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Friday, October 23, 2009
Terreal Bierria's arrest is a shocker

By Jemele Hill
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One of the effects of this job? You lose your ability to be surprised.

A lot of times you find yourself expecting the worst from athletes, because you've seen too many instances in which they follow their worst instincts. And while you respect their extraordinary athletic abilities, some of them are the fakest people on earth.

I know a few Bible-thumping, Bible-study-attending athletes who espouse John 3:16 when the cameras are on, but try to pick up every woman within 10 yards as soon as the microphones and tape recorders aren't around. I've heard every story you can imagine about athletes, from rigging paternity tests to impregnating teammates' wives.

My point is, I'm almost never surprised when an athlete gets into trouble.

Terreal Bierria
Terreal Bierria was a starter for most of 2004 with the Seahawks.

But I was this week.

Two years ago, I wrote a story on Terreal Bierria, a former pro football player who left the NFL to save his family.

It was an unusual and heartbreaking story. Bierria, a safety out of Georgia, was drafted in the fourth round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2002. He started 12 games for the Seahawks in 2004, but lost his starting job late in the season because Seattle had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

Though his career with the Seahawks was on the line, Bierria made the selfless decision to leave training camp in 2005 because the majority of his family -- some 150 relatives -- was trapped in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

What Bierria didn't know was that his time with the Seahawks would be his last with an NFL team. Mike Holmgren, then Seattle's coach, cut Bierria the day after he left to help his family in New Orleans. It was a decision Holmgren agonized over, but one he had to make for the good of his team.

"I want to say we might have cut him sooner if it hadn't been for Hurricane Katrina," Holmgren said at the time.

But now the same guy who bought a house in Houston for his displaced family members -- the same guy who drove a U-Haul back and forth between New Orleans, San Antonio and Houston to help them all move in -- could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Terreal Bierria
Bierria, after getting arrested earlier this week and charged with first-degree murder.

Bierria was arrested Tuesday in his hometown of Slidell, La., and charged with first-degree murder. Police believe he killed Soron Salter -- a man Bierria reportedly played high school football with -- during a dispute over drugs. Authorities told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune they discovered a "significant amount" of cocaine in the home in which Salter was slain.

I haven't kept up with Bierria since writing my initial story, but this was the last headline I expected to read. Bierria's mother was a police officer, and she signed him up for rec football when he was a child because she worked late and wanted him involved in something that would help a young boy burn excess energy.

A good story, but one that might have a disastrous conclusion.

I can't speculate about Bierria's guilt or innocence, but his involvement in this situation shows you never know what lurks behind someone's public persona. We just learned that lesson with Steve McNair. McNair was often lauded for his charity work, teamwork and character, but his tragic killing uncovered that the married father of four was engaged in rampant infidelity.

That changed the way a lot of people looked at McNair, though infidelity among professional athletes is more common than many of us would like to admit. People wanted to believe someone like McNair was above all that.

But no matter how much an athlete is in the spotlight for doing the right things, there is always the chance he's doing some wrong things behind the scenes.

Terreal Bierria
Here's Bierria with his mother and grandmother, in happier times.

If you'd asked me last week which athletes were most likely to be arrested for a serious crime, Bierria wouldn't have made my top 100 -- although when I wrote the initial story, I was unaware he had previously been arrested for drug distribution and drunk driving.

The last time I spoke with Bierria, it was clear that rescuing his family had changed him. He had an uncle who died in a San Antonio hospital after spending days on a bridge in New Orleans, and it meant a lot to Bierria that he was able to see him before he passed. In the wake of the storm, Bierria lived with 20 of his family members in that four-bedroom home he purchased in Houston. And even though his agent was calling him almost daily, telling him about NFL teams that were interested, Bierria chose to stay in Houston with his family.

"I went from being a boy to a man," Bierria said. "I put up boyish things to become a man. I feel that I will handle things and I see things in a different way than I did before."

I'm not telling you this because I want you to have sympathy for Bierria. If he did what he's being accused of, he should be severely punished.

Just allow me to be surprised he's in this situation.

Jemele Hill can be reached at