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SUNDAY SPECIAL / Big John / He was on his way to the NFL until a night of Halloween partying cost Hofstra football star John Ciampi his life

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Publication: Newsday
By: Ken Berger Staff Writer
Section: Sports
Date: 08/13/2000

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ON THE RIGHT kind of day, if the mind is idle or the heart is sad enough, those who knew him best swear they can still hear John Ciampi's voice. He talks to them at the oddest moments, just as he did in life, when he stood in the street and yelled for a neighbor to come outside and make him laugh.

Laughter followed Big John like a shadow, made him seem even bigger than he was, made everyone around him feel bigger, too. He was simply massive, in size and personality, a giant prankster and presence to behold at 6-3 and nearly 340 pounds.

To the public at large, Ciampi was a 20-year-old star offensive lineman at Hofstra University, a behemoth who was bound for the NFL. To his family, and to his close-knit hometown of Pelham in Westchester County, he will always be Big John. He will never come home again.

Ciampi went to a party on the Hofstra campus last Halloween eve and didn't wake up the next day. He died at a Long Island hospital on Oct. 31, the victim of a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription pain-killers. He died two months shy of his 21st birthday, so close to fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL. "We all followed his career," said his uncle, Vincent Ciampi, who helped raise him. "We all knew he was going to make it."

Ciampi had overcome a painful past and was considering leaving Hofstra a year early to enter the NFL draft. If all had gone well, he would be embarking on his pro career this summer at an NFL training camp. "To this day, it's still crazy in my mind," said Ciampi's grandfather, Vincent, a father figure to a boy who never really knew his father. "We don't know what happened to John. We're going to find out."

How could a talent so immense and a personality so unique meet this kind of end? It is a story of underage drinking and pain- killers that football officials did not know he was taking. It is a tale of a young man who struggled with the loss of both parents, who felt enormous pressure to make it to the NFL.

John Ciampi died after a night of partying that began in Pelham, continued at a bar on Hofstra's campus and concluded early the next morning in an off-campus bar. In the aftermath, Hofstra and the police investigated without success how Ciampi obtained the fatal medication. Two former football players, including a friend of Ciampi's who was arrested on unrelated charges of forging a prescription for pain-killers, alleged that Ciampi's death was not the first instance of illegal use of prescription medication on the team.

In the end, after lengthy investigations by Hofstra and the police, Ciampi's death was ruled an accidental overdose, and no charges were filed. The questions of what Ciampi put into his body that night, how much of it and why, may forever baffle those who knew him.

"The real tragedy," Hofstra athletic director Harry Royle said, "is the person who could have told us all is not here."

A tribute to 'Champ'

CIAMPI CAME HOME to Pelham whenever he could, and he did so on the morning of Oct. 30, a bye week for the Hofstra team. He attended a high school football game that afternoon with childhood friend Nick Federice, then went to the house where Ciampi was raised by his maternal grandparents, Vincent and Roberta. They watched TV and ate pizza with other friends from the neighborhood until late evening.

Roberta Ciampi often recalls the way the phone kept ringing that night. "It was just continuous," she said. "Friends from Hofstra, they wanted him out there. They just kept calling."

Ciampi, Federice, 22, and two other friends accepted the invitation to a Halloween party at Hofstra. By all accounts, they left Ciampi's house shortly before 11 p.m. -with Federice driving Roberta Ciampi's car -and headed down the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Hofstra campus, where Ciampi spent his final hours.

From the southbound lanes of the Hutch now, next to the bleachers at Ciampi's high school field, a driver who knows where to look can see a tree that was planted in Ciampi's memory. The frail branches bear leaves the color of a well-worn football, as well as blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of Ciampi's high school and college teams. The tree stands next to the bleachers on a newly landscaped bluff amid scattered wood chips. From there, one can hear cars whirring by on the Hutch and see Glover Field, where Ciampi first leveled defensive linemen -reluctantly, as he would describe in a paper he wrote about how he didn't want to play football.

"As the 1993 high school football season was around the corner, I asked myself a question: 'John Ciampi, do you really want to play football?"' Ciampi wrote in the class paper at Hofstra only months before he died. "'Do you want to spend those endless hours sacrificing your time for something you don't even think you will do for the rest of your life?' I answered that question very easily that day. I would not play high school football. I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it."

When Ciampi didn't show up for the first two days of varsity practice, a high school coach and two captains came to his house and persuaded him to play. Ciampi was even better than they hoped, earning a scholarship to Southern Connecticut State and later Hofstra, where his tractor-like strength and uncanny speed made him a dominant offensive tackle and certain NFL prospect.

"Without question, John Ciampi was the most talented player I've ever recruited or coached," said former Hofstra offensive coordinator Rob Spence, a family friend who was instrumental in bringing Ciampi to Hofstra and now coaches at Louisiana Tech. "He was an unusual specimen, an extraordinary athlete for his size. He had uncanny athleticism in a giant body. We're playing against some of the top programs in the country this year -Penn State, Kansas State, Auburn, Miami -and I don't think we'll see anyone even close."

In a few short years, the big kid who didn't want to play at all somehow came to believe that the game was his salvation. "I guess football was his way out, really," said Norma Pitelli, his girlfriend and confidante. "And that's why when anything happened, when he got injured, he'd feel like his life was over. He felt he had nothing else to look forward to, no life without football."

It seemed everyone except Ciampi knew how good he was. "The only time he would ever talk about football was when he was worried that he wouldn't achieve his goal of being in the NFL," Pitelli said. "He didn't understand that even if he didn't make it, we wouldn't be disappointed."

He was born on Christmas Day, 1978, to parents Gale and John, who never married. The family said the boy's father left home when Ciampi was 4 or 5 years old, "never to be seen again," and died last year before his son did. Ciampi's mother became seriously ill and spent a few years in a nursing home before she died of AIDS on Jan. 17, 1998. She was in her early 40s. Ciampi and brother Vinny, now 18, leaned on each other for support when their mother died. After that, Ciampi rarely discussed his parents with anyone, not even Pitelli. "He never talked too much," said Ciampi's uncle Vincent. "He'd hold everything in."

"He said something once," Roberta Ciampi said. "He said, 'How come you didn't put me up as a foster child so I could have young parents?' I think maybe he missed that."

It was heavy baggage for Ciampi, who was always the biggest kid around. He was a superb athlete, excelling at baseball and basketball, becoming an effective and imposing pitcher for his high school team at nearly 300 pounds. His friends' parents treated him like one of their own, and Ciampi returned the favor by playing kind- hearted practical jokes. The day before he died, Ciampi stood outside his house and yelled to Federice's mother, Margaret, "Come outside, Marge! Come outside and make me laugh!"

"Honestly and truthfully," Margaret Federice said, "I look out here and I think I can still hear him calling me, yelling my name."

Ciampi had a nickname for everyone. Federice was "Kramer" or "Gump" and the Caropreces, Freddie and Keith, were the "Brillo Brothers" because of their fluffy hair. At Hofstra, he became known as a jokester -sliding firecrackers under the doors of teammates, waking them up for class by bellowing their names.

"He was a big man who didn't act like a tough guy," said another friend, Paul DiDomenico. "He just liked to have a good time. He would be the first one to start dancing on the dance floor and everybody would go crazy. He got everyone else pumped up. You could be in the worst mood, but if he was around, you were happy."

This is the side of Ciampi that caught Pitelli's eye. They dated for two years, sharing thoughts they wouldn't reveal to anyone else. She probably is the only person who knew that although Ciampi loved football, he sometimes also was a prisoner of the game.

Ciampi slipped on some ice during Christmas break in 1998 and broke his left elbow. He had surgery that December and became despondent, said Pitelli, who spent the night comforting him in the hospital.

"He told me, 'I'm damaged goods. I'm nothing now. I'm a loser. I don't do anything in school,"' Pitelli said. "I don't know if he told his friends this, but there were a lot of times he would say he wanted to kill himself. He'd say if he had a gun, he'd shoot himself if he could. I don't think he would actually go through with it. But he didn't want to be a disappointment to himself or anyone else if he didn't get into the NFL. He felt so much pressure through football."

The pressure was intensified by a career-shaping decision Ciampi soon would have to make. "As they were getting closer to the end of the season, he was debating whether he was going to go to the draft or stay another season," Roberta Ciampi said. "I think that's when the pressure started setting in."

Ciampi wrote about it in that college paper, titled "The Day That Changed My Life Forever," only months before he died. "This is a big year," Ciampi wrote. "There are NFL scouts at practice almost every day. I have a very good shot at the NFL, and I got this shot because I believed what that high school coach told me my sophomore year in high school."

The final hours

NOTHING SEEMED to be troubling Ciampi the night he and Federice made their way down the Hutch to Hofstra and a party on Halloween eve. They had plans to rise early the next morning, return Roberta Ciampi's car and watch the NFL games on TV. Big John was in his element, with one of his closest friends from home. They arrived at Ciampi's dorm sometime after 11:30 p.m., showered and went to the party, a popular gathering known as the "Freak Formal," at a campus gathering spot called Hofstra USA, said Nassau County police Det. Bill Kaul.

It is a place to eat, study or socialize, but also a place to drink alcohol. Identification is checked at the door, and those who are of legal drinking age are given bracelets, a common practice at many bars frequented by college students. Bartenders can easily determine which students are old enough to serve. "That place is actually kind of strict," said Freddie Caroprece, a friend and former teammate who said he became disenchanted with Hofstra and left the program when coach Joe Gardi would not offer him a scholarship.

Federice doesn't remember whether he and Ciampi, who was underage at 20, were asked for ID. But he confirmed what the police learned in their investigation -Ciampi went to Hofstra USA and Bogart's, an off- campus pub, that night. "Those are the two places they said they were," said Nassau County police Lt. Eric Jenkins, referring to Ciampi's friends who were interviewed by police. "...We verified that [Ciampi] had been drinking. We know that he had a few beers."

Police did not determine in their investigation where Ciampi drank.

The university interviewed dozens of people while investigating Ciampi's death and determined that Ciampi did not drink at Hofstra USA. "I assure you that when anybody goes into Hofstra USA, their proof is checked," said Mike DeLuise, vice president for university relations and the designated spokesman on Ciampi matters. "If they're underage, they're not supposed to be able to drink. We couldn't show that he was drinking there."

Federice said he and Ciampi left the party at about 2 a.m., walked to Bogart's and arrived a short time later. Bogart's takes photographs of driver's licenses at the door and has a camera pointed at the doorway where customers are proofed. Co-owner Pam Prince said a retired police officer works nights in the bar, located across the street from Hofstra's football stadium. "We are very strict," Prince said. "We are your basic, clean college bar." Prince said police did not question her about Ciampi's activity at Bogart's that night.

Federice said nothing unusual happened in those early-morning hours, and "at no time did I see [Ciampi] pop any pills." They stayed until about 4 or 4:30 a.m., according to Federice and police reports, then talked for a while when they got to Ciampi's dorm room at about 5:30. "He was fine," Federice said. "He was talking fine."

'Make sure you wake me up'

AT ABOUT 6 A.M., Ciampi and Federice heard a commotion in the parking lot outside the dorm.

Ciampi went to the window and recognized a friend and former teammate, Joe Shin, who had been with him at Hofstra USA. The two waved to each other and Ciampi went to bed, according to Federice and the police. "Wake me up early," he told Federice. "Make sure you wake me up."

But Ciampi's friends could not wake him up in his dorm room later that morning. He had vomited in his sleep and was having trouble breathing, Jenkins said. The Uniondale Fire Department received the 911 call at 10:31 a.m. Ciampi was taken to Island Medical Center and died at 12:30 p.m.

The Nassau County Medical Examiner ruled that Ciampi died accidentally from "acute intoxication with alcohol and oxycodone," a prescription pain-killer used to treat moderate to severe pain.

According to the autopsy report, obtained by Newsday, no illegal substances were found in Ciampi's body.

His blood-alcohol content at the time of death was approximately 0.11 percent, or slightly above the legal limit, according to toxicology reports. An exact reading could be obtained only by performing the test right before Ciampi died.

But large amounts of oxycodone were found; the levels ranged from 0.14 in the blood to 0.86 in the kidney, measured in milligrams per liter or milligrams per kilogram. Dr. Howard Mofenson of the Long Island Poison Control Center said Ciampi had significantly higher levels of oxycodone than were found in similar overdose cases on record. It is not possible to determine how much Ciampi took, because tolerance for the drug varies widely, Mofenson said.

Oxycodone and a similar drug, hydrocodone, are synthetic forms of morphine that are generally mixed with acetaminophen to treat moderate to severe pain. Oxycodone is generally prescribed in the proprietary form Percoset or Percodan. Hydrocodone is prescribed as the brands Vicodin and Lortab.

Although both drugs have addictive properties, most patients do not become addicted. But the drugs can lead to withdrawal symptoms and produce euphoric highs if taken after the pain subsides. As a result, doctors often are reluctant to prescribe them and tend to give patients only enough to treat their pain, said Dave Thomas, project officer at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The normal dose of oxycodone is one 5-milligram tablet or one capsule every six hours. An adult would need to take 10 to 20 times that amount to cause death, Mofenson said. The effects of the drug are multiplied by alcohol use.

How Ciampi, who was not on any prescription medications through the football program when he died, got the pills remains a mystery. But in the aftermath of his death, one former player was arrested and allegations emerged that some football players were obtaining and misusing pain-killers.

'It is not murder'

POLICE ARRESTED Shin March 9 in connection with what they called a failed attempt to obtain the pain-killer Vicodin with two forged prescriptions Oct. 1. According to the felony complaint in Nassau County District Court, Shin submitted a forged prescription for Vicodin at Rite Aid on Front Street in Hempstead. He left without the prescription, made out to the name William Smith, when the pharmacist started asking questions.

According to the complaint, Shin then went to a nearby Walgreen's on Front Street and tried to get another Vicodin prescription filled. The complaint alleges that Shin forged the prescription using the name Mike Price. He did not succeed in getting any medication. Shin could face up to 14 years in prison on felony charges of forging a prescription and possessing two forged prescriptions. He has not entered a plea and is due in court Aug. 23.

Both prescriptions were written on prescription forms from Dr. Steven J. Nicholas, a Hofstra team physician, according to the complaint. "The theory is that somebody stole his [prescription] pad," Jenkins said. "But that's all it is, a theory. It's not proof- positive."

Nicholas said he was not aware that his prescriptions had been used. "I have no idea how it happened," Nicholas said. "We have very strict guidelines, but you can't keep the prescription pad on you at all times. It could be that I put it down...It's always possible for someone to pick someone's pocket."

In a recent interview, Shin told Newsday that other players, including Ciampi, gave him the prescriptions that led to his arrest. Shin, who denies forging any prescriptions, said he volunteered to get them filled. He said the other players are still at Hofstra but declined to name them.

"The prescription [Ciampi] had came from someone else," Shin said. "Do I know how he got them? You've got me."

But Shin said in his police statement that Ciampi had used pain- killers before and that Ciampi had obtained the pills from teammates who had been prescribed them legitimately, according to two law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A bottle of hydrocodone -the primary ingredient in Vicodin -was found in Ciampi's room, said Kaul, who investigated whether there was a link between Ciampi's death and Shin's arrest. The bottle came from the same Walgreen's, Kaul said, but not from Shin. Authorities determined that there was no link. "It is not murder. It is not manslaughter," Kaul said. "It is what it is: an unfortunate loss of life."

Caroprece, Ciampi's former teammate who left the university in 1998, said pain-killers such as Vicodin were easy to obtain. "A lot of guys on the team, myself included, liked to take those Vicodin," Caroprece said. "We were always banged up from practice and stuff...We would just try to find people who had injuries in other sports who were given prescriptions for them."

Not all of Ciampi's teammates had knowledge of such activity. Vaughn Sanders, a star running back who now plays for the Jets, said he never heard about Ciampi or any others misusing pain-killers.

"I had no clue," Sanders said. "That's a shock to me. You'd take Tylenol or Advil, that was it."

Jenkins, commander of the Nassau police squad that handled the cases, said his office is not investigating whether others were involved in the illegal use of prescriptions or forgery. Spokesmen for the Nassau County Narcotics Bureau and the burglary and narcotics division of the Nassau County District Attorney's office declined comment.

John O'Malley, assistant director of Hofstra's public safety division, said he knows of no investigation into Shin's allegations by any law enforcement agency. "I know for a fact that if Shin had said anything to the police, and if they were investigating further, they would have been in touch with us to help them out," O'Malley said. DeLuise, Hofstra athletic trainer Rick Zappala and university president James Shuart said they have no knowledge of Shin's version of events.

"As far as I know, there were no other names that surfaced," Shuart said. "If they did, we would pay very close attention."

The NCAA cracked down on the dispensing of prescription medication to athletes in 1998. The new guidelines emphasize that only physicians -not trainers or other staff -are legally permitted to dispense prescription medicine and that athletes should be instructed about what they are taking and how to take it. "We follow them very closely," Zappala said.

Hofstra doctors are available to the football team three times a week during the season, and they alone prescribe medication, Zappala said. "If [players] run out of that and they need additional medication, they need to see the physician and have him write another 'script' out," he said.

Pain-killers Ciampi was prescribed after his elbow operation in 1998 would likely have been used long before he died. Zappala said he did not know what type of medication Ciampi was prescribed for the elbow injury, and Nicholas declined to say.

Asked about allegations that players were finding ways to obtain pain-killers, and about Shin's statement that others were involved in forgery, Zappala said, "I'm not aware of that. It's upsetting to hear. My mind's already spinning as to what we need to do to tighten this up."

Gardi said he does not know how Ciampi got the pain-killers that led to his death.

Some changes already have been made in the wake of Ciampi's death. "We have tightened security in the physicians' offices here," Zappala said. "All the prescription pads that we have are located in a safer spot now, locked up."

Other changes were made in the football program. Gardi removed Shin and several other former players from their positions as assistant strength coaches after Ciampi died. The positions involved no official capacity except that the alumni were allowed to use the team's weight room. "I was trying to say I can't control my alumni, too," Gardi said. "It's tough enough to have 90 players under your jurisdiction."

The school also reviewed its substance-abuse program, which includes education, anti-drug speakers and random testing. No changes were deemed necessary, Gardi said. Ciampi, like all athletes, was subject to random testing. DeLuise said he is not aware of Ciampi's testing positive for any banned substance. "We think we have the least amount of these kind of problems in the country," Gardi said. "We will stand on our record."

"The sadness is, these things can occur in a very momentary lapse in someone's life," Royle said. "It's like taking your eye off the road for just a split second. A tragedy can occur."

'We had it under control'

GARDI SAYS he does more in the way of anti-drug education than is mandated by the NCAA and talks to his players after every practice about non-football issues. There also are indications that Gardi went to extraordinary efforts to monitor Ciampi's behavior.

The first sign of trouble came on May 19, 1998, when Ciampi was convicted of driving while impaired in Nassau County. Gardi arranged for Ciampi to call him every night before he went to bed and restricted his social life in other ways that he wouldn't specify. "We put what we felt was a good clamp on him, and then he stayed out of trouble for a good period of time," Gardi said.

What Gardi did not know was that there had been an earlier red flag; the incident in 1998 was Ciampi's second DWI conviction. He first had his license revoked Jan. 4, 1996, for driving while impaired in Pelham at age 16, according to motor vehicle records obtained by Newsday. Hofstra is bound by law not to discuss students' academic or disciplinary files. But a university source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ciampi received regular psychological counseling through the school.

"John had plenty of help and plenty of attention, maybe way too much attention," said Spence, who often called Ciampi's grandfather to check on his star recruit. "You talk about love, there was that. And it wasn't just a functionary kind of 'we'll help John because John can help us.' There is kind of an unusual and very positive kind of attitude in that football program. That should be emphasized. People are doing their very, very best, and it wasn't just me."

Shin and Caroprece both recalled how closely Gardi watched Ciampi; Shin said the coach had instructed Ciampi to stay out of bars. "Half the school year, he'd just sit in his room and play video games because he didn't want to go out and get in trouble," Caroprece said. Prince, the co-owner at Bogart's, said her son, Matthew, had met with Gardi and asked him to keep Ciampi out of their bar because he was underage. "Coach Gardi talked to him," Prince said, "and for months he never set foot in here again."

But at some point during the 1999 season, Gardi felt he could no longer monitor Ciampi as closely as he had in the past. "I felt good about what we did to John and how we restricted his social life for a period of time," Gardi said. "We had it under control, we felt. And then the season started.

"You're working hard, 80 to 100 hours a week," Gardi said. "You're into the heat of the battle. I'm not saying we looked the other way, but you're working 80 to 100 hours a week on football, and that's the way it is. I have to live with the fact that I had sat on John, so there's no one who has more feelings about his death than I do."

Gardi said he will not change his team alcohol policy, which prohibits drinking even for players who are of legal age. "It's written in the playbook that they're not supposed to drink," Gardi said.

At least 2,000 people turned out for Ciampi's wake in Pelham, lining up around the block to pay their respects. Shin was one of the pallbearers. "I have never seen, except for a celebrity, a larger crowd for a wake," Royle said.

Ciampi's grandfather sobs violently when he recalls what Gardi told him that day: "Grandpa," Ciampi recounted in his deep, raspy voice, "I said I'd take care of your boy. I guess I failed."

His family is left only with memories and the ache of unanswered questions. Ciampi's grandfather can barely talk about him without crying; watching a football game is nearly impossible.

"His team was Denver," his grandfather said. "John Elway was his man. I said, 'John, maybe you'll play for Denver.' They say there were 26 teams looking at him. All the scouts marked him 100 percent."

Regrets are left scattered amid all this heartache, like errant cups and wrappers blown across Glover Field after a big game. Ciampi's tree next to the bleachers will last many more seasons, collecting snow on its branches each winter and budding anew in springtime. "Nothing," Roberta Ciampi said, "is going to bring him back."

But John Ciampi lives on, in pictures and his own words, his memory looming as large as he did. He is still out there in his favorite places in Pelham, beckoning them to make him laugh one last time.

"He once told me we were destined to be together," Pitelli said in her eulogy. "And if this is true, then maybe one day I'll see him again. One day, we will all see him. But from now on, we just have to hope that we all have him watching over us, just like he did in life."