
For almost four years, Zash loved the Duke experience. He loved the school, loved being an All-American on an elite team, loved his teammates. The Blue Devils often lived up to the "work hard, play hard" rep of Duke's student body. Maybe a little too often. Few on the team would argue they knew how to throw a great party. At Duke, that's a bar set fairly high.
And maybe the team's group mentality was intimidating -- they'd often show up to parties and games en masse, a bunch of big, loud guys in lacrosse jerseys, all sharing the same inside jokes. If it was intimidating, they were largely unaware, and maybe that turned out to be a problem, too. When they discovered there were students and faculty harboring resentment, they were stunned. Duke, like any university, is a compilation of many subcultures, and the lacrosse players felt comfortable within theirs.
In many ways, they were not unlike a fraternity. Greek life is big at Duke, dominating much of the social scene, and like at most college campuses, drinking is the dominant social activity. An average of more than 1,700 college students die annually of alcohol-related activities, and almost 100,000 college women report being victims of alcohol-related sexual assault. When media accounts began to circulate about the alleged hard-drinking ways of the Duke lacrosse team -- 15 of 47 players had been charged with misdemeanors in unrelated incidents prior to the March 13 party, mostly involving violations for noise, underage drinking and urinating in public -- they were taken as an indication that the team also was capable of a brutal assault.
Then came reports of racial slurs heard after the party. On advice of lawyers, the players remained silent. An earlier assault charge involving one of the players from an incident in Washington, D.C. became public. And then an e-mail written by a lacrosse player, with offensive dialogue apparently coming from the movie "American Psycho," was released to the press. The tipping point in the case against the team had been reached. "There were people who disregarded the fact that you are innocent until proven guilty," he says. "It's an obvious statement, but there was a rush to judgment."
Zash is still being judged but is no longer under suspicion. When Durham district attorney Mike Nifong indicted his roommate, David Evans, in mid-May, Nifong also removed the possibility of charging others with aiding and abetting, which in the state of North Carolina carries the same possible penalty: 50 years in prison. The team remains close, he says, and he talks often to his teammates, including the three under indictment -- Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.
Sitting in his backyard, Zash walks through the early stages of how his final season turned into a disaster. The party was on a Monday, the first night of spring break at Duke. Two nights later, the team was out bowling when coach Mike Pressler pulled Zash outside along with his two roommates, Dan Flannery and David Evans. The university's dean of students, Sue Wasiolek, had just informed Pressler that there had been an incident at his captains' house.
"All I could do was look him in the eye and tell him that it did not happen," Zash says, adding that he got on the phone and told the same to Wasiolek. "Coach took it seriously and said there would be consequences. But we had the impression that it was not going to be taken seriously by the police because of the credibility of the person involved. Apparently, we were wrong."
Zash was asleep early the next night when the Durham police knocked on his door. "I called out to David that his food was here," he recalls, figuring that his roommate, who was also sleeping after practice, had ordered in. When Evans yelled over that he hadn't ordered food, Zash got up and shuffled into the living room. By then, he says, there were about eight policemen already in the house. "They told me to get my hands up, and they frisked me immediately. They frisked the couch, they put me on the couch, they put Dave on the couch, we weren't allowed to move.
"It was made clear that we were not under arrest. They said our house was being searched as a crime scene. They asked if anyone wanted to go down to the station. I said, 'Yeah, I will.' Dave followed suit. And when Danny came home, he did the same thing. We gave our statements, gave the DNA and left at 4 a.m. the next morning. When we got back to house, it had been flipped upside down."
At that point, Zash says he believed the police were just following procedure and he was just was part of an investigation. "We'd done nothing wrong," he says, "so we had nothing to worry about." But that was before Nifong went on national television to say the lacrosse team was hiding something, and before protests forced Zash and his roommates to live in hotels. One of Duke's professors publicly demanded that the university dismantle the lacrosse program. Four weeks later, a grand jury was asked to decide whether any of the Duke lacrosse players should be indicted for first degree forcible rape, first degree sexual assault and kidnapping.
"I'll never forget what my lawyer told me," Zash says. "She said, 'I'm not going to sugarcoat this for you. You could go to jail for 25 years.' "
"We all have dominant personalities and we shouldn't be blamed for that," Dan Flannery says. "But we're not egomaniacs. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Flannery leans forward in his seat in what passes for a suite at the Mitchel Athletic complex, watching his former roommate's new team fall behind Long Island 8-0. Flannery, who called the escort service and hired the women to dance at the party, has driven over from his parents' home in nearby Garden City to catch up with his friend. His father and girlfriend are waiting for him in the stands, along with two other teammates.
Where Zash is open and smiles often, Flannery is more closed and cautious. An All-America attack man, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Flannery was drafted in the sixth round by the MLL's Chicago Machine. He hasn't played yet, partly because of a shoulder injury he suffered this season in a game against Maryland. There were rumors that all the Duke seniors had their job offers revoked in the wake of the rape investigation. Flannery says he has a position with a Manhattan investment bank that has agreed to give him a year off to play ball, take an accounting course and recover. "I want to digest what happened this year," he says.
The strain of the past three months shows on Flannery, who often pauses and takes a deep breath before providing details of his experience. He finishes many of his sentences shaking his head slowly and soulfully, his pale blue eyes narrowing. He talks about giving DNA for the first time, on his 22nd birthday. He talks about how at first no one really thought the case would get this big, maybe except his and Evans' mothers. And how he took for granted that he would be able to play lacrosse forever.
It was supposed to be a great last year. The team was loaded, school was going well and Flannery looked forward to living off campus. Evans had scouted out the Trinity Park neighborhood and settled on the ramshackled, white, single-story house, just across the street from campus. "It was perfect," Flannery says. "That's where you wanted to be. Three bedrooms, backyard, a big living room. We had a big-screen TV that Dave's uncle was good enough to give us."
They held parties, slept in when they could and spent hours playing Xbox and Nintendo 64. Duke students can live off campus only in their senior year, so the house became an unofficial team hangout. "We had so much fun there," Flannery says.
Flannery was at a professor's house for a barbecue when the police entered their house and took his roommates downtown. He rode in a squad car to join them, giving his statement and a DNA sample, and offered to take a polygraph test. Within a week, the school canceled two games, the first just as they were going to take the field against Georgetown. Eleven days later, he was sitting in the meeting room in the Murray Center, which houses the lacrosse and soccer teams, listening to Pressler address the team for the last time as Duke's head coach.
"He walked in and told us that he been forced out. He was devastated," Flannery says. "Coach is one of the best people I ever met, and he didn't do anything wrong. Everyone in the room just broke down and cried. It was the last time I was going to play for him, the last time I was going to play with guys like Matt Danowski. I just came home that weekend, I couldn't stay down there. We all felt abandoned."
Down on the field in Long Island, his friend's team is beginning to mount a comeback. He leans forward to watch, trying to ignore the booming voice of the game announcer over the stadium loudspeaker. "This was going to be our year," he says, almost to himself. "We were going to do something really special."
"No. 21, he's one of mine, and No. 5, he's one of mine, too," John Danowski says, looking down from his seat at midfield as the undefeated Barrage overtake the local team. "Five of my guys are down on the field today."
Danowski is 52 years old, a big man with a booming voice who ends many of his phone conversations with "peace." He's lived most of his life on Long Island. His father, Ed Danowski, played quarterback for the New York Giants in the late '30s and later coached football at a junior high school in East Meadow, N.Y. John Danowski has spent the past 21 years at Hofstra, building the private liberal art school's lacrosse team into one of the nation's better programs. His son Matt was a three-sport star in high school, and when it came time to choose where he'd go to college and play lacrosse, it came down to Duke and Hofstra. John told him to head south and says he still doesn't regret the decision.
He was at the Duke-Cornell game on March 21 and heard about the team's troubles the next day. Like any of the parents, he believed his son when he told him nothing happened. Like any of the parents, he waited to hear if his son would be indicted, wondering where he'd get the money for bail. Like any of the parents, he was barraged by calls from the media to explain the unexplainable down in Durham.
He forced himself to concentrate on what was fast becoming Hofstra's best season. When the Duke season was canceled, Hofstra moved up one spot to No. 2 in the country (Duke had been ranked No. 2). His team won a record-tying 17 games, falling in the NCAA quarterfinals to a hot University of Massachusetts team. Now he's scouting players for next season and wondering if he'll be in New York or Durham.
He told his boss at Hofstra of his interest in the Duke job soon after the program was reinstated on June 5. "No reason to play games," he says. Duke says it hopes to name a new head coach by Aug. 1. Danowski is intrigued about coaching his son in his final season and recognizes all the resources that Duke has to offer. And the challenges. "I think being part of the healing down there would be really cool," he says.
The man his son currently calls Coach is sitting to Danowski's left. The day Duke announced the return of lacrosse, Kevin Cassese says he received 20 e-mails and 10 calls from kids saying they wanted to play in Durham. The next day he sat behind a small table in the Cameron Indoor Stadium media room as Duke athletic director Joe Alleva introduced the former Duke star and assistant coach as the Blue Devils' interim coach. "Today, Duke lacrosse is back," Cassese said that day.
He would take no questions about the alleged sexual assault, telling the media he had just one thing to say about it. "Based on what I know of David's character, I find it impossible to believe he could have done the things he's being accused of," said Cassese, a teammate of Evans three years ago. "While I never had the opportunity to play alongside Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, I will -- as with David Evans -- support them until there is evidence and a court decision that leads me to conclude otherwise."
Since that day, he's been on the phone and on the road, working on schedules, scouting and trying to repair the damage. In one five-day stretch he was in Greenwich, Conn., with Duke recruit Parker McKee, and then drove to Duxbury, Mass., to watch another recruit, Max Quinzani, play in the state title game. He was on a plane the next day to scout in Syracuse, N.Y., played an MLL game (for the Rochester Rattlers) in Baltimore after that, then flew up to Long Island for the Empire Games tryouts.
He'll leave for South Carolina the next day for a summer camp he runs. But now he is watching Zash, his former teammate, whom he's hired to work at another camp he runs in eastern Long Island. Zash's team has come all the way back and now leads 13-12.
"Matt's a real workhorse, one of the best," Cassese says. On his right wrist is a blue band. The inscription reads: Innocent 6, 13, 45. They are the numbers of the three players under indictment. "One of the parents had the idea to sell these to raise money for a defense fund," he says. "There have already been some healthy donations."
His third game over, Matt Zash walks along the track around the fence and over to the stands, where his parents, Rich and Nina, his girlfriend Courtney and his relatives wait for him. "He's wearing an orange uniform. We would have liked to have seen him in blue, but at least he is back on the field," Rich says. Rich then proceeds to break down the game, a 13-12 win, with his son, who stands dripping with sweat and smiling. Nina says she was tempted to yell, "Go, Duke" during the game, and talks about a planned trip down to Durham for the next court date for the three indicted players on June 22.
Concerned about the local reaction when Seligman appeared in court May 18 -- especially the shouts of "Dead Man Walking" -- many Duke lacrosse parents had planned to come to the Durham courthouse in support. Those plans were canceled when they learned the players would not have to appear. Most of the parents stay in touch through e-mails and phone calls, often exchanging links to stories updating the case. Lately, they've been heartened by details that have emerged in support of the players and media challenges of Nifong's case. Nifong has refused to comment since early in the case, but he sent an e-mail to Newsweek, writing, "None of the 'facts' I know at this time, indeed, none of the evidence I have seen from any source, has changed the opinion that I expressed initially."
Zash tells his parents he'll see them back home and heads to the locker room, stopping to sign autographs for kids crowding the entrance gate. The team wants its players to be fan-friendly and hands them Sharpies after each game. Zash scribbles "Matt Z 44" on balls, sticks and T-shirts until no autograph-seeking fans are left.
Inside the locker room, he talks about his future. He wants to make lacrosse his career, so he'll work for Cassese, give private lessons, prepare for a master's degree in education, and try to lock down a grad assistant job at a local college. "I want to coach on the college level," he says. "This experience has convinced me that is what I want to do."
He was the sixth pick in the recent MLL draft, and between playing, camps and equipment endorsements, he can make upward of six figures. He's hired Lee Southren, a former NFL agent, in part to help remove the taint of what happened down in Durham. Even if the three players are proven innocent -- "when they're proven innocent," Zash says -- or the case is dropped, he understands that what happened will never be completely forgotten. He talked about a company out West that was ready to hire him but then called and canceled right after the news broke.
"They said maybe they'd be interested in three years," Zash says. "No matter what happens, this is always going to be with us. The damage is done."
Jon Pessah is a deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.