Sean Stopperich And The SMU Death Penalty

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to tell me that he had been a student and football player at Southern Methodist University in Dallas but had recently withdrawn.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.

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18 Responses

  1. I also had the "honor" of meeting Sean Stopperich. And, like David Stanley, he also was a pompous, arrogant prick. His basic attitude during his recruiting visit to PITT was almost identical to the way Eric Dickerson described Stanley's visit to SMU. He showed up on campus wearing ostrich skin cowboy boots that he mentioned he'd picked up on his visit to Dallas the previous weekend. When someone asked him how much something like that cost, his reply was…."How should I know, I mentioned I liked them, and they were outside my hotel room the next morning."

    1. David Stanley was NOT a pompous arrogant prick. Far from it. He was a good friend of mine and I knew him well. To me, Eric Dickerson appeared arrogant in that interview. David was not trying in any way to disparage Eric at their meeting. David was a sensitive and caring individual. He did not have good social skills, and as a result did not socialize well with others. David was only attempting to playfully kid with Eric. But Eric in his own arrogance didn't like it. To be honest, Eric, with the horse collar and large shoulder pads, looked big on TV when playing with the Rams. But in person he was surprisingly thin.

  2. This is why college athletics are the most corrupt, dysfunctional, hypocritical of all the major sports institutions. I remember when i was the head of negotiations for NBC Sports and I said if I had a choice between dealing with Bob Arum, Don King, Dan Duva, etc. and college ADS, itwasn't even close I would take the Arums and Kings of the world over the ADS.

  3. i went to high school with sean,i can tell you for a fact he was a gentle giant ,i miss him, may he rest in peace, all he wanted to do was take care of his family,after that smu thing i ran across him packing grocery bags at the local store,and all he ever wanted was to play ball and watch after his family,he never wanted to bring smu down and be the bad guy,smu took him apart piece by piece,he always had time for all of us in home room,and he always made everyone feel important,i am saddened that he is the lynch pin for smu's problems but they did it to themselves,it was their arrogance that brought them down not sean,my memory of him will never change a great guy

  4. Let's not act like Sean wasn't who he really was – a guy who lived loose and hard. He died because that's who he was, deep down, a man who took chances and didn't know how to control himself. He blew up SMU, true. And no doubt, he does deserve some ill will from those fans. Why wouldn't he? He decided to take the money. Can't blame SMU for spending his own money, or for his parents not educating themselves so they could make more money.

  5. Very interesting story and article. I remember how highly recruited Sean was out of high school. He was the top offensive line prospect in the country along with David Richards (who also signed and played for SMU) in 1983. Before this I had never been able to find anything on the details of Sean's death back in 1995. I'm assuming it was because of the steroids?

  6. I also went to high school with Sean. He was one of the nicest, real, happy and optimistic guy's you would ever want to meet, there was not an ounce of arrogance in him. He is deeply missed!

  7. They were both were ungrateful punks who turn their backs on their teammates. They didn't have the character to be anything but drug addicts.

  8. I met David and his family when I first came to Texas (before college). His parents marriage was on the rocks and he got them involved in a local church. It saved the marriage and gained a new baby brother as well.

  9. I was a teammate of Seans at Canon McMillan, also having played on the offensive and defensive line. I cannot say anything bad about my experiences with Sean. He worked hard, and was always helpful. He NEVER turned his back on any of us. As far as him being and arrogant prick, sorry, he never was. Perhaps he was cocky, but considering his position in the spotlight, I can understand. May he rest in peace.

  10. I went through the entire process back in the late 80's. Simply put, if you take all the goodies then you keep your mouth shut. FOREVER!

  11. Proverbs 13:3

    He who keepeth his lips, keepeth his life, He who openeth His mouth shall have destruction.

    Great guys or not, they were good enough to take the money, and I guarantee if someone had told them that it would have to be paid back, they would have kept their mouths shut. It was selfish and self destructive behavior. May they both rest in Peace. I’m not from Texas, but that’s how I see it.

  12. Sean and I were room mates at Temple and were like Brothers we shared a off campus apartment ment together , we were inseparable !!! We both were hurt in football me my Back and Him his Knee . We could not play anymore so we did what everyone else did now we partied and we partied hard ! I Rememember when I got married in 1994 , Sean couldn’t make it , but came out to see me in the spring of 95 ! At this time we were both in our addiction !! Little did we know it !!! Well 2 months later I was cutting my grass when I got the call Sean’s mom said he passed , I remember I was so Sadd!! I started using alcohol and drugs as we both use to do to cope with it ! Well I flew to Pittsburgh for his funeral and went to his grave after , his mom got him a picture of this huge muscular guy with a sword on his tomb stone ! Sean always love the Terminater and Muscle guys as did I ! Well My Brother from another mother I Still miss you Till this day and one day we will meet again Brother!!! Love You Bro!!!!!your Brother from South Philly !!!!!!!

  13. I played with both of these guys at SMU. I didn't know Sean very well, but we were both Serbian and had that in common. He seemed like a nice guy who was lost and trying to find himself. David Stanley I have nothing nice to say about.

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