Sean Stopperich And The SMU Death Penalty

As I sit here watching the ESPN 30/30 special on the SMU “Pay For Play” scandal, I think back to my friendship with one of the key figures, briefly touched on, who was also promised by SMU, took, felt betrayed and spoke out.

In 1985, I was a 2nd year law student at The University Of Pittsburgh. I had made a couple trips to Dallas during summer breaks to visit my brother Mark who had moved there several years earlier.  My knowledge of Dallas for the most part consisted of the television show namesake and the Dallas Cowboys who I hated being a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I had only a vague understanding that Southern Methodist University existed.

One evening, I was  working out at the local gym, having a tough workout as I struggled to get the selected weight up.  All of a sudden, the weights rose with ease.  I looked back and standing behind the machine, helping me with my set was this huge “marshmallow man” looking guy with a smile on his face. When I say huge, I am talking 300+ lbs. A combination of fat and muscle that to me resembled a giant marshmallow.  He urged me through my set and introduced himself as Sean Stopperich.

We struck up a friendly conversation while we worked out. He mentioned that he had gone to high school at Cannon-MacMillon which was a suburban Pittsburgh high school not far from Mt. Lebanon High were I went to school. He had played football and wrestled. He related that had been attending school in Dallas but had left there and  enrolled at Temple University for that next fall. He hoped to play in their football program.

I mentioned that my brother Mark lived in Dallas. I was thinking of moving there and was driving down that next week to visit him.  Sean asked if he could tag along and volunteered to drive.  We packed up Sean’s Honda Civic and hit the road.  We may have set a land speed record covering the 1200 mile distance from Pittsburgh to Dallas in 15 hours.  Blazing across interstate 40  through Arkansas at 104 miles an hour we were pulled over by a State Trooper. I was terrified, thinking we were going to be spending our night in “Small-Town Beatdown” USA.  To my surprise the trooper simply gave Sean a ticket and told him to slow down.  The moment we were back on the road and the trooper was out of sight,  Sean, rolled down his window, laughed and said, ” I ain’t coming back to Arkansas”.  He ripped up the ticket and tossed it out the window.  Unfortunately for Sean, I neglected to tell him that I could not operate a standard transmission.  When he got tired,  we pulled into a rest area to give me a crash course in the use of a stick.  Unfortunately I was not a quick learner.  He decided that we would get there quicker if he sucked it up and drove the entire way.

During the trip, Sean talked about his involvement in the scandal.  While he did not relate too many specifics, he told me he had been given Five Thousand Dollars to sign a letter of intent and his father Carl had been promised a job and housing. The only other thing he said was that he hurt his knee and that after that, “it went bad for him and his family”  He also mentioned that his mother was forced to start working as a cleaning lady to make ends meet.  Sean was however, looking forward to attending school at Temple and thought he would do well in their football program.

We got to  Dallas and the 1st thing we did was pull into a  Jack In The Box.  I remember that Sean spent about 30 dollars on his own order of many burgers and a milk shake.  I had never seen anyone spend 30 dollars on their own fast food order.  I was in awe.  When we arrived at my brother’s place, I was hyped to go out and party. Sean was very cautious, telling me that he had to avoid the SMU campus as well as the local bars. It still did not really hit me why he was so worried about running into those who attended SMU.  Sean simply said that the troubles he related to me during the drive down had rendered him extremely unpopular on campus, especially within the athletic program.  He just wanted to  quietly visit a few friends he still had in the area.  Sean was so worried about being seen by people who were invovled with SMU, he was even afraid to go to the Mall.  I ran errands for him to get him what he needed.

Despite Sean’s fear of being recognized, we had a great time hanging out with my brother and his friends.  Sean and I became good friends. Close enough that he asked me to help him inject steroids.  It was my first exposure to steroids and the 1st and last time I ever stuck a needle in another guy’s buttocks.  I remember him telling me it was stuff they gave to horses.

We never talked about his involvement in the SMU scandal again. We returned to Pittsburgh and continued to work out together through the summer and fall until he left for Temple.  We stayed in touch sporadically after that. Not long after he enrolled, he  told me he was involved in a car crash, sustaining football career ending injuries.

Sean died in 1995 of a drug overdose. Ironically, the same fate as David Stanley, who was featured in the 30/30 special. It  saddens me that even today, so long after the scandal and years after his death, he is still vilified by people, many who were not even born or were in their single digits when the events occurred.

I knew Sean and and can tell you he was a fun loving, nice, compassionate kid who came from nothing yet had what seemed at the time like everything dangled in front of not only him but his family.  Tough pressure for a teenager.  Tough for anyone.


Brian Cuban is a an author whose  best-selling book “Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder” chronicles his first-hand experiences living with, and recovering from childhood bullying, eating disorders and Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) and drug addiction.  Brian speaks regularly about his recovery and breaking the male eating disorder stigma.

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