SPORTS DESK/Bob Liepa: Cater’s arrest is a sad tale

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Former Riverhead Blue Wave Malcolm Cater in a high school all-star game earlier this year.

I knew something was up the other day when, after turning my computer on, I saw six straight e-mails with Malcolm Cater’s name in the subject line.

My journalistic sixth sense immediately went to work at super speed.

“Uh-oh,” I thought, “this doesn’t look good.” Cater must be in the news, I thought, and good news doesn’t travel like this.

My heart sank as I read the details pertaining to Cater’s arrest. The Syracuse University football player was charged with burglarizing three apartments on campus and arrested on three counts of burglary and one count of grand larceny, all felonies, as well as two misdemeanor counts of petit larceny. He was being held in a city jail in Syracuse on $150,000 bail.

In response, Syracuse Coach Doug Marrone issued a terse statement declaring Cater no longer part of the Syracuse football program. The former Riverhead High School star’s college football career appears to be over. And that could be the least of it.

What a sobering blow, about as hard as one of Cater’s bone-crunching hits.

If, as the legal process follows its course, these charges are proven true and Cater is found guilty on all counts, he will have thrown away a free education, a promising college football career — one he hoped would lead to the National Football League — and his good name.

“We’re all saddened,” Riverhead Blue Waves Coach Leif Shay said. “The Riverhead football community is saddened. We’re praying for Malcolm and we hope that he finds his way.”

This tragic fall from grace is the latest sharp reversal in the trajectory of his young life. Cater, who has an easygoing manner and engaging smile, had moved to Riverhead from Wyandanch in the hope of a better life. The impetus for the move was his being shot the day before Mother’s Day in 2007. Going against the advice of his mother, Cater went to a party. He said he was leaving the party after a fight broke out when a stray bullet struck him in the leg behind his kneecap.

“You never think you’ll get shot until it happens to you,” he said.

The bullet didn’t do much damage and Cater fully recovered from the injury, but he called the incident “a wake-up call.”

Cater was welcomed with open arms in Riverhead, where he played two memorable seasons and quickly built a well-deserved reputation as a fierce hitter. With a body seemingly sculpted out of muscle, Cater can pack quite a punch. I remember one time during a Riverhead practice when I was scribbling something down in my notebook and I heard the crash of a violent collision of helmets and pads, followed by the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” of players. When I looked up I saw Cater standing over a fallen teammate he had just drilled. Shay said Riverhead never had a player who hit as hard as Cater.

Following his senior season in Riverhead, a season in which he made 103 tackles and 11 sacks in nine games, Cater was named a co-winner of the Carl A. Hansen Award, which goes to the best player in Suffolk County. He shared the honor with his cousin, JeVahn Cruz, who played for the Half Hollow Hills West Colts.

My memories of Cater are of happy times. I remember how Cater, Shay and myself were among the last people to leave the Hyatt Regency Wind Watch in Hauppauge, laughing and joking after a four-hour ceremony that culminated with Cater receiving the Hansen Award. “This is just overwhelming,” Cater said. “This is the highlight of my life right now.”

Then there was that day this past spring in the Riverhead High School library when a smiling Cater, surrounded by family members, signed a national letter of intent to play for Syracuse. His search for a better life would take him to central New York. It was there, though, that something horribly wrong happened.

Cater’s arrest cut short a fine freshman season for the backup middle linebacker. Wearing the same No. 4 that he wore when he was with Riverhead, Cater played in 12 games for the Orange, made 13 tackles and recorded one sack. He was on just about every one of Syracuse’s special teams.

The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Cater was second on the depth chart behind senior middle linebacker Derrell Smith, and appeared on the road to a starting position next season.

What were Shay’s thoughts earlier this week as he digested the upsetting news from Syracuse?

“Just disappointed,” Shay said. “That’s the biggest word. The young man had such a great opportunity. He was doing well. He found a place where he could contribute.”

Of course, it is possible for Cater to revive his football career, but it wouldn’t be easy. Certainly, a lot of that depends on the outcome of the mess he is currently in, but players have rebounded from worse. He would need for a coach to believe in him, and he would need to believe in himself.

Under different circumstances, Cater might still be practicing with Syracuse, preparing for the Orange’s appearance in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 30. Instead, he faces a court date and an uncertain future.

Mr. Liepa is the News-Review sports editor. He can be reached at 631-298-3200 ext. 240 or at [email protected]