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Auburn alumnus' decision to turn in Crimson Tide

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Auburn alumnus' decision to turn in Crimson Tide for NCAA violations

results in unparalleled ordeal


DATE: September 28, 1997

PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution

EDITION: The Atlanta Journal Constitution



John Thrower left Opelika, Ala., that day in a rush, bursting out the front door of his red-brick home on Bonita Avenue and driving off in his 1986 Chevy Impala. He was filled with guilt and embarrassment, and he was ready to end a life that had veered head-long toward pain and turmoil. There were the drinking binges and the lonely depression. The law practice in shambles, damaged by his admitted co-mingling of funds in client trust accounts. The failed marriage and the pending separation from his two young daughters.

And the reaction of people when he entered a room, lowering their voice to a whisper as they talked about him.

Look, there's the Auburn guy who blew the whistle on Alabama football and got the mighty Crimson Tide in the middle of an NCAA investigation.

On that gray October morning two years ago, he had penned a suicide note ---"You're going to divorce me " ---to his estranged wife Lynne, then a municipal judge in Opelika.

"My intent was to go to Atlanta and do it," Thrower, 44, says now. "I felt like a complete and absolute failure ---loss of family, loss of profession, loss of friends."

So Thrower steered up I-85, swigging from a fifth of Early Times whiskey that sat open by his side. He wound up parked outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the day after the Braves had clinched the World Series by beating the Cleveland Indians.

He sat in the car for three hours, thinking. He had intended to plug the exhaust, close the windows and let the motor run, but he couldn't bring himself to follow through. "Maybe it was the Lord's way of giving me another chance," he reasons. "Or maybe I didn't have the guts to do it." Dangerously unfit to drive, Thrower nonetheless weaved back down I-85, stopping first near Union City to replenish his alcohol supply, later pulling over more times than he can remember to vomit, before arriving at his doorstep in a drunken stupor. The police had already been called. At his wife's directive, he was taken to the local hospital's de-tox center for a few days before voluntarily entering a rehab facility for treatment of alcohol abuse and a cute depression. Since that episode, there have been relapses, an eviction from his apartment and a few nights of restless sleep in his '84 Toyota Corolla (a hand-me-down from his mother) until friends helped him enroll in a three-month, five-nights-a-we ek drug/alcohol counseling program. His law license is suspended until at least June 2000 and he's on his third job in three years, supervisor for a parts distribution company in Birmingham.

Thrower is fighting his alcoholism, fighting his depression, fighting all of his inner demons. The toughest one to slay may be all about the game of football.

The Auburn-Alabama rivalry took root a couple of generations ago. It was fueled in 1958 by Bama coach Bear Bryant's heralded arrival in Tuscaloosa and his knee-to-the-groin reference to Auburn as the "cow college." As Thrower says, the ill will stretches beyond football to a tendency by Alabama supporters to peer down their nose at the Tigers.

With no major professional sports team in the state to distract attention, the meanness persists year-round. "It's about as bad as it gets, in an unhealthy, competitive way," said the NCAA's Dirt Taitt, who investigated Thrower's allegations.

Early this decade, it sunk to new lows.

Eric Ramsey left Auburn in 1991 after four years of football with some parting shots. His charges that the coaching staff provided him financial assistance landed the Tigers a two-year stay in NCAA jail, with a loss of scholarships plus TV and bowl bans, and forced beloved coach Pat Dye into early retirement. To this day, Auburn faithful are convinced that Alabama devotees influenced Ramsey. A year later, the NCAA was swooping down on Alabama after learning businessman Harold Simmons had written a half-dozen checks to co-captain Gene Jelks. The NCAA didn't penalize the program for the checks, but violations involving Jelks and Antonio Langham got the Tide ---who had never been sanctioned, compared to Auburn's five-time rap sheet ---tagge d with a two-year sentence that included a postseason ban and loss of scholarships along with eight forfeited games. After Jelks relocated to Atlanta and leveled the charges, he was supported financially by an Auburn backer, and Jelks' attorney was the son-in-law of a prominent Tiger booster.

Thrower got involved because copies of the checks wound up in his hands. (He has sworn they were provided by a now-deceased Auburn fan, though Simmons accused his wife's first divorce attorney, Steve Brunson, of sharing the checks with his former Auburn classmate.)

There wasn't much doubt Thrower would show allegiance to the Loveliest Village on the Plain. His late father was an Auburn alum. So is his mother, Louise, who counts upwards of 200 family members to have graduated from the university. By the fifth grade, young John was selling Cokes and orange seat cushions at football games. A stocky man, now at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Thrower was not a recruited athlete, although he was a distance-runner as a freshman at Auburn. A leader who had been president of his high school class, he also served as president of his college fraternity.

After college, he became a season-ticket holder and scholarship donor. He published a recruiting newsletter and became tight with the coaching staff. He was the extreme fan, living vicariously through the Saturday afternoon heroics of the Tigers.

It goes without saying that he loathed Alabama. He was especially peeved Tuscaloosa had the state's most prestigious law school while Auburn had none at all ---he graduated near the top of his law school class from Samford University ---and that most of the state's judges and politicians had ties to the Crimson Tide. He refers to Bama's group of heavy-hitting financial supporters, known as the Red Elephant Club, as "the KKK in business suits."

So when he got his hands on copies of the checks written to Jelks, Thrower could barely hide his glee. He advised backers of both schools about his find, even bragging about it on radio call-in shows.

A series of articles about the Jelks case appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November 1992. A month later, Thrower had the first of five meetings with NCAA investigators. When Dirk Taitt came to Opelika, Thrower did not want the NCAA cop seen in his law office, so they drove around town for two hours. "I wanted to correct a wrong that was going on," Thrower said.

Later, they met for five hours in a two-room suite at the Atlanta Airport Marriott, surrounded by about eight boxes of materials.

His efforts to bring down Alabama caused a stir from Mobile to Huntsville, and rumors spread. A Birmingham sports-talk show host made the outrageous claim on the air that Thrower and friends paid Jelks $170,000 to squeal on the Tide.

Some influential Auburn fans offered him financial support when the time was right. The atta-boys had the same effect as alcohol would, making him drunk with attention.

His brother Fred, who broke ranks from the family to enroll at the University of Georgia, remembers tailgating before an Auburn game during the height of the NCAA investigation. He recalled, "People with a lot of clout within the university and the booster club, even politically, would say, `Yeah, John, we're behind you. Let us know what you need.' "

"The encouragement came from people who were aware I was meeting with the NCAA," John said. "I told some people I was. Then, it was `Go, Thrower, go.' "

Alabama backers reacted with equal passion. Thrower says he heard threats against him and his law practice, even disbarment if he cooperated with the NCAA. There was a vicious wisecrack within earshot of his daughters. The back window of his car was shot out.

"How grown men could become absolutely obsessed with something like that was just beyond me," said Lynne Riddle Thrower, now his ex-wife. "The men he was talking to, who I knew were calling our house, were all professionals, most attorneys or very successful businessmen."

Working as a lawyer for insurance companies, Thrower says adjustors began taking their business elsewhere. His income dropped from $110,000 in 1992 to $43,000 the following year.

Thrower says Lewis Hamner, a circuit court judge in Randolph County, told him not to bother bringing another case before him. Another, William Robertson of Barbour County, sarcastically greeted Thrower's appearance in court with: "Well, here comes Jelks' attorney. What information you got for us today?"

Both judges downplay the incidents. "If I did say it, it was certainly a joking matter," said Robertson, now in private practice. "I ain't gonna get that upset about a game played by children."

Brunson said he also lost clients as a result of his interviews with the NCAA and rarely attends Auburn games anymore.

"To me, it's like if you see a crime occur and you turned somebody in for that, then you're a hero," Brunson reflects. "But if you even think that Alabama did anything wrong and you say anything about it, it's almost like calling the Pope a name." Particularly dismaying to Thrower has been his perceived treatment from the Auburn family. When he had the NCAA's ear, he estimates fielding 30 to 40 calls of encouragement a day. Then Harold Simmons sued him and Brunson for publicizing the checks , and his so-called friends scrambled for shelter. Colleagues were too busy to take his case against Simmons. Some didn't take his phone calls.

His mother Louise asked him, "`Son, do you know what you're doing?' The people from Auburn that got him to do this, to push it, said they'd take care of him and all this stuff. Now they can't be hardly found. And he couldn't handle it by himself."

Thrower's life was crumbling all around him. His law practice began to slide, his work days were reduced to four hours and he went on drinking tears. He juggled funds within client accounts to make ends meet. He doesn't blame the behavior entirely on his entanglement in the NCAA case but is convinced that it was a factor.

To Louise, it's more than that. "Oh, I think it's all because of Alabama vs. Auburn," she said. "I really do."

Just before the '94 season, Thrower was in his favorite Auburn watering hole, Touchdown, with friends and his brother, discussing football on a Saturday afternoon, when first-year head coach Terry Bowden walked in with his wife. They had met before, and Thrower reintroduced himself.

"I said, `Coach, how you doing? John Thrower,"' he recalls. "He says, `Fine, John. I know who you are, but I can't talk to you.'

"I was mad, really mad. I'm starting to get a bad feeling. I hadn't gotten any word on how the NCAA was going to treat (Alabama). I had a law practice, struggling. I'm drinking heavier."

If only, Louise Thrower says, he had kept to business and let the kids play the games.

"I never thought I'd feel like this, but I don't even have tickets anymore to the ballgames," she said. "It's like Auburn people let me down. We ate and slept everything Auburn. Johnny may have been wrong, but they're not taking up for him. You think you're going to wake up and realize it's all been a bad dream." Her son won't let go.

For months, Thrower has been preparing lawsuits against the NCAA and SEC, to whom he also reported alleged violations, for failing to protect his confidentiality. They have not been filed, he said, because he is too strapped for cash to pay the fees.

He remains angry over Alabama's NCAA penalty, which he considers lenient. He has written and called NCAA hierarchy to complain that investigators neglected to follow up on all of his leads.

The NCAA's Taitt said the organization proved everything it could. "I feel sorry (for Thrower) on a personal level," he said.

His manic depression has been calmed by various drugs, and he's taking medicine to curb cravings for alcohol. He completes an intensive counseling program this week. In another three years, he plans to apply for restoration of his law license.reads:


Dawgs and Gators

As for the Crimson Tide, Thrower would step on the gas. He professes no regrets for any efforts to get Alabama football punished.

"It was like kill the messenger," he said. "They almost destroyed me."

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