Former Syracuse LB Cater wants another chance
By JOHN KEKIS
MINEVILLE, N.Y. (AP) Sitting solitary at a desk and resembling a soldier in uniform ready for battle, former Syracuse linebacker Malcolm Cater spoke ever-so-softly as he wondered about the future, that infectious smile still creasing his face in spite of all his youthful travails.
"I'm just ready to get home and do the right thing," Cater said during a recent interview with The Associated Press at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, nestled in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains. "I want to show everyone that the mistake I made was just a bad decision."
Two years ago, Cater's future appeared bright. About to enter Syracuse University on a football scholarship, the former star linebacker at Riverhead High School on Long Island had somehow escaped a troubled past.
On a Saturday in May 2008, Cater bolted from a party that had erupted into chaos, running from a kid waving a gun. Shots reverberated through the night air and one struck the back of Cater's left knee, sending him sprawling to the ground.
So close to having his life snuffed out, Cater escaped and recovered, became a captain on the Riverhead team, and signed with the Orange over offers from several Big East teams.
Cater had a new lease on life and played in all 12 games in 2010 as a freshman, mostly on special teams. He was in line to take over for Derrell Smith as starting middle linebacker for the Orange. Great things were expected of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound guy his teammates dubbed "Clothesline" for his intimidating hits.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Cater was dropped from the team after being arrested on burglary charges.
That checkered past - Cater was recruited before he was a teenager to become a member of a gang and was ordered by a court to spend time at a children's ranch to steer him away from that lifestyle - had come back to haunt.
`'He had a rough upbringing," former Syracuse linebackers coach Dan Conley said. "When guys come here, it's like they get a clean slate. As a coach and a father, you'd hope that those kind of guys that didn't have everything that everybody else had growing up would kind of see the light."
Cater didn't. He pleaded guilty last September to three counts of third-degree burglary involving three separate break-ins at apartments on the Syracuse University campus. One of those thefts netted him a television. It belonged to teammate Ryan Nassib, the Orange's starting quarterback.
It was a stunning disappointment for head coach Doug Marrone.
"If I lose a player for any circumstance, I look at myself and say, `How did I let that player down? Did I do everything I possibly could have done ... to make sure that player was successful?'" Marrone said. "If I have, and we feel we have as a staff and as a program, that's all we can do, and we need to make sure we don't make the same mistake twice."
Cater remains despondent.
"He (Marrone) really kept his promise. He said he was going to take care of me," said Cater, who was given a birthday cake in preseason practice just before the start of his freshman year. "He did the best he could. He showed me the utmost love that any man could show a young man. I really respect him for that.
"I don't know why I did what I did," said Cater, who wrote Marrone a letter of apology. "It was one of the dumbest decisions I've made. Being a kid growing up in a rough neighborhood and to be put in a bad environment and getting through all that and getting to where you wanted to be your whole life and then messing it up, I just want to get home ... and make it better."
Cater's uncle, Solomon Hatcher, said his nephew was under pressure to get money for a son who was about to be born.
"I can't blame his girlfriend. I can't blame the kid. It was Malcolm's fault," Hatcher said. "Malcolm is a real good kid, but he's made very, very bad decisions."
Cater has had plenty of time to reflect on his latest slipup. Stunned that he received a prison sentence of 1-3 years, he took advantage of a break given by Onondaga County Judge William Walsh, who ordered Cater to serve the time in one of New York state's "shock camps." Nonviolent inmates placed in these minimum-security facilities live in a military environment and undergo academic programming, counseling and extensive physical training.
That meant Cater would be eligible for release earlier than the one-year minimum, and he responded much the same as he did at Timothy Hill Children's Ranch in Riverhead, N.Y., where he became a tutor in a reading program for younger kids and chose to stay in his room in a potato barn instead of returning home to all those temptations.
Isolated at Moriah and held to a higher standard by the staff, Cater had plenty of time to reflect through daily community meetings and talks in front of his fellow inmates. He also took advantage of the chance to fine-tune his body, dropping 15 pounds through daily 6-mile runs and countless hours of physical training that have him "in the best shape of my life; I can run all day."
"Reality hit," Cater said. "You have a long time to think about your decisions and setting your goals. This program changes you mentally and physically."
Raised by a single mom with five kids, Cater has found football a savior since he started playing at age 7.
"That's what kept me out of trouble," he said.
And football is what he hopes will rescue him one more time. He was released earlier this month and is back home pondering his next move, whether it's trying to return to Syracuse - click on Cater's name today in the archives of the university's athletics website and you're greeted with a blank page - or go somewhere else.
According to the student handbook at Syracuse University, students under indefinite suspension are permitted after a prescribed period of separation to submit a petition demonstrating good citizenship in the time away from the university and potential for making positive contributions in the future. A petition has to include a personal essay and documentation of the completion of substantial service to the community.
Soon to be 21, Cater realizes he faces an uphill struggle given the chances that he's squandered and the accompanying skepticism he'll face. He still plans to persevere.
"It kills me because I'm always reminded of it every day," Cater said. "All I want to do is fix it. This is going to be my last opportunity to make everything right. I want to be able to show the world that I'm better. I want to get back on that field. I'll die trying to make it happen. Just give me a chance."
Updated June 22, 2012