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When the Ravens signed wide receiver Donte' Stallworth in February, I wrote that they were taking a risk because fans want to root for the players on their team, and Stallworth, having pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter in 2009, came with potentially off-putting off-field baggage.
But I also wrote that the Ravens seemed to know Stallworth and have faith in him, and if the first impression he made when he met with the Baltimore media for the first time Thursday is any indication, that faith is well-placed.
Stallworth was, in a word, impressive. He didn't hide behind legalese, didn't make excuses for his colossal mistake, didn't try to portray it as anything other than the fallout from a terrible decision he alone made. He was accountable, contrite, humble and thoughtful, looked people in the eye, nodded understandingly when tough questions came his way.
He didn't need some image doctor to step in and argue that he deserves a second chance. Stallworth, 29, made the case himself.
When asked about having to deal with the haunting memory of a fatal accident, he said, "It's tough. It's a daily process. It's not something that's in the back of my mind now that I'm back in the league. It's something I deal with every day, waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night. It's a tough situation for everyone involved. If I could go back and take that night over, I would."
When asked what he had learned, he said, "The accident has allowed me to understand the severity of one bad decision leading to a whole terrible incident. I've become a better decision-maker."
When asked if he understood that some fans would have a hard time seeing him as anything other than a guy who drove drunk, killed a man, served 24 days in jail and was suspended from pro football for a year, he nodded yes. And when asked what he could do to change that perception of him, he gave a telling answer.
"One of my mother's favorite slogans always was 'actions speak louder than words,'" he said. "When I was younger, she would tell me to do the dishes after dinner and I'd say, 'Sure, no problem.' When they still hadn't been done three hours later and I was still promising to do them, she would say, 'Actions speak louder than words.'"
In other words, he understands that he can talk all he wants about what he has learned, but his behavior will serve as the true test of his character. And Stallworth is confident he can pass that test.
"One instance doesn't define a person. Before the accident, I wasn't a bad person. That's not the way my mom raised me," he said. "This was a situation where I could have used better judgment and didn't, and the end result was what it was. But I think once people get to know me, they'll know I'm not the kind of person that is perceived from the outcome of my case."
What kind of person is he? He is a lively, enthusiastic Twitterer with more than then 32,000 followers who check his page for his opinions on philosophy, politics and other subjects. He is also an avid reader and political junkie who majored in psychology at the University of Tennessee and enjoys "just being able to have a sense of what is going on in the world."
A native of Sacramento, California, and the third of his mother's four children, he has older siblings who fiercely came to his aid when he found himself in such terrible trouble more than a year ago.
"I have a great support group of family and friends," he said. "That and my faith in God has helped me out as far as being able to be at peace with myself, having a serene state of mind."
On the day he joined the Ravens, he was eating lunch at the airport before his flight home when ESPN reported the signing. Some Ravens fans recognized him and approached him with good wishes. It was clear that, as badly as the team needed his burning speed and pass-catching skills, he needed the opportunity more.
"I am so blessed," he said. "Not just to get a second chance, but to find such support from people. The response has been overwhelming. I feel comfortable around here and people have made me feel at home. I just want to do my part."
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.