TAMPA — Before the arrests at Walker Middle School, people who had seen 15-year-old Diemante Roberts play football couldn't help but think he had a future in the sport.
Last year, his youth football team, the North Tampa TarHeels, placed fifth at the AAU's national playoffs in Orlando.
And Roberts, known to teammates as Mante, was the most valuable player, said TarHeels president Ramon Robertson. He scored a touchdown and made about 10 tackles in each of three games.
"He was all over the field," Robertson said.
Now he's all over the news. On May 6, Roberts and three 14-year-olds were arrested in connection with the sexual assault of a classmate in a locker room at Walker Middle School.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies say Lee Louis Myers and Randall John Moye held the 13-year-old down while Roberts and Raymond Price-Murray violated him with a broom handle and a hockey stick.
The assault, sheriff's officials say, followed continual harassment and bullying that went back to mid March.
Those who know Roberts as a hard-working, gifted and well-mannered teenager were shocked.
Robertson said he talked with Roberts after a judge released the four teens from juvenile detention on the condition they wear electronic ankle monitors.
"Right now, he's really down," said Robertson, who said he has known the teen for four years. Roberts hadn't foreseen the ramifications of what initially seemed more like a prank, he said.
"Everything has hit him," he said. "One minute you have the world at your fingertips, and the next everything has hit him. He's trying to stay upbeat. He's praying a lot and going to church. He's definitely very remorseful about it."
That is the first word about how any of the suspects have reacted to the charges since the arrests. Parents, attorneys and close friends of the four teens have consistently ignored or declined requests for interviews.
The four teens come from a variety of backgrounds.
Myers lives in a half-million dollar home overlooking Lake Josephine and Rock Lake in northwest Hillsborough County. His father, Jamie, is president of Lee Pallardy Inc., a respected real estate appraisal, brokerage and consulting firm in Tampa.
Moye, who goes by R.J., lives in the solidly middle class neighborhood of Country Place. His parents are divorced. Now remarried, his mom has worked as an insurance coordinator in a dental office. His biological father lives in Central Florida, where he has driven a truck and served as mayor of the small city of Minneola.
Price-Murray is known as a polite and helpful young man in his LeClare Shores neighborhood. His mother, Lenshawn Price, is a well-regarded Clearwater police officer assigned to Oak Grove Middle School as a resource officer. There, her work has included conducting anti-bullying programs.
Roberts' mother has worked as a home help aide. With help from adult mentors, he has been focusing on school work as well as football, with hopes of playing at a school such as Tampa Catholic or Chamberlain High School, Robertson said. A coach posted a 10-minute video of Roberts' best plays on MySpace.
At the school last week, many students told a team of crisis counselors they couldn't understand how athletic, popular teens could be accused of such a vicious attack.
What happened is horrific and unacceptable, said Debra Pepler, who has spent 20 years studying bullies, but it's important to understand the peer group dynamics of bullying.
Research on the playground shows that most of the time when a bully is victimizing someone, there are other kids standing around watching, Pepler said. That reinforces the bully and enhances his status in the group.
"When a child joins in bullying, two things happen," said Pepler, who is on the scientific board of Miami's Melissa Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study and prevention of violence.
First, the bully becomes more aggressive, she said. "It increases bravado, and it ramps up the aggression and the severity" of the abuse.
It also excites everyone involved.
The brains of middle school students are going through a period of rapid neurological development, Pepler said, and in the face of intense stimulation, adolescents can stop thinking clearly and logically.
When "their brains just aren't working," adolescents can "lose their moral compass," said Pepler, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Ontario.
"They do things as a group that they would never dream of doing as individuals," she said.
Tampa lawyer David Tirella said he was not surprised that the accused teens in this case could be seen as nice by people other than their victims.
"That's the norm, not the exception," said Tirella, who specializes in suing private schools on behalf of students who have been bullied. "Many (bullies) are very charismatic, very outgoing, very exceptional."
They also know where and when they can get away with something, he said.
That's why Tirella said the question of who was supervising the locker room is a "huge red flag."
"How do you do that," he said, "unless you have some real confidence that — you know what? — nobody's coming in, nobody's stopping me, nobody's going to talk, nobody's going to touch me?"
Hillsborough school spokesman Stephen Hegarty said Friday he didn't have information about where the nearest adult was when the assault took place in the locker room.
But last week, Hillsborough school administrators began talking to principals about making sure students feel that an adult is watching them no matter where they are — in a stairwell, hallway, restroom or locker room.
The expectation is that on a school campus, kids are supervised, Hegarty said.
"We just need to let the kids know that if they think we're not keeping an eye on a particular bathroom, well, we are," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.