A collection of random memories found in and around my desk at the Oregonian as I prepare for my Aug. 28 departure. Today:
A letter from Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to a judge in California.
The story wasn’t much fun, but the letter is awesome, because awesome. In 2003, Aliotti and head coach Mike Bellotti wrote “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN” letters on behalf of Rodney Woods, a defensive back at Fresno City College who, in high school, had been involved in a fight that ended in the death of another student.
They were hoping the judge would reduce the conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor so Woods could enroll at Oregon.
“If the powers that be can please address this issue in time to allow this young man a second chance, that would be awesome,” Aliotti wrote.
Most of us wouldn’t use “awesome” in a letter to a judge, a letter that’s public record. But that’s Nick, and Nick’s kind of awesome. He’s football coach distilled to its purest elements. The kind of guy who, 20 minutes into the first practice of the year, sounds like he’s been gargling with glass and turpentine.
The efforts of Oregon’s coaches earned me an all-expenses paid trip to Palmdale, Calif. More or less (and based on memory), Palmdale is basically a strip of desert that’s been paved, built up, and left to graffiti artists. I took a wrong turn trying to find the courthouse and ran into the edge of town so suddenly I assumed a city planner had tossed up his hands and said, “Forget it.”
At one point, I had to pull over to a dusty parking lot to take a call from Murray Sperber, author of Beer & Circuses, the question being: Was Oregon selling its soul for a better football team.
Hindsight renders that question charming.
Woods got his charge reduced, he got into Oregon and had an unremarkable career.
The flip side to that story, kind of, was the 2004 murder of Oregon recruit Terrance Kelly, who was shot dead sitting in a car waiting to pick up his stepbrother from a house in an area near Oakland known as the Iron Triangle.
Another free trip to a lousy place. After stopping at the police department for the latest information on the investigation — and the details of other murders in Richmond that week — I drove up to Kelly’s house.
I was taken back to his room, where his father sat smoking cigarettes and crying. I sat in a chair that was far too small for me, and I could only imagine how silly Kelly, a highly-regarded linebacker, must have looked.
His plane ticket to Eugene sat on his dresser. I don’t know that I ever asked a question. I let his dad go until a relative came in the room and then excused myself.
Out in the front lawn, family and friends mingled, one with fresh ink on his forearm.
“What do you do next?” he said.
“I guess I need to go see where it happened,” I said.
Near where I figured the scene to be, I saw a memorial, one of those stuffed animal piles that mark tragedies. I pulled over, looked around, took some notes and realized that it was the wrong memorial. Different tragic end.
Two blocks away I found the scene of Kelly’s murder. Standing in front of that memorial, I could see the emergency room of a nearby hospital.
I drove back to the Marriott in downtown Oakland, pounded out the story, worked it through with an editor, and then ordered room service. A burger and six beers.
I spent the rest of the night staring out the window.
I still think about Kelly’s dad from time to time. I hope he’s doing well.