The professional athlete as target: 'Am I next?'
Adewale Ogunleye was tired of running. It was time to meet his fate.
A few minutes earlier, the Chicago Bears defensive end had pulled his Bentley out of the parking lot of a Miami hot spot and noticed he was being followed.
Every time he turned, the car behind him turned. Every time he sped up, it sped up. It was a few minutes after 3 a.m., an up-to-no-good hour that did nothing to ease the nerves of the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Pro Bowler. So he tried everything he could think of to shake his pursuers.
"I was doing illegal things -- speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, doing everything to get away," Ogunleye said. "But they just wouldn't leave me alone."So he gave up. He stopped his Bentley, rolled down the window and nervously prepared for the worst. But before he could say a word, the other car pulled up and two guys started talking. Turns out they were big fans. Had their own band. And wanted to give Ogunleye a CD so he could listen to it and e-mail them his thoughts.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/M. Spencer GreenTurns out Adewale Ogunleye wasn't being chased by people with evil intent, but he didn't know that.
All those nerves -- the sweaty palms, the racing heartbeat, the dilated pupils -- were for a CD.
"And in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'Somebody is trying to rob me or kill me,'" Ogunleye said of that night a few years ago. "It still scares me. What if somebody would have had a gun? What if that would have been some crazy person chasing me down? It's scary.
"We may not look like it on Sundays, but we're human like anybody else. We bleed, we laugh, we cry and we have fear."
No matter where professional athletes are -- at home, out with friends, in their cars -- they know they are targets, and they perhaps have never been more uneasy about their personal safety than they are right now. The slaying this week of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor during what investigators are calling a "random burglary" at his house in Palmetto Bay, Fla., is the latest in a string of armed home invasions that has shaken the sports world since the summer.
In July, three armed robbers approached Antoine Walker, then with the Miami Heat, outside the garage of his Chicago mansion, duct-taped his hands and feet together, then stole thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry, as well as Walker's Mercedes. A friend who stumbled into the robbery also was bound with tape and held captive.
Later that month, police said they believed the same group taped and tied up New York Knicks center Eddy Curry, his wife and a Curry employee in Curry's suburban Chicago home. That group fled with $10,000 in cash and several pieces of jewelry.And in September, a pair of men tied up and robbed Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson at gunpoint inside his home in a gated community in suburban Houston. They, too, escaped with thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry. "There's no question we're targets," said Bears rookie tight end Greg Olsen, a teammate of Taylor's for one season at Miami. "We're high-profile people. They want what you have, and they're willing to do whatever they have to do to get it."[+] EnlargeJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesSean Taylor's house is now a crime scene.
Police have arrested four men they believe are connected to the Walker and Curry robberies, and one man in the case involving Robinson. The Taylor case still is under investigation. On Wednesday, Taylor's boyhood friend, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, scoffed at the suggestion that Taylor's death was part of a random burglary attempt, saying his friend had been targeted for years.
Four examples don't necessarily amount to a trend. But any professional athlete can look at the cases of Walker, Curry, Robinson and now Taylor -- not to mention separate robberies involving Lamar Odom, Phillip Buchanon, Cuttino Mobley and Plaxico Burress, and the shootings of Darrent Williams, Julius Hodge and Tank Johnson's bodyguard -- and at least ask the question: Am I next?
Six months after his horrifying incident, Walker still is trying to get over what happened to him. He put his house on the market and hasn't been back since that night. Just now starting to find closure, Walker's scars were reopened by Taylor's death.
"It definitely brought back some bad memories for myself, and you just kind of replay those things in your head," Walker told ESPN.com this week. "Obviously, I was very lucky not having any bodily harm, not having any physical altercation. I was lucky. Everybody doesn't get as lucky as I was."It is particularly alarming that a number of these recent incidents took place at the athletes' homes. Curry, Walker, Robinson and Taylor all were at home, in some cases with their families, when trouble found them.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Alan DiazWhen Antoine Walker heard about Sean Taylor, it took him right back to his own horrifying experience.
"If you're not safe at home, then where?" Walker asked.
Said Chicago Bulls forward Ben Wallace: "You always want to feel like you're safe in your home, but that doesn't seem to be the case any more. If these things keep happening like they're happening, you'd be a fool not to take necessary measures to protect your family."
That's a point each professional sports league has been making for years, be it at annual rookie symposiums or in constant updates from league and team security personnel throughout the season.
After the Curry and Walker incidents this past summer, Robert Gadson, head of security for the NBA Player's Association, sent a memo to all NBA players, urging them to review their security procedures and scrutinize everything from the height of the bushes in front of their homes to the people with whom they surround themselves to the type of home security system they have.
"Our players, their work schedule is public knowledge, the amount of money they make is public knowledge, they're easily recognizable and they're rich," said Gadson, who spent 23 years as a New York Police detective. "These people targeted [Curry and Walker] specifically. They were young and rich. People knew where they lived, and someone took advantage."Allen Thompson Jr., a former college basketball player and the founder of Silent Knights Security, a personal protection service in northern California that protects athletes, celebrities and high-profile businessmen, says he believes most athletes don't think enough about protection. If they do think about it, they hire an oversized friend rather than a trained professional to serve as a bodyguard. Or they think a gun (or in Taylor's case, a machete that he reportedly kept next to the bed) will protect them.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Jeff LewisBen Wallace says it's reached the point that athletes are foolish if they don't find ways to protect themselves and their families.
"We live in a society where people are becoming more and more desperate," Thompson said. "The economy is poor, people are losing their jobs, they don't readily have the funds available that they once did so one thing leads to another. They take a chance, throw on a ski mask, get a gun -- and most athletes today just aren't prepared for that."
At a cost of about $75,000 a year, Thompson said, a professional athlete can hire a trained security personnel team to protect him and his family. For an additional $25,000 to $40,000, he can add a trained guard dog to watch his home. Additional security measures Thompson recommends include living on a gated property complete with security cameras so that every face entering the grounds can be identified.
Some, including Sally Simpson, chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, believe the extra security might be a tad overboard. Although she believes increasing security is always a reasonable response following a case like Taylor's, Simpson doesn't think athletes are any more vulnerable than the general public.
"These stories put a high level of fear among the people who identify with the victims," Simpson said. "That's why athletes are dealing with this fear right now. They identify with Sean Taylor. Although it behooves them to be extra cautious, I don't think the risks are terribly higher for athletes than anyone else."
Even if they aren't targeted more often than the average man on the street, extra security might provide a sense of calm for professional athletes. After all, we live in an Internet-driven society, and all sorts of personal information -- someone's phone number, address or even a satellite image of his house -- can be found on the Web. And once your salary increases, Ogunleye says, so does the anxiety."The more you make, the more you have to lose," the defensive end said. "If I was an undrafted free agent, I probably still would have thought somebody was trying to rob me that night in Miami. But I wouldn't have been as worried about it.[+] EnlargeJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe bottom line, according to Bears tight end Greg Olsen: 'There's no question we're targets.'
"But as your pay increases, your insecurities increase, too. You worry about people taking what you've worked so hard to have."
A year and a half ago, when Ben Wallace left the Pistons to sign a four-year, $60-million contract with the Bulls, he said he almost immediately felt the target on his back grow larger, both on and off the court.
"If you sign a big contract, everybody knows," Wallace said. "They're going to print it in the paper. It's on ESPN. You can go online and check player salaries and all that. You're a target. We're all targets. You've just got to protect yourself the best way you can."
Even for the chiseled, 6-foot-9, 240-pound Wallace, a man who looks more like a bodyguard than someone who might need one, that could mean adding a security detail. Although Wallace said he doesn't currently have a bodyguard, he added that he "might have one tomorrow" after seeing what happened to Walker, Curry, Robinson and now Taylor over the course of the past six months.
"Professional athletes, most of us came from the streets. We feel like we know the streets and can pretty much protect ourselves," Wallace said. "But now we're in a position where we're being targeted, and the stakes are just too high. So, yeah, you might need that big guy standing next to you for a while."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Wayne's ESPN Fan Page at myespn.go.com/wdrehs. ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein contributed to this story.
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Sean Taylor: 1983-2007
Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died Nov. 27, a day after the Pro Bowl player was shot at home by what police say was an intruder. Four suspects are in custody and have been charged with first-degree felony murder and armed burglary.
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• Four arrests made in connection to Taylor's killing
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• Childhood friend Rolle doubts burglary
• Gore deals with death of friend
• Taylor's death stirs memories of slain Bronco
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• Taylor dies after being shot at home
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• Taylor shot, in critical condition
Reaction• Sando from Redskins' first game after tragedy
• Merrill: Unanswered questions frame Taylor's life
• Granderson: Pursuit of street cred a dangerous choice
• Drehs: Pro athletes feeling targeted
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Video• Complete Taylor coverage
Audio• Taylor's ex-attorney's account of tragic night
• Former coach Larry Coker remembers Taylor