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FSU end changed by faith and fate

Eric Powell turns around anger, academic issues after getting shot.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida State defensive end Eric Powell heard the thunderous claps resonating a few hundred yards behind him. First one, then another. A heartbeat apart.

Then he felt the sudden burning in his back.

"I knew I was shot and I felt like I was going to drop, but I knew if I fell, they weren't going to let me go, they were going to finish me off," he said. "So, I just crunched down and kept running. Basically running for my life."

Powell, 22, the victim of an attempted robbery gone bad, escaped with his life in the early hours of Sept. 16 and has worked the past 12 months to change his life.

He had to overcome his wounds, rebuild his body for athletics and learn to deal with anger stemming from the shooting. He also had to avoid some adolescent missteps that led to his suspension from the team, which could have ended his playing career regardless of his health.

"None of it was easy," he said.

But Powell, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior, did it all. Looking more powerful and fit than before the shooting, Powell has two tackles and two quarterback hurries and provides needed depth along the front line for the No. 5 Seminoles.

"Seeing him out there, I'm thinking how lucky he is to be alive," coach Bobby Bowden said. "Then I'm thinking of the courage and the resolve he showed to be healed and to practically turn his life around. His attitude changed completely after that as far as his priorities in life."

Added Powell's mother, Sylvia: "He just realized the good Lord gave him a second chance."

Powell envisioned sports as his way out of the Lake Mann projects in the west side of Orlando. He pledged to be different, but while he excelled on the field at Orlando Jones, he neglected academics.

Southwest Mississippi Community College was his only opportunity.

"His first semester here, he did poorly. A lot of people kind of gave up on him," said Southwest Mississippi coach Dom Green, a former player at Seminole High and Powell's position coach before taking over the program two years ago. "But Eric's always remained on course and believed in himself."

And he worked. Powell earned his associate's degree, improved as a player and landed a scholarship from FSU. He had 21 tackles and a sack in 2000 and, last season, he started the opener and had seven tackles after two games.

But when the terrorist attacks led to the postponement of the Sept. 15 game against Georgia Tech, Powell went home for a free weekend and found himself in the wrong company. Orlando police said an acquaintance had set him up to be robbed by two men, Ricky J. Mathis and Troy T. Davis, one of whom drew a gun. (Both are in jail awaiting trial on charges, including attempted felony murder.)

"Give it up; it ain't worth dying over," Powell told police one of the men said, possibly referring to the ACC championship ring he wore.

Since neither Mathis nor Davis wore masks, Powell knew cooperating was not an option.

"Back home, if they don't have masks, they're not planning on you walking away," he said.

So he did the only thing he could think of at the time. He ran. After being shot, he kept running and evaded the men, then used his cellular phone to call a friend to take him home.

"I heard someone beating on the door," his mother said, "and I jumped up and when I went to the door, he said, 'Mama. I've got something to tell you. I've been shot.' I can't remember anything from that. I just lost it."

She called the police and her son was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Despite a blood-soaked shirt that his mother has saved, Powell had no idea he had been severely wounded.

"When I was in the emergency room, I told the doctor, 'I've got a meeting tomorrow,' " Powell said. "He said, 'You're not going to make that meeting.' "

But it wasn't until he overheard orderlies whispering, "He's lost a lot of blood; I don't know how he's still alive," that he realized he could be in trouble. The bullet damaged his liver and diaphragm, and he needed surgery, leaving him with a crescent-shaped, 9-inch scar on the right side of his abdomen.

Powell spent 12 days in the hospital and, by the time he returned to FSU in early October, he had lost 45 pounds. He looked more like a member of the chess club than a football player.

"Oh man, he looked bad," senior defensive end Alonzo Jackson said. "He was like a skeleton with skin and he walked kind of hunched over. I thought that pretty much ended his career."

* * *

Shortly after the shooting, Powell sank into self-pity, repeatedly asking, "Why me?" He felt betrayed. How could someone he knew set him up?

"Things happen for a reason," his mother told him.

But he found the answer unsatisfactory. He struggled to control his temper.

"I was kind of mad at the world," he said.

Even his mother did not know what to say or do around him to avoid setting him off.

"It was like walking on eggs," she said.

Others discovered that, too. Back in Tallahassee, a female acquaintance egged his car as a Halloween prank. He retaliated by egging her car, which led to anger counseling. At the Gator Bowl, he broke an unspecified team rule and Bowden almost dismissed him. Instead, he suspended him and put the burden on Powell to address his anger and behavior issues and apply himself academically if he wanted to return to the team.

Powell resolved to change. He talked about the power of faith with a local pastor four or five days a week, which he said has helped with his anger. He started studying more diligently and should graduate in December. Most important, he recognizes how fortunate he was, and perhaps for the first time, appreciates what he has.

"I'm just happy to be around here," he said.

It showed during the summer. He worked out so zealously he finished behind tailback Greg Jones and linebacker Michael Boulware in the July performance testing.

"He's just done an outstanding job," strength and conditioning coach Jon Jost said. "It isn't only his physical improvement. He's been extremely positive and has pushed his teammates."

He also has inspired them.

"Some people say I'm miracle's child," Powell said. "I see that people respect me a lot more because of what I've been through. Success isn't given to the strong or the fast, but to the man who endures to the end. I feel like I've endured and why stop?"

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