By Joseph Santoliquito
Waco, TX (CBS)—If he could, Shawn Oakman would go back in time and put the $7.00 hoagie and 75-cent fruit juice down and walk out. If he could, he’d take his hand off the cashier’s wrist demanding his ID card back. If he could, he’d like to be a Penn State football player again.
But this week, the 6-foot-9, 265-pound defensive end who arrived at Happy Valley this time last year with such promise has changed direction and is in the stifling heat of central Texas, with a new beginning at Baylor University, where the Lansdowne resident and former Penn Wood star has transferred and signed his national letter of intent on Monday, July 2 for a football scholarship.
“I really, truly love football; I can say I found my niche and this is what I was born to do,” Oakman said. “This is me, football is me. I can’t see myself doing anything else but playing football. I had it taken away from me, I want to show Penn State and coach [Bill] O’Brien that I messed up, but I’m back now.”
It’s just an interesting trip that took a contrite Oakman to Waco, Texas. His personal journey started, and Penn State odyssey ended, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. That Saturday afternoon, Oakman was hungry and his meal card had run out of credits (Penn State student/athletes are issued a monthly allotment of meal points on their student ID cards).
That’s when everything began spiraling downward.
“I went to the Mix [a convenient store inside one of the Commons] on St. Patrick’s Day during the afternoon. I walked in and put the hoagie in my jacket, picked up a fruit juice, went over to the cashier and attempted to pay for the juice. There were no points on my card. A lady came from the back and asked me if I was going to pay for the sandwich and I asked her ‘what sandwich?’
“When the cashier swiped my card, she told me I had no points left and put my ID card down on the counter. I wanted it back, because our meal points are on it. When I attempted to get the card back, I grabbed the cashier’s wrist and took my card from her hand. That’s when she started hollering and making a scene. I got my ID card, I took the sandwich out of my jacket and the fruit juice and put it on the counter and went back to the dorms. I really didn’t think anything was going to come of it.”
Although, something did. Something life-changing. That following Monday, March 19, O’Brien, Penn State’s new coach taking over for the legendary Joe Paterno, had left Oakman voicemails and text messages to be in his office first thing Monday morning. He was ultimately charged with a misdemeanor and a fine.
Oakman arrived at O’Brien’s office and there was O’Brien, new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and Fran Ganter waiting for him. Oakman knew what was coming—he just had to hear it from O’Brien to let the grim news sink in.
It hit him like a hammer between the eyes.
“Coach O’Brien told me it was my last strike and I was off the team,” Oakman said. “As soon as he told me, I began to get upset and I tried to explain to him what happened. Coach O’Brien told me that he would help me in any way he could, but I wasn’t surprised or shocked at what happened. I was mad at myself, it was all on me the whole time. Those are the consequences you pay, and I was the one who made the mistake.
“I was going to Penn State to be a star, eventually, and most likely I would have started my sophomore year. What I regret is disappointing my team, giving my last name a bad name and the shame I put my family through. It was embarrassing what happened. Once my twitter started blowing up, I isolated myself from the situation.
“I did everything wrong, and there is no one in my shoes but me. I did what I did and it obviously got me kicked off the team. I cried when coach O’Brien told me I was kicked off the team and I haven’t cried since. Well, I cried Wednesday, July 27th when I left Penn State the last time. It hit me for the second time real hard what happened, that I wasn’t coming back. It was my dream to play football for Penn State, and then make it to the NFL. I let myself down, I let my family down, I let everyone down.”
The next day, Tuesday, March 20, Oakman wrote a letter apologizing to his teammates and placed the letter in every locker. He wasn’t told to do it. He did it on his own.
But Oakman also feels he was made an example of, falling in the eye of a perfect storm of events, with the beloved Paterno being fired, a new coaching staff coming in and a program under heavy national scrutiny. The last thing O’Brien, already in the throes of replacing a legend, needed was a perceived loose cannon rumbling on deck.
Yet, two other Penn State players, currently on the team, had actually taken something from the very store Oakman was accused of taking something—and they were caught. Their punishment, under O’Brien, were morning runs, according to Oakman.
“I told everyone in the letter what I did and how I was sorry for letting them down, and how I wasn’t going to give up,” Oakman said. “I do feel I was used as an example though. I don’t understand how you can let a player go like that go. I was a red-shirt freshman with no sense of direction who was struggling and had legal issues. You let him to the wolves with no help?
“If I was a coach, I do see all of the reasons why coach O’Brien let me go like that. I just wanted a second chance to play football for Penn State. I knew I could have helped them bring a Big 10 championship back to Penn State. I made some mistakes. I missed a class, but they saw a change in me. I slipped up that one time, and that was it. There were two guys who did what I did and coach O’Brien made them run in the morning.
“Since I touched the cashier’s wrist and took my card—that was the difference. That was it for me. She was a student and she got afraid, but who wouldn’t be? I’m a big, black guy who’s 6-9, 260. I can’t be mad at her, because I did it. She didn’t know me. I’m the biggest person on that campus and people were going to talk regardless. I was just hungry that day. I didn’t have any meal points left and had no money.
“You put a regular student at the Mix and that happened, nothing would have happened. What happened is on me. I put myself in that situation. But if any other student stole from the Mix, the girl wouldn’t have yelled help. I got kicked off the team and my life flash before my eyes, and that kid probably would have been told to wash the windows and perform community service.”
Oakman had already heard from defensive line coach Larry Johnson, one of the holdovers from Paterno’s staff, about missing a class. On Homecoming weekend, October 15, a pizza delivery man was robbed by two men who knocked him down. The next day, Oakman ordered a chicken platter from the same place and the same delivery man showed up at his door.
“The next thing I know, the guy said I was the one who grabbed him and threw him to the ground,” Oakman said. “I spoke to the police and they didn’t charge me with anything, because I didn’t do anything. It was another thing people at Penn State connected me with. I wasn’t charged; I was falsely accused. It was two black guys that jumped him and I happened to be black.”
When O’Brien was hired, Oakman was one of the first players he pulled aside individually when he first arrived: “In the meeting, he told me I had two strikes already, being accused with the pizza guy and the missed class. If there was a third strike, he’d send my ‘ass back to Philly,’ is the way he put it. I was going back home. He told me the day I lie to him is the day he’d stop going to bat for me. They’re strict at Penn State about going to class. I missed one.”
A number of coaches and players spoke to O’Brien on Oakman’s behalf, and an appeal was made prior to spring break in keeping Oakman on the team. O’Brien felt it was in Oakman’s best interest to transfer, and it was Johnson who was his advocate. He reached out to Baylor assistant head coach Brian Norwood, who coached defensive backs at Penn State from 2001-07.
Oakman was in the hole of life. Now with this chance at Baylor, he knows this is it.
“A lot of people turned their backs on me, because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” Oakman said. “You find out who your friends are and all of the fake people. My family attempted to help me the first time and I messed that up. I didn’t want anyone to help me. I’m paying the fine on the misdemeanor charge. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I had to do this on my own. I didn’t want anyone’s help, because I’m the one who messed up.”
Oakman red-shirted his freshman year at Penn State. He’s academically eligible to play for Baylor, but because he’s a transfer, he will have to sit out this season with three years of eligibility left.
Under O’Brien, Oakman foresees a transformation coming to Penn State. Everyone is starting new and has to prove themselves again. There is a buffet in the locker room now, where there wasn’t under Paterno. The players are allowed to play music in the weight room. They weren’t under Paterno. The players are working out with free weights, as opposed to machines, which they did under Paterno’s antiquated system. O’Brien, according to Oakman, has brought a personality change to the program, bringing an SEC mentality to Happy Valley.
Despite winning and being highly competitive, Penn State was woefully behind the modern times of a big-time college football program. O’Brien came in and made sweeping changes. Though this is his first head coaching job, O’Brien is on the verge of success at Penn State.
Oakman’s one glaring regret is he won’t be a part of it—after letting down his Penn State teammates.
Gradually, Oakman has pulled himself up from the depths—with the help of his Uncle Ken and Aunt Tracy Roberts, and Johnson’s sage support. He’s lost a little weight, but plans on putting the pounds back on and has his sights set on ultimately starting for the Bears. It hasn’t been easy on him. He’s had to go back to being a “regular student” for the first time since his freshman year of high school.
He also saw the Penn State football forums explode. He heard he did steroids. He heard he raped someone. He heard he held someone up. It made him laugh—to a point.
“I never failed a drug test; I never took steroids,” Oakman said, grinning. “There were a lot of things I could have handled better. I heard I raped someone, I robbed someone. I heard I assaulted someone. None of that is true. Think about it, if I did any of that stuff, I’d be in jail and have a lot bigger problems.
“I looked at the Penn State football team as my family. We all struggled up there to eat. There were guys who gave me food when I was hungry. I’m serious. But I’m hungry again in another way. Baylor isn’t another chance, it’s my last chance. It’s the way I see it. I feel as though this is it for me. My whole life has been a second chance, with everything that’s happened. This is my last chance to do what I have to do. I wanted to win at Penn State. Now I just have to do it at Baylor.”
Oakman carries a crumpled scrap of a torn magazine page. It’s a quote about the upcoming Penn State season mentioning his name and how he is no longer on the Nittany Lions, as if Penn State would be better off without him.
“That’s what I got out of it,” Oakman said. “It’s why I’m looking forward to playing at Baylor.”
The scrap of paper will go in his Baylor locker. He’s going to look at it every day, a reminder of one of life’s passages he’ll never forget.