Demetris Summers has a long way to go to get his career back.
Forget the 2,400-odd miles that separate Summers’ hometown of Lexington and Calgary, Alberta, where Summers begins training camp today with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.
The former South Carolina tailback has more than miles to overcome to reclaim his reputation.
It has been nearly four years since Summers last played for the Gamecocks and two years since his brief stint in the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp.
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The 24-year-old Summers has not done much in the interim, working a couple of odd jobs and trying to lay off the marijuana that led to his dismissal at USC, and, he believes, cost him a shot in the NFL.
Summers lives with his girlfriend and their two young daughters in an Irmo apartment complex. But without a degree, driver’s license or a job, he has no way to support them.
For the first time in his life, Summers needs football more than some team needs him.
“I feel like it’s my last chance. It’s put up now or shut up,” Summers said last month before leaving for Canada. “I’m just going up there and giving it all I’ve got and hopefully it will turn out for the best for me.”
Seven Oaks Parks on a midweek afternoon in spring is the picture of serenity. Removed from the bustle of nearby St. Andrews Road, there is little activity other than a few walkers and an older man circling the paved trail on his bike.
Here alongside the empty baseball fields and down the hill from Leaphart Elementary’s portable classrooms is where Summers has come to rediscover the running form that once made him the most coveted tailback in the state.
With personal trainer Ewell Gordon looking on and clicking a stopwatch, Summers goes through an hourlong workout of 10- to 15-yard bursts designed to get his fast-twitch muscles firing. He takes a break to shake hands with a visitor and later says, “You should have been here the day we ran that hill about 30 times.”
He wears a bright red T-shirt from a Lexington rec basketball league, one of two leagues Summers plays in along with former USC stars B.J. McKie and Rolando Howell.
“I just shoot jump shots most of the time,” he says. “If I’ve got a wide-open dunk, I’ll take it.”
That athleticism is what led Calgary to take a chance on Summers, who was “sitting around playing a video game” when the Stampeders called with an invitation to attend a March tryout camp in Orlando.
Summers spent a couple of weeks with Gordon preparing for the camp, which he attended with Gaffney’s Eddie Montgomery, the brother of embattled U.S. sprinter Tim Montgomery, and former USC defensive end Moe Thompson, who was kicked off USC’s team the same year as Summers following a burglary arrest.
“When we got down there, we all got together and I just said, ‘Man, we’ve been though a lot and we’ve got to start here,’” Summers said.
Though the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Summers said the tryout featured mostly pass-catching drills, he demonstrated enough ability to get a contract offer. Calgary coach John Hufnagel said the three-day workout allowed him to quiz Summers on his background, namely his ouster from USC following several positive tests for marijuana.
“I knew a little bit about Demetris’ past so I needed to have an opportunity to meet the young man, look him in the eye and talk about things,” Hufnagel said. “Obviously, his athleticism was very impressive. He’s a bigger man that has excellent quickness. I’m sure he’s in better shape now than he was two years ago.
“We’re hoping he can come up here and compete well and see where it may lead.”
Gordon said Calgary would require Summers to submit to regular drug tests.
“He knows. He’s already got that rundown,” Gordon said. “To the best of my knowledge, he’s already passed two of them. That’s why he’s up there right now.”
Summers said he has “cleaned up” his life and no longer smokes pot.
“I feel pretty good about myself. Back in the past I made mistakes, but I let that go and moved on,” he said. “People ask me a lot. That’s something I’m going to have to deal with all my life. I just answer the question truthfully.”
Though it has been four years since Summers last wore a Gamecocks’ uniform, a few, random fans still show up at Williams-Brice Stadium wearing his No. 31 jersey.
Summers, who surpassed Derek Watson as the state’s all-time rushing leader while at Lexington, said the worst part of living in the area is having young fans ask him why he no longer plays for USC.
“I just tell them I made a mistake. Some people make bad mistakes and I made one,” he said. “Marijuana messed up my life pretty much. I feel like if I’d never started smoking I’d be in the NFL right now. But I made a mistake and now I have to live with it.”
Summers says he had not been smoking when he failed his final drug test at USC in February 2005, saying he passed a second test administered the next day.
“They said the second one doesn’t matter. It’s the first,” Summers said. “They figured I was smoking because I had failed previous ones.”
That said, Summers figures he got what he deserved.
“I blame everything I did on myself. I wouldn’t point the finger at nobody else,” he said. “I made decisions and I have to suffer the consequences.”
Since leaving USC, Summers has continued his poor driving habits. Since 2001, Summers has piled up seven speeding tickets and been involved in three car accidents, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records.
Summers’ license remains suspended because of his failure to pay the tickets.
But Gordon, who also worked with Summers before his Cowboys’ audition, said he has seen no signs that Summers has been partying.
“I’m not with him 24 hours a day, but the indicators are he got the weight off,” said Gordon, adding Summers is 12 pounds lighter than in 2006. “If you’re drinking a lot of beer and staying up all night, you’re not going to lose weight.”
Since leaving a job with his uncle’s brick business, Summers said he does little besides lift weights, play basketball and spend time with his longtime girlfriend, Latesha “Candi” Boykin, and their two daughters — 6-year-old Ny’asia and Aatianna, who turns 2 this month.
“He loves his kids. Ain’t no doubt about that,” Gordon said. “I’ve been able to find him at home day or night this time. Some people will stop by and see him from time to time, but for the most part he’s close to home.”
Jimmy Satterfield, Summers’ coach at Lexington, always thought Summers would have been better off getting away from home for school. He can’t get much farther away than Alberta, Canada.
“Hopefully, he’ll take this opportunity and run with it,” said Satterfield, who allowed Summers to live with him for part of high school career. “Obviously, he has the talent if he can get a chance. ... He’s 24. He’s got at least five, six good years if he can get in there and make it stick.”
Calgary returns its top three tailbacks from last season, including leading rusher Joffrey Reynolds. But Hufnagel said he did not sign Summers to be a warm camp body.
“Demetris brings something that’s a little bit different than the backs I have and that’s his size and athleticism and catching ability,” Hufnagel said. “Whether Demetris is the total package, I don’t know. But he showed he has the possibility of being that at the camp he attended with us. ...
“I’m not betting the ranch that he’s going to be my starting running back, but he will be given every opportunity to prove that he can or can’t be.”
Summers, a former Parade All-American who led the Gamecocks in rushing in 2003 and 2004, arrived in Calgary on Wednesday for the Stampeders’ three-day rookie camp.
Before he left, Summers said he was grateful for another chance and acknowledged there may not be another one.
“I feel like I’ve been working pretty hard. Went to Dallas and had a pretty good chance but things didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” he said.
“Just getting this call means a lot to me. People still believe in me. People look at me as a football player, not just a thug.”
Every day he remains in Canada, Summers moves a step closer to becoming a football player again.
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.