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September 10, 2019

Tainted by justice system, Shawn Oakman yearns for a place in the NFL

Former Philly high school football star Shawn Oakman's search for redemption still continues

NFL Football
Shawn Oakman hug 09092019 Photo courtesy/Kenneth Roberts

Former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman, right, hugs his uncle, retired Army Maj. Kenneth Roberts, outside the McLennan County Courthouse after a jury acquitted him of sexual assault charges.

A Waco, Texas sun can melt a polar glacier into a puddle.

Under these relentless rays, Shawn Oakman works, knowing he should be burning, grunting and sweating somewhere else. Somewhere among the familiar crunch of pads, somewhere away from Waco, with other large men who are burning, and grunting, and sweating – for a National Football League team.

That's where Oakman should be — and he knows it.

Then, it reverberates in his head … three years for 45 minutes … three years for 45 minutes … three years for 45 minutes. But he can’t go back. He knows that, too.

Three years ago, the world jumped on Shawn Oakman, and by the size of him, it seemed a fair fight. He defended himself against a scary accusation. Now, he battles a stigma that won't lift as he tries to get back on the field. He wishes the whole episode had never happened, but it did, and now it seems inescapable, as he gets yanked backward into time, regardless of what the courts say, and his friends and family say, and his attorney and agent say.

The 2011 Penn Wood graduate who played at Baylor, via Penn State, knows he should have been running out of a tunnel in uniform into a football stadium on Sunday, as the NFL embarked on its centennial season. Instead, the 6-foot-8, 280-pound defensive end was in a Waco townhouse, waiting for a phone call from an interested team.

Oakman, now 27, had been a projected first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft before deciding to return for his senior season at the private Christian university in central Texas. His draft stock dipped slightly, but he was still on pace to go fairly high in 2016, when the Eagles took Carson Wentz second overall.

He finished three years with the Bears as the career all-time sack leader (17.5) and holder of the single-season sack record (11 in 2014).

In January 2015, Oakman went viral as an internet meme, a photo showing him towering over the other players during the coin flip of the game against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.

Nineteen months later, his whole life flipped.

In July 2016, Oakman was indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree felony sexual assault following allegations by a woman with whom he'd had a previous sexual relationship. His image was splashed everywhere – from ESPN to CNN – to the point that he began to turn away from seeing his own face.

Now, as football ramps up for another season, the Philly-born and Delaware County-raised Oakman is left to wonder whether he may ever get the chance to play in the NFL – and see himself on SportsCenter.

Oakman-Shawn_090319_usatJerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports, File

Former Baylor Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman during the 2015 season.

THE NIGHT IN QUESTION

On April 2, 2016, Oakman and some friends went to a local joint called Scruffy Murphy’s, a popular student hangout in Waco just a short walk from where he lived.

The woman who would accuse Oakman had sent him a text earlier that day to see if he was in Waco. Was there was a chance they could meet at the bar later that night? she asked, according to court transcripts. They had met during his junior year at Baylor through a mutual friend, but hadn't seen each other in 18 months. They had a sexual history, according to court transcripts.

“I went to Baylor to change my life. All of that partying and bulls**t I did at Penn State, that all went [away] .... I wasn’t in that partying scene on campus. I think that’s what’s so frustrating about this. " – Shawn Oakman

Oakman was on his best behavior in Waco. He had to be. He had transferred to Baylor in 2012 after being thrown off of Penn State’s team by then-Nittany Lion coach Bill O’Brien, who had inherited the program during the Jerry Sandusky tsunami. Oakman was accused of jumping a pizza delivery guy (he was later exonerated), missing a class and attempting to take a $7 hoagie and 75-cent fruit drink from a convenience store, where he grabbed a cashier’s wrist demanding his school ID card back.

But O’Brien had a no-tolerance policy, and through the help of legendary former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, now at Ohio State, Oakman found his way to Baylor.

“I wasn’t going to open myself up again to be accused of, or doing anything wrong,” Oakman said. “I went to Baylor to change my life. All of that partying and bulls**t I did at Penn State, that all went [away]. I was totally anti-social at Baylor. I wasn’t in that partying scene on campus.

"I think that’s what’s so frustrating about this. I should have just stuck to the things I did when I was in Waco. That was stay home. That’s what I should have done, but that can’t change what happened.”

Oakman didn’t even plan on going out that night with his friends. He was supposed to go to Dallas, but that trip never materialized.

Then, the text from the woman who would become his accuser. He told her yes, they could meet at the bar, and she replied with a prayer emoji.

Oakman, who said he didn't drink that night, was at Scruffy Murphy’s with friends when the woman arrived and stayed for the rest of the night. The hangout closed at 2 a.m. and he was back at his duplex just a few minutes later, returning with the woman and a friend, who opted to leave them alone.

According to Oakman, the woman pushed him against a hallway wall and performed oral sex, followed by 45 more minutes of sex in the bedroom.

“From the previous times we were together until that night, she never wanted to leave early, but that night, she got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed and said goodbye. That was it,” Oakman recalled. “I noticed she left an earring on the arm of my bedroom sofa. The thing is, we were never near the sofa.

“I was planning on being drafted in two weeks. I didn’t really ever want to see that girl again after that night. I was wilding, because I had plans on meeting someone else later that night. I made it to her house and I passed out over there."

Later that morning, friends blew up Oakman’s cellphone, telling him four police cars were waiting outside his duplex. When he was dropped off, investigators were milling around.

Oakman had no idea why.

Then police asked if he knew the woman. Oakman replied yes. They asked if he was with the woman. He replied yes. They asked him if he had sex with the woman. Yes, he replied.

They told him he was accused of sexual assault.

“I said, ‘Who me? Impossible! You have to have the wrong person.’ From there, it was a wrap,” he recalled. “On April 3rd, 2016, at 8 a.m., I was charged with sexual assault, AKA rape, to the second degree. My life was officially over as I knew it.”

'LIKE AN ANIMAL IN A CAGE'

Less than two weeks after that fateful night at the off-campus bar, Oakman heard for the first time the eerie metallic clang of iron prison doors.

He unleashed a primal, guttural scream “How?” “Why?” at the top of his lungs, then thrust himself up against the cell’s concrete walls. Being dead or in prison by the age of 30 was always his worst fear.

“That was horrible,” Oakman said. “Law enforcement was very nice to me, to be honest. It’s the one fear I always had. But I felt like an animal in a cage.”

Kennard McGuire, the agent for NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall who represented Oakman at the time, would bail him out, but Oakman wouldn't hear from the lawyer or the player for years after.

“I’m grateful for having both Kennard and Brandon in my life, but when the allegations came up they dropped me like a hot potato,” he said. “They used me until they couldn’t use me anymore. I went out, I partied with Brandon in Chicago. I loved the man. I lived in his house — and then I got in trouble, and I got cut off.

“I will say this, I never try and pick a side and draw conclusions whenever I take a case. It didn’t take me long to be convinced Shawn was innocent. This may have ruined Shawn’s life, and that’s the most difficult thing about this. – Alan Bennett, Oakman's defense attorney

“That was it. I didn’t exist in their world any more. That hurt me. Maybe they couldn’t back me, because maybe it would make them both look (bad).”

Oakman's life was in a holding pattern.

The handouts, the party invites, the expensive ringside seats in Las Vegas, the lavish MGM Grand gigs, they all went poof. Though Oakman had yet to have his day in court, he was already guilty in the court of public opinion and, more regrettably, by many people he considered friends.

Though he graduated Baylor in December 2015 with a degree in kinesiology, he was forced to take on various menial jobs. He first worked in a warehouse packing diapers at $11 per hour for 10 hours a day. Going to work in the mornings, his face was plastered across the local and national news. He would watch TV with co-workers at lunchtime and his name would be mentioned along with words like “rape” and “sexual assault.”

“Every day of that, I mean every day, I couldn’t get away from it,” Oakman says today. “I was headline news for a week. I was trying to get to court."

After packing diapers, he worked for a landscape fabric fertilizer company. He had that job for a month and he did well. It was demanding, physical labor and he mastered it quickly. Oakman said he did so well, his manager introduced him to one of the company honchos, who then researched Oakman and let him go.

He moved onto a recycling plant, sorting trash for 12 hours a day in the Waco heat. He worked for a local carnival, a concrete company, an event-planning service, but that conflicted with Oakman's ongoing situation because he was banned from Baylor’s campus.

“I couldn’t keep a job,” Oakman said. “I had my little jobs, making a little here and there.”

Meanwhile his second lawyer, Michelle Tuegel, dropped him as a client – "I didn’t have $30,000 to pay her" – but she put him in touch with Alan Bennett, 53, a Waco defense attorney who has practiced law since 1990 and a Baylor alumnus on the faculty at the university's law school.

In 2018, Oakman had a brief stay with the Bismarck Bucks of the Indoor Football League.

“That was the last job I had, while I was waiting to have my day in court,” Oakman said.

Oakman-Shawn-2_090319_usatJerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Oakman looks on during a 2015 game between the Baylor Bears and the Rice Owls.

'HE TOLD THE TRUTH'

Even with assistance from former Baylor president Kenneth Starr, who helped pay for legal services and private detectives, Oakman was in a dire spot.

(Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation resulted in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, was fired by Baylor in May 2016 after the Board of Regents conducted an external review of the university's response to reports of sexual violence. Baylor had been accused of failing to respond to reports of rape and sexual assault filed by at least six female students from 2009 to 2016.)

Bennett’s approach, like many a defense attorney in a sexual assault cases, was to attack the accuser’s credibility.

He found inconsistencies in the woman’s account of that night and questions about the veracity of her allegations.

“Most everybody turned their backs on me. For three years of my life, I was stuck in 2016. I had to live in Waco. I had to see the same people over, and over, and over again, and everyone looking at me like I was a rapist." – Shawn Oakman

“We did that through the people who saw them together that night, and despite coming in late on this, we discovered (the accuser) deleted text messages between Shawn and herself from the night of the incident,” Bennett said. “Frankly, that was the last thing the jury heard as far as evidence.

The marks and bruising on the accuser's body was the biggest issue that Oakman’s legal team had to overcome.

“I will say this, I never try and pick a side and draw conclusions whenever I take a case. It didn’t take me long to be convinced Shawn was innocent. This may have ruined Shawn’s life, and that’s the most difficult thing about this.

“What was her motivation? The only theory we could come up with was that she knew Shawn was about to have a promising career and she wanted to cash in on that," he said. "But by making the allegations, she shot herself in the foot. A theory that I’ve kept in my mind, which I don’t know if it’s true, was she hoped for a settlement, if the criminal case was dropped.

“That wasn’t going to happen. Once (the accuser) went down that road, she couldn’t turn back. She reached a point of no return.”

Patrick Levels, a defensive back for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and a former two-year starter at Baylor who was with Oakman that night, would testify that the woman was “all over” Oakman at the bar.

“Leading up to that night, Shawn and I were together for three years, and anyone who knows Shawn knows he is a big overgrown teddy bear,” Levels said. “I remember he came to my house the morning the cops were there; he told the truth. He didn’t do anything."

FREE AT LAST

At a trial delayed five times, Oakman's accuser testified in February that he raped her twice at his duplex, and that she was given a subsequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The woman also claimed there was no oral sex, but an expert testified that she had semen DNA in her mouth, taken from the sample swab in the rape kit.

The alleged incident left her afraid and anxious, the woman testified, and two of her friends said in court that she has not been the same since that night, according to a report in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

"It’s unbelievable that Shawn doesn’t get an opportunity. I think there will be a team that will take a chance, and they will reap the reward, because they’ll be getting a first-round draft pick.” – George Bass, Shawn Oakman's agent

Oakman did not testify in the three-day trial. Maintaining that the sex was consensual, he had turned down a plea offer for deferred probation.

On February 28, he was found not guilty of all charges by a jury after two hours of deliberations.

It was a day he'll never forget – after three years of anguish he wished he could forget.

When the verdict was pronounced that afternoon, an excited Oakman ran out of the courtroom, and unsure where he was, ended up in judge’s chambers, where he dropped to his knees and cried. Court bailiffs allowed him to have his moment there.

Bennett said he'd never seen a reaction like it in almost 30 years of practicing law.

But the only people who seemed to care that he was innocent were his immediate family and friends, and a few local media outlets.

And though he’s been acquitted in a court of law, the taint of the allegations hangs on him – from the NFL, to Baylor, and to a lesser degree in McLennan County, Texas, where the trial was held.

Asked to describe its relationship with Oakman, Baylor replied via email through a university spokesman: “Baylor does not have a relationship with Mr. Oakman.”

Oakman Courthouse 09092019Photo courtesy/Kenneth Roberts

A joyous Shawn Oakman descends the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse on the day of the verdict. “I always knew I was innocent,” he says.

Tom Needham, a McLennan County assistant district attorney, said this about the case: "We respect the jury’s verdict, that we didn’t provide sufficient enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. We disagree with the jury verdict. We still feel he should have been found guilty, but that’s simply our opinion. He’s been found not guilty in a court of law, but he hasn’t been found innocent.”

Oakman disagrees.

“I was lifeless, basically, and I thought I was done, but I always knew I was innocent,” Oakman recalled. “This all could have ended years ago. I had friends, or people who I thought were my friends, drop me like a hot potato. I could have taken a plea (which did not include him having to register as a sex offender) and probation, but I didn’t, because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong.

“Most everybody turned their backs on me. For three years of my life, I was stuck in 2016. I had to live in Waco. I had to see the same people over, and over, and over again, and everyone looking at me like I was a rapist.

“Baylor (people) turned their backs on me. It’s supposed to be a very Christian school, but I can tell you, it’s not a very Christian school.

“I loved Baylor .... I was part of something special there that put that school on the map. We had special coaches and special teams there. We made that school millions and they turned their backs, I think, on everyone I played with and who I played for. But you notice that they kept the money.”

'IT'S A TRAVESTY'

As the NFL season approached, and with a new appreciation of his freedom, Oakman is trying to pick up the pieces of his shattered potential. He’s pleasant, funny, engaging, though there are fits of frustration, which is natural after being accused of something you know you didn’t do and having your life put on hold, while people who you thought were friends stepped away.

Oakman hopes to be sacking NFL quarterbacks in the near future and has had several tryouts with teams. He has new representation with agent George Bass.

“We’ve had interest from three NFL teams after the draft and we have an offer from a CFL team,” said Bass, who won’t release the teams' names. “It’s been pretty disappointing. No one wants to go to the podium and answer the questions. Shawn absolutely should be in the NFL and it’s a travesty that he isn’t.

“There are plenty of NFL people who will talk about Shawn. It’s just that management has a set policy and they don’t want to break that policy, even though Shawn was found innocent. A coach will say that they really would love to have Shawn, and I was told that verbatim.

“Shawn deserves a chance. He could have pled this out and gotten probation, and possibly still been drafted. But he knew he was innocent. It’s unbelievable that Shawn doesn’t get an opportunity. I think there will be a team that will take a chance, and they will reap the reward, because they’ll be getting a first-round draft pick.

"Once you get labeled a rapist, it’s the worst thing anyone can label you, even though you’re not. You’ll always be a rapist in some people’s eyes." – Shawn Oakman

The NFL has had its share of players in trouble with the law. Adam Jones, for example, was arrested 10 times and played 12 years in the NFL. Former St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little was suspended for the first eight games of the 1999 season after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in a June 1998 crash that killed a woman. Little, who played 12 years in the NFL, was sentenced to 90 days in a city workhouse, four years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.

In 2015, Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy was suspended 10 games stemming from a domestic violence arrest in May 2014. Hardy still went on to play in 12 games for the Cowboys in 2015.

More recently, Phillies centerfielder Odubel Herrera was arrested May 27 this year after a report of domestic violence in Atlantic City. In July, Herrera’s girlfriend declined to press charges, resulting in their dismissal. But, unlike some others, Herrera has not seen the field since — and may not ever as a Phillie again.

Oakman-Shawn-1_090319_usatJerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports, File

Former Baylor Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman during a 2015 game against Texas.

'I'M NOT GOING TO GIVE UP ON MY DREAM'

Oakman’s situation was settled in that courtroom.

He’s back to his normal, affable, goofy self — for the most part — except on a football field. Around 280 pounds again, he's almost close to “Baylor Shawn.” He’s spending his time training and hoping to be contacted by an NFL team.

“It’s still not over, my life still hasn’t changed, being found innocent or not, I should be in the NFL right now,” Oakman said. “I’m supposed to be an NFL player. I’m seeing guys I was coming out with getting their second contracts. Whether I would have folded in the NFL or not, I would have had a platform for larger things to happen in my life. I’m more cautious. Going out now I have to move like the pope. Even though I’m not ‘famous,’ I’m going to get the same amount of media coverage as famous people.

“I let things get to my head that I never experienced before. No one I knew before, from Penn State to Baylor, had relations with tons of girls. It was something new to me. I came from a home where my mother was raped. I found that out as a child and it was a big ordeal.”

As soon as he was acquitted, Oakman was approached by Straight Jacket USA as an endorser. He signed with Bass, another Baylor graduate who once represented Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. Oakman is looking to get licensed as a personal trainer.

“Believe it or not, I’m not angry," Oakman said. "I’m hungry, which I think is worse, because every day I’m fighting for something that seems to be reachable."

McGuire and Marshall messaged Oakman after he was found innocent – after Oakman reached out to them to let them know.

“I wanted to thank them for what they did do and their lessons that they gave me over the years, and Brandon texted me back, ‘Happy for you, wish I could have done more, sorry your life was rough for a few years,’” said Oakman, who still has Marshall’s text. “To a lot of people, I’m still this meme. I just need a home to revive myself.”

His journey had started on his knees screaming his innocence in a jail cell and ended on his knees rejoicing in that innocence in judge's chambers.

“If there is one gift I got out of this, I guess, is that I do have a greater understanding of what freedom is,” Oakman said. “The way people view me, though, I’m not free. Even in my innocence, I’m still guilty because I can’t do what I want to do. Once you get labeled a rapist, it’s the worst thing anyone can label you, even though you’re not. You’ll always be a rapist in some people’s eyes.

“The whole thing has traumatized me. I’ll never be the same ... On social media, all of these people were calling me a rapist, even though I was found innocent. People still call me a rapist. No one is going to say anything to my face. No one has that much courage. So, in the end, I’m able to laugh. I am. You get disappointed. You get pissed off when people point fingers who don’t know the truth. But I have my freedom and I’m not going to give up on my dream of playing in the NFL.”


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