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Bluegrass Blues

It has been a grim year at Kentucky, where a player was murdered and the coach's wife threatened

This is how the police think it happened: At about 2:40 a.m. on Sunday, July 17, a gunman, crouched behind bushes, peered through the scope of a high-powered rifle and took aim. The target, some 100 yards away, was a bulky figure sitting in a brown leather chair on the front porch of the blue two-story frame house at 570 Woodland Avenue, just off the campus of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Suddenly the quiet of the warm summer night was shattered by the rifle's crack. The bullet hit the man on the porch in the left ear, killing him instantly.

The victim was Trent DiGiuro, an honor student and Wildcat football player who was in line to be a starting offensive guard this fall. The murder occurred as a party for DiGiuro's 21st birthday was winding down. Some players were there, and everything had been mellow—until the shot. "It was such a relaxed atmosphere that you can't imagine something crazy like that happening," said quarterback Antonio O'Ferral, one of four players, including DiGiuro, who had rented the house for the summer.

Sean Mann, a Kentucky senior who is not on the football team, was sitting about seven feet away from DiGiuro when he was hit. "I heard a shot, and that was pretty much it,' " Mann says. No one at the party saw an assailant or tried to look for one. "We were more concerned with Trent," Mann says.

Later that morning coach Bill Curry, who had just returned from a vacation in Britain, learned of the killing and went to the house on Woodland Avenue. The body, of course, had been removed. But looking at the porch Curry noticed something that made him ill. All he could say was, "Let's clean this up." With that the coach found a bucket and brush, then dropped to his knees to scrub Trent DiGiuro's blood off the wooden planks.

The Wildcats had an open date last Saturday, and no team in the nation was more in need of time off. Their record is 1-4 after a 41-14 humiliation by Auburn on Sept. 29, but Curry, who has not had a winning record in four seasons at UK, insists that this squad has talent. If so, then how do you explain the 73-7 waxing by Florida on Sept. 10 or the 59-29 blowout by Indiana a week later, games that constituted Kentucky's worst back-to-back losses since the university began playing football in 1881?

There are any number of explanations: The team lacks depth and experience in both lines, it doesn't have a consistent quarterback, and the linebacking is shaky. But all that seemed almost incidental last week when the already dark saga of Kentucky football grew even more sinister. Last Wednesday the university announced that Curry's wife, Carolyn, had been the object of a death threat that had been called in to the football office the weekend after the Auburn game. The call reportedly may have come from a gambler who was enraged that UK had allowed Auburn to recover a late onsides kick then score a touchdown, which enabled the Tigers to cover the 23-point spread.

Curry, who, following the Auburn game, had a Monday-night speaking engagement in Atlanta, didn't hear the tape of the threat until Tuesday. That night Curry took his wife and his son, Billy, a graduate assistant on the Kentucky staff, to the Lexington airport and put them on a plane. Carolyn, who has been married to Bill for more than 30 years, is a part-time instructor at Kentucky who hated to leave her home and her job. But Curry was insistent, at least partly because of the possibility of a connection between the death threat and the DiGiuro case, a possibility police say they have discounted.

"I have to consider [the murder] because it happened," he said. "That was the reason I acted so strongly. In the absence of that, I might have responded differently. But it did happen."

On the morning before DiGiuro was killed. Dennis Sprague. Kentucky's team psychologist, ran into the player in the weight room, where he had been working during the summer under strength coach Mike Florence. A 6'2", 277-pound junior-to-be, DiGiuro told Sprague that he was so fired up about his chances of being a starter that he had asked Florence to give him some new conditioning exercises. "He also told me he was excited about his birthday party that night." Sprague says.

DiGiuro was the sort of player who warms a coach's heart. He came to Kentucky as a walk-on in 1991, moved up to the scout team in 1992, and last season played in seven games as a backup offensive guard. Last spring DiGiuro was finally promoted to the first team. Besides that. DiGiuro, a business major, was one of 14 Kentucky players to make the SEC Academic Honor Roll last season.

By all accounts he was one of the hardest workers on the team, both on the practice field and in the weight room. ""We called him Traps because of his massive neck [trapezius] muscles," says Robert Stinson, a co-captain and defensive tackle. DiGiuro could bench-press 435 pounds, the best on the team.

DiGiuro came from an upper-middle-class family in the Louisville suburb of Goshen, where he was a popular student. Sharalea Sampson, now a Kentucky senior, had known DiGiuro since the first grade; in high school she and Trent were homecoming queen and king. In her room she still has a photo of them together.

"He was like a big brother to me," she says. "He was a very huggable, very gentle person. All of us from high school had a really close bond. It's just so shocking. I've never seen him around anybody who was mean."

"He was a real laid-back guy," says Mann, who met DiGiuro during the player's freshman year. "Ever since this happened, I haven't been able to come up with a reason. I wish I could, to help the police and a lot of people who probably want to feel safe. But there's nothing."

However, it is equally hard for any of DiGiuro's friends to come up with an explanation for an episode that happened on Sept. 25. 1992, when DiGiuro was involved in a brawl at the University Club near the campus. According to court records, DiGiuro, who was described as "very intoxicated," punched a patron and threw a beer pitcher at him. On his way out of the bar DiGiuro picked up another student and threw him against a wall, breaking his leg. He then pushed a girl over some tables.

Up the street a few minutes later. DiGiuro continued his rampage at a convenience store. The owner, Mike Smith, heard a noise in the parking lot and went outside, where he saw DiGiuro pick up a newspaper vending machine and smash it on the hood of Smith's car. When Smith approached DiGiuro, the football player put his fist through the driver's side window, then picked up Smith and threw him on the car hood. As the six-foot. 200-pound Smith told the Lexington Herald-Leader, "He was extremely, extremely violent. He picked me up like a feather. I was afraid of his eyes."

A month later DiGiuro was convicted of second-degree criminal mischief, put on six months probation and ordered to pay $2,500 to Smith for his medical and car-repair bills, which he did. The student with the broken leg filed a suit that DiGiuro's parents settled out of court.

In January 1993, DiGiuro was in trouble again. He was reportedly involved in the theft of some clothes from a Louisville department store; though it was a violation of his probation, he was not assessed further punishment. "He had a rough couple of months there." his father, Michael, told the Herald-Leader after his son's death, "but he was working so hard to put it behind him."

Uncharacteristic violent behavior is often interpreted as a tip-off to steroid use, but Sprague, the team psychologist, doesn't believe that was the case with DiGiuro. "Trent basically told me that these things happened and that alcohol was involved," Sprague says. "My impression was that he wasn't on steroids, because he didn't have the classic symptoms. He was just one of those kids who went into the weight room and worked his butt off." Police searched the house after the murder and found no evidence of any drugs.

DiGiuro's murder came 15 months after another Kentucky walk-on, Ted Presley, had died from a gunshot wound that was apparently inflicted in a game of Russian roulette in his dorm room. That tragedy had hit the players hard, and the DiGiuro case left them reeling. "This was a lot harder for me," O'Ferral said, "because I actually saw it—my friend dead with blood gushing out of his head."

When practice began in August, Curry noticed a distinct somberness among his players. Once he even stopped practice so he could talk to them about dealing with their grief. He then decided not to bring it up again be cause almost every player had already shared their tears and fears during sessions with Sprague and other counselors the school brought in. "Everybody has done a lot of soul-searching about a lot of things," Sprague says. "It [the death of a teammate] can have a cumulative effect on how people view life, sport and how they perform."

The parents of one player were so distraught that Curry had to convince them it was safe for their son to practice. They were worried that a madman might be bent on killing football players.

The players pulled themselves together enough to grind out an opening 20-14 victory over Louisville on Sept. 3. Afterward Curry walked into the locker room with three game balls, which would be distributed to the families of DiGiuro, Presley and Troy Trumbo, a Kentucky baseball player who died last summer after a rare reaction to medications he was taking for back pain and a cold. But before Curry could say a word, O'Ferral jumped onto a bench and asked for his teammates' attention. "How about a moment of silence," O'Ferral said, "for my man T.D." And with that the players dissolved. It was a catharsis, the first time they had been able to grieve together. "I've never heard such sobbing in my life," Curry says. "Some of them were on the floor, crying unashamedly."

Following a recent practice, Curry, an introspective and religious man, sat in the lobby of the team's training facility, near where one of DiGiuro's number 67 jerseys is enshrined in a display case. "I know it's changed me," he says of the murder. "I remember being at the funeral and seeing all those big shoulders as they stared at the casket. At that moment they were dealing with their own mortality for the first time. I'm sure there's still something in there, inside the team, but I don't understand it, and I don't know if it's had anything to do with our performance."

A few days later the Wildcats were crushed by Auburn. Soon thereafter the death threat was made against Curry's wife.

The murderer of Trent DiGiuro is still at large. The police seem to have no leads. They are seeking to question four males who apparently had pulled up to the house earlier in the evening in what was thought to be a late-model Nissan truck. About 20 minutes before the shooting the same group stopped again in front of the house and, police say, DiGiuro went out to talk to them briefly before they drove away. However, according to Mann, the friend nearest DiGiuro when the shooting occurred, "The story about a truck doesn't hold any weight—there wasn't any trouble." Mann says the truck did not stop the second time it passed the house, and that DiGiuro never left the porch.

Lexington police chief Larry Walsh says evidence indicates that the slaying was the work of a skilled marksman, though not necessarily a hired assassin. "Somebody really knew what they were doing," he says. The gun that killed DiGiuro has not been recovered. From their analysis of the wound and the victim's position, investigators theorize that the shot came from a rifle, probably from 100 yards away.

But why would somebody want to kill Trent DiGiuro? Could he have been involved in some unsavory situation? So far, Walsh says, police have been unable to find a motive. They have found no evidence that DiGiuro was involved with drugs or that he had any gambling debts. They have also checked out the victims of DiGiuro's earlier rampage and ruled out revenge as a motive. In the wake of the murder the campus and the community have been awash in rumors. Could the target have been somebody else? One of DiGiuro's housemates, quarterback Jeff Speedy, is the son of a Secret Service agent, so some have wondered, Could Speedy have been the target? Did somebody in DiGiuro's family have an enemy angry enough to take out his rage on Trent? The police have found nothing to substantiate any such notions.

The mystery haunts the players. Says senior offensive tackle Mark Askin, who played beside DiGiuro in the line and was a pallbearer at the funeral, "When you think about it, it gets to you. There was no reason for his death." But if someone indeed took careful aim and delivered the deadly shot, there was a reason, bizarre as it may have been and inexplicable as it remains. Early on, the police ruled out the possibility of a drive-by shooting. This, they say, was cold-blooded murder.

The blue house at 570 Woodland Avenue has new tenants. Every day hundreds of students go past it on their way to class. Some glance at it, most don't. "For a while I wasn't able to drive by that house," O'Ferral said. "Now I kind of turn my head and keep on going. It's awfully hard to drive by and not see Trent sitting there."



Players became pallbearers after DiGiuro (67) was shot on his porch; now Curry (with Carolyn) has had to take recent threats seriously.



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The bizarre deaths of Presley and Trumbo had already rocked Kentucky players.



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On the field, there has been little relief, as halfback Moe Williams found in the drubbing by Auburn.



The specter of their teammates' deaths has had a haunting effect on the Wildcats' season.