Picking up the pieces

Ashley Slonina died on October 12, 2007 in a high-speed motorcycle accident that also took the life of the driver, Michael Guilford, a walk-on quarterback who was one of her best friends. By all accounts, Ashley Slonina was the kind of girl that made friends easily and people just loved to be around. Among her many friends were so many of the players on the Florida football team and that included Jamar Hornsby.

Ashley trusted Jamar Hornsby. How he got hold of her credit card is something we will likely find out sometime in the future — Hornsby claims he didn’t steal it — but starting the day after her death, he is charged with using it 70 times and charging nearly $3,000 of goods and services. Arrested last week and charged with credit card fraud and larceny, Hornsby has been dismissed from the Florida football team by Coach Urban Meyer.

This is the part of the job that grates at Urban Meyer and tears him up inside.  Nobody in college football works harder than Meyer to hammer the “do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do” into each one of his coaches, players and support staff.  From the day a player joins the Florida program, he is constantly reminded that it is his duty to be trustworthy, responsible and accountable. Failure to live up to those requirements is a ticket to somewhere else.

If the charges are true that Jamar Hornsby used Ashley’s credit card over and over again, then he betrayed the trust of his coaches, his teammates and most of all, his friend, Ashley Slonina. There can be no excuses. One time use of the card could be called bad judgment. Using the card 70 times can only be called blatant disregard for anything that is good or right.

Imagine how Ashley’s mom and dad, James and Rosemary Slonina must have felt during the months since the death of their daughter.  Their grief was constantly interrupted by a seven-month spree of stupidity as the credit card charges mounted and then the person arrested for the crime is none other than someone who their daughter had loved and trusted as a friend.

Imagine also how Urban Meyer must feel about now. Meyer was deeply hurt by the death of Michael Guilford, a walk-on from the panhandle who had become a nearly indispensable part of the Florida football team. To discover that Guilford’s memory and the memory of the close friend that died with him has been completely dragged through the mud by one of his scholarship athletes has probably hit him like a brickbat to the nose. Guilford loved the Gators so much that he would do anything to be a part of the team. He followed all the rules, did all the right things, cared about his teammates and was a good friend to everyone.  He was a poster child for what Meyer preaches to his players.

Now, one of the players who had everything going for him — talent, size, speed … all the things that Guilford lacked — has flagrantly made a mockery of the things that make up the foundation of Meyer the coach, Meyer the man.

There can’t be any excuses for Hornsby if indeed he did it. Two full years of indoctrination into Meyer’s way of doing things should have made it a no-brainer when faced with the first temptation of using Ashley’s credit card. He should have known better the first time. He had to know he was doing the wrong thing and by the time he was several months into this charade, he should have been smart enough to know that sooner or later he was going to face dire consequences.

Sooner or later arrived last Thursday when he was arrested. The arrest was followed by Meyer dismissing Hornsby from the football team. Meyer’s action was swift and decisive, a simple statement that said it all: “He is not a part of our program.”

In trying to understand the sense of betrayal that is felt by everyone in this situation, I am reminded of something that I have been dealing lately that in a lot of ways is quite similar. A young family member has done some things of late that are unconscionable in the minds of the adults in my family and for most civilized people. He was removed from his original home and stayed with other family members that were willing to work through some of his transgressions. In the end, this young one could not handle being a civilized human and so he was taken from this new family unit. By turning his back on the people that loved and trusted him, he will most likely meet a fate much like or worse than Hornsby.

This wasn’t the first run in with the law with Hornsby. He was involved in a public fight that resulted in damage to a vehicle. The fight wasn’t what got him in trouble as much as the damage. College kids will fight whether they are football players or just regular students. It just happens. If every football coach kicked off every kid that got into a fight, there would be a lot of teams reduced to half their scholarship players.

There were other small incidents with Hornsby, too, but nothing of this magnitude. For example, Hornsby got in trouble last season when he sold some game tickets, not against the law but against NCAA rules. It cost him a hefty suspension at the end of the year. Meyer waded through it. It was a stupid mistake but not the kind that merited booting Hornsby off the team.

Much like my young family member that made mistakes, there is a line that you just can’t cross and he crossed it. You tolerate so much, but when that line is crossed, you have to cut the ties.

If Hornsby indeed did it, it goes beyond the realm of stupid mistakes. This is low. This is disgusting. Stealing is bad enough but stealing from a dead friend? That’s callous. Callous people do things without ever thinking about consequences so there is no way that Hornsby ever considered the pain he was going to cause Ashley Slonina’s family, Urban Meyer, teammates that trusted him and his family.

I can’t imagine how embarrassed Hornsby’s family must be right now. Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I can only imagine the pain and embarrassment Jamar’s mom must have been feeling. She didn’t deserve this.

Nobody deserved it.

At some point, I expect the ignorance card to be played in this matter. It seems that any time some high profile athlete gets caught doing something wrong, that card is eventually used. How many times have we heard the words “it’s not my fault”?

Well, whose fault is it? Ignorance is not an excuse. Hornsby knew the moment he used a card that wasn’t his that he had crossed a line he should have never crossed. Now he faces potential jail time and he won’t have the cushion of a free education or the support of understanding teammates and coaches.

How can anyone understand this?

How can James and Rosemary Slonina begin to understand it? It will take a long time, I’m sure, before a day goes by without overwhelming pain, but they are decent, hard working, compassionate people who always try to see the best in others. They know their daughter befriended and loved many Gator football players before her untimely passing and even though this bad deed was done by one of her friends, they know that Hornsby is merely a bad apple on an otherwise overflowing and bountiful apple cart. I can tell you factually that they still trust in Urban Meyer and they still trust and believe in the many friends that Ashley left behind on the Florida football team. They still root for their Gators and are proud that their daughter went to the University of Florida. They aren’t afraid that when they take a bite of the apple that they are going to find a worm.

I can’t even fathom the kind of heart it takes to love and maintain a positive attitude in spite of all this unmerited trouble but James and Rosemary Slonina are managing to do it.

And how can any of us understand the heartache that Urban Meyer is feeling now? He treats his players like family. He tells mamas and daddies that he will be the surrogate dad while their kid is in Gainesville.

Well, on dad’s watch, something bad happened and even though you can’t fault Meyer for this, you have to know that Urban feels like one of his own kids had done something heinous and embarrassing.

Just like my young family member, you love them as much as you can regardless of some of the things that may have happened. I know that Urban Meyer still loves Jamar Hornsby but he can no longer tolerate the fact that Hornsby crossed a line that should have never been crossed. In tossing Hornsby, Meyer had to weigh the overall good of the other players on his team and the only way that it all works is if Hornsby is no longer a part of this close-knit family. I know that Meyer wishes Hornsby well and I believe that Urban will find a way to reach out and help Jamar in some way. But his responsibility to the Gators won’t allow him to have Hornsby on the team any longer.

It is truly a sad thing when a coach has to make a decision like this but sometimes there are no other options. But, now that the hard choices have been made there can be healing for Urban Meyer and for James and Rosemary Slonina.