September 5, 2008

Tragedy spurs UT's Paige

Some 824 miles from his Monroe, La., home in what was supposed to be a festive holiday time, Ahmad Paige received a jolting phone call that forever changed his life last December during Tennessee's Outback Bowl preparations.

An 18-year-old high school All-American who didn't play during the Vols' SEC Eastern Division championship season, Paige learned his high school sweetheart, Angie Clark, 18, had drowned in the cold, murky waters of the Ouachita River on Dec. 30, 2007, near their hometown. Paige, who had dated Clark for about "two-and-a-half years" prior to their breakup late last year, was on the phone with Clark when she decided to take her life. She drove her Chevrolet Cavalier into the Ouachita -- Indian for "sparkling silver water" -- that runs from the Arkansas-Oklahoma border south near Alexandria, La.

"Really, me and her had recently broken up," said Paige, who had never publicly spoken about the tragedy until sitting down this week with "I had come home before I flew back to Tampa, and I had saw her. That was the time we were supposed to quote unquote be the last time we seen each other. She was like we would just say our goodbyes or whatever. And something happened and she said she wasn't ready for that. I was like, 'I'm through with the relationship or whatever.' I went home, and the next day I left for Tampa. She was calling, and I ignored them most of the time. I picked up the phone sometime before Sunday and I was like, 'Why are you calling so much?' She said her mom was having some health problems, she was depressed and things like that. I tried to give her some advice and kind of kept it moving. She cooled down for maybe a day or so but then kept calling me and calling me and calling me. It was kind of frustrating because we were out as a team, and when we're traveling we don't have too much free time."

Believing the best course of action for both was to move forward in separate directions, Paige mostly continued to avoid the phone calls.

"After practice (Sunday morning), I probably had like 40 missed calls," recalled Paige, who nearly gave up football and returned home after Clark's death. "The night before I think I had 100. So I got out of practice and saw the phone and was like, 'Wow.' I went to the buses and she called a couple of times on the bus, and I came to my room and put the phone on my dresser and went through the shower. … Todd (Campbell) was my roommate and he was like, 'Dog, this girl keeps calling you. Maybe there's something wrong with her. You might want to answer. Just answer the phone and see what she wants.' I answer the phone and there wasn't any emergency or anything like that. It was her asking when are we going to be back together and stuff like that. I said I don't see us getting back together. We've been through certain situations, but I think it's just time for a change for both of us.
"At the time, it was getting frustrating and I definitely said some things I didn't need to say. I said, 'Well, this is the last thing I'm going to say to you,' and now I've forgotten totally what I even said. She was like, 'This is the last thing I'm going to tell you. You ain't got to worry about me anymore. I'm going to drive my car into this river.' I was like, 'Why are you going to drive your car into the river? Why would you do that?' She was like, 'There's no reason for living if we're not going to be together.' I was like, 'Well, you've got plenty of things to live for. You've lived 18 years before and will probably live another 70.' And the next thing I heard was her screaming and the phone went out."

Staggered by the unconscionable end to the conversation, a dazed Paige wondered briefly from his hotel room but soon returned to check his phone. Several missed calls offered a false, fleeting sense of comfort.

"I came back to the room, and she had called like three times," Paige said. "So I thought everything was OK because she had called three times. Like one or two hours later, her cousin called me and said Angie's dead. She was found in her car in the river. At that time, I didn't believe it. I was like this is a dream, this can't be happening."

Trying to cope

Gerald Jones was Paige's freshman roommate and among the first people with whom Paige shared the news.

"When he actually told me that, I didn't believe it," Jones said. "She was really crazy over Ahmad, and I guess they had been through some things and she decided to do what she did. I couldn't believe it. I don't think he could believe it. I know a lot of people say that love happens rarely in high school, but this right here, it was love. They had some ups and downs and even though she made him mad a couple of times, she made him happy as well."

Though not on Tennessee's staff at the time of the tragedy, wide receivers coach Latrell Scott admires Paige's ability to persevere through such a trying time. Like his pupil, Scott's past includes a similarly heartbreaking event shortly after his high school career ended. According to a Centers for Disease Control survey in 2005, the most recent statistical data available, the suicide rate in the United States is 19.5 per 100,000 citizens.

"He's adjusting well," said Scott, hired in January to replace Trooper Taylor. "I've got a personal situation where it happened to me with a close friend of mine in high school. My high school quarterback (Ritchie Chenault), a good friend of mine, committed suicide the year after I graduated. Played basketball and football with him. You go through things like that and you don't realize it's a life lesson that may prepare you for something down the road."

Ignoring a breakfast biscuit that rests in his right hand, Paige exhales and then continues to unburden his heart. It is eight months since Clark drowned. He struggles with how he might have prevented the death of someone for whom he cared deeply.

"The police said, and her mom said, her car submerged into the water. What happened when she submerged into the water, she was like, 'Uh oh.' and she called me and called her mom and tried to kick the windows out," Paige said. "They said she was trying to get out and couldn't, and she ended up dying.

"I think she called me three times, called her mom and called the police the last time. I was like, I kind of felt guilty for leaving my phone and I kind of always have my phone. But Trooper said to me, 'Even if you had answered the phone call, what would you say? What would you tell her?' You've always got your goodbyes. But if I'd answered that phone call and she still would have died, that would have been horrendous, I think. I wouldn't want to put anyone through that."

What impressed Paige during the crisis was the manner in which the UT family reached out to offer its support, aide that helped him forge ahead when the easiest thing might have been to shrink from Knoxville back to his Louisiana roots.

"There were plenty of times I thought I'd just go home, go to school and just learn and not play football," he said. "I second-guessed it and even third-guessed it a lot. But this is such an amazing place. I've learned that. During the recruiting process, they didn't tell me all this. I got more than what I expected.
And I think if this was somewhere else, I probably wouldn't still be here. I probably would have left.
With all the coaches, coach (Phillip) Fulmer, and all the resources and things and people that care so much about you and take care of you, I had to stay. Play it out, anyway."

Obstacles not over

Still there was more adversity that Paige would encounter a mere two weeks later, and he believed staying in Knoxville might no longer be an option. In his car with Jones and offensive lineman William Brimfield, Paige, along with Jones, were cited for simple possession of marijuana.

Those unaware of Paige's personal loss were quick to label the incident as that of another college athlete with little regard for society's laws. Both Jones and Paige, who had just met Scott the night before at a recruiting dinner, expected their careers as Vols to be over.

"The next morning, we're in the office and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God. We just got a new coach. We might as well leave Gerald. We've screwed ourselves. We met him one day and we've already got in the newspapers. You've got to be kidding me. He probably thinks we're weed heads or this or that. We might as well pack our stuff,'" Paige recalled.

Jones said the duo discussed returning to their respective native states.

"Me and Ahmad thought that we were done," said the engaging Jones, whose best friend from high school, Kascey McClellan, was shot and killed defending a female friend in early February outside an Oklahoma City nightspot. "We were like, 'Hell, we might as well pack our bags and go somewhere else. You go to Louisiana, and I'll go to Oklahoma.' That wasn't the case. I remember talking to coach Scott, and he was saying that, 'You mess up.' He didn't use those words, but you mess up, and the best thing about messing up is that you learn from your mistakes. Don't make it repetitive. I remember his exact words. He said, 'This has no effect on whether you play or not. I can tell that you're studious young men.' He gave us that opportunity to reiterate who we were. Me and Ahmad, we took that and we ran with it. We made a negative into a positive."

Scott made it clear the players would get another chance, but he likewise issued a strict code moving forward. Paige responded by sharing the Harvey Robinson Award in spring camp as the offense's most improved player.

"There's a difference from messing up one time to continuously messing up," Paige said of Scott's message. "We definitely learned from our mistake, but at the same sense, he had our back and said he didn't think of us any differently as a person. Me and Gerald kind of looked at each other like, 'Is he really saying that?' Still, it was embarrassing to the outside world. Even Johnny (Long, strength coach) came up to me one day and said, 'Well, if this is the worst thing you ever do in your life, I'd still let you marry my daughter.'

"He (Latrell) has been so supportive of everything, and he's been there for every little situation. He's like a father figure. Definitely, there's been times we've gotten into it. But at the end of the day, that's my guy."

Though the youthful Scott, who's just 33, doesn't have any children, he views his players as extensions of family.

"When I got here I realized that he's an 18-year-old kid, and he made a mistake. He and Gerald both made a mistake, and when a kid's embarrassed by a mistake, the last thing you want to do is make a bad situation worse by beating them down," Scott said. "Part of our job as coaches is to be mentors. You think about it, and if that was your little brother or your little kid, how would you react? You're going to do what you can do to help him, and you're not going to throw him away."

While Paige is just one of Scott's guys, he is the one who causes the first-year Tennessee coach to think daily about how best to develop his mercurial talent. Scott has seen Paige take off the last two weeks of fall camp, the sinewy wideout taking the necessary steps to be a player who contributes on Saturdays.

"Ahmad is, I continue to say Ahmad has some of the most talent on this team and part of my daily routine is to think about what I can do to make Ahmad Paige better," said the milkshake cool Scott, who's popularity among players has soared since he joined the staff in January. "Because if we're going to be who we need to be, Ahmad Paige is definitely going to be one of the guys who helps us with his combination of speed and athleticism."

Seeking closure

For a while, Paige thought he would return home this weekend.

"It's so hard to go back home now," he said.

In March, during spring break, Paige returned home and visited the cemetery where Clark was laid to rest.

Eventually, Paige will return to the cemetery. He wants one final conversation with Clark.

"I've went there and walked around, but I haven't actually seen her gravestone," said Paige, who also visited with Clark's mom in March and was informed the tombstone had not yet been erected. "I'm kind of looking forward to that, but I'm also kind of dreading it. But I'm going to have to go soon.

"I'll probably talk to her. Just talk to her, tell her how I feel for a little bit and just kind of get some things off my chest. I don't know, maybe it will bring comfort to me. I really don't know."

Through these tribulations Paige, who was encouraged by Clark to choose Tennessee on National Signing Day in 2007, has gained new perspective on life.

"It's changed me in so many ways," he said. "It makes you think about life a little bit differently. My life with my parents and my high school life, everything was so given to me that I kind of took it for granted. And I didn't really realize everything that I had until I got here and started losing it. And then everything happened so quick and it made me grow and mature and I'm kind of, in a way, I'm kind of a butthole now. Coach Scott tells me, I'm just a butthole. But this has changed me, not necessarily into a new person, but a stronger person. Just kind of like dealing with my emotions better and how I treat people.
Definitely, I'm kind of like living in the flesh of you never know when you're going to see somebody again. You can never, ever die early. There's no age limit. For that to happen to somebody so close to me … ."

Paige's voice trails, the words left unspoken. Perhaps they will come more easily when he sits down to talk with Clark.

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