Being a sports reporter is, at times, an absolutely horrible job. Sure you get to watch games, travel and interact with athletes, but there is a horrendous downside. (Which is pretty much everything else.) And this is never more disturbingly clear than when a reporter has their first (or 50th) awful experience with a half-naked, exhausted athlete. Sometimes they'll be openly dismissive, sometimes they'll yell, and sometimes, well, they'll fart in your face. Most of these stories never end up in the newspaper the next day. So now, Deadspin proudly presents "The Dark Side of the Locker Room" where current and former sports writers can share some of their most distressing interactions. If you've got your own story to share, please send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan gives us a first-hand account of what it was like cover Fresno State's failed phenom (and convicted murderer) Terry Pettis during one of his scary and unpredictable moments. Passan is the baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports, and an award-winning reporter who previously was the national baseball writer for The Kansas City Star.
I punched 911 into my cell phone, stuck it in my pocket and primed my thumb on the send button. Next to rows of prefab college apartments in Fresno , Calif. , I thought I was going to die at the hands of a man who later put a bullet through an innocent girl's head.
Sorry. This one doesn't take place in the locker room. Most of Fresno State basketball's memorable moments don't. There was Avondre Jones with his samurai sword, Chris Herren with his nose candy, Rafer Alston with his fists, all legends of the country's most corrupt program. And all looked like altar boys next to Terry Pettis, who was ignoring a restraining order and pacing around the apartment complex, robotic, determined, cold.
I was there to talk with Melissa Cenci, Terry's former girlfriend. She had broken up with him two weeks earlier. He did not think that was a good idea, so he punched out a window at her apartment, traipsed over to her car, jumped on the roof, snapped off a side-view mirror and sent her a text message:
Because I was covering Fresno State basketball, I pulled duty on Terry's arrest for vandalism and battery. One of the follow-up stories necessitated talking with Melissa. It took some time before she finally agreed to meet me. I said I'd pick her up at her apartment.
When I saw Terry there, I didn't believe it was him. I circled around the parking lot to get a better look. Yep. Him, all right. Six-foot-2, 190 pounds, jacked to the gills. Or: 5 inches taller, 25 pounds heavier and filled with plenty more anger than me.
Two more laps around the lot quelled my nerves. I couldn't wuss out. I needed this story. So I readied my 911 call and walked toward the apartment. Terry emerged from around the corner. I put my head down. He walked faster. I was scared. He was 10 feet away.
"Terry," I said, nodding my head, unsure what else to say or do or think.
He kept walking.
I knocked on Melissa's door and she let me in. I asked if she knew Terry was outside. She said she didn't. I asked if I should worry. She said not to, and that she was thirsty for some coffee, so let's go.
When the door opened, a familiar voice barked.
"What the fuck are you doing with him?" Terry said.
He wasn't done.
"Bitch, get over here!" he yelled. "Move on, Jeff. Move on. Move on. Move the fuck on!"
I looked at Melissa. She motioned me away and walked over to Terry. He started screaming. I thought he might hit her. She kept shooing me away. I peeled around the corner, out of sight, and called an editor to ask what, exactly, I needed to do. Trust your common sense: If he hits her, step in, take the punches and hope someone calls the cops.
Thankfully, he didn't. By the time I got off the minute-long call and peeked back at them, Terry was down on his knees, his fingers interlocked, trying to make puppy eyes through his tears, begging Melissa not to let him go, apologizing for all he had done to her, promising never, ever again.
"I love you," he said.
We left him on the ground. At the coffee shop, Melissa told me Terry "really needs help. Seriously." No one seemed too concerned. Further charges for violating the restraining order weren't pressed. Terry pleaded out and was supposed to enter a batterer's-intervention program that he never attended. Fresno State let him back onto the basketball team anyway and won its first seven games with Terry in the lineup. During the winning streak, he told me: "No more mistakes for me. Straight and narrow."
Less than a month later, he was kicked off the team after a heated argument with the coach. In early April, I left Fresno to start covering baseball in Kansas City and figured I would never hear his name again.
I remember the day. May 11, 2004.
"Hey, Jeff," the voice said, "it's Jeff Shelman."
He was an acquaintance who covered colleges in Minneapolis , where Terry went to high school.
"Guess what your boy Terry Pettis did?"
I figured it was benign. Terry was probably the smartest kid on the Fresno State basketball team. He had a great dad who tried to raise him well. With the right people surrounding him, Terry could have been a lawyer. He was that engaging and charming. He had two problems: bad friends and a bad temper. Those couldn't get him in too much trouble, could they?
"Murder," Jeff said.
According to police, Terry had tried to rob a drug deal. He walked up to a car where a guy was buying about an ounce of weed for $280. Terry asked for the money. The dealer told his girlfriend, in the driver's seat, to gun it. Terry pulled the trigger on his Glock. The bullet went in the girl's head and exited the other side.
I didn't know what to say. Murder? Terry? The kid I had talked with almost every day before or after practice? He capped a girl, and left his fingerprints on the top of the car, and ran home to Melissa and told her that he "shot something," and then went back to Minneapolis to hide?
I did know what to think: That could've been me. I didn't verbalize it, of course, wary of sounding too self-absorbed. A girl named Rene Abbott had died. She was 18. I was still alive. I had to forget.
It wasn't that easy. Soon after murder charges were pressed, I received a subpoena to appear at the trial. My old newspaper got it quashed, though I kept up with the case the whole way, from Terry's extradition back to Fresno to his murder conviction and life-without-parole sentence.
Some of the details that surfaced throughout the trial made me shake my head. Terry allegedly wore a red basketball jersey while committing the crime. Fresno State coaches took heat for not cooperating with the investigation. One of Terry's teammates, Chris Adams, told police he had spent the evening with one guy name Dreike and another named Dante, and that he didn't know their last names. Adams went to Fresno State with Dreike Bouldin for almost a year and had spent an entire season at a junior college with Dante Sawyer. The stories at Fresno State , even the grisliest, usually carried some black humor.
But one in particular made me sad. On August 3, about three months after the shooting, Melissa gave birth to a baby girl. The father was Terry Pettis.