Poor choices involving alcohol ended Sam Maresh's time at the U, but now he's rebuilding his reputation at a small Iowa school.
COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA
The brick dorm sits about a half-mile off the interstate, down the hill, next to the campus Frisbee golf course.
"Twenty-two years old and living in that," Sam Maresh said, laughing.
He's not complaining though. This temporary home, Iowa Western Community College, provided him a second-chance opportunity to fulfill a football career once seemingly destined for stardom, but derailed by personal choices. He looks around every day and is reminded that actions have consequences.
"I'm real happy right now," he said. "It's nothing like I expected, to be honest."
The same holds true for his journey here. A heralded linebacker prospect at Champlin Park, Maresh held a dozen scholarship offers from Division I schools, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. He elected to stay home, becoming former Gophers coach Tim Brewster's first high-profile recruit.
His arrival was trumpeted as a new beginning, a sign of things to come. He could become the face of the program, the flag bearer, the guy who attracted other blue-chip recruits.
But then a congenital heart defect required surgery in the summer of 2008 and sidetracked him for one year. He conquered that setback but couldn't escape his own self-inflicted mistakes. He arrived a big man on campus and torched the town.
By his own count, Maresh got drunk three or four times a week. Rumors began to circulate that he was out of control, that he had anger issues when he drank. His school work nosedived.
Maresh admits he drank so much one night that he had to be hospitalized. He found himself outside a bar, mud all over his face, a cut on the back of his head. Friends called 911 after they saw him spit up blood.
The situation spiraled downward until he ran out of options. The university dismissed him from school for academic reasons in the spring of 2010.
Looking back, Maresh acknowledges that he essentially drank himself out of school and a chance to play Big Ten football. He describes his time with the Gophers as a "life-changing experience" and agreed to discuss it publicly because he said it's in his past.
He said he still drinks alcohol, but nothing like he did at Minnesota. He tried treatment but insists he doesn't have a problem. He sounds genuinely remorseful for his actions.
"I did some of the stupidest things when I was at Minnesota," he said. "Running around naked at bars. Just stupid stuff. I look back and I'm like, 'God, was I really that bad?'"
Maresh prefers to focus on his future. He is one of the top-rated linebackers in junior college and has again attracted attention from Division I programs, including Iowa State, Kansas State, Utah and Arizona. But his path will be determined by how he performs in the classroom.
He is taking 19 credits this semester and hopes to enroll at a Division I school next semester so he can compete in spring football. If he falls short, those schools might not be willing to wait until summer to learn if he's academically eligible. In that scenario, Division II and Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) might be more realistic options.
"It all depends on the coaches and [them asking], 'Do we want to take a risk on this kid?'" said Maresh, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. "Look at his progression from getting kicked out of Minnesota to how he's been doing ever since."
Maresh visited the University of Minnesota campus in early April 2007. He and his parents toured the school, visited with Brewster, got a feel for things. They watched the start of a spring practice before leaving for home.
They returned 20 minutes later. Maresh walked directly to Brewster and gave a verbal commitment by asking if he could wear his high school number with the Gophers. Brewster embraced Maresh's father, Bill, in a bear hug. The coaching staff reacted as if they had just won the lottery.
Brewster reveled in hyperbole and he was not bashful in his expectations for Maresh, who one recruiting service rated the 14th-best middle linebacker in the nation. Brewster became emotional on signing day as he talked about Maresh, calling him a "flag-bearer for the University of Minnesota."
In hindsight, Brewster said he made a mistake putting that kind of pressure on Maresh.
"I put a lot of expectation, a lot of public expectation on Sam," Brewster said. "I've had a chance to reflect on that situation and if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't do it. I feel like it was my mistake to publicly put that type of responsibility and that type of expectation on Sam."
Maresh carried the school flag onto the field before the Gophers' first game at TCF Bank Stadium, but he spent the 2009 season as a redshirt. He said he doesn't regret signing with the Gophers, but he admits he wasn't emotionally prepared for the role Brewster envisioned.
"I'm not one to make excuses or anything like that, but it's kind of unfair at times -- 'Stay in Minnesota, we need you here, you're going to be the face of the program,'" Maresh said. "It just goes back to being a kid still, not realizing you're in college, you're a big boy. You're supposed to take care of yourself."
Instead, he did the opposite. Nobody can pinpoint an exact date or time when Maresh's drinking became a problem. Brewster said the coaching staff became aware of it at some point and began keeping a file on him. Brewster held Maresh out of a spring scrimmage after he received two underage drinking citations in a two-week span. Brewster indicated there were other incidents behind the scenes as well.
"We documented his history," Brewster said. "To be honest, every one of Sam's incidents involved one common denominator. That was alcohol."
The low point, Maresh said, came the night he was taken by ambulance to a hospital. He called his brother sobbing and then his parents. Eventually, Brewster talked to Maresh about seeking professional help. Maresh attended one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but he maintains his problems stemmed from immaturity rather than chemical dependency.
"A lot of college kids abuse alcohol. It's college," he said. "I don't need to have alcohol in my system to get through the day."
Though he can't undo the damage, Maresh still wonders if things would have turned out differently had he not needed surgery to replace his aortic valve after his senior year in high school. Surgery was successful, but his recovery required him to grayshirt, meaning he attended school but couldn't practice with the team. Without structure and responsibility, he fell into bad habits.
"I look back and obviously I regret the decisions that I made," he said. "Academics and partying too much and things like that. I look back and I just think, 'What if I wouldn't have had my heart surgery? What if I had been in school with the team?' I was recruited to come in and play right away. If I wouldn't have had my heart surgery, I think things would have been a lot different."
Brewster said his disappointment over how things worked out is a reflection of his feelings toward Maresh.
"Everybody knows that I love Sam Maresh like he's my own," Brewster said. "I don't say that loosely. That's how much I care about him. I got as close to that family as I've gotten to any kid I've recruited in a long time. It hurt me deeply and he was hurt."
At the time, Brewster left open the possibility of Maresh returning once he got his academics and life together, but everyone knew that was not a realistic option.
"I was like, 'Why would I want to risk another chance for me to screw up again?'" Maresh said. "I need to move on and get out of here and make some changes."
Writing his ending
Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier attended Eden Valley-Watkins High and worked as an assistant at Concordia (St. Paul). He had heard about Maresh's situation and visited with the family while in town for a wedding last summer.
"I just laid it out for them," Strohmeier said. "I said, 'We'll work on the academics. You can do it as long as you try. But that other stuff ...'
"We have had no issues like that. Nothing off the field."
Maresh has been a star on the field. He's lost 25 pounds since leaving Minnesota (down to 230) and is Iowa Western's leading tackler this season.
Maresh also led his team in tackles last season as Iowa Western went undefeated in the regular season and climbed as high as No. 2 in the national junior college poll in the program's second season of existence. Iowa Western sent 10 players to Division I programs last season, a list of schools that included Oregon, Ole Miss, Iowa and West Virginia.
Strohmeier said he believes Maresh would have double-digit scholarship offers from BCS schools if his academic situation had more clarity. As it is, "A lot of them have said, 'We'll wait and see,'" he said.
Maresh can't change the past, but he's been granted a second chance. He admits he used to read the Gophers fan message boards and was hurt by things written about him. He wants to prove his "haters" wrong, and write a positive ending to his football career.
"I just want people to know from Minnesota that I'm still going to represent Minnesota wherever I go," he said. "Minnesota is where I'm from. I'll be back representing Minnesota definitely in a 180 [degree turn]. I'm going to be a completely different person. I'm grown up now and making better decisions."
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