Column: USC’s Josh Shaw tells tale of lying about pool rescue, now waits
Josh Shaw knows people reading this will have no reason to believe it. He wants to tell his story anyway, as a cautionary tale about a life swallowed by a lie.
“I’ve seen the dark side, I’ve hit the bottom,” he said softly. “I’ve learned.”
Shaw was speaking publicly for the first time since fabricating a story that changed a USC football season and quite possibly ended a USC football career. It was a lie that most bought, few expected, and, nearly three months later, one that Shaw has decided to explain.
The suspended Trojans senior cornerback and co-captain talked openly about those final days of summer when he suffered two high ankle sprains while jumping from the balcony of his third-story downtown apartment, then tried to cover it up by saying he was injured trying to rescue a drowning nephew.
He maintained that fiction through three days of intense scrutiny by a university that had released it to the public and watched it become national news. He finally confessed the lie to university officials after they had been alerted Shaw had jumped off his balcony after a loud argument with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chilton. That argument resulted in a neighbor calling police, who opened a domestic violence investigation. Shaw has been stuck in limbo ever since, suspended by USC until he is formally cleared by prosecutors and its own internal investigation. No charges are expected in the case, people familiar with the situation say.
“I want people to know the truth of who I am,” he told The Times, sitting in the apartment building where he still lives with Chilton.
Before the last week in August, everyone thought they knew all about him, this Palmdale High star who first attended Florida but transferred to USC in the spring of 2012 so he could be near to help his ailing grandfather and father with the family landscaping business. He was an earnest and affable leader who was chosen by the USC athletic department to speak at the student-athlete graduation ceremony in May.
“I would challenge somebody who doesn’t know me to seek those who have encountered me and find one person who has one bad thing to say about me,” said Shaw. “I’ve created this persona that I always do what’s right … and then, boom.”
On Aug. 23, after the annual Salute to Troy barbecue on campus, one week before the season opener against Fresno State, Shaw went home to meet Chilton, whom he has dated for more than seven years. They started arguing and Chilton ran out of the apartment and disappeared down the hall.
“We just got into an argument just like every couple does,” Shaw said. “Was it loud? Yes. Was it overly loud? I don’t think so.”
Shaw remained in the apartment until he heard noise below his balcony. He walked outside to see police cars pulling up on the street. Shaw and Chilton adamantly deny the argument ever became physical — “I would never, ever hit a woman,” Shaw said — but he worried about appearances.
“We were not on good terms when she left, I thought she had somebody call authorities. I was thinking the worst,” he said. “If she did say anything, I’m a black man with dreadlocks, and with everything going on in the country at the time, all that stuff in St. Louis [Ferguson, Mo.] … in my mind, I’m going to leap from the balcony so authorities did not see me.”
Shaw said he jumped from the balcony to a grassy area on Figueroa Street, where he landed on his feet; he was wearing only flip-flops. He said that pain immediately shot up from his ankles to his knees, and he was certain he had broken both legs.
“I thought everything had been messed up,” he said. “I thought both legs were shattered.”
He said he crawled up Figueroa to Sunset, where he called his brother Justin for help. Josh was taken to Justin’s San Fernando Valley home, where his brother carried him upstairs on his back. Josh said he didn’t go to the hospital because he didn’t know how he could tell USC about what were seemingly season-ending injuries.
“I was in excruciating pain,” he said. “But I thought, how do I explain to my coaches that, as a senior captain, I just shattered both of my legs?”
He said he called USC officials Sunday morning, but only after he had a plan.
“I wanted to come up with something that they would say, ‘Josh, if you got hurt, that’s a good reason to get hurt,’” he said. “That’s where fabrication came in.”
Shaw said he came up with a story he had injured himself attempting to save his 7-year old nephew from drowning in an apartment pool at a family function in Palmdale. He thought it was an airtight story.
“I didn’t think it could be proved that story was not true,” he said. “My sister [Asia] was having a party … my cousin does have a balcony over his pool…. It involved only myself, my sister, two or three little kids, and my cousin.”
Shaw said he was confident the story would sail, and so Sunday morning he relayed it to USC officials, who ordered him to visit the hospital for X-rays. When he found out his legs weren’t broken, he said he began regretting his plan. He said if he had known he only had high ankle sprains, he never would have gone to great lengths to hide it.
Shaw said he didn’t think at that point the story would travel any further than the McKay Center.
“I never wanted this deal to go viral at all, it was not my intention at all. I thought coaches would say OK and we’d just deal with it,” he said.
He first realized it might be bigger Monday morning when he was approached by USC’s longtime sports information director Tim Tessalone, who he said told him they needed to get ahead of the story before he was seen in a wheelchair at Tuesday’s practice.
“I asked them twice if they could release the injury as an undisclosed injury,” Shaw said. “Both times the answer was no.”
In an interview Wednesday, Tessalone explained why Shaw’s story would have been difficult to hide.
“We have our starting cornerback being carted around campus in a wheelchair, people would be seeing it,” said Tessalone. “We knew it was a feel-good story, but we also knew it was a news story.”
Tessalone then taped a 10-minute interview with Shaw in the training room while repeatedly questioning and giving him a chance to change this too-good-to-be-true tale.
USC officials initially had no reason not to believe Shaw. After all the poking and prodding did not cause him to recant, the story was put on the school website at 3:30 p.m. that Monday. Shaw said he asked for final approval of the story, but said it was released before he could see it. He said he could not promise he would have changed anything, but he said maybe seeing it on a computer screen would have given him second thoughts.
“I was still not thinking it was going to go viral, but I am thinking it was messed up that I did not get to see it before it got printed,” Shaw said.
USC officials could not confirm whether Shaw had seen it in advance but said he had ample opportunity to change the story before it was made public.
It wasn’t the story, however, that made Shaw realize what he had done. That didn’t happen until he drove to his apartment Monday night and watched his lie being replayed again and again on ESPN that he became truly scared.
“I saw it on TV and it was like, boom, oh my gosh, wow. It’s not true, what do I do? I didn’t know what to do…. So many thoughts went through my head,” Shaw said. “I wish my thought was, ‘Tell them now, it’s not true!’”
Shaw said he kept the story going because he was overcome by fear. He was scared of being branded a liar, scared of letting down all these people who were texting him with congratulations, scared of ruining his image with his coaches and teammates.
“I thought I was in way too deep,” he said.
Things got deeper Tuesday morning, just before Shaw was going to be wheeled out to meet the media at practice. USC officials had started hearing stories from police and other sources about an incident Saturday at the apartment building. Before taking the field, Shaw was asked directly by Coach Steve Sarkisian whether the story was true. He told him yes.
“Sark says, ‘I’m going to take your word for it,’” said Shaw, pursing his lips and looking down. “I regret it greatly… to lie to my head coach, who I greatly respect, that’s tough.”
At that point, Tessalone told Shaw the news conference was going be postponed until this growing skepticism could be fully addressed. Shaw, however, stood by his story, even as he was peppered by questions from senior administrators, including senior associate athletic director J.K. McKay.
“It gets harder and harder to keep up with lie after lie after lie … the timeline wasn’t right ... everything was off ... but I was still lying,” Shaw said. “I thought I was in way too deep.”
By Tuesday night, even his sister Asia had appeared on local TV to support his story. At that point, the media speculation had grown so great, Shaw gathered everyone at the Radisson Hotel, where he finally told his parents the truth. His mother, Venus, cried. His father, James, with whom Shaw is very close, wondered why his son just didn’t tell him right away. Shaw said he tearfully agreed.
“My biggest mistake wasn’t jumping from the balcony, it was in not calling my father after I did,” Shaw said. “I would not be sitting with you today if I done so. I tried to keep it from my father, and I will regret that to the day I die.”
Shaw said his father would have immediately set him straight — “My father is someone with wisdom, my father would have me tell the truth, we would have called Sark that night,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, after three days of deception, in a meeting with USC officials at a restaurant on Figueroa, Shaw finally told that truth, directly addressing McKay.
“I said, ‘J.K., I want to be honest with you now, I fabricated this whole deal,’” said Shaw. “J.K. looked at me and said, ‘I know.’”
For nearly three months, Shaw has faced the consequences, staying away from team activities and watching the Trojans only on television. Before the game against Boston College, Sarkisian told him he had paid enough of a price and would be welcomed back to the team. After the Boston College game, trainers and doctors approved him to return to the field.
Yet he has missed the next six games while law enforcement officials and the university have conducted investigations. The results of those may be made public soon. Shaw, who entered the season as a top NFL prospect, still knows he might have played his last game as a Trojan. He said he can only pray he will be invited to the Senior Bowl and continue his NFL dream.
In the meantime, he wants everyone to know some indisputable truths.
“I thought I could find an easy way out of something, but that doesn’t work — I have made a mistake, and I have paid for it,” he said. “And whether I do play or don’t play again, I’ll be forever grateful for USC for giving me a chance.”
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