Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
Forty-five minutes before practice Friday night, with every UNLV player and assistant coach watching, Rebels football coach Mike Sanford handed Channing Trotter the black jersey.
Twice before, Trotter had been nominated for the prestigious garment, which Sanford presents to the standout offensive and defensive player from the previous practice. This time, Trotter got it.
He thought, Thank you, Jesus.
“Wow, it was like somebody is looking out for me,” Trotter said after the practice. “Thank God, they’re finally seeing that I’m out here putting in the work and doing everything I can to help out the team.”
The tests have been constant since Trotter slipped in the fall of 2006, when as a clerk at a local store he let fellow UNLV students, including three football players, abscond with free clothes.
Ultimately, a felony was reduced to a misdemeanor, allowing Trotter to return to the football team. He was sentenced to probation and made restitution.
The biggest off-field blemish of the Sanford era vaulted UNLV past Ohio and Texas to the top of the criminalathletes.com rankings.
More than 33 months later, Trotter, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound junior, is on course to start at running back for the Sept. 5 opener at home against Sacramento State.
Late Friday night, on the first play of a quick scrimmage to cap the practice, he caught a 30-yard fade pass along the right sideline, over his left shoulder, from quarterback Omar Clayton for a touchdown.
Coaches had been pondering Trotter’s ability to catch such a pass.
“It’s a huge deal, the greatest day I’ve had being a part of UNLV football,” said Trotter, touching his black jersey. “This is a great honor. It shows I’m doing everything right.
“I want to go out there vs. Sacramento State, and whoever else we play, and make plays for coach Sanford. I thank him for having trust in me, and I don’t want to let him down.”
Rocking the boat
Trotter, 22, came to UNLV because of its highly regarded criminal justice program. As the son of a retired police officer, that was a natural field for him to pursue.
As a redshirt, his knowledge of the nuances of the legal system, from arraignments to sentencing, expanded when he was forced to navigate its intricate waters.
He learned how a first-time offense can be the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, between having a spot on a football team or getting the boot.
“I didn’t have both feet in the boat,” Trotter said. “I was doing stuff I shouldn’t have been doing. I was bored. I made some bad decisions. I’m a God-fearing, respectable young man. I wasn’t raised like that.”
Trotter was a clerk at Abercrombie & Fitch, in the Forum Shops at Caesars, when he allowed three teammates, a track athlete and a cheerleader to get away with $2,216 worth of free merchandise.
Between September and November 2006, on 10 reported occasions, they brought clothes to his counter. He’d ring up one item, remove the anti-theft sensors from the others and stuff it all in a bag.
A store manager exposed the scam on Nov. 12, 2006.
“That was totally out of character for Channing,” said Mesa (Ariz.) Red Mountain High football coach Jim Jones, for whom Trotter accumulated 1,600 rushing yards as a senior.
“I just heard he got into trouble. We couldn’t believe it. I don’t really know the whole story. But to be honest with you, I don’t care. I know Channing Trotter and that was not characteristic of him.”
Trotter faced four years in prison or a $5,000 fine. In September 2007, he was sentenced to probation, paid $1,337 in restitution and performed 150 hours of community service.
During his indefinite suspension, the unspoken penalty was severe.
“It was difficult being away from the team and being frowned upon by some people – that I’m a bad guy, stuff like that,” Trotter said. “I had to prove to people that I’m not a bad person and that was out of my character.”
Trotter had to prove himself to people like Todd Berry, whom Sanford hired as an assistant coach during that time.
“It was an upward battle,” Trotter said. “I had to let coaches and teammates know I am still dedicated to the team, that I’m not about myself and doing bad stuff like that.”
He could have moved on, getting a fresh start elsewhere. He also knows he could have been tossed from the team even if the conviction hadn’t been reduced to a misdemeanor.
“I had those thoughts, no lie, that maybe football isn’t for me and maybe this place is not for me,” Trotter said. “I didn’t know what I’d do if it were a felony. I had to pray and keep going to class. Coaches stayed on me to make sure I was going to court dates.
“I thank the coaches so much for having faith in me and keeping me on the team. They could have easily said, 'Go handle this on your own, we’re moving forward without you.' ”
New running backs coach DeAndre Smith, who tutored Rodney Ferguson at New Mexico, and Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner at Northern Illinois, is a big fan of Trotter.
Last season, Trotter showed a big flash with a late 58-yard run against TCU. He remembered being cold. He also remembered getting caught from behind and has vowed to never let that happen again.
At Saturday night’s scrimmage at Sam Boyd Stadium, Trotter rattled off several 6- and 7-yard runs, and he rammed through the right side for a short-yardage touchdown.
“He’s earned it,” Smith said of Trotter being poised to start. “He’s fought his way back to get in good graces with everyone. He’s working hard and he’s accountable being a good teammate.”
Friday, Smith zipped Trotter a text message – I’m proud of you.
“He still has self doubts, even in the summer, about this opportunity,” Smith said. “I told him to stick with it. If you do that, good things will happen. Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to work out.”
Sanford agreed with Jones, that what Trotter calls “The November Situation” was an anomaly and didn’t reflect what he’s about. He made some dumb and bad decisions, Sanford said, but he’s learned from them.
“He’s gone through some trials and tribulations, and he’s risen above those things,” Sanford said. “He committed himself completely – completely, completely, completely – to being a starting tailback.
“He’s doing all the little things and showing a lot of toughness. He’s come a long way.”
Sanford has been talking about using a stable of running backs, that a guy like Trotter might be the first of a series of UNLV tailbacks that foes will have to stop.
Trotter, with both hands clutching his black jersey, said he believes he’ll do so much it’ll be difficult to take him off the field.
“I feel like I put myself in a situation to be the guy,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I need to play … bust down the middle, drag the pile, catch passes on the sideline. I’ll make sure I’m that guy.
“People should know that the 2009 UNLV Rebels will do some great things, and I’m going to be a big part of it. I’ll do whatever I can to help my team win a ton of games.”