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Once a two-sport star and Royals can't-miss prospect, Roscoe Crosby's life is on hold and clouded by tragedy
[size=-1]By JEFF PASSAN[/size]
[size=-1]The Kansas City Star[/size]
<!-- begin body-content --> BUFFALO, S.C. — They all wonder about him. The kids sweating through spring football practice and the women spinning milkshakes at Andy's Diner and the men drinking beer on Lukesville Road.
When he was 18, Roscoe Crosby owned this town. It seemed as if everybody here — all 1,426 of them — waited for those football Friday nights when Roscoe would bring his moves to Union County Stadium.
He wanted to play wide receiver at Clemson and center field with the Royals, who gave him a $1 million signing bonus three years ago even though they knew he'd be theirs only a few months of the year. He was hope and potential bottled up, 75 inches and 200 pounds of can't-miss.
Bring up his name in Buffalo and eyes still twinkle. Everybody has a Roscoe memory. The men resting next to the bed of a rickety old truck remember him chugging down Lukesville Road and playing ball in his backyard. One leans back in a plastic chair, nipping at his bottle, and asks a question oft-repeated around these parts.
“Where is that boy anyway? What's he doing now'days?”
Roscoe's here. Somewhere around here, anyway.
But the hope is fading, and the potential remains untapped. Roscoe hasn't played organized baseball since May 2003, as a lengthy arbitration battle with the Royals drags on. He walked away from Clemson last September, leaving football behind. His 14-year-old brother went for a nighttime swim last month and drowned. His mother isn't well.
And everybody in his hometown of Buffalo wonders just where Roscoe is these days. They wonder, after everything that's happened, whether the old Roscoe will ever come back.
“Nothing would make me feel better,” says Roscoe's mother, Freda, “than seeing him be Roscoe again.”
Here's the thing about Roscoe Crosby: He doesn't want to be found.
“I'm so exposed in the town of Union, I try to stay under the radar as much as possible,” Roscoe says over the phone Friday, finally talking a week after a reporter left town. “There are all the questions. What's going on with you and Kansas City? Why'd you leave Clemson? Why this? Why that?
“I don't feel like a lot of people have my best interests at heart. That's what I tell my mom now. If I'm not stable — able to go out and be a great athlete — nobody cares. Nobody cares about Roscoe as a person.”
That's a product of one town's obsession. A small burg on the edge of Sumter National Forest, Union is best known because of Susan Smith, the local mother who said two black men had kidnapped her sons only to be found guilty later of strapping the children into her car and pushing it into a lake. Some more depressing news came four years later in 1998, when 71 locals lost their jobs after a $14 million textile mill shut down.
Union High athletics — football, really — was the only respite. And along came Roscoe Crosby.
Stores used to close early when he played. On Friday nights, he filled Union County Stadium with more than 8,000 yellow-clad fans. He started at wide receiver in ninth grade and, by the end of the season, Southeastern Conference coaches already knew about him.
Folks in Union needed a hero, and he was their man.
The hype only grew over the next three seasons, when Roscoe smashed school records, won two state championships and nabbed the Mr. Football South Carolina award. Clemson recruiting coordinator Rick Stockstill practically took up an office in Union High.
Kids at Buffalo Elementary ate up the Reading With Roscoe program, where he read aloud to a class weekly. When Roscoe ate at local restaurants, strangers dangled napkins in front of him asking for autographs.
In the spring, Roscoe unleashed his talents on the baseball diamond. Same as football, he was a prodigy, and his accomplishments were prodigious.
“He had the physical skills to be an exceptional baseball player,” Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson says. “Size. Strength. Speed. Power. He needed repetitions and honing his skills, but we felt strongly he had a chance to be an All-Star-caliber player.”
Football coaches, likewise, fawned.
“Boy, when you see him physically, he has a man's body,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden says. “He looks 25 years old, muscular, and that physique: He was a man. If you could sculpt the perfect wide receiver, he'd be pretty close.”
And so raged the debate: baseball, football or both? Baseball guaranteed him millions of dollars in signing bonuses. Football promised him reverence in the South, where he wanted to stay. From Dawkins Barbershop to the Yellow Jacket Buffet, everyone mused.
Televisions across the state broadcast Roscoe's college announcement live in February 2001. Surrounded by friends, family and nearly half the school, he stood up and peeled off a white jacket to reveal an orange Clemson jersey. The gym erupted. He planned on playing college football and pro baseball.
Four months later, the Royals took him with the 53rd pick in the draft. Roscoe's desire to play football scared most teams away, but Royals scouts believed Roscoe eventually would commit to baseball.
“I told them from the start,” Roscoe says, “that baseball was my first love.”
What a coup for Kansas City. Roscoe — whom Royals general manager Allard Baird had compared to Ken Griffey Jr. — signed in July for $1.75 million spread out over five years.
Union's man of the hour was about to play a man's game.
“I don't think,” says Stockstill, now at South Carolina, “the kid ever got a chance to be a kid.”
Roscoe doesn't want to end up in Lukesville, where the ramshackle house he grew up in sits at a dead end, next to a church and across from a graveyard.
“I was told I wouldn't make it out of Lukesville,” he says. “I done got over the hump. That's what people seem to forget. My desire is to be something in life, to have something in life. I don't want to be on my back the whole time looking up.”
Roscoe doesn't stay here much anymore. His grandmother, Freddie Mae Jeter, answers the door. Two little girls tug at her dress. She shoos them away. Come on in, she says.
Her husband, John, walks around the house bare-chested. He suffered a stroke five years ago and doesn't talk too well. The little girls are Bionka and Aaliyah, Roscoe's cousins, and Freddie Mae is in no mood to deal with them, not when she's trying to watch her soaps.
Roscoe left earlier in the day to go see his mother, Freddie Mae says. Feel free to look around.
A 6-foot-tall trophy case, filled top to bottom, is just across from the front door. Baseballs line the bottom shelf, mostly home-run balls from high school. There are four football championship rings. A Royals jersey, folded up, sits on the second shelf, right next to a Kansas City Monarchs hat with three signatures: Buck O'Neil, George Brett and Roscoe.
“He was a good boy,” Freddie Mae says. “Never had to whoop him or nothin'.”
Next stop is his room. On the knobless door hangs a laminated poster of USA Today's 2000 All-American football team. At quarterback: Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, another two-sport star. At running back: Detroit's Kevin Jones, a first-round pick by the Lions this season. At wide receiver: Roscoe Crosby.
The room's just big enough to fit his bed and a dresser. A blue mat covers a hole in the wooden floor. Wallpaper peels off the walls, covered mostly by newspaper articles about Roscoe. A Griffey poster dangles over his 13-inch TV/VCR combination. One recently viewed tape is from 1999, a 35-14 Union victory against Fairfield Central.
When Roscoe signed with the Royals, he vowed to buy Freddie Mae a new house.
“He's still going to do it,” she says. “Just won't be now.”
Freddie Mae raised Roscoe in this house. She and John have rented it for 23 years from Saint Luke Baptist Church next door. The house is falling apart, and she says the church doesn't want to renovate it. She's ready to move.
Only Lukesville's kinship is difficult to sever. It's a street tucked on the edge of Buffalo, big green trees dwarfing the small homes. Children perpetually frolic on the street, so loud sometimes that they interrupt the 7:30 p.m. Bible study at church.
Religion and sports bring people together in this community, so close sometimes that it seems this is the whole world. When you're born in Lukesville, you usually stay. Roscoe left in 2001.
He drove to Clemson in the Cadillac Escalade he bought with his signing bonus. Two-karat chunks of diamond stretched his ear lobes. He commanded attention. In his first week as a freshman, Roscoe fielded as many interview requests as Heisman Trophy candidate Woody Dantzler.
Despite injury problems, Roscoe set Clemson freshman records for receptions and receiving yards. He caught six balls for 139 yards and two touchdowns against Duke in the regular-season finale, then snagged four for 69 yards and a score in the Humanitarian Bowl.
“He's quiet, and that was my only concern,” says Bowden, the head coach. “He was so quiet. He looked like he was under a tremendous amount of pressure. You could just tell. He didn't smile much. The expectations of family and friends and community that he be a superstar were heavy. And he put it on himself.”
Occasionally, Bowden called Roscoe into his office to talk. He asked if Roscoe was OK. Roscoe nodded. It was more of a monologue.
“Honestly, I don't think he liked it there,” says Eirish Stevens, one of Roscoe's close friends. “He should've stuck with baseball.
“He wanted to be close to home.”
Rain poured along Interstate 95 on May 19, 2002. Five of Roscoe's old Union High football teammates were in his 1996 Impala, primed to visit him in Baseball City, Fla. Roscoe was at the Royals' extended spring-training camp, trying to work through a lingering elbow injury.
At 7 a.m. in Hinesville, Ga., about five hours shy of their destination, the car's driver, Quenton Savage, accidentally bumped the car in front of him. The Impala skidded across the highway and screeched 69 feet before ramming into a large tree.
Jerel Brandon, 19, died on impact. James Ruth, 18, and Savage, 19, died minutes later from smoke inhalation. The two others, Adrian Salter and Jermaine Savage (no relation to Quenton), were badly burned. The car smoldered so much, its VIN number melted.
Eight years after Susan Smith, Union mourned for lost boys again. Two of the funerals were held in the school gym. More than 1,000 people showed up.
“Everything changed that day,” says Freda, Roscoe's mother. “Everything.”
Roscoe was inconsolable. He blamed himself, holed up in his room, crying and crying. For Roscoe, the wreck conjured up memories of 1999. Michael Savage, a friend who was more like a big brother, died in a car accident on a night they were supposed to hang out. Roscoe stayed home and watched a movie instead. Now Jermaine Savage, Mike's little brother, lay in critical condition. It took more than a year for Jermaine and Adrian to recover.
Roscoe still hasn't recovered. Every time he sees the burn scars on Jermaine, guilt washes over him. Friends and family say he rarely talks about the accident. They ask if he's OK. He nods, sometimes walks away.
“People will never understand,” Roscoe says. “Nobody has the words to explain how someone feels about that stuff. I go to their graves and wish I had them back.”
A month after the accident, Roscoe had elbow-ligament replacement surgery. Unable to play football, he returned to school in August and withdrew in October, still despondent.
In early 2003, he went to a counselor to deal with his grief. In March, he said he planned to focus full-time on baseball and went to the Royals' first spring training in Arizona. In mid-May, he abruptly left the team. Since he had seen a therapist, he could apply for a medical-absence waiver at Clemson and regain his football eligibility. First, he needed to pass a summer-school class.
When Roscoe returned to Clemson, he said, “Right now, I want to finish whatever I start.”
In September, without the Royals paying his tuition, Roscoe withdrew from school after one game and 11 plays.
Everything seemed fine until, poof, Roscoe vanished like flash paper. No warning and no immediate explanation.
“Took off,” Bowden says. “He didn't come in and say, ‘Hey, coach, I'm leaving.' He had a lot of things on his mind.”
Yet even now Bowden would take Roscoe back, sight unseen. Coaches covet players who turn simple screen passes into touchdowns. Unfortunately, Bowden laments, eligibility issues prevent Roscoe from wearing a Clemson uniform again.
So baseball is his only option. Roscoe started swinging a bat again over the winter. He hits in the cages sparingly. Weightlifting sessions are common, sometimes by himself, sometimes with a personal trainer.
“There's been times I've wanted to say, ‘Get off your butt and do what you know how to do,' ” says Roscoe's high school football coach, Mike Anthony. “And every time I want to, something else happens.”
Last month, the dark water of Lake Hartwell in Anderson, S.C., swallowed a piece of Roscoe's heart. It took divers three days to find Nathaniel Hill's body. Nate, Roscoe's little brother, disappeared while swimming with friends the night of April 22.
Two buses full of children trekked to the funeral in Buffalo from North Carolina, where Nate went to school. Roscoe wore his best suit.
Nate wanted to be like Roscoe. He was big, about 6 feet 3, and he played basketball and football. He couldn't get Roscoe's No. 25 in football; he took No. 24 instead. And he went out for the baseball team, too. Center field, just like Roscoe. But after a few days, he called Freda.
“Mama, baseball just ain't for me,” he told her.
“It was like he was disappointing me,” Freda says. “No. No. Of course not.”
A week before Nate died, he called Freda and told her he wanted gold teeth. She said no. He complained. She persisted. Later that day, Nate called her and left a voice mail. He apologized and told her he loved her. That was the last time they talked. She still has the voice mail saved.
“Nobody knows until you lose a child,” Freda says. “I've done everything within my might to keep myself calm. It's trauma. Heartbreak. To sit there three days in a row, at this big lake, knowing your son is in there but you can't find him.”
Roscoe reeled, too. Michael and James and Quenton and Jerel and Nate were all gone. When he pored through his picture albums May 19, the anniversary of the crash, Roscoe looked extra long at those with Nate, the most recent one a portrait from less than a year ago. They look alike, arms crossed and backs rigid.
Roscoe tries not to think about his little brother these days.
“I'm scared to grieve,” he says. “I'm scared because I done did that once. That's when I got off track — with my friends. It was death. Death.”
It takes 40 steps from Freddie Mae's porch, across the street, over a ditch and up a tread of mulch to find a freshly laid grave. Nothing is etched into the headstone yet. Plastic white flowers jabbed into the grave's red clay spell out NATE.
Sunlight bathes the spot. Maybe grass will grow soon.
Roscoe Crosby wants to play baseball again. And he can't.
“I never quit,” he says.
The Royals say different.
This much is certain: Roscoe left extended spring training in May 2003. One month later, the Royals placed him on the restricted list, freezing his $250,000 signing bonus payment for 2003. Roscoe's agent, Jeff Moorad, filed a grievance with Major League Baseball, and both parties wait for an arbitration ruling that will shape Roscoe's future.
How they ended up in this stalemate — Roscoe sidelined indefinitely, the Royals minus one of their most talented prospects — is where the stories diverge. Royals personnel say Roscoe up and left in 2003, just like he did at Clemson. Roscoe says he continued to lament his friends' deaths and was well within his contractual limitations to leave camp for the first session of summer school at Clemson. Neither party wants to discuss details because of the arbitration hearing.
Says Baird: “When a player does not want to play anymore and picks up his bags and leaves without anybody knowing, then the organization does not have an obligation to continue paying bonus money. That being said, we talk about a young man the organization went out of its way to accommodate for his personal issues.”
Says Roscoe: “I would've never left Kansas City if I thought I was violating my contract. ... I lost three of my best friends. Two of them were severely injured. OK, I'm grieving at the time. I can't get on track. I'm telling Kansas City I'm seeing a therapist. And nobody cared. ‘You're grieving, Roscoe, but you've gotta move on. You've gotta swing this bat. You've gotta catch this ball.' That can make a person's heart go dark.”
Roscoe, now 21, spends most of his time in Forest City, N.C., with his mother, her house also at the end of a street. Freda got out of the hospital last week. Her blood pressure jumped to 210/130 when Nate died. Two weeks later, she went for a checkup. Doctors told her that chronic blood-pressure problems had led to kidney failure. She started dialysis that day.
Ten staples in her neck secure the cut through which doctors inserted the tube for dialysis. Freda is weak; she walks slowly in her one-level house, nicely furnished with photos of Roscoe and Nate all over the walls. She'd like some new pictures.
Maybe one with Roscoe in a major-league uniform.
Baird says he won't determine Roscoe's future — the Royals own his rights three more years — until after the ruling. Three years after signing, Roscoe has not played an organized game, minor league or above, for the Royals.
“He's still only 21,” Muzzy Jackson says. “He's still got time. Only I don't know how long that window of opportunity is open for him.”
How quickly it closed. Freda grabs a picture album and stops at a photo from the press conference when Roscoe committed to Clemson.
“This was when he was in high school,” she says. “This was when he was the happiest.”
Another picture, this one from a football game his senior year.
“Stuff like this reminds me of when he was himself,” she says. “Lord, he was so happy. So happy. So happy.”
“He's not happy,” Freddie Mae says. “He's not happy at all.”
For now, Roscoe watches sports intently but from afar — usually the couch of his mother's home. During Clemson games, he yells at the television when his old teammates mess up. It's so easy to see the mistakes now.
“It was a mistake, going to Clemson in the Escalade and with the jewelry,” he says. “That was going to bring the hype. Some people like you. Some people won't. I'm learning. I'm seeing that.”
He watches major-league baseball to pick up tips for when he works on his own game. Baseball is still Roscoe's job, even if he isn't employed at the moment. Roscoe says he isn't poor, that he socked away some of his signing bonus, that money no longer drives his arbitration battle.
“If it was that simple, I'd go back,” he says. “It's not that easy. I can't just go back.... Lies were told about me leaving and them not knowing. That's what had me upset. If that's what happened, I don't think there's a future for me in Kansas City.”
So he hides out in his bedroom and waits. Waits for a future to find him. From the window, he can see what he's been fighting to avoid all along.