Igwebuike gets another chance to acquit himself

June 15, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Donald Igwebuike was acquitted, but couldn't clear his name.

He was vindicated, but couldn't get a job.

Justice for the former NFL place-kicker was a tattered reputation and a cold shoulder.

When Igwebuike was charged with being an accomplice to smuggling heroin in 1990 while kicking for the Minnesota Vikings, his life stopped as surely as if someone had hit the pause button.

And when he was acquitted in federal court in Tampa in April 1991, it almost seemed not to matter. The damage had been done. His reputation had been smeared.

Fast forward to Towson State, spring of 1994, where Igwebuike, 34, has resuscitated a dying career with Baltimore's Canadian Football League team, the CFL Colts.

When he found out this week he had won the kicking job -- at least for now -- he tempered the news with the reality of his situation. For Igwebuike, no victory is ever complete.

"You have to be crazy to be in this business," he said. "I've been in it long enough to know nothing is permanent. Because I'm the only kicker here doesn't mean the job is mine."

Igwebuike has been out of the business long enough to know that life sometimes plays cruel tricks. Even now -- three years after his acquittal -- it is hard to distance himself from the ordeal he was forced to endure.

"You can take all the money I have," he said. "You can take a lot of things from me. But don't question my character. That's what hurt me most about this whole thing.

"That's history. I'm not bitter. It was a nightmare, but I'm glad it's over. I have a big scar that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Igwebuike was one of the NFL's most consistent kickers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Vikings. He was successful on more than 75 percent of his field-goal attempts. He scored 477 points in 5 1/2 seasons.

And yet, when he returned to the Vikings in 1991 following the trial, he lost out to Fuad Reveiz. Only the San Francisco 49ers (1992) and the Cleveland Browns (1993) were willing to give him tryouts. Neither was willing to give him a contract.

Does Igwebuike link the NFL's disinterest to his legal troubles?

"I don't like to," he said. "Personally, I don't feel so. But if it is, there's nothing I can do about it."

Igwebuike's agent, Eric Eisenberg, can't account for it, either.

"Maybe, it's bad publicity [the NFL is afraid of]," he said. "I called every team. There was a general manager in the league who told me last year he thought Donald was the best kicker out there. [But] he had a kicker he was happy with."

Igwebuike's conversation these days is peppered with appreciation for coach Don Matthews. "I'm just glad Coach Matthews had faith in me to give me an opportunity to continue my career," he said.

Igwebuike hadn't been in training camp since 1991. He hadn't kicked off a tee since 1984, when he was a senior at Clemson. And even though he was 3-for-3 from 55 yards in a recent workout, he suggested he wasn't kicking as well as he'd like.

"When you make nine out of 10 inside the 40, that's not good," he said. "Those are supposed to be automatic."

In the NFL, Igwebuike never missed a kick inside the 35-yard line. With the Bucs, he once hit a 55-yarder. In Canada, he will have to adjust to the northern wind.

He said he will adjust as he did at Clemson in 1981, when the Tigers won a national championship with a fellow named Jim Speros -- now the Colts' owner -- at linebacker.

"I didn't know first, second, third or fourth down that season," Igwebuike said. "All I knew was when to come in and kick. But I've been around a long time. I think I can easily adjust to this game."

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