Cherry was pinball wizard for Rainbows


POSTED: Monday, July 13, 2009

I await the call. That's all I can do. I've deposited the money into the account, and wait for a phone call.

That's how you try to have a conversation with someone in prison thousands of miles away. You put money in his name and hope the inmate calls you. I could write a letter, but that would take too long, and the odds of a reply would be the same, if not worse.

As of yesterday, Raphel Cherry—one of the two or three most exciting football players I've ever seen in a Hawaii uniform—had not called. I don't really expect to hear from him, don't even know if he remembers me, or if he calls anyone in the 808. So until then, this is what I have from him. It's what you have if you'd looked for it hard enough.

“;I never touched Jerri and that's the truth.”;

This is what, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cherry told a Little Rock courtroom on Jan. 25, 2001, after being found guilty for a second time in the strangulation death of his wife.

He got a retrial for improper jury behavior the first time. But the evidence, though circumstantial, was found both times as overwhelming. No eyewitnesses, but the facts screamed. Who else could've done it? So Raphel Cherry, University of Hawaii quarterback, 1981-84, remains in prison, perhaps for 20 more years. The man judged by a panel of media, coaches and players to be the 18th greatest football player in UH history is also a convicted murderer. Two juries in Arkansas found him guilty of killing one of the people he was supposed to love most. The murder left his young daughter motherless and put her father in prison.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, he was one of the good guys. Raphel Jerome Cherry, star athlete at Washington High School in Los Angeles, came to Hawaii from a rough neighborhood—but also from a family of solid, working-class parents. Raphel was a fair to good student, and a phenomenal football player.

“;When I first saw him, he was doing his thing, being Raphel,”; says George Lumpkin, who recruited him. “;He was throwing the ball, making people miss.

“;One of the best guys at making you miss. Raphel was just a great athlete. Thick, not like a typical quarterback. Thick in the thighs. Strong. Could probably play anything.”;

He was also elusive off the field, in a good way—steering clear of gangs and drugs.

He was an incredible get for the blossoming UH program. When I first saw him play, I thought Bobby Douglass' legs with John Elway's arm (remember, this was the early 1980s, and I was young and impressionable). A reference point for today? Talent-wise, maybe Michael Vick, not as tall, but stronger.

I talked to three of his UH teammates, and Dana McLemore (a little older), Rich Miano (same age) and Kyle Mosley (a little younger) all said they liked and admired Cherry, and were all shocked to learn of the turn his life had taken.

McLemore describes him as “;one of the most respectful young guys.”;

Cherry earned esteem through quiet leadership. While other veterans found excuses to skip conditioning drills, the star quarterback was always in the front of the 24 sprints of 110 yards each.

“;I can't say there was a better leader on the team,”; Mosley says. “;There were certain guys who just stood out and earned your respect. Not by words or threats but by how they went about their business. The coaches couldn't dictate who those guys were, they just rose to the top. For me, guys like Brian Derby, Dana McLemore, Darryl Williams, Ron Pennick, Tim Lyons and Raphel stood out because they did things the right way. Not necessarily the most talented players on the field, but they put in the work during practice and offseason and played the game the right way.”;

But Cherry was among the most gifted, and that's what made his work ethic stand out. The coaches loved him too. Lumpkin, Dick Tomey and June Jones all felt the same way. There may be someone who had negative thoughts about the Raphel Cherry who was in Hawaii from 1981 to 1984, but I haven't found that person.

“;He was smart, worked hard and was determined to be the best that he could be. A good person, quiet,”; Lumpkin says.

The paying customers were charmed, too.

“;What I remember is excitement, every time he touched the ball the potential of something big happening, by air or land. He was swivel-hipped,”; UH fan Mike Hildenbrand says. “;Every time he took the snap it was like watching a pinball machine.”;

As dynamic as he was on the field, Cherry was low-key away from it.

“;He drank a little, but no drugs. A good kid, not a recluse, but quiet,”; says Miano, who was his roommate for two years.

AS A FRESHMAN, he was a sparingly used running back. Then he backed up Bernard Quarles for a year. By 1983, Cherry was ready. And just the right guy for him came to town—June Jones. Tomey let Jones open up the offense, and Cherry's talents were on full display. He smashed the school record for total offense and accounted for an unprecedented 26 touchdowns. The Rainbows went just 5-5-1. But the entire state eagerly anticipated what Cherry might do as a senior. This strong, fast and elusive ballcarrier could also throw the “;Cherry Bomb,”; on the run or from the pocket.

UH went back to a more conservative attack in 1984, as Tomey preferred to rely on defense and special teams. His mottos of giving the team a chance to win in the fourth quarter and preserving the right to punt may have made sense to some, but many fans found it boring. Still, though, Cherry was at quarterback, and he nearly always delivered.

Unfortunately for UH, the rare disappointment came against BYU—first when Cherry was collared at the goal line by the Cougars' Kyle Morrell, in a play that BYU reveres to this day, saying it saved the Cougars' national championship. Then, late in the game, Walter Murray failed to catch a pass that would've given Hawaii the win and perhaps changed everything. Some say it was a drop, some say a bad throw. Either way, the Rainbows didn't get it done. Hawaii went 7-4 and 5-2 for second in the WAC. Raphel Cherry finished his college career in the Hula Bowl and got ready for the NFL.

TOMEY TELLS OF a play against Utah in 1984. In his mind, the signature play of Raphel Cherry's UH career.

“;It wasn't a pass, it wasn't a run. He took a sack instead of throwing a ball away, because he felt the pressure coming from his blindside. It was a completely unselfish play. He took an unprotected hit and protected the ball rather than try to throw the ball and probably fumble. That play won us the game.”;

It is a play a true quarterback makes. But in those days, very few blacks were considered candidates to be quarterbacks in the NFL. Cherry was drafted by the Redskins as a safety.

I wondered then and I wonder now. Cherry outplayed another black quarterback, UNLV's Randall Cunningham, the two times they matched up. Cunningham played quarterback in the league for a long time, and last I heard lives in a very big house. Meanwhile, Cherry lives in the big house.

Maybe it means nothing. Maybe it means everything.

THIS IS WHERE most of us lose the trail on him. A quarter century ago, coverage of the NFL was not what it is today. We know Cherry does well on the field that first year, even getting some all-rookie notice. Despite a rep as a hard hitter, he plays just three seasons, finishing with the Lions in 1988.

It is around this time that Cherry, now with some money—and perhaps some bad choices in new friends—develops a taste for the nightlife. As the years go by, he continues to stay in touch with friends from Hawaii, including Miano and Tomey. But eventually, the calls stop coming and contact is lost.

After several years of no communication with Cherry, a friend says he receives a call from him in the 1990s, shortly before the death of Cherry's wife. They chat, and eventually, Cherry asks for money. The friend wires him some. A couple of days later, Cherry calls again, again asking for money.

ANY OF US can lose our way. But enough to kill another human being with our own hands? That is what those who knew Cherry in Hawaii have the most difficult time accepting.

“;I would never have anticipated Raphel Cherry in jail for a violent crime,”; Miano says.

Says Lumpkin: “;There were drugs and gangs in his area when he was a kid. He avoided it then. He avoided it in college. It was by far the worst news I'd ever gotten about a former player. And especially because it was Raphel.”;

The NFL now holds an annual symposium for rookies. It is basically aimed at helping the incoming players avoid pitfalls awaiting young men with newfound money and fame (or, sudden lack of fame, for former college stars now role players).

“;In college football the environment has plenty of people who are there to watch out for you, to nurture you, who care about you. The NFL didn't do any of that when he was a rookie. The NFL does a better job of that now,”; Tomey says. “;Raphel might have benefited from something like that.”;

For a football coach who recruits hundreds, thousands of players over the length of his career, the odds almost dictate something of this nature—maybe not quite so horrific, but not every story has a happy ending. Even the ones with good beginnings and middles.

“;You don't want all your guys to be All-Americans or All-Pros. You want them to live happy, healthy lives and be good citizens,”; Tomey says. “;I just pray that the young man that I knew will come through all of this and will be reborn and get a chance to live his final days in peace.”;

MEANWHILE, I'LL WAIT for the call. It may never come, but I hope it does. I want to believe Raphel Cherry was one of the good guys, and I want to know how things went so wrong with him.


Dave Reardon is the Star-Bulletin's sports columnist. Tomorrow we unveil No. 17.