Brett is built like a football player, which is good because he is one. The 6'2", 235 pound 18-year-old is a red-shirted defensive end. Playing college football was always Brett’s dream. “Football got me through a lot … I woke up every day, go to weights, go to school, get good grades ’cause I knew I wanted to play football in college,” he says as we sit on my living room couch. Though his large build might intimidate opponents on the field, Brett’s friends love to tease him about his “baby face.” We don’t see him as a big, scary football player; he’s just Brett. His brown hair gets wavy when he lets it grow long, but he keeps it short for football season. Though his build makes it impossible not to, he likes to stand out; he wears crazy-patterned socks and has no problem breaking out corny dance moves. He likes to make people smile and enjoys being around his friends. “I’m not a blood-first type of guy,” he admits. Brett and I have been friends since freshman year. We’ve been through a lot together over the last four years: relationships, break-ups, friend drama, and most recently, his arrest.
Brett grew up in a small town with a population of 6,000, one of those towns where everyone knows everyone’s business. The community loves football, as most Midwest towns seem to, and the Friday night lights are a big deal. Brett started playing football in third grade and fell in love with it. He credits his success on the field to his time spent on the wrestling mat. “The turning point for me was when I went out for wrestling my junior year,” he explains. After playing basketball the first two years of high school, he had decided to try something new.
“I only went out [for wrestling] because people said I couldn’t do it. I was sick of hearing it, so I’m like, ‘I’m gonna do it.’” Wrestling is not an easy sport. As a team manager, I witnessed the literal blood, sweat, and tears up close. Hours of practice, tough coaches, and starving to make weight weeds out the less determined. Brett, however, was one of the tough ones and stuck with it for two years.
“It made me so much better for senior year of football,” he explains. Going into that season, Brett was one of the stars as a defensive end. His hard work paid off, and he received three varsity letters and was selected for second team conference and second team all-state. In addition to these achievements, Brett was a good student throughout high school, sang in the choir, and earned a role in the school musical senior year. “I was kind of like a jack of all trades,” he says. His various interests made it easy for him to befriend almost anyone and get involved in the community.
The summer before Brett’s senior year was a carefree one. “I was rebellious, I was stupid, I was young, and I made some bad decisions,” he admits. One night, he and three friends decided to cruise through a nearby town. There was a BB gun in the car, and they began shooting it out the window, aiming at the windows of cars parked. “There was 15 cars, like one window per,” Brett remembers.
At the same time, the boys began spending a lot of time at the abandoned County Home. It’s one of those creepy places that attracts bored teenagers. They would drive out there and spend hours searching for abandoned relics of previous inhabitants, smoking marijuana, and playing with a Ouija board.
One night, one of Brett’s friends went to the home by himself and destroyed everything he came across. According to the local paper, the vandalism included broken or destroyed windows, doors, mirrors, ceiling fans, ceiling tiles, toilets, and sinks. Though Brett insists his friend acted alone, all four boys were blamed. “I knew he was gonna do it, and I didn’t stop him,” Brett says regretfully, shaking his head. “That’s what warranted me the same charges as him.”
On Brett’s eighteenth birthday, he received the phone call that changed his life. He was told to go to the county jail, where he was arrested and charged with a Class C felony, a Class D felony, and trespassing. He spent the night in jail. The four friends were charged with the vandalism to the cars nine months before: second-degree criminal mischief, a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $750 to $7,500.
“We got charged with a lot more than we ever did,” Brett explains, claiming the police tried to place the blame for almost six months worth of local car vandalism on them. They were the only ones charged for the damage at the County Home, which was identified as first-degree criminal mischief, a class C felony. If found guilty, each of the boys could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years and fined $1,000 to $10,000.
“Did I deserve all of these? Sure, I deserved punishment. Felonies? I don’t know,” says Brett, obviously still frustrated. “We were all minors [at the time of the crimes].” The police waited until everyone involved had turned 18 to arrest them. Brett, the youngest, was the final obstacle for the cops. They all got a call similar to Brett’s just weeks before graduation. Instead of enjoying their last summer together before college, they were given 10 p.m. curfews and advised by their lawyers to avoid each other. They could not go beyond the 30-mile radius around town unless they underwent a lengthy process with their probation officer. They were allowed to travel farther only for the construction jobs they worked to pay off their fines.
When the local paper published an article on the arrests, everyone had an opinion. “People in small towns can be very judgmental,” Brett sighs. “Going around town, going to Walmart was hard for a while.” Suddenly, everybody seemed to forget about all the good things Brett had done and instead focused on his mistakes. People glared and whispered when he walked by. He was no longer welcome in his friends’ homes. Even my parents, who have known him for years, became skeptical. “People were very anti-Brett,” he says, looking at his hands.
“They knew before that I was a good kid. They all liked me. I contributed to the football team. I was very active in the community. I coached flag football. I reffed some teams.” The community’s outrage not only affected him, but his family too, especially his mom. “Some nights she cried,” he admits. His father, a former Marine, was supportive. “My dad, right away, he’s like, ‘Okay, I know you kind of effed-up, but here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna hold our heads high. We’re gonna get through this,’” Brett remembers.
The arrests tested the boys’ friendship. Brett’s friend who vandalized the County Home distanced himself from the others before charges were even filed. The three had been inseparable for years, even working at Subway together. Brett learned a lot about friendship in those months following his arrest. “I needed to learn how to rebuild myself by myself,” he says. “Because what if one day no one is there?” As a sociable person, losing friends was hard for him to deal with. The ones who stuck with him tried to keep things lighthearted, teasing him about being a felon, which he played along with. He knew that behind the jokes were those who truly cared about him.
Brett weathered that rough summer of curfews, lawyers, and long days of work. “The cops had nothing better to do because nothing ever happens in Buchanan County,” Brett insists. That may have been the reason behind the drawn out case and the harsh charges. Sure enough, the charges ended up being reduced to simple misdemeanors just in time for Brett to leave for college. The police felt as if they had made their point.
Brett has now finished his first college football season. He enjoys college, though he says it still feels like high school.
“There’s like 1,100 kids; I kind of know everyone by now,” he tells me. “That’s the only down part.” He has made many friends, most of whom are his teammates. He is majoring in psychology and is considering becoming a sports psychologist. Since football season ended, he has been coming home every weekend to work at Subway. “I have probably nine thousand dollars I’m gonna have to pay back,” he says of his outstanding fines. “Which is really hard since I’m a college student. I’m broke.”
Brett and I have kept in touch and make sure to catch up whenever we are both home. Outwardly he hasn’t changed much since the arrest. He’s still goofy and loud, but I have noticed a hint of caution in his actions. His arrest definitely forced him to grow up. Usually turning 18 means being able to vote, enlist in the military, and buy cigarettes. Brett never imagined he would be adding criminal charges to that list.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.