Despite final chapter, book isn't closed on Duke saga

May 29, 2007|By RICK MAESE

When it was all over, despite desperate pleas and collective exhaustion, you couldn't help but notice that it wasn't really all over.

The clock showed a string of zeros and the seats at the stadium emptied. While players in another locker room took turns holding their NCAA championship trophy, down the cement corridor beneath M&T Bank Stadium, in another room, members of the Duke lacrosse team sullenly packed their gym bags.

The game was over -- they had lost the championship, 12-11, to Johns Hopkins -- but the saga that has come to define the Blue Devils program isn't fortunate enough to get packed away with the sticks and pads, tossed in a truck and thrown into storage.

As midfielder Brad Ross says: "There's no closure to something that will be with you your whole life."

The idea is admittedly naive, but before the opening faceoff to yesterday's championship, it was easy to think we were witnessing the final chapter to a story that had run its course (and in fact, probably overstayed its welcome). But this tale of woe doesn't go away simply because we want it to -- not for the 41 guys who played under a Duke banner yesterday ... not for the ex-coach who was booted from the program a year ago and had to watch from a seat in Section 146 ... and not for the three young men who were wrongly accused of raping an exotic dancer last year, their lives and reputations forever changed.

"It's tough for you guys to understand," an emotional Matt Danowski, a senior attackman, told a packed room of reporters after the game. "You haven't been through what we've been through and nobody else has. The bond that we share with these guys is something that only we will ever understand."

Later, back in the locker room, Danowski's eyes welled as he again said how difficult it is to translate emotions into words. They didn't just wear the same colors, they also faced the same taunts and questions and accusations. Their faces were all next to each other on a photo array, where a stripper and an eager prosecutor played a judicial game of Russian roulette, choosing which three lives would change the most.

"It was like having three of your family members taken away and put in a light that makes your whole family look terrible," Danowski said. "And then as soon as they get back, everything was supposed to be OK. But it wasn't."

So, no, for the 41 Blue Devils who've overcome so much, they know a single lacrosse game doesn't end a thing. But by listening to the players and to their coach and their families and their fans, what we also realized yesterday is that for the rest of us, it's not really over either.

The indictments are gone. The charges dropped. But the ugly themes and intrinsic conflicts remain.

We learned small things about a mostly inconsequential lacrosse program -- some terrible (a string of criminal offenses by players) and some admirable (a perfect graduation rate). But we learned a lot more about ourselves, about societal nature, media coverage and knee-jerk judgments. About the stereotypes, tendencies and inherent discord that continue to divide us -- be it geographically, racially or economically -- like some sort of tectonic shift. This case that seemed to ignore truth for so long managed to reveal some pretty ugly truths in the process.

"That's the world," Duke coach John Danowski said. "The world is about politics, it's not about right or wrong or the truth."

As yesterday's loss slowly settled in, players were pensive, even philosophical, about all they've endured. They know that win or lose, they'll forever compete and live and work under a label. This is a team of players who've seen their faces on "wanted" signs, whose teachers petitioned against them, whose fellow students marched against them, calling for their expulsions, their contrition and even their castration.

"There is a dark cloud over us," defender Eric McFadyen said..

So, no doubt, some people found relief, maybe even joy, in Duke's loss yesterday. For others, it darkened the shade of blue through which we've come to view this star-crossed lot, a group whose college education barely strayed from the same lesson: No, life isn't always fair.

Mike Pressler, the former Duke coach who watched yesterday's game from the stands, walked through the Blue Devils' post-game locker room. His face was red from the sun, and a pair of dark sunglasses hid his eyes as he walked from locker to locker, sharing back-slapping hugs with each of his former players. It wasn't hello and it wasn't goodbye. It wasn't congrats or condolences, either.

It was an emotional greeting, a friendly recognition that they'd all lived through something together, and that they'd all continue to live through it. Their perspective is as unique as the conclusions they each take away. While the world stared at them in the fishbowl, they were staring back at the rest of us. We know now whose view was scarier.

It's sad how what we thought was a case of three young men finding their innocence has evolved into a realization that ultimately what these athletes have gone through wasn't really about innocence found, but rather innocence lost.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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