Will Mahone finds peace after losing Notre Dame football dream

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Will Mahone’s Notre Dame football career ended sometime after 6 p.m., on June 14, 2014, when he soaked his insecurities in Fireball whiskey until something inside him snapped.

The police report states that, when officers arrived at the graduation party on Rita Avenue in Austintown, Ohio, bystanders told them Mahone had been “head-butting and punching vehicles as well as attempting to fight several individuals.”

He was a 5-foot-11, 214-pound wrecking ball.

His anger, his dissatisfaction — his darkness — was coming to light.

The Austintown Police Department reported that Mahone resisted arrest; that he “whipped his head back in an aggressive manner” and struck an officer in the forehead; that he needed to be stunned with a Taser not once, but twice; that, once forced inside the police car, he attempted to kick out the windows; that he sprayed saliva on the interior of the vehicle until a “spit net” was placed over his head.

That he threatened to kill police officers, in no uncertain terms.

“(Expletive) you, you white piece of (expletive). Take these cuffs off and I’ll kill you. I’ll (expletive) kill you!”

“Take these cuffs off and I will kill all of you!”

“Bro when I get out I got a Glock 9 (millimeter hand gun) for your (expletive).”

Mahone's whiskey-coated words still sting 20 months later.

“I believe I said some of those things, absolutely,” Mahone confided. “Not because that’s how I feel in my heart, but from past experiences, I’ve said some wild stuff when I’m drunk.”

“Most of (the police report’s account) probably is correct,” he added.

The outburst that effectively ended his career as a student-athlete at Notre Dame, that steamrolled his reputation, that left his left eye swollen and his head throbbing and his future a muddled mess, remains a mystery to him.

The drinks meshed together and left a crushing darkness behind.

“I woke up in the jail cell with my shirt off, swollen eye,” he said. “There have been times when I’ve blacked out and woke up, but never to that extent. I was nervous, because I didn’t know what happened at all.

“I asked the officer, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘You don’t remember a thing? You did some damage. You assaulted an officer.’”

For Mahone, the damage was widespread. Two and a half months before what was supposed to be the start of his junior season, the running back-turned-receiver was charged with three felonies (assault on a police officer, intimidation and vandalism) and two misdemeanors (disorderly conduct and resisting arrest).

The police report can tell you what he did.

It can’t tell you why.

'A great leader'

The ‘why’ is a matter of ‘who.’

Who is will Mahone?

For so long, the answer was easy. In his senior season at Fitch High School in Austintown, a suburb of Youngstown, Mahone rushed for 700 yards and nine touchdowns, despite missing roughly half the season with an injury. He caught two touchdown passes and returned two kicks for scores. On the defensive side, he piled up 30 tackles and an interception as a hard-charging linebacker.

He was a captain of the football team and MVP of the basketball team in the same academic year. He was a rare success story in an economically challenged area. He was so many things to so many people: an example, an outlier, a symbol, a star.

Before he stepped foot on campus as a freshman at Notre Dame, Mahone felt fated to succeed. Not just for himself. For everyone.

“He was a great leader in all ways — at least the things that I saw," said Fitch head football coach Phil Annarella. "Always a gentleman. Always respectful. He was one of our captains. I loved him to death. All the other players looked up to him.”

The downward spiral

Will was a star, until he wasn’t.

He sprained his shoulder on the second day of fall camp in 2012, his first season at Notre Dame. He was buried on the depth chart. He redshirted the season.

Little by little, his identity began to crack.

“You try and make him understand that he’s going to go play football on a level where everyone is going to be as good as you are and you might not play,” his mother, Celia Mahone, said. “In his head, I think he thought he was the best, and he was going to play.”

Instead, he started to sink. With more freedom and growing frustrations, he buried himself in bottles. He numbed his disappointment in clouds of marijuana. Notre Dame kept winning, and Will kept drifting away.

“I wasn’t even a starter or star on the team, and I’m hanging out with (Indiana Pacers forward) Paul George and Vince Vaughn in Miami at the national championship game," Mahone said. “A lot of people want to do a lot of things for you, take you a lot of places and give you a lot of things. It’s right in your hands. At 18, 20 years old, you’re just like, ‘I might as well live it up now. Nothing can stop me.’ ”

For two years, nothing did.

“The drinking was just on weekends — the parties,” he said. “I never knew when to stop. The smoking picked up during my freshman year. It was a daily thing. I almost kind of needed it every day.''

The next fall, the coaching staff moved Mahone to wide receiver, and he started to push for playing time. He dived into the playbook. He dieted, ate right, prepared for an inevitable ascension.

But a week before the end of fall camp, he sprained his MCL. Six games later, he broke his left foot. He appeared in just two games in his sophomore season, failing to record a carry or a catch.

He sank further. More drinks. More joints. More blurry nights and weekend binges.

More setbacks, too.

On Notre Dame’s first practice in spring 2014, after rehabbing his left foot, Mahone broke his right foot. And when his body failed, his spirit followed.

“At that point, I'm just like, 'All right, I'm probably never going to play,' " he concluded. "My mindset was, ‘I’m just going to do enough to stay on this football team, graduate and have this degree.’ I’ve never been that way. I’ve always loved competition. I’ve always thrived in that situation, but I kind of gave up.”

Mahone's spiral continued. Roughly two months after spring practice ended, he woke with a swollen eye and a shattered ego in the Mahoning County Jail.

“I never blew up quite like that before," Mahone said. "But I was just angry with how life was, and I don’t think anybody realized it, because I masked it really well.

“You wouldn’t think anything would be wrong. I’m at a Division I college and this and that, but things weren’t the way I wanted them to be. I was definitely upset about it, and everything in the dark will come to light. It happened to be that night.”

Warning signs

Mahone couldn’t mask everything.

The warning sirens wailed, and Celia Mahone heard them. In Will’s first fall in South Bend, he started calling late at night, repeating a familiar theme:

I want to come home. This isn’t what you think.

He decided to leave, then he decided to stay. Sometimes, he sounded desperate. He denied being drunk, but his mother had her doubts.

Ernest Jones heard them, too. At the 2013 Blue and Gold game, Celia Mahone voiced her concerns with Notre Dame’s former director of player development. She showed him photos printed from her son’s social media accounts, which suggested he had been partying, drinking, smoking. She demanded discipline. Drug tests. A more forceful approach.

Jones assured her he would talk to Will, and he did. But it didn’t matter.

"We were trying to educate him and transform him, but he wasn't ready," said Jones, currently the head football coach at ASA College of Miami. "He wasn't ready at that time to take ownership.

"We didn't want to give up on him. I've been with (head coach Brian) Kelly a long time, and we've helped a lot of 'em. But at that time, we couldn't reach Will. He didn't want to be reached."

Mahone kept drinking, smoking, sinking. Mahone's mother questions whether the coaches did enough.

“I expected more from a Christian Catholic institution. I expected a lot more,” Celia Mahone said. “Whether he was talked to and they really tried to help him and he was receptive or not — to me, that isn’t the issue. The issue is that I felt like he’s not their star, so they didn’t care.”

Notre Dame did perform drug tests, Mahone said. But like everything else, they didn’t stick.

“I got caught once," he said, "but that didn’t stop me.”

According to Mahone, his discipline consisted of probation, and little else. The NCAA does not require member programs to perform regular drug tests, but if they do, the accompanying consequences are also defined by each individual school.

A team spokesperson declined to comment on Notre Dame's drug testing program, specifically its protocol on first-time offenses.

The drug tests didn't stop Mahone. Neither did the discipline. He barreled over speed bumps, gaining speed and losing control.

“I think it was the last foot he broke (a few months before his arrest), the surgeon told me that I needed to keep a close eye on him — that he was devastated,” Celia Mahone said. “I told him, ‘I’m not there! He’s never home.’

"With every injury, I told him that God was trying to get his attention. ‘Do you hear that?’ I knew something was wrong. I knew.”

Unfulfilled expectations

The remains of a football star stared at the decrepit ceiling of a claustrophobic jail cell. Mahone hated his surroundings, and he hated himself.

“William basically told me that if he couldn’t go back to Notre Dame, he didn’t have a reason to live,” his mother recalled.

Notre Dame, it seemed, was totally out of the question. After the arrest, according to the Mahones, no one from the Irish coaching staff informed Will of his indefinite suspension. He found out not from Kelly, but a report on the local news.

“That hurt, because when you’re recruited, they tell you it’s a family thing, and yada yada yada,” Mahone said. “From my perspective, if they’re family, they should help out in times of need and when things are going bad. I just felt like there was no help. Since I had done nothing (on the field) at Notre Dame, they didn’t want to go to bat for me."

A team spokesperson declined to comment on ND's efforts to reach Mahone following the arrest.

After his three felony counts were downgraded to misdemeanors, Mahone served eight days in Mahoning County Jail. He barely ate. He couldn’t drink or smoke. He cried and cursed, but he refused to change.

“To be honest,” Mahone said, “when I was in there I started thinking, ‘Am I going to get out of here and go smoke and test my luck again?’ And I did.”

Eventually, Mahone’s indefinite suspension from Notre Dame was made permanent. He lied his way through rehab, then failed a drug test and violated his probation. Seeing no other option, Celia kicked her only son out of the house.

The fallen star suffocated under the weight of unfulfilled expectations.

“I felt like that’s what defined me — that football defined me. That going to Notre Dame defined me, and I had lost it all,” Mahone said. “Really, who am I now? What am I supposed to do? With my family’s expectations and the area’s expectations, I failed them."

No more excuses

On Nov. 3, 2014, Mahone gave his mother a birthday present.

Nearly five months after the arrest, he pulled himself out of purgatory. No more excuses. No more detours. No more lies and listless binges.

He finally reached his limit. Mahone decided to change his life.

“I went to this guy’s house, where we used to smoke all day,” Mahone said. “I was just sitting there and I thought of all the guys that graduated from here — from the Youngstown/Austintown area — who played ball and just weren’t doing anything productive.

“I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. This is ridiculous. Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?’ I can’t really explain to you why it happened, but it was just a switch.”

Mahone called his mother and set up an interview at Teen Challenge, a Christian faith-based rehabilitation center. The same day, they drove to the facility, and Will decided to stay.

"When he first came into the program, I remember our admissions coordinator came into my office,” said Pastor Bob Pavlich, director of operations at the Ohio Valley Teen Challenge. “He showed me a picture, and I believe it was on the front page of our local newspaper. It had the headline, 'Former Notre Dame running back arrested,' and there's a picture of Will with a black eye, and he just looked horrible.

“Right off the bat, I started praying for Will.”

Mahone engulfed himself in a 12-month program. Twelve months without a cell phone. Twelve months without an Internet connection. Twelve months without a drink. Twelve months without a joint.

Twelve months to rediscover what should have mattered all along.

“If I didn’t go in there for a year, I don’t think I would have stopped (smoking marijuana),” Mahone said. “People say it’s a gateway drug for other drugs. Absolutely. But I did it every day, and I was mad if I didn’t smoke every day.”

After the switch flipped, Mahone’s ‘every day’ looked a little different. He woke at 5 a.m., and was back in his room at 9 p.m. In between, he worked in the kitchen, participated in daily prayer and Bible class, worked out and sang in the choir. He traveled to churches on weekends, sharing his story — who he was, and how his faith had changed him.

The last Saturday of each month, Celia was allowed to visit. She found a more stable version of her son every time.

“He’d have a notebook where he’d been writing things down — words that God had given him, dreams that he had. He was so excited,” she said. “It gave me great peace that he wasn’t at some place that he didn’t want to be. He felt like he had to be there.”

"Will became a leader in our program,” Pavlich said. “It was a 68-bed facility that Will was part of. He was a light. When Will walks into a room, the atmosphere instantly changes.”

As a leader, Will put himself in charge of a few things. The music. The food.

On select Saturdays, the TV.

“I caught some of the (Notre Dame) games," Mahone said. "Sometimes we would have to go to bed at like 10 on the weekends. We missed the second half of the Clemson game, and I was upset, man. I said we would have won if I had been able to watch it.”

His new routine, however, mattered more than the result. Gradually, his perspective shifted. He forgave himself. He stopped needing to numb his anger.

He treated it with faith instead.

"At what point are you going to get up from it and move on and enjoy the rest of your life?" Mahone said. "Football is a part of my life, but it’s not my life. It doesn’t define me.”

Full responsibility

On a cloudy afternoon in Pittsburgh, Mahone made peace with his past.

As part of the Teen Challenge program, he worked security at Heinz Field — home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and ACC’s Pittsburgh Panthers.

On Nov. 7, in Will’s last month in the program, Notre Dame traveled east to meet Pittsburgh and earned a convincing 42-30 win. Mahone watched the game from the bleachers, then encountered his former family as the Irish left the field.

“He didn't even say anything, and players were stopping dead in their tracks,” Pavlich said. “The joy, the emotion, the tears — it was awesome to witness.

“The thing that was great was Will never wavered from his testimony. He kept saying, 'I had to get my life right. I knew the way, I just got off track.' Everyone, from coaches to players to strength coordinators, not one person didn't stop, shake Will's hand, hug him, cry with him and tell him how proud they were of him."

That included Kelly, who hadn’t seen Mahone since the arrest.

“He just asked me what I was up to, and I told him I was a part of Teen Challenge,” Mahone said. “He was happy for me and wished me the best. It was quick, but it was cool."

Mahone didn’t know what to expect, or how he’d be received.

But instead of anger, there was closure. Accountability. Peace.

“It was kind of like closing that chapter, that door,” he said. “I don’t hold a grudge towards anybody. I can’t blame anyone else. I accept full responsibility."

'Different person'

Will Mahone is many things.

A Christian. A son. A friend. A light. A sinner. A survivor. An admittedly mediocre singer.

And yes, he plays football a little on the side.

Mahone graduated from Teen Challenge in November, and has since been approved to walk on the football team at Youngstown State this fall.

“I just feel healthy,” Mahone said. “I’m not putting anything bad in my body. I’m not up to where I need to be speed-wise, but I just feel really good.”

These days, Mahone has little time to reflect on where he’s been. He’s taking 18 credit hours at Youngstown State this semester, working toward a degree in sociology. He has a part-time job tossing pizzas at Papa John’s.

He isn’t drinking. He isn’t smoking.

He isn’t healed, but he isn’t sinking.

Finally, Mahone has dreams that stretch outside of the end zone. He wants to start a ministry, to travel the world, to introduce new friends to Christianity.

His future is tethered not to football, but faith.

“I had him come back and talk to the team once last summer,” said Annarella, Mahone’s former high school coach. “I had a mom call me and say that her son was so moved by Will's talk that he had made a tremendous impact on this sophomore's life.”

Mahone had to save his own life before he could impact others. He had to forgive the person from the police report. He had to discover an identity independent of football, or Notre Dame.

“I’m absolutely a different person,” he said. “I don’t want to say that that old person is gone for sure. Can I get angry quickly at something? Absolutely. But how am I going to deal with it? Before when I was angry or frustrated with something, my thing was, ‘You need to party, or you need to smoke so you can chill out.’

“Now I have to deal with it. That’s hard, but I have to do it.”

Fortunately, Will doesn't have to do it alone. He can lean on his faith, his family, his friends from Teen Challenge and his coaches at Youngstown State.

He can't do enough to thank his mother, but he can try.

“That was my best birthday present for her ever, and I think it will be until I get her a diamond ring,” Mahone said of his initial trip to Teen Challenge. “She always told me she wanted a diamond ring one of these days on her birthday. So I plan on getting her that one day, too.”

Celia, for one, has her goals set a little higher.

“The ultimate gift in life for me is to know that I’m going to live in eternity with my son,” she said. “I would always tell William, ‘I’m not going to Hell, so that means you have to be going to Heaven.’”

He isn't there yet, but Will Mahone is working on it. One gift at a time.

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Portrait of former Notre Dame football player Will Mahone at Ohio Valley Teen Challenge in Youngstown, Ohio on February 18, 2016. (Photo by Scott R. Galvin)
Portrait of former Notre Dame football player Will Mahone at Ohio Valley Teen Challenge in Youngstown, Ohio on February 18, 2016. (Photo by Scott R. Galvin)
Portrait of former Notre Dame football player Will Mahone at Ohio Valley Teen Challenge in Youngstown, Ohio on February 18, 2016. (Photo by Scott R. Galvin)
Portrait of former Notre Dame football player and current Youngstown State University student Will Mahone at Youngstown State University on February 18, 2016. (Photo by Scott R. Galvin)
Portrait of former Notre Dame football player and current Youngstown State University student Will Mahone at Youngstown State University on February 18, 2016. (Photo by Scott R. Galvin)
South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN Notre Dame's Will Mahone (32) during the Blue-Gold Spring Football game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, April 20, 2013, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame’s Will Mahone is shown at media day before the BCS National Championship Game on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER)
Notre Dame junior flanker Will Mahone, left, faces five charges after being arrested Sunday back home in Mahoning County, Ohio. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)
South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER.Notre Dame running back Will Mahone (32) breaks through the line during the Blue-Gold spring football game on Saturday, April 20, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium.