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THE STRANGE CASE OF DIMITRIUS UNDERWOOD

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the breakneck end of a bizarre week in which Dimitrius Underwood stabbed himself in the neck, walked down the street bleeding, told an attending police officer “I am not worthy of God,” checked into an undisclosed mental facility and left us with more questions than answers--one being, would anybody even be here had Underwood been a fifth-round pick instead of a first?--Michigan State Coach Nick Saban stood up from his oval desk at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building and concluded an interview that absolutely was not about Underwood.

Saban would not have sat down otherwise, that much was understood, although you sensed that in another setting, in any week other than the one his 5-0 team was facing 5-0 Michigan in the biggest game of his career, Saban might have let his guard down about his former defensive end.

Maybe next spring, over drinks, in a dark place where two guys could talk; in the least, a setting removed from the short distance Saban stood Sunday relative to where Underwood took blade to neck.

Some day, maybe.

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But not today.

After a professional handshake, and a move toward the door, all the cursory doesn’t-Michigan-look-tough talk exhausted, Saban is hit with an exit volley; one must lie in the weeds with these sensitive queries.

A brief comment, for the record, on Dimitrius?

Saban heaved a sigh, more out of exasperation, it seemed, than anger.

“We want to do anything we can to help Dimitrius Underwood get back on track,” he said as if reciting from prepared text.

Then, though, a more personal response.

“I feel bad, as the guy who coached him, that we couldn’t do something to get him back on track,” Saban said. “Even back then, a year ago. Maybe none of this would have happened.”

“This” is a saga, still unresolved and volatile, of a talented defensive end torn between football, religion and reality.

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“This” is a story teeming with shadowy figures, fame, religiousness, greed and regret.

“This” is about the school that recruited Underwood, Michigan State; the NFL team that drafted him, the Minnesota Vikings; the team that claimed Underwood on waivers, the Miami Dolphins, and the consequences of all those decisions.

Naturally, “this” is a story about blame.

Luckily, Underwood will survive his self-inflicted wounds.

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“Thanks to Jesus for allowing me to live,” he said in a statement released through his agent. “Without his hand, I would not be alive. I am getting help and looking forward to a full and rapid recovery.”

The Dolphins last week put Underwood on their reserve non-football injury list, making the 6-foot-6, 290-pound end ineligible to play this season.

But he does plan to come back.

It cannot possibly be as simple as that: Cut your throat on a Sunday, five days later vow to be in Brett Favre’s face next September.

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Can it?

There is a slow boil percolating in East Lansing that is largely unspoken at a university searching for closure to this unwieldy public spectacle.

The feeling here is that none of this should have happened and that it’s all the Vikings’ fault.

“If he was a fifth- or seventh-round draft choice, like he should have been, you wouldn’t cover it,” said Joel Ferguson, a member of the Michigan State board of trustees.

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Ferguson, echoing the thoughts of others, says the Vikings dropped the ball on Underwood, were wooed by his imposing physical talents but ignored some obvious off-the-field shortcomings.

Ferguson says the Vikings did not do their homework, did not check out the facts, did not realize Underwood used the story about quitting football to enter the ministry to mask his real problem.

“This had nothing to do with religion,” Ferguson said. “It was about the fear of failure. He was afraid he could not play at the level he thought he was going to have to play.”

Ferguson and others, who did not want to go on record, claim Underwood faked an ankle injury that kept him out for the entire 1998 season at Michigan State.

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It has been described as a “high ankle” (translation: not serious) sprain.

Ferguson wonders how the Vikings could have been so naive.

Had the Vikings known of Underwood’s emotional problems, Ferguson says, they would not have made him a first-round choice, would not have thrust upon him expectations that might have pushed a fragile psyche beyond the precipice.

“They put that kid under a spotlight he wasn’t ready to handle,” Ferguson said. “He wasn’t even able to handle an ankle sprain.”

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The Vikings, of course, say these claims are ridiculous.

“I just have to laugh,” said Roger Jackson, the Viking scout who tracked Underwood through the NFL draft. “We did our homework. That’s all I can say. If he fooled us, then he fooled everybody in the league.”

Jackson said you should have seen the NFL men drooling over Underwood at a workout for scouts in January.

“Ask any personnel man, any defensive line coach, any defensive coordinator if they wouldn’t have taken the kid off of looks alone,” he said. “This kid looked like he was chiseled out of stone. I never got any indication anything was mentally wrong with him.”

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Ferguson says all the Vikings had to do was call Saban, Michigan State’s coach, who was telling anyone who would listen there were problems with Underwood.

Paul Wiggin, the Vikings’ veteran director of player personnel, says it’s easy to play the blame game.

“You win some and you lose some,” Wiggin said of the draft business. “They applaud you when you win, say you’re stupid when you don’t. Our people felt the kid had a tremendous upside. I’m not going to second-guess the guys in the draft room.”

The Vikings had good reason to believe they had an upper hand over any “problem” draft choices after stealing Randy Moss with the 21st pick of the 1998 draft after other teams had passed on the receiver because of character concerns.

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Besides, if religion was Underwood’s so-called “problem,” the Vikings seemed the perfect fit with their Christian cadre of players led by Randall Cunningham and Cris Carter.

Wiggin says, yes, the Vikings were suspicious about Underwood’s ankle injury last season and some incidents of instability in his past.

But, Wiggin added, they weren’t drafting Underwood for monkhood.

“There are things that make players great that are not necessarily admirable qualities you’d want in a son-in-law,” he said. “Let’s be real. There’s some animal in some of these people.”

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Viking Goes AWOL

It’s difficult to fathom a life unraveling so quickly, a time line tracking from draft room to emergency room in a matter of months.

April 18: The Vikings take Underwood with the 29th pick in the first round.

July 31: Underwood signs a five-year, $5.3-million contract.

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Aug. 2: On his first day of practice, Underwood ditches camp and hitches a ride to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, flies to Philadelphia, and is found four days later in a hotel lobby with $8 in his pockets. Underwood says he is torn between football and the ministry.

“Give up millions of dollars and go to work for God, it doesn’t make sense to most people,” he tells the Star Tribune.

The Vikings are not torn; they release Underwood.

Aug. 16: Dolphin Coach Jimmy Johnson, that noted bargain shopper, signs Underwood to a one-year deal for $395,000. Underwood appears to have found refuge. Asked if Underwood was a publicity risk, Johnson responds: “Bad publicity? For what? For being too religious? That’s a new one.”

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Sept. 22: Underwood is effusive in an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer writer Mike Jensen, explaining that it was God’s plan to have his football career transferred from Minnesota to Miami. “I was praying before the draft, I said ‘Lord, put me somewhere warm.’ ”

He explains why he went AWOL from Minnesota: “I knew the backlash that would come with it; it’s like telling your dad you wrecked the car.”

Sept. 26: At 1 p.m., Lansing officers find Underwood walking down the street with a serious neck wound.

Not playing because of a shoulder injury, Underwood had flown from Miami to Detroit that weekend. Instead of taking his connecting flight to Lansing on Saturday night, however, he hired a limo driver, a woman who grew so concerned with Underwood’s ramblings en route she pulled into a Lansing fire station.

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A police computer check found a warrant outstanding on Underwood, who was delinquent on a $34 child-support payment for his 17-month-old twins.

Free to leave after posting bail, Underwood instead stayed in his cell and talked to another inmate for 90 minutes.

The next morning, according to police reports, Underwood and Chasity Dyer, the mother of the couple’s twins, got into an argument at her Lansing townhome.

Dyer, concerned, phoned Underwood’s sister. It was while on the phone that Underwood reportedly cut himself with a steak knife.

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Questioned later, Underwood did not remember what happened.

Donnie Jones, Dyer’s stepfather, drove Underwood to the hospital but, en route, Underwood jumped out of the car and was soon apprehended by police. Underwood reportedly said, “You are Satan and you’re going to hell,” and “I want to be saved, I want to meet God.”

Strange Days

The days after the stabbing have been equally weird. Underwood’s mother, Eileen, first said her son had been taken in by a cult, led by Rev. Phillip Owens of the Immanuel Temple, a nondenominational church in Lansing.

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“There are controlling spirits in there,” she told the Miami Herald.

Owens responded by saying Mrs. Underwood was “grasping at straws.” He said he knew Dimitrius Underwood only professionally, but admitted seeing the player weeping at the altar, “almost like a little child.”

Eileen Underwood, a Pentecostal minister, later retreated from her comments and issued her own statement: “We should both be on the same accord, rather than creating conflict caused by misrepresentation.”

Underwood’s sister, Andrea, said a “mystery” man was to blame for her brother’s woes, but wouldn’t name him.

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By week’s end, the story of Dimitrius Underwood had unfolded.

He was raised in West Philadelphia, played high school ball in North Carolina and attended Michigan State on a scholarship.

One Michigan State school official described him as a loner, a student who rarely slept in his own dorm bed. The team suspended Underwood in the spring of 1998 after a string of unexcused absences from classes, meetings and other appointments.

Sources said the school tried to get him counseling, but that Underwood was reluctant. Drugs were not believed to be involved with his behavior.

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When Underwood announced last fall he was declaring for the NFL draft, the school was concerned with a number of “agents” who did not go through proper channels to speak with Underwood.

Last Thursday, Underwood was released from Sparrow Hospital and transported to an unknown location.

There were more twists over the weekend.

Last Saturday, a Michigan State student who attended the same church as Underwood was found dead in his dorm room.

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Owens refused to discuss the student’s alleged affiliation with the church.

Sunday afternoon, Owens’ church offices on Washington Street in Lansing were closed. Owens did not return phone calls for this story.

You wondered if people would be more willing to talk had Underwood’s suicide attempt been successful.

Maybe eulogy is easier than explanation.

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Chasity Dyer, Underwood’s girlfriend, had “temporarily” disconnected her phone, and no one responded Sunday evening to knocks on her townhouse door.

A secretary for Keith Johnson, the Vikings’ chaplain, said the chances of getting a return call would be greater if the writer did not disclose he wanted to talk about Underwood.

But Johnson did not return the call anyway.

By edict from Saban, no current Michigan State players or coaches have been allowed to comment on Underwood.

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Sunday, a Miami Herald story quoted NFL sources saying Underwood has been diagnosed with mental illness, a “bipolar disorder.”

Craig Domann, Underwood’s agent, has publicly denied the report. He did not return several phone messages for this story.

Ferguson, the Michigan State trustee, is hoping the saga will lose its legs so that Underwood can get back the life he almost took.

“People just need to leave him alone,” Ferguson said.

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