TAMPA — Marshall McDuffie's story is one every young football player should know, about choices, consequences and how technology can take one mistake and define a life with it. But it also offers a lesson in responsibility and, ultimately, redemption.
"I still can't explain it," said McDuffie, 22, who attended Bucs minicamp this weekend hoping to earn an invitation to training camp.
"It wasn't me. Something just snapped."
If you haven't heard of McDuffie, a Florida International defensive back, chances are you heard about the incident that stained his career and character.
It was the Miami-FIU brawl on Oct. 14, 2006. In the third quarter, FIU safety Chris Smith wrestled holder Matt Perelli to the ground after an extra point. That's when McDuffie kicked Perelli in the head, an assault that can still be viewed on YouTube.com.
A combined 31 players from both schools were suspended while Smith and McDuffie, a junior from Brandon, were kicked off the team.
For McDuffie, it was an athletic death sentence. He was allowed to keep his scholarship, but given the brutality of his actions and the publicity surrounding it, no other program would take a chance on him.
Those who knew McDuffie best couldn't believe it. At Durant High, McDuffie was the sophomore class president. He went to church and organized Bible study and a sports camp at FIU.
"I was labeled as a thug," McDuffie said. "Now I have to deal with people who say, 'Oh, you're that guy?' It's just something I have to deal with because it's a decision I made."
McDuffie didn't sulk or plead for forgiveness. He simply focused on school, completing a degree in sports administration, and leaned more heavily on his faith. He turned his energy and time that had been devoted to football to helping others through his church, making two missionary trips to Haiti.
"Those people had nothing, but they still had joy, praise and faith," McDuffie said. "And no matter what, they didn't complain. They just kept on going. That's the approach I took from them for everyday life."
A year later, McDuffie received a request to meet with FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, the man who had taken football away from him.
"He called me in, and it was extremely unexpected," McDuffie said. "I didn't know what it was about. But he called me in and said, 'You've blessed the community a lot. You've helped out a lot of people. So it's time for you to be rewarded and receive a blessing.'
"And he offered me a chance to come back on the team."
McDuffie didn't waste this unexpected chance. Last season he played free safety for the Golden Panthers, recording 26 tackles and three interceptions.
"It was really important the athletic director was willing to let him back on the football field as well as his coaching staff," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "That was a big hurdle in terms of our evaluation. I mean, we liked the kid, his tape.
"We were intrigued by the kid. But obviously, he passed their bells and whistles, and they would be the most scrutinizing of anybody."
A few weeks ago, McDuffie earned a tryout with the Bucs. They saw his 6-foot-2, 217-pound frame and figured with those long arms, he might be able to make the transition from safety to a bump-and-run cornerback under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
"It's a dream come true," McDuffie said. "I never knew I would get this opportunity two years ago — never.
"It's honor. It's love. It's glory. It's everything I ever imagined."
McDuffie, who is a few credits shy of his master's degree, shares his story with youth groups. What is football, if not getting knocked down and learning how to pick yourself up again?
"And I tell them to learn from mistakes," McDuffie said. "Don't stay down. Get up."
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.