Week 4: Written by Ryan Nanni
While researching this newsletter, I try to find college football stories that you, the reader, are unlikely to have seen before, either because they're pretty old or have never attracted national attention.
But today's story took place in 1995 and was covered by SportsCenter, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times. Maybe you already know it (though the University of Texas sincerely hopes you don't). If you do, I suspect you'll understand why I chose to retell it anyway.
It's December 30, 1995, and Texas is in New Orleans, preparing to end their season against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Tony Brackens, who will be drafted by the Jaguars in a few months and go on to become the franchise's career leader in sacks, is there. So is a promising freshman running back named Ricky Williams, who's gained more yards from scrimmage this year than any other Longhorn.
One member of the Texas roster isn't there, however. He's a 23-year-old backup cornerback named Ron McKelvey, and he has decided to flee the team hotel in the middle of the night. Why is Ron bailing?
Because 1) his last name isn't really McKelvey, 2) he's not 23, 3) he doesn't have any eligibility left, and 4) Texas is just now finding items 1, 2, and 3 out for the first time, thanks to an article in a Salinas, California newspaper.
In that article, Ron - and we're mostly just going to call him Ron after this - reveals he's 30-year-old Ron Weaver. He has been using a different man's identity to play college football for the last three seasons, first for a two-year stint at Pierce Junior College in Los Angeles and then, until the day before the Sugar Bowl, for the '95 Texas Longhorns. The article also says that Ron claims to be working on a book about "the scandals of college football."
Again, this information comes directly from Ron to the newspaper that's about to expose him as a fraud. As we'll later see in plenty of examples, Ron really enjoys talking to journalists.
There's a brief moment where Texas decides to rally around Ron, and head coach John Mackovic holds a press conference where he says Ron's denied the story and offered the team proof of his identity. But once Ron packs up and leaves, Mackovic and the Texas athletic administration decide they've been duped and are pissed.
You surely have questions at this point, so let's do a little Q&A to run through how Ron duped them in the first place, thanks to a combination of light identity fraud and recordkeeping loopholes.
Q: Why did Ron Weaver become Ron McKelvey in the first place? Wouldn't it be easier to be one of those inspiring "Man Far Beyond College Years Makes Roster Thanks To Grit" stories?
A: It would, but Ron had already exhausted his college eligibility, finishing the Weaver portion of his career at Sacramento State. He's actually still in their record book with the third-most receiving yards in a game: 220 against Santa Clara in 1989. That set the Hornets record at the time until it was surpassed in 1995, a few weeks before Ron got found out.
Q: How did Ron acquire his new identity? Early internet hacking?
A: He just asked for it.
A: The real McKelvey (who goes by Joel, and Ron is either his middle name or Weaver added it as a valid fake middle name when he took on that identity) hasn't spoken much about the incident. He told the reporter who initially brought the story to light that he knew Weaver but didn't know anyone was using his identity.
Ron maintained that he proposed this to Joel, who went along with it. Joel didn't play football in high school (though he did make the honor roll in the third quarter of the "89-'90 school year; good job, Joel), so college eligibility wasn't useful to him. Why not let Ron use it instead?
Q: How does posing as someone who never played high school football get you on the Texas roster?
A: Ron didn't start in Austin. He used Joel's identity to play for Pierce College, a community college in Los Angeles, where he switched from wide receiver to defensive back. JUCO sports usually only require proof of graduation from high school for eligibility. Once Ron showed the coaching staff he had some athleticism, he was in.
And Ron did well at Pierce, making the All-Western Conference team as one of the top defensive backs in 1994. By early 1995, Ron had attracted the attention of several Division I schools, apparently getting offers from UTEP, Hawaii, New Mexico, Cal, and, of course, the Longhorns.
Texas (and presumably those other schools) didn't really feel the need to dig into Ron's background. After all, he was Ron McKelvey at Pierce, and that hadn't caused any issues.
Q: Were there any signs that something was off?
A: In retrospect, yes, but none that would have seemed particularly suspicious at the time. When you play at Texas, even as a transfer backup DB, you wind up getting a decent amount of coverage, so Ron pops up in newspaper archives from the spring of 1995. Among the things I found:
- Ron's Texas enrollment was delayed because the LA County College system took a while to compile and release all his grades.
- To explain why he was 23 and playing JUCO football (and not 19 or 20), Ron told Texas that he'd suffered severed tendons and nerve damage after getting stabbed trying to stop a fight a few years back, which delayed his football career. I have no idea if anyone followed up on that particular tale.
- One local story noted that he'd come to Texas after spending time working at a fancy Malibu steak and seafood restaurant - though it turned out he'd been going by Ron Weaver at that job, even while he was Ron McKelvey on the Pierce football team.
Again, there is nothing to immediately set off any alarm bells. One other oddity came up after Ron left. Apparently, when he enrolled at Texas, there was a Social Security number mixup from his Pierce paperwork. Some files showed one number, and some showed another (Joel's). But Ron explained that he didn't know his social when he first enrolled at Pierce, so he put in a filler until he could get the correct (AKA fake) one. Texas was satisfied with that explanation.
Oh, and Ron's teammates later recalled one other odd thing about their supposedly 23-year-old colleague. Every morning, he'd get up at 7 AM, brew coffee, and drink it in his robe while reading the newspaper.
Q: So, what was the goal of this particular grift?
A: Ron just really, really wanted to keep playing football. That's it. He didn't rack up massive debt in Joel's name. He wasn't running from some sordid past. He just loved being a college football player and didn't see why he should have to stop.
Ron talked to the Houston Chronicle a couple years ago to recount his story and he's not really sorry for what he did, which was the same way he felt when he talked to Sports Illustrated about a week after he'd been revealed. I told you, Ron is really open to talking to journalists.
Q: And what happened to Ron and Texas after all this?
A: Ron mostly got away with it! He pled guilty to a federal charge of misusing a Social Security number. However, he only got probation and had to pay back the value of his scholarship to Texas.
Texas, as I mentioned, was pissed. They lost the Sugar Bowl to Virginia Tech, getting shut out in the second half. They brought in a former FBI agent to investigate the whole incident. They suggested Ron had gambling and gang connections, though they never presented evidence of either. And they had to wait to see what the NCAA would do about the fact that they'd played an entire regular season with an ineligible player on the field (albeit in a relatively minor role).
That's where, at least to me, the most surprising turn in this story comes. The NCAA, who absolutely loves sticking it to someone on a technicality…was totally reasonable and didn't punish Texas in the slightest. No overturned results, no future sanctions. That's how badly Ron stunned the college football world - the sports cops didn't even try to flex their muscles on anyone.