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Donte’ Stallworth a changed man after fateful turn in 2009

Donte’ Stallworth’s spot with the Patriots isn’t guaranteed, but coach Bill Belichick says the speedster has been competitive in camp.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Donte’ Stallworth’s spot with the Patriots isn’t guaranteed, but coach Bill Belichick says the speedster has been competitive in camp.

FOXBOROUGH — The son understands that it will follow him forever; the mother wishes others could forgive him, as God and the Reyes family have.

The son has learned to tune out the ignorance, which still comes at him, in the form of anonymous tweets or shouts from the stands; that truly nothing good happens after 1 o’clock in the morning, that one decision can affect the lives of many.

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The mother has learned that her son is an incredibly strong man, one of the strongest she’s ever known.

Before March 14, 2009, Donte’ Stallworth was known as a talented if underachieving receiver with a history of hamstring issues, a former first-round pick who had yet to record a 1,000-yard season in seven NFL campaigns.

Since that morning, he has been known far more for the car accident on a Miami causeway that left a hard-working Cuban immigrant dead, his wife widowed, and his 15-year-old daughter without a father.

.   .   .

Stallworth had slept the day away March 13. An early-morning workout as he prepared to join his Cleveland Browns teammates for organized team activities the next week left him tired, so he sought refuge in his bed.

He called a good friend who had just bought a house in the area with his young family to postpone dinner plans for that night. It is not lost on Stallworth that had he opted to visit with his friend, things may be different now.

But he didn’t.

He was awakened around 2 a.m. by a call from a different friend, who was celebrating his birthday. In Miami, it isn’t uncommon for folks to start filling the clubs well after midnight, so Stallworth dressed and headed to the hotel that housed the nightclub where the birthday party was being held.

He arrived after 3, had some drinks, and stayed for only an hour. He moved to a room in the hotel to hang out with more acquaintances, but says he did not have a drink there. Another hour passed, and Stallworth returned home.

He went back to sleep, but only for an hour and a half; he arose around 7, thirsty and hungry. He found his refrigerator empty and decided to go for an early breakfast.

As he came around a bend on the MacArthur Causeway, Stallworth saw Reyes, as he said, streaking across the road. Reyes had just finished his overnight shift as a crane operator and was running to the bus stop.

It all happened quickly.

Stallworth didn’t hit Reyes head-on; the impact was on the passenger’s side of his car, and Stallworth initially believed he’d hit the 59-year-old man in the arm or perhaps his leg. He didn’t believe it had been a fatal strike.

Police said Stallworth was going 50 miles per hour at the time, 10 m.p.h over the posted speed limit.

He stopped immediately, reached for the cellphone in his gym bag to call 911, and began walking toward Reyes, who was lying in the road. Police arrived quickly, and Stallworth admitted he had been drinking hours earlier.

Hours later, after asking three or four times, he was told that Reyes had died. Donna Stallworth got one of those calls that no parent should ever have to get.

Initially, Donte’ wasn’t charged. But when the blood tests came back, Stallworth was found to be legally drunk at the time of the accident. He was charged with DUI manslaughter two weeks later and quickly turned himself in.

Looking within himself

Stallworth took responsibility for it all, even though there was evidence that likely would have exonerated him in a trial; his lawyers and his mother tried, over and over, to convince him to go that route. But he wouldn’t listen.

He felt he had caused the Reyes family enough pain, so he accepted a plea deal that led to him spending almost a month in jail, the lifetime revocation of his driver’s license, and eight years of probation. He also came to a confidential financial settlement with the family.

It wasn’t about him. First and foremost, he was concerned about Reyes’s daughter.

The family reached out to thank Stallworth for the way he handled things from the moment the accident happened, and they have forgiven him.

In county jail, Stallworth detested having his freedom taken away. He missed the small things, like watching television with his nieces and nephews, or listening to music.

He used the days for introspection. He decided to be more cognizant of whom he spent time with and who was around him and why they were around him; certainly to essentially end trips to nightclubs and drinking simply to drink, though he does still have one or two on occasion in a social setting, and almost always at home.

Stallworth heard from friends who offered support, including Tom Brady. The Northern California natives had known each other for a while, had played together in 2007, when Stallworth was part of the greatest offense the league had ever seen.

Brady certainly couldn’t understand what Stallworth was going through, but he could reach out, offer an ear, offer whatever Stallworth might need.

The NFL connected him with a therapist; Stallworth initially resisted the idea but knows now it helped him process what had happened. The accident was 3½ years ago, but he says it doesn’t feel that long ago.

His mind will still wander sometimes and he’ll see the accident again. He is still in contact with the therapist, just to talk.

Once the legal process was over, there was still the league to deal with. He met once with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, his lawyers, and others who knew about the case.

But Stallworth went back alone and unannounced a couple of days later, and talked with Goodell man to man. Goodell asked Stallworth what he would do if he were in the commissioner’s shoes. Stallworth said he’d suspend himself for at least a year.

And so it was. He was suspended for the entire 2009 season.

Voracious reader

Donna Stallworth taught her children early that after high school came college. In the summer, she required them to read and do math.

Donte’ did those things, but it was while studying and playing at Tennessee that his love of history and then politics really took hold. His mother recalls one campus visit when the back seat of her son’s car was filled with books, so many they had to be pushed out of the way to make room for passengers.

When they are together, the mother and the son, they stay up talking for hours about anything and everything. They’ve always been close, Donna says, but since the accident, he has drawn even closer, keeping her up on everything that’s going on in his life.

He’s still a voracious reader, his house filled with books, even her house in Sacramento filled with volume after volume.

It’s like a spider web, he says: His love of history led to his interest in politics, particularly after 9/11, which leads to interest in other areas. He starts to go on a riff about the current political landscape, how he’s tired of hearing Democrats and Republicans bicker when they should be trying to fix the economy, address the health care issues, take care of everything this country needs, but then stops himself, aware he could go on for hours.

On Twitter, his posts range from messages of congratulations to American Olympians to his love life (or lack thereof) to quotes from George Orwell and Shakespeare to informative links on politics.

He still gets one or two tweets a week from people deriding him for the accident. He used to block people who did that, but now simply accepts that they come from a place of ignorance.

They do get to him once in a while.

Second time around

The Baltimore Ravens gave Stallworth a chance in 2010, but he had just two catches in eight games. It was Washington last season. Even the offensively-challenged Redskins cut him in November, only to bring him back a week later after they had to place another receiver on injured reserve. In 11 games, he had 22 catches, including an overtime-forcing touchdown against the rival Cowboys.

This March, the one team he’d longed to return to gave him the call he wanted. Stallworth was back with the Patriots.

He vowed it would be different this time, his second stint in New England. It wasn’t really anything he did the first time around that got him released after just a year; Stallworth’s contract was technically a multiyear deal, but was structured in such a way that the team owed him a huge roster bonus at the start of the 2008 league year, and it was clear from the start that he’d probably be here for only a season.

At 31, he is more mature now, calls himself a better route-runner. Donna knows how much harder he works at his job, the commitment to his craft stronger than it ever has been.

Brady notes Stallworth’s humility, how he was able to come out of an incredibly difficult situation as a better person. Bill Belichick has held him up as an example for every member of the organization to follow, someone who has been a better leader and a positive influence on everyone, particularly younger players.

Those younger players like to rib Stallworth for being one of the old guys, older than many of them initially thought. Working with Brian Hoyer on end zone passes, the backup quarterback lofts one a little too high for him to get to; Hoyer says he should have remembered Stallworth wouldn’t be able to get to it at his age.

He is happy to be back in New England, his family is happy to see him back where he wanted to be. A spot isn’t guaranteed, and he has had a couple of rocky days in practice, but he still has his speed. Belichick says he’s been competitive in a competitive group.

He has been fielding kickoffs, trying anything that will make him harder to cut when those two cruel days come and teams have to shave players off the roster.

In the time since March 14, 2009, he has taken every opportunity to talk to anyone who will listen about the dangers of driving under the influence. He reminds them that bad decisions, bad events, don’t happen to certain people, they happen to everyone. He was an NFL player with a big-money contract when fate found him, one split-second that changed him irrevocably, that will be with him every day of his life.

When he is with friends, he arranges a car service for everyone. He talks to younger players especially, trying to make them aware that they aren’t invincible. Go out, but do it responsibly. Have fun, but be aware that there are consequences for bad decisions.

“Regardless of your situation, your personal situation, if you know that there’s a chance for you to be drinking that night, just don’t drive,” he says.

“Because it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it.”

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.
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