Maine Sabers running back John Wiechman, a former Bonny Eagle and Southern Connecticut State University standout, served time in prison for theft and now is aiming to be a comeback player in the far more important game of life itself.
SOUTH PORTLAND - The woman inside the Walmart was staring at John Wiechman, or so he thought. "I could see her eyes widen, like she recognized me. She looked like she wanted to vomit. She turned and walked away very fast."
She must see the scarlet F for felon on his forehead, Wiechman said to himself. She must know he was the 2005 Fitzpatrick Award winner, which goes to the best Maine schoolboy football player. She must know he left Buxton for New Haven and Southern Connecticut State University, where he was a very good running back on a very competitive NCAA Division II team.
She must know he was sentenced to five years in a Connecticut prison after pleading guilty to three counts of credit card theft and various other counts of larceny and identity theft. He was accused of lifting wallets and car keys from lockers in health clubs and helping himself to items in the cars whose doors were unlocked by the keys.
He was arrested in August 2011. He walked into prison in January 2012. Everyone, he thought, was watching.
"I am a felon. These are the consequences that are part of my punishment." He picks the hours when stores might be least crowded to shop. He pulls a baseball cap down to his eyes.
Friday evening, he looked around the South Portland grill where we met and saw tables full of people.
"I was hoping we'd meet at a place more out of the way," said Wiechman. He was told no one was paying attention to him except me.
Wiechman was released from prison this winter after serving nearly a year. Twice he did time in a segregated unit after proving his toughness to other inmates. "You're in a 6-by-9 cell. You have none of your personal belongings. No books, no television, no magazines. Your food is brought to you. Someone has to take you to the bathroom."
When he was with the general population, which included sex offenders, he felt he was in isolation. "I couldn't have an intelligent conversation with anyone."
He stopped trying. "I just wanted to do my punishment and get out. There were one or two times I thought I was going crazy."
He didn't want visitors. He was hurt by the pain he caused his mother, Susan, who works in Maine's probational system. He hurt his father, Ted, a former administrator with the culinary arts program at Southern Maine Community College.
His girlfriend, a fellow student, took the money she saved for a spring break cruise to pay his bail. "She should have let me sit in jail," said Wiechman. "I can never pay her back."
They still talk regularly but no longer have a relationship. "It's better this way. What can I offer her? I've disappointed a lot of people."
Or confirmed the expectations of some Mainers who followed Wiechman's exciting career on championship Bonny Eagle High football teams but knew of his transgressions away from the game. Intelligent and articulate, Wiechman made mistakes in choosing his older friends who found trouble.
Only one familiar face, other than his attorney, was present at his sentencing. Carol Cavanaugh, whose husband, Rich, is the longtime Southern Connecticut football coach, drove Wiechman to court and was given some of his personal effects before he was led away.
"It was heartbreaking," said Cavanaugh, 60. "I saw how his family loved and supported him. I told John I didn't for a second believe this is who you are. He kept saying 'This is my punishment. I have to do this.' It was pretty harsh for me to hear that."
The coach's wife had been tipped off in the spring of 2011 by her daughter, a student at SCSU who heard talk that police were looking at Wiechman for thefts. Carol Cavanaugh called Wiechman. "I told him he better not do something dopey, don't be stupid. All he said was 'Yes, ma'am.' I knew he had financial issues. He could have asked for help. Ten days later he was arrested."
Friday, Wiechman said the thefts began as a crime of opportunity and escalated. He had a very small chance of being noticed by the NFL, but it was a chance. He was devoting time to training and not working. He wasn't thinking of his victims or the consequences. He does now. He learns soon how he begins making court-ordered restitution.
Friday, Wiechman rushed from his job to a doctor for treatment of a torn groin muscle that will sideline him from running the football for the Maine Sabers, a Portland-based semi-pro team. He's played in four games.
"For those two, three hours, I can feel good about myself again."
Sabers owner Steve Goodrich, not knowing Wiechman was "indisposed," had contacted him about playing. When Goodrich learned of Wiechman's history, he didn't back away.
Goodrich recently founded PowerPay, a local provider of credit card payment processing. He's has the means to help people.
"(John's) self-esteem and confidence were understandably low," said Goodrich. "He let a lot of people down who had trusted him more than once. (This) was an opportunity to create a new circle of friends with a group of individuals who would only judge John based on their experiences with him here and now."
Kendrick Ballantyne, a Sabers coach, gave Wiechman a job with his company, Optimum Inc., involved in real estate management. Wiechman was a couple of classes away from his degrees in marketing and computer science before his arrest, but learned new skills quickly.
As far as Wiechman's past was concerned, "He totally came clean," said Ballantyne, a former tight end at UMaine and Northeastern. "He's never said, 'I got screwed.'
"I've had people say, 'Be careful of this kid.' I don't see it. ... I know he has huge regrets and he lives on that. I've told him every single day, try to be a better person and people eventually will see that."
In his mind, Wiechman has a list of people he owes a visit to apologize. Rich and Carol Cavanaugh were among the first. "I make no excuses for what he did," said Carol. "This experience clarified the boundaries of how to live his life.
"I told John, 'You've got to stop believing everyone sees you as a criminal. You've got to believe in yourself so others can believe in you.' It's a heavy weight.
"He can carry it."
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: