The courtroom scene remains etched in Derek Medler's mind. The one-time star running back from Wilfrid Laurier University's strong football program stood in front of Justice Gary Hearn, on Oct. 7, 2004 in Kitchener, and received the best news of his life. He would not be going to prison.
"(Justice Hearn) said: 'I feel like putting you away will be less beneficial than putting you out in the community,' " Medler, 23, recalled recently. "He said: 'I'm going to give you one chance, one try, to turn your life around.' "
As he waits for a lunch date while working at his father's electronics store in Guelph, the outgoing 5-foot-8, 210-pound Medler is trying to do just that. It's his second chance to make things right, two years after he entered a dangerous world of crime and drugs. He acknowledges his bad decisions and his good luck, but does not seem like a young man with no hope. Yes, Medler may have been naive in the past, but now he speaks with confidence and wants to tell his story because he feels it might help youngsters on the verge of following his path.
The warning is valid. In a few short months, Medler went from being a CFL prospect with a future to a cocaine dealer, bottoming out when he was arrested for being an accessory after the fact to an attempted murder.
He knows the sentence he received -- 18 months to be served at home that allows him to work, and work out, in the community --is a gift. He wants to make the most of it and makes this pitch to the nine teams taking part in the CFL draft on April 28.
"Any team that is interested in drafting me, I know it will be the best investment they've ever made," said Medler, who two years ago was second in the Canadian university ranks in rushing behind McMaster star Jesse Lumsden and was the MVP of the East-West Bowl for CFL draft-eligible players. "I know if I get into camp, my talent will prevail."
It was late in 2003 that Medler's football career, and life, unravelled.
Before he and his Laurier team were to play in the 2003 OUA Yates Cup final, Medler was given a drug test and later tested positive for cocaine. Medler, playing with a shoulder injury, and his Golden Hawks lost against Lumsden's Marauders in the Yates Cup.
Then things got worse. On Dec. 5, 2003, police stopped Medler in a U-Haul truck -- he was in the process of moving -- and arrested him. He was charged with forcible confinement (later dropped) and accessory after the fact in an attempted murder.
To those who knew him -- or thought they knew him --the charges seemed incredible. But for months prior to his arrest, Medler had been using and dealing cocaine and was involved with a group of men who tried to murder a rival dealer.
Nobody, not Medler's father, Dave, his best friend, Tyler Lynk, nor his coach, Gary Jeffries, knew about what Medler calls his former "double life."
"It started out with me hanging out with the wrong group of guys and it just (escalated)," Medler said.
Midway through the 2003 season, his second at the Waterloo school, Medler was introduced to a new group of friends -- none of whom were university students -- at a bar.
"If you go out to a bar and you're there with five of your friends, and one of your friends says I want to introduce you to a friend of mine, it just happens," he said. "You just get acquainted with different people if you're out enough."
When he wasn't playing football, he partied with his new pals and, eventually, snorted cocaine with them.
Cocaine is an expensive habit for a typical university student, but Medler never paid for his personal use. Away from the field, away from the classroom, Medler was dealing drugs. And he wasn't just doling out a bit of weed to buddies.
"(His new friends) would call me and say, 'What are you doing this night,' and it was just a mutual friendship," Medler said. "The more you get to know them, the more you get to know what they're all about. They gradually work into you. Before you know it, they're asking, 'Do you ever sell drugs? You want to try it to make some extra money?' You say you want to make extra money, but then you get carried away and you go too far with it.
"I was paying most of my bills and tuition through (selling drugs)."
Medler, who says he did cocaine with friends only about twice a week, was in so deep on the dealing side that he eventually owed $17,000 to some dealers. All this for a guy who says he tried marijuana a handful of times in high school and didn't even like it.
"The way the whole drug world works, people are fronted drugs to sell and if you're fronted a certain amount of drugs, you hardly ever pay for them up front," Medler said. "They'll give it to you 'on a spot,' they call it. Somebody fronts you drugs and then there might be a dispute over what you owe them ... Maybe you decide, 'I'm not going to pay you because I don't think I owe you that because I think it's his (the other dealer's) mistake.' I just decide I'm not going to pay you, you have different views on what you owe the other guy and it turns into kind of a problem. Big problems."
On Nov. 23, 2003, those big problems came to the forefront. That $17,000 debt prompted a group to visit the home of a rival group, court heard from the Crown, to deliver a warning: "No longer deal drugs in Kitchener."
Medler was aware a confrontation was going to take place. Earlier that day, he had been in a Cambridge motel room with Chuyen Nguyen, Bernard Thamvongs and Quyen Van Dam.
Nguyen and Thamvongs are serving five- and three-year sentences, respectively, for robbery and forcible confinement. Van Dam is in jail for 10 years for four charges, including attempted murder.
"(One) thing going through my mind was: 'I don't want to be here (hearing about the planned confrontation),' " Medler said of that day. "I know this is a really bad situation, but I couldn't leave. Had I left, I would have been in just as much danger as anybody. It's kind of like if if you get in, you can't get out."
The motel room meeting eventually broke up and Medler was able to leave. Later that day, with Medler not at the crime scene, Nguyen, Thamvongs and Van Dam broke into a house in Kitchener and Johnny (Bounsouei) Xaysy was shot twice.
"There was a chance I might have been (involved in the confrontation), but I wasn't directed to," Derek Medler said. "I could have easily been told you're the one who is going to go take care of this. God intervened, obviously, because I would have been in a lot more trouble had that happened than I am now."
Though Medler wasn't at the scene of the shooting, he was soon involved in the aftermath. For the next eight days, Medler helped hide the suspects, moving them around to different motels. He insists, though, that he didn't realize he was committing a crime -- accessory after the fact.
"You're not directly involved in the actual crime (the shooting) so you don't see how you can get charged for that crime," Medler said. "I'm driving these guys around thinking it's no big deal. How can I get charged for driving friends to Toronto?' "
But his thinking was flawed. His three friends eventually were arrested and Medler was, too. He was cuffed and processed and put behind bars at Maplehurst jail in Milton.
The reality of his situation didn't take long to sink in.
"You're thrown in with a bunch of creeps and all I was saying to myself was, 'I don't belong in here, I don't know what I'm doing in here,' " Medler said.
His cellmate was Christopher McBride, who gained notoriety earlier this year when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the stabbing death of David Rosenzweig in Toronto in July 2002.
"Certain times, yeah," Medler said when asked if he was worried about his safety in jail. "But I think it's your mind playing games. Maybe someone is staring at you and you're wondering if you did something. One time I thought a few guys were going to jump me, but nothing ever happened."
Medler sat in jail for three weeks as he lingered in the legal system -- his first bail hearing was put off for a week --and his parents scrambled to raise the $50,000 bond and hire well-known Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan.
Obviously, his university football career at Laurier was over. The school had suspended him indefinitely and even barred him from campus.
But one link to his past wouldn't walk away. Jeffries, his former coach, remained in close contact with Medler through the entire process.
"These kids, when they come here, they become my second family," Jeffries said. "We're close in good times and bad times."
Jeffries was one of a number of former coaches, teachers, friends and neighbours who wrote letters of support for Medler, letters that convinced Justice Hearn to reject the Crown's request for a jail sentence of close to two years.
"I told Derek you've got one shot. It's not like baseball, where there are three strikes," Dave Medler, Derek's father, said. "I told him, 'If you disappoint me again, you'll still be my son and I'll love you to death, but I won't be there to help you."
So why did Derek Medler take a wrong turn? There is no clear answer, but he was not unlike many university students in some ways. Being out on his own for the first time meant enjoying freedom he did not have at home. He grew up in what he calls a strict, religious home. There was no smoking, drinking or swearing.
"I think there was a degree of rebellion involved (in his actions)," Medler said. "You live a certain way and then you're finally out on your own. All the things you're kind of interested in that you were never able to do, you want to test them out all at once."
In jail, Medler started reading and discussing the Bible with McBride.
"I truly believe what you go through as a kid, it's like a seed planted inside you, and when you get older you might resort back to that," he said. "My parents were hammering me with religion when I was growing up and I think I was rebelling against it. Now, I'm growing more mature. I'm starting to realize what I should be doing and how I should be living.
"I've really started to realize all this is happening for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. (A relationship with God) has helped me so much. It has helped me forgive, helped me get over my past, helped me answer my questions."
Recently, Medler has had reason to smile. About a month after his sentence was handed down, Medler watched the Golden Hawks beat McMaster in the Yates Cup before a sellout crowd at Laurier.
"It was bittersweet, but way more sweet," Medler said. "I was so happy, especially for (coach) Jeff(ries)."
Last month, Medler was invited to a CFL draft evaluation camp in Laval. He tweaked a hamstring and couldn't participate in all the drills but didn't sulk. Instead, he sent a letter to CFL teams, admitting his mistakes and stressing his new-found deep belief in God. Most importantly, Medler said he was trying to turn things around.
"I was very impressed with that letter," Nick Volpe, the Argos director of Canadian scouting, said. "I thought to myself if that were my kid and he felt that way, I'd want to give him a second chance."
Jeffries said three CFL teams have phoned him to ask about Medler. If football doesn't work out, his backup plan is to move to B.C., live with his best friend, Lynk, who is a member of the Canadian navy, and take a real estate course.
But football, not real estate, is Medler's specialty. One more chance, the theme of Medler's recent past, is all he can ask for.
"He recognizes he got into something totally wrong and he's grateful to have survived it," Jeffries said. "I don't think there is anything he can't do. He still wants to play football and he's ever so hopeful someone will take a chance and give him that opportunity.
"We all are."