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Donté Stallworth, once an NFL problem, forges a new path

John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- It's a Thursday night early in the NFL training camp season, but Donté Stallworth isn't focused on the minutiae of position battles happening on hot football fields from Seattle to Tampa Bay. Instead, he's planning to watch every minute of the Republican primary debates. It's the kind of TV that plenty of sane citizens will go out of their way to avoid, but the 34-year-old former NFL player is in his element.

Stallworth is fresh off a fellowship as a foreign affairs reporter for The Huffington Post, an exercise in reinvention for a man whose football career is over, and who hopes to move beyond the damage he did to another family and his own name back in 2009. In 2014, after finishing a coaching internship with the Ravens during training camp, Stallworth packed up and left Miami, moving to Washington. For six months, he attended national security conferences for the website, pitched stories and wrote them.

After a decade in football, it was a bit like learning how to draw with his other hand; Stallworth had never written an opening paragraph or interviewed a senator, and here he was crafting in-depth features like this one on then-freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

"I eventually do want to be covering these issues some how some way," Stallworth said. "What platform I don't know, but that is the endgame."

Huffington Post senior politics editor Sam Stein worked closely with Stallworth and said the former wide receiver has the innate curiosity and tenacity of a journalist. Stein recalled, "He would wait out [Texas Senator] Ted Cruz and burst to the front of the line to ask a question."

"People wondered why we brought someone like Donté on board," Stein said. "They thought it was a vanity hire. But it's good to bring in people who have an outside perspective. ... Donté allowed us to break that [bubble] up a little. He hadn't experienced journalism in the same way."

Stallworth didn't grow up with this interest in politics and foreign affairs -- in fact, the subject was briefly the bane of his existence. When Stallworth was in grade school, he failed a current events class. He says it probably had something to do with the fact that he hated speaking in front of people, to the point that he refused to do it. Now his life pretty much centers around politics, and standing up in front of classes to discuss the worst moment of his life, when he killed Mario Reyes while driving drunk.

A night that defines him

"You rarely understand the impact that you have when something like that happens," Stallworth said. "In my case Mr. Reyes lost his life, and that trickled down to his family, his daughter, his ex-wife and his brothers and sisters, coworkers, friends. And then on my end it was all of my family, my teammates, the NFL and then obviously me personally. So when you're making decisions you're not thinking how many people can be affected by a decision that you make."

Even as he moves forward, Stallworth remains forever tethered to the mistakes. The juxtaposition is both familiar and uncomfortable -- complicated like the man himself.

That night is always going to be the first thing associated with him. It was 2009, and early one morning after a night out in Miami, Stallworth hit and killed Reyes, who was rushing across the street to catch a bus. He'd never wanted to be thought of as just a football player, and at that moment he became that football player. In a league in which icons sometimes do horrible things, Stallworth was the first to be suspended for a full season after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter.

This was an example of the iron fist of Roger Goodell and the NFL, before people realized what that meant. Stallworth was the predecessor in many ways to Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson. He had played just one season of a seven-year, $35 million contract with the Browns when it all came to an end with the suspension. But unlike recent players, Stallworth didn't want to fight either the charges or the NFL suspension, so he served 30 days and sat out of the game for a year. He played three more seasons (2010-12), but caught just 25 passes. In 2013, his NFL career ended.

At this point, Stallworth might offer a blueprint for rebuilding.

An unlikely advocate

"I don't know if you ever know for sure [someone has changed]," said Dwight Hollier, the NFL's vice president of wellness and clinical services. "I just know that every interaction with Donté has felt authentic and real, and if you hear him share his story and share how it's impacted him and how he feels about [Reyes] and his family ... it comes across very clearly that he is quite remorseful for what he's done. And his only reason for speaking up is making sure other people don't follow in his steps, and it takes a strong person to do that."

How do you begin a process that is meant to foster genuine change, to repay a family that lost someone irreplaceable to them, to repair a name that has become synonymous with a moment of fatal stupidity?

Goodell -- despite his current image as a gleeful disciplinarian -- was there for Stallworth. The two met during the Super Bowl in Miami at what was the end of his suspension. At the end of the meeting, Goodell looked at Stallworth and said, "I'm looking for you to do good things."

Attorney Rebkah Howard and her husband, former Heisman winner Desmond Howard, were confidants who accompanied Stallworth to the Miami meeting.

"He really took [Goodell's words] to heart because he had disappointed so many people," said Rebkah, who helped him manage the crisis.

So instead of resenting Goodell, Stallworth actually looks at the commissioner as a well-meaning man who helped set Stallworth on a path away from his pain.

"I've always appreciated that," Stallworth said, "and [Goodell] gave me another opportunity to play when he absolutely did not have to. And he told me when I met with him, 'I'm not here to take away anyone's careers, but being the commissioner I do have to discipline guys. Honestly, I don't like to do it.' He told me he wants guys to come back and be successful. He said America loves comeback stories and second chances."

Since then, discipline has become a bigger part of Goodell's job. This week, he takes part in talks between the NFL and Tom Brady's attorneys to settle a lawsuit over deflated footballs.

"I actually really like Roger," Stallworth said. "He didn't have to be objective and he was really objective about my process. Whenever there's something going on I think he wants to do the right thing. I usually give him the benefit of the doubt."

Before Stallworth could volunteer to work on the NFL's anti-DUI program, Goodell set up a meeting between Stallworth and Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the NFL offices in New York in late 2013. MADD had initially called for Stallworth to be banned, and in order for the NFL to work with Stallworth, MADD had to be comfortable with him. MADD CEO Debbie Weir said it was important that when any drunken driving offender talks about his or her experience, that they don't make themselves out to be the victim, either overtly or subtly. It's also important that the victim's family is comfortable, since it is that person's story as well. Weir approved the inclusion of Stallworth.

"I met with Donté and it was real apparent that he's remorseful what happened and he owns it and takes responsibility," Weir said. "And that he can have a voice with other young men."

For the past two seasons, Stallworth has been a guest speaker at the rookie symposium, and this year he was interviewed for a video the NFL will use in its employee training on drunken driving. In the video, Stallworth's story is juxtaposed with Titans tight end Delanie Walker, whose aunt and uncle were killed by a drunken driver. It's work that Stallworth hopes will be ongoing, and is part of his commitment to pay down a debt that can never be erased.

"For me, whenever I see one of the guys in the NFL get a DUI or get pulled over or arrested or something, I know I shouldn't, but I almost take it personal," Stallworth said. "I try not to be judgmental about it for obvious reasons, but you don't want to put yourself in that predicament because you don't know what could happen."

Stallworth does reach out to players who are in trouble, like former 49er Aldon Smith, who was cut last week after being arrested on suspicion of DUI after a string of legal issues. Stallworth isn't there to lecture, but instead wants to be an ally while anyone is weathering a storm. "Not necessarily to mentor him, but just to talk," Stallworth said. "Sometimes that's all anyone needs."

But a person has to aspire to be more than just a cautionary tale, and Stallworth's close friends couldn't be happier to see him following his curiosity to journalism, wherever it ultimately leads. Rebkah Howard always thought there were better days in store for her friend, and she hopes he gets a chance to write the final chapter himself.

"He lost a contract he signed at the highest point in his earning potential," Howard said. "He lost a year of football at a crucial time. He never reached his full potential as a football player -- and he doesn't want that to be the sum total of Donté Stallworth."