It was 1985. I was a 2nd-year law student at The University Of Pittsburgh School of Law. I was working out at the local gym. I struggled to get the weight up. Suddenly, it rose with ease. Standing behind the machine, helping me, was this massive, marshmallow looking kid. He was smiling. He said,
” If you need a spot, holler at me.”
He urged me through another set and introduced himself as Sean Stopperich.
We struck up a friendly conversation. Sean was a graduate of Cannon-MacMillan high school and that he played football and wrestled. I was familiar with the school. I had attended Mt. Lebanon Senior High down the road. There was a sports rivalry between the two schools.
Sean went on to tell me that he had been a student and football player at Southern Methodist University in Dallas but had recently withdrawn. He was starting school at Temple in the fall and hoped to play football there.
I mentioned that my older brother Mark lived in Dallas. I was thinking of moving there and would drive down that next week to visit him. Sean wanted to tag along and volunteered to drive. We packed up his Honda Civic and hit the road. We may have set a land-speed record, covering the 1200 miles in 15 hours. We blazed across interstate 40 through Arkansas. A state trooper pulled us over. He clocked Sean at 104 mph. The thought of spending the night in “Small-Town Beatdown” USA terrified me.
To our surprise, that didn’t happen. The trooper gave Sean a ticket and told him to slow down. The moment the officer was out of sight, Sean, rolled down his window, laughed and said,
” I ain’t coming back to Arkansas.”
He ripped up the ticket and tossed it out the window.
Sean became fatigued and asked me to drive. I had neglected to tell him that I couldn’t operate a standard transmission. We pulled into a rest area where he gave me a crash course in the use of a stick-shift. I was not a quick learner. Sean ended up driving the entire distance.
During the trip, Sean talked about his involvement in the SMU football scandal. He didn’t relate many specifics. He told me SMU gave him Five Thousand Dollars to sign a letter of intent. They also promised his father Carl a job and housing. A knee injury took Sean off the field, and after that, things went wrong for him and his family. His mother began to work as a cleaning lady to make ends meet. In contrast, Sean seemed optimistic about his prospects at Temple. He was looking forward to the new school year.
We arrived in Dallas, and the first thing we did was pull into a Jack In The Box. Sean spent thirty dollars on his order. A lot of burgers and a milkshake. I was in awe. When we arrived at my brother’s place, I was ready to hit the town. Sean was very cautious, telling me that he had to avoid the SMU campus as well as the local bars. It still did not hit me why he was so worried about running into those who attended SMU. Sean said that the troubles we discussed during the drive had created bad blood and made him unpopular on campus. He just wanted quiet visits with several friends he had in the area. Sean was so worried that people would recognize him that he was afraid to even go to the mall. I ran errands for him.
Despite Sean’s concerns, we had a great time hanging out with my brother. Sean and I became good friends. Close enough that he asked me to help him inject steroids. It was my first exposure and the 1st and last time I ever stuck a needle in another guy’s buttocks. He told me it was stuff they gave to horses.
We returned to Pittsburgh and continued to work out together until he left for Temple. We never spoke again about his problems at SMU. We sporadically stayed in touch after he departed. Not long after he enrolled, his mother told me he was in a car crash that resulted in back surgery. I never spoke to Sean again.
Sean died in 1995 of a drug overdose. The same tragic ending that befell David Stanley, another major “player” in the scandal. It saddens me that with so many years passed, many still vilify Sean.
The Sean I knew, if only for a short time, was a fun loving, friendly and compassionate kid. He came from nothing, yet had what seemed like everything dangled in front of not only him, but his family. Tough pressure for a teenager. Tough for anyone.