By Joe Scalzo
When Eric Wolford was hired at Youngstown State two years ago, he made it clear he didn’t want players with questionable character.
“We have got to lay a foundation here for the future,” Wolford said in August 2010. “We’re not trying to do a quick fix. We want to bring in good character people.”
While he was willing to take on an occasional academic risk, he’s shied away from players with checkered backgrounds.
Until last week.
Byron Pringle, a wide receiver out of Tampa’s Robinson High, was one of 19 players to sign letters-of-intent on Feb. 1. He’s easily the most controversial.
Pringle missed his junior year following his July 2010 arrest for his role in a South Tampa crime spree. He received four year’s probation and 100 hours of community service and wrote apology letters to five victims, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Despite a solid senior season, all but two FCS schools shied away from him: Bethune Cookman and Youngstown State.
“He’s a guy I thoroughly researched,” Wolford said. “I know sometimes there may be concerns but I think Byron is a classic of a guy being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I think everyone deserves a second chance.”
Pringle’s signing shows two things. One, Wolford believes Pringle’s potential far outweighs his risk. Two, Wolford feels his program is stable enough to absorb a player with a checkered past, particularly one who will be 1,000 miles from his bad influences.
“I’ll tell you what, I take exception with the words ‘checkered past’ and I take exception with the environment thing,” said Pringle’s high school coach, Mike DePue, who said Pringle was more of a bystander than an active participant in the crime spree. “He made a mistake, no two ways about.
“But he paid his dues and he’s been more than responsive to all the help he’s received.
“Every coach that’s come in, he’s looked them in the eye and said he made a mistake and he’s sorry for what he did. I think coaches shied away from him not because of questions about his character but because of how it would reflect on their program.”
Pringle said as much, telling the Times, “It feels great to have a second chance to play football, doing something I love. I just told [YSU’s coaches] the truth. I told them I was remorseful for what I did and that I’m a changed person.”
Over his 34 years as a coach at Robinson, DePue has coached players such as Kansas City Chiefs DB Javier Arenas, Jacksonville Jaguars WR Greg Ellingson, Purdue DB Frankie Williams and former Kentucky basketball player Desmond Allison, who was also a football standout in high school.
“We’ve had some great, great players at Robinson and I rate him [Pringle] as one of the top five players to come out of our school,” DePue said. “I won’t blow smoke up your [behind] on this. You’re getting a good one.
“If he hadn’t missed his junior year, he’d be one of the top five players in Florida.”
Pringle (6-2, 185) is a physical, explosive athlete whose college future is most likely as a returner and wide receiver. DePue calls him a quiet, intelligent kid who will benefit from being under the microscope.
“I told him when he signed, here’s a chance for you not to start a new life, but a new chapter in your life,” he said. “From the get-go, Youngstown left no stone unturned, talking to everyone from lawyers to teachers. I think they know what they’re getting into.
“And listen, I’ve been doing this for 34 years. If I say a kid ain’t worth it and he’s bad for your program, coaches listen. That’s not Byron. He’s going to be a great player and an exemplary leader for your program.”