Opportunity knocked. And, with Bobby Engram by his side, Rick Sayles made a move.
The year was 1992, and Sayles was a senior receiver on the Penn State football team. Engram was a sophomore wideout. The day after preseason camp broke, the two drove to a State College apartment building in Engram's car, looking for teammate Richie Anderson.
They came across an unlocked door in the building. Inside, a slick stereo system. That was the opportunity. For whatever reason, they decided to help themselves. A couple hours later, they were sitting in jail, having been caught red-handed.
"Yes, we did it," Sayles says 12 years later. "I was upset. It was the preseason and we just got the depth chart, and I wasn't where I thought I should be. I was bitter and just didn't care."
But there is more to the story. Much more. And, in light of the off-the-field issues that have come up around the Nittany Lion program in recent years, the story of that fateful evening and the events which unfolded in the days, weeks, months and years after are worth telling.
"We were over there trying to find Richie Anderson because the woman who raised him passed away," Sayles says. "It wasn't like I went to get Bobby to go out and pillage. Bobby came to me so we could find where Richie was. We were on a very sincere mission, and it just all of a sudden turned into a stupid opportunity.
"Thank God we got caught."
The incident, you see, led to the defining moments of Sayles' life. As he tells the story, while he was sitting in jail, a police officer told him Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno called to speak with Engram. But, according to Sayles, when the officer asked Paterno if he wanted to talk to Sayles, the coach declined.
"I was like, 'Whoa, what did I ever do to him?' " Sayles recalls, adding at that second he knew his PSU career was over. "He didn't throw me off the team. I just left. There was no meeting, no announcement. He didn't say pack your stuff."
In the meantime, teammate O.J. McDuffie was asking anyone he could to help ante up bail, which amounted to $5,000 per head. It was no easy task, especially for Sayles, who had been involved in a minor scrape in downtown State College earlier that summer and was being vilified for the latest incident on local talk radio.
He believes he was stereotyped because of his background. Sayles grew up in a tough section of McKeesport, Pa. "Single parent, three brothers, brought up on welfare — the whole black drama," he says. "Mom's chemically dependent, brother's incarcerated and battling drugs."
But one of McDuffie's friends told her mother about Sayles. The mother turned out to be Kathy Kerrick, a teacher at Park Forest Elementary School who showed up at the jailhouse and posted bail.
"I never met the lady before," Sayles says. "Then I went to her place afterward. She starts telling me how I'm supposed to use the opportunity I was given to help the kids from my area. … This lady reads me this story of who I am and what I'm supposed to be doing. Then she goes even further, and gets me a job at her school. This is right after I got out [of jail]. She said you can live at my house. I did. I lived at her house and worked at the elementary school.
"Right away, I saw everything she was saying, how effective I was with the kids," he adds. "The kids didn't care [about his legal troubles]. It was just the look in their faces and what she said about the influence I could have to do good. I was like, wow.
"That one incident brought everything into focus. It was her. This one lady who dropped out of the sky at my worst time and said you're supposed to be better than that."
Sayles has spent the last dozen years proving he is better than that. He is still disappointed he didn't receive more support from Paterno, saying "he said I influenced Bobby, and everyone bought it. I was from the projects and Bobby was from a two-parent home in the South, a good old country boy who was young. … It would only be my interpretation, but I think it was a political move. Bobby was young, it was a good thing to say and everyone bought it."
But Sayles has not let those hard feelings stop him. While Engram returned to the team in 1993 and went on to become one of the greatest receivers in school history, Sayles quietly served probation for his crime and then finished up his degree in psychology. In the years that followed, he tried out for Canadian Football League and NFL teams but didn't make the cut.
In 1994, Sayles received a call from a man who knows something about second chances — Galen Hall. Hall, a PSU product who was forced to resign as the head coach at Florida during the 1989 season, knew Sayles from spending one season as a graduate assistant coach with the Lions in 1990. In '94 he was head coach of the Arena Football League Charlotte Rage and wanted Sayles to play for him.
Sayles spent one season as a receiver and linebacker with Charlotte before a neck injury ended his career. He has spent the last nine years working with kids in some fashion. Sayles is currently the president and CEO (and founder) of a nonprofit organization called Penn's Civilians Education Organization, whose goal is to help "poor performing low-income and/or transient students in primary urban areas" through after-school programs. It is based in the Harrisburg area.
He is well-received whenever he bumps into Nittany Lion fans. He's tight with a host of former teammates, as well, including McDuffie, Ki-Jana Carter and Troy Drayton. His girlfriend lives in Bellefonte, so he often makes the trip up Route 322 to visit the State College area.
Rick Sayles has become a distinguished alumnus of Penn State. Some might say in spite of his brush with the law way back when. He contends it is because of it.
"Everything that happened happened to bring me to this point in my life," says Sayles, now 34. "I don't regret anything. Some of the things I wish were different, they will change, they can get better. I actually wrote Joe and told him about my program. He wrote me back.
"I've done wrong and I realize that," he adds. "I've been scarred for it. But that gives me validity. I can tell kids my story and say it was in every paper nationwide, from California to Florida. It was on ESPN, everything. It's not something you want to do."
For more information on Penn's Civilians, check out pennscivilians.org.