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Drug days behind him, former Oatkan Knight gets another shot at life and football

On a cruel April morning in 2011, Craig Tiberio looked at himself in the mirror. The man he faced stood accused of dealing drugs and assaulting a police officer. Looking at that mirror affixed as it was to a jailhouse wall, Tiberio didn’t like what he saw.

“I was at the end emotionally,” Tiberio said. “I knew there wasn’t anyplace to go but up unless I wanted to keep living the life that I was living. I obviously knew that if I got back on track, I had the potential — if I was motivated enough — to play sports again.”

As a high school junior, Tiberio had been a standout receiver for the Le Roy Oatkan Knights. He was at least a legitimate Division III prospect entering his senior season. All he wanted to do, or so he thought, was play football at the collegiate level.

Craig describes his childhood as challenging, chaotic, as anything but stable. Sports, especially football, was an escape.

“I always clung onto sports,” Craig said. “It was my time free from thinking about what was going on in my life.”

An injury changed everything. 

In the sixth game of his senior season, Craig Tiberio suffered a stress fracture in his spine.

That meant pain medication. It meant time away from the field, from his teammates, from everything that had kept him anchored.

It’s a familiar story in sports — injury, pain medication, followed by a need to self-medicate with whatever street drugs might be available. The pattern killed former Padres pitcher Eric Show. There are countless cases of high school and college athletes you never hear of whose lives were altered by drug use after an injury.

The story of Craig Tiberio is the story of a once-promising athlete who hit bottom and then turned his life around. He entered guilty pleas May 27, 2011 in Genesee County Court to assault, 3rd, criminal possession of a controlled substance, 4th, and to DWI. As he stood before Judge Robert C. Noonan that day, he faced a near certain four-year prison term. Back in court weeks later with positive progress reports, Noonan gave him a second chance. Step by step since, he’s made the most of it. He’s on the dean’s list at Buffalo State University. He volunteers with third- and fourth-graders in Buffalo. His assigned practice squad includes Buff State’s best players, and if he avoids injury, he has a shot of starting at tight end for the Bengals.

A passion for sports
It’s been long path paved by determination and family support since Tiberio gazed into the jailhouse mirror that April morning in 2011, with just the glimmer of a thought that maybe, maybe, he could rekindle his dream of playing college football and pursue a career in coaching.

He’s made it this far.

“You’ve got to ask yourself 'how bad do you want to be successful?' in any aspect of life,” said Tiberio after an early morning spring practice at Coyer Field.

He sat on a near-side bench under an optimistic blue sky while teammates who missed an earlier practice pushed 50-pound weights on their hands and knees up and down the sideline, from the 50 to the goal line and back, 10 times each.

“Some people are just completely content with working a minimum-wage job and being able to do anything they want, but for me, I appreciate freedom more than I ever did. Some people take that for granted. It comes with how much pain are you willing to deal with before you want your life to get better.”

When Craig was but a few months old, his mother moved him from Fairfax, Va., where he was born, to Le Roy. She started living with Art Nicomento, an electrician, and the couple stayed together until Craig was 5.

Then things started to unravel. According to Nicomento, Craig’s mother got hooked on drugs. The couple separated, but Craig stayed with Nicomento. Eventually, Nicomento became Craig’s legal guardian.

“He was a good kid, a smart kid,” Nicomento said. “I wanted to take care of him.”

Tiberio said he gravitated to sports at an early age. It was his salvation through years of turmoil. He doesn’t go into much detail, nor does Nicomento, but Craig clearly loves Nicomento, whom he calls “Dad.”

Talk to anybody in the community about Art and Craig and they will tell you, Nicomento was always there for his son.

By his sophomore year in high school, Craig Tiberio was turning heads on the gridiron, the hardwood and in track and field. Any sports story previewing Le Roy’s chances in the football or basketball seasons included Tiberio as integral to the team’s potential success.

As a junior, Tiberio stood 6’ 3” and weighted 175 lbs. He was athletic and fast. His junior year, he was the Section V champ in the long jump and the triple jump. He also ran on the team’s 400-meter relay team and won a few meets in the 3200 and the 100-meter dash. In basketball, there isn’t a game story that doesn’t list the strong forward as pouring in at least a dozen points and pulling down four or five rebounds.

In Le Roy, football is king and football was Tiberio’s passion. He combined speed, height and agility to haul in passes no defender could touch.

“I always had the attitude in high school, standing on the field across from another player, they can’t stop me,” Craig said.

Jim Bonacquisti, an assistant coach for the Knights, remembers Tiberio as a big play maker. A Tiberio TD reception helped stop a long Hornell home-winning streak. One of Tiberio’s big scores against archrival Cal-Mum came on a fourth-down reverse in a sectional semi-final. Then he intercepted a pass to help seal the deal.

Tiberio was named to the Livingston County Athletic Association’s all-star team on both offense and defense his junior year. (Le Roy is in the Livingston County footbal league). He was also named to the all-state team. He averaged 20 yards a reception and picked off seven passes playing free safety.

“I would rank him behind Mike Humphrey and Brandon Fulmer as far as the best we’ve had in my tenure,” Bonacquisti said. “Ironically, Craig getting hurt his senior season opened the door for Mike’s increased playing time in 10th grade. In Craig’s junior year, he caught anything near him, plus he was a pretty good safety. He wasn’t a big hitter, but he was usually around the ball.”

Unsportsman-like conduct
In his senior year, Tiberio said he was already hampered by a minor back injury, but continued to play. In five starts, he only had eight catches for 88 yards and one TD. On defense, he only had three tackles and two assists.

Friday night, Oct. 6, 2006 was homecoming for the Perry Yellowjackets. Unfortunately for the Perry student body, the Yellowjackets were scheduled to play their homecoming game against an undefeated Oatkan Knights team who would go on to win the Section V Class C title.

Tiberio was having one of his best games of the season with three receptions, including one for a TD, when late in the 4th quarter, with the Knights up 48-0, Tiberio snagged Heath Henrickson’s pass for an interception and returned it 33 yards before being tackled by a Perry player.

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According to Tiberio, he was face down on the field after the tackle. The Perry player, he said, sat on his tailbone and then pulled up on his neck.

A flag was thrown for unsportsman-like conduct, but the damage was done. 

The next day, Tiberio went to a sports medicine clinic in Rochester where a doctor told him his season was over.

“I broke down in tears,” Tiberio said.

That spring, Tiberio graduated with his class. He enrolled at Genesee Community College, but also started hanging out with a party crowd in Le Roy.

Trouble didn’t start right away. 

When it did, Art Nicometo said he was slow to recognize Craig was using illicit drugs. He said his wife Renee picked up on it first, but Art was in denial.

“Once I became suspicious about what was going on, we started digging through his garbage,” Nicometo said. “We did this three or four times so he couldn’t deny it or say it belonged to somebody else. Renee confronted him and told him we knew he was taking pills. We had a talk and I told him he was heading down the wrong path. He was losing weight. It was impacting his grades in school. He agreed he had a problem and said he would work on it.”

It wasn’t until May, 2010 that Tiberio had a run-in with the law. Just before his 21st birthday, he was arrested for drunken driving. He was also accused of possessing a controlled substance and marijuana.

Yet, the drug use continued.

In October of that year, Craig was at somebody’s house on St. Mary’s Street in Pavilion and a fight broke out. Tiberio was charged with assault. The other person was charged as well, Craig said, and when both he and the other defendant said they wanted to drop the charges against each other, the case was dismissed.

As Craig Tiberio drifted through this period of his life, there was a family gathering one evening at the Nicometo home.

“They wanted to watch my highlight tape from high school,” Tiberio said. “I literally started getting really upset. I walked out of the room knowing that I was nowhere I wanted to be in my life.”

Drug-dealing suspect
Yet, Tiberio kept hanging out with the same crowd, doing drugs and not pursuing his dreams.

“I found it was easier to keep numbing up all of my emotions instead of taking the hard road at the time and getting clean and busting my hump to really get on track,” Tiberio said.

At some point in every addict's life, if they’re ever going to get into recovery, they hit rock bottom.

For Craig that point was April 19, 2011.

Somehow, Tiberio came to the attention of the Local Drug Task Force as a suspected dealer.

Using an informant, a buy was set up on Jackson Street in the City.

According to Sgt. Pete Welker, once the buy was completed and the informant walked away, plain clothes and uniformed members of the Task Force closed in.

Tiberio immediately realized he had been set up, Welker said, and he tried to assault the informant. Welker and his partner intervened. In the process, Welker’s finger was bent back and sprained and when his partner tried to mace Tiberio, Tiberio put his hand up, causing the mace to spray back into the detective’s face.

That evening, Welker and Sgt. Steve Mullen, then head of the task force, went to Art Nicometo’s house to execute a search warrant.

Nicometo said the investigators couldn’t have been nicer. They had all known each other for years, and Mullen and Welker were apologetic and explained the case was entirely about Tiberio and he was the only reason they were there to search the house.

The investigators told Nicometo what happened when the arrest went down and Nicometo said he was surprised that the scuffle was going to lead to a felony assault charge. He expressed some hope that the charge would be dropped, but the investigators were noncommittal.

Tiberio was found to possess cocaine, suboxone, drug paraphernalia, drug packaging, digital scales and $310 in currency.

“My first reaction was to call a bail bondsman, but when I called, he didn’t answer and later I was thankful he didn’t,” Nicometo said. “The next morning, Renee and I both said, the problem has got to stop. We’re not getting him out of jail. The only way he’s going to change his life is if he goes from bed to bed, from jail to rehab.”

At first, Nicometo said he couldn’t get any help from GCASA. He called several rehab facilities and couldn’t find a bed for his son.

“I was near giving up,” Nicometo said.

Then he finally reached the right person at GCASA and they were able to secure a bed for Craig.

His attorney, Tom Burns, had to be the one to escort Tiberio from the jail to GCASA, but Nicometo rode along and walked in the door with his son.

They were greeted almost immediately, Nicometo said, by four kids from Le Roy.

“One of them said, ‘hey, great, the old gang is all together again,' ” Nicometo said. “I didn’t have a good feeling.”

From GCASA, Tiberio transferred to Hope Haven. After he successfully completed that program, he transferred to a halfway house in Niagara Falls.

It was Craig’s choice, but Nicometo was against it from the start.

“As it turned out, it was a good decision, but it was tough dropping him off there,” Nicometo said. “It’s just around the corner from that casino and, well, you know what that neighborhood is like.”

During his six-months at the halfway house, Nicometo racked up quite a phone bill, since he allowed and encouraged Craig to call home every day.  

As he progressed in treatment, Tiberio started thinking about football again. Nicometo got his tapes together and sent them to the recruiter at Buffalo State.

Being coachable
One day a week, Tiberio was allowed to leave the halfway house for personal time with family. Typically, he spent the time with family in Le Roy, but one day, they set up a visit with Jerry Boyes, head coach of the Bengals.

Boyes is a Hollywood casting director’s idea of a college football coach. Tall, thin and as tough and straight as a 16-penny nail. On the field during practice, he talks with his players about dedication, hard work, commitment and discipline. 

To play for Boyes means you get to practice on time and learn your assignments. There is only one type of player on the field: the one who is coachable. Being coachable, Boyes told his players, means you don’t wilt when a coach yells at you. You learn your lesson, get better and never get yelled at a second time for the same mistake. Any other kind of player won’t be practicing with the team very long.

In the 1960s, he was an All-American QB for Ithaca. He was 1995’s NCAA Division III Coach of the Year. In two stints running the program, his record is 111-90.

“I was really nervous and really scared that with my situation he wouldn’t even give me an opportunity,” Tiberio-Shephard said. “As he said, he’s all about trust. I was completely open with him. He set some guidelines. He didn’t want me to be an issue or a bad influence. Once I had that in front of me, where he said I had an opportunity, that was just — well, I’ve always had a dream of playing college football and when I hurt my back, I just kind of gave up on it. Obviously, I had a lot of regrets.”

With those assurances, Boyes said of course he was open to giving Craig a second chance.

“I told him my expectation was that he stay true to what he promised me, that he stay clean,” Boyes said. “He made that commitment to me.”

As Tiberio continued his rehab, he volunteered at a soup kitchen in Niagara Falls.  Nicometo said that really helped the young man see a little clearer what the bottom of life was like and understand he didn’t want to go there.

As soon as he was able to, he enrolled at GCC again so he could work on raising his grades (having left previously with a GPA hovering around 1.0).  

Then, another setback.

Three weeks before the fall semester, an admissions councelor at Buffalo State said the college wasn’t going to admit a student with Tiberio’s criminal record.

That made Art Nicometo a little bonkers.

“I told them he’s already accepted at another SUNY school, at GCC,” Nicometo said. “He’s on the dean’s list. I told them, what you’re doing is wrong.”

He asked if there was an appeals process. They said there wasn’t. “Well, there is now,” Nicometo said.

Nicometo and the university wrangled back and fourth for two weeks before it reversed its decision.

That gave Nicometo and Craig a week and a half to find an apartment near the campus. They found one, but it wouldn’t be ready for another month, so for the first couple of weeks of college Nicometo shuttled the license-less Tiberio between his classes at Buff State and Le Roy.

Climbing a high hurdle
During the months of going through rehab, going back to school, planning for his future, Tiberio still wasn’t done with the Genesee County Court of Judge Robert C. Noonan.

He came to court in July 2011 knowing Noonan could sentence him then and there, but based on reports of his good progress, Noonan delayed his sentencing and ordered him back in court in November. At the November appearance, Noonan was again pleased with what he heard about Tiberio’s progress and set a new sentencing date of March 27, 2012.

Noonan isn’t the kind of judge to take lightly an assault on a police officer. While defendants with a history of drug abuse often get second, maybe even third, chances, Noonan takes respect for the law and those who enforce it seriously.

Tiberio knew, even with all of his progress and all of his family support, Noonan could still send him to prison. His attorney, Tom Burns, braced him for the worst and hoped for the best.

Burns stood up for his client in court.

"I've noticed he hasn't gotten all cocky about his treatment progress and he seems to accept the fact that this is something he is going to have to work hard doing for a long period of time, which is not only sobriety, but criminal-free living, which he intends to do," Burns said.

Rather than prison, Noonan put Tiberio on five years probation.

"The significance in not sending you to state prison tells me that you've climbed a very, very high hurdle to be here today and be in a position to get probation," Noonan told him from the bench.

The judge received dozens of letters of support for the defendant, but none were more important than the letter delivered to his office by Sgt. Pete Welker, one of the investigators Tiberio had assaulted.

“The gist of the letter is that I asked Noonan to give him a second chance, knowing that if he screwed up, Noonan would have a ability to send him to prison,” Welker said in an interview last week.

It’s routine for arresting officers to provide the Probation Department with letters about their interactions with defendants as part of the pre-sentence investigation. Welker’s first letter was a standard recommendation for a prison term. This was the first time in his 14-year drug enforcement career that Welker’s reversed course and retracted his first letter.

That simple twist of fate came about only because Welker happened to run into Tiberio at a Buffalo Bills game.

“I was walking through one of the tunnels and I saw him standing there,” Welker said. “I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I approached him and we stood there and talked for five or six minutes. He apologized and told me he was in some kind of assisted living, maybe a halfway house, in the area. He said he had been clean and wanted to go to college.”

After the chance meeting, Welker decided he wanted to know more about Tiberio’s progress and try to determine his sincerity, so he contacted Burns and asked for a meeting with the attorney and his client.

“The impression that I got that this was a kid who wanted to do the right thing,” Welker said.

In court, when Noonan spoke, Tiberio listened.

“Noonan put down some thick guidelines, pretty much a no-tolerance policy,” Tiberio said. “If I messed up at all, he was bringing the hammer down on me. I took that seriously.”

Handling adversity like a winner
By the time Tiberio was a Buffalo State Bengal, he had been away from football for six years.

A Le Roy football player is expected to be tough, disciplined, hard working and team-oriented, but Knights' Coach Brian Moran’s offense is built around the running game. 

Boyes prefers the faster-paced, pass-oriented spread offense.

The lack of playing time and the more complicated schemes had Tiberio feeling like a rusty fifth wheel his sophomore season.

“I didn’t know a thing,” Tiberio said. “It took me a whole season to understand my responsibility on a play-by-play basis.”

Even so, Tiberio impressed his coaches.

By his junior season, Tiberio was in line for regular playing time, but in the second game of the year, he broke his ribs and was out for the rest of the season.

This injury, this time, wasn’t a setback. He kept his nose in the books and his mind and body fit, focused on his goals. He made the dean’s list at Buffalo State and continued to do volunteer work in the community and on campus.

The way Coach Boyes sees it, what Craig has been through and how he conducts himself now shows a lot of character.

“Anybody can handle the wins,” Boyes said. “Faced with adversity, how do you handle that? And that’s one of the great results of athletics. You’re going to face adversity every game. I guarantee it. Dropped balls, fumbles, missed blocks. Guys are going to make mistakes. How do you handle that?

“I’m very proud of what’s going on here with Craig in overcoming this adversity that he’s had,” Boyes added. “I’m anxious to see him break out on the football field because he has all the physical tools to be a great football player for us. He just needs to stay healthy.”

At 24, Tiberio is the second-oldest player on the squad and Bonacquisti said it’s quite an accomplishment for any player at his age, especially after missing so many years of playing time, to come back and compete so well against 18- and 19-year-olds in Division III.

“I have tried to encourage him,” Bonacquisti said. “I know he got frustrated last fall (when he broke his ribs), but he is really fighting long odds to get on the field with his age. The fact he practices every day with kids much younger and he can hang with them is impressive. He is getting his degree; he’s on the dean’s list; and he’s hanging on the field with one of the better D3 schools in the area. I am real proud of how he has turned his life around.”

Academically, Tiberio is excelling. By the time he left GCC, he’d raised his GPA to 1.9 and now, in his third year at Buffalo State, his cumulative GPA is 3.6.

Education and football — that intertwined focus, Tiberio said, is a big part of why he stays out of trouble. At a Division III college, there are no football scholarships. Players need good grades to stay on the field. As Coach Boyes says, “Our players are here for the right reason.” On the flip side, football helps keep Tiberio’s non-classroom hours productive.

“I feel like if I were just going to school, I’d have more time to just get in a negative mindset or put myself in a bad situation,” Tiberio said.

Only a handful of Tiberio’s teammates know about his past. There are nearly 100 young men on the squad right now, many of them fresh out of high school. Tiberio said he’s found it easier to make friends with the older players, seniors mostly, and the ones who are easygoing and nonjudgmental.  

“They’re actually kind of amazed,” Tiberio said. “They see me today and the kind of person I am. They see I care about people so much and want to help them, so a lot of them don’t even believe what I came from. They just think I’m this nice suburban kid raised in a nice white family who had it easy. It was kind of shocking to most of them when I told them what I’d been through.”

And what he’s been through is a time and a place he swears he never wants to revisit. He’s got one more year of football eligibility and then he knows his playing days are over. He dreams of coaching, but makes no long-range plans. He’s focused on his senior year at Buffalo State, as a student and as an athlete.

“For me personally,” he said, “it’s just nice to be able to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and be proud of myself.”

Judith Kinsley Bo...
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Nice story Howard. It has been beautiful watching him get better. He's a good man.

Jeremy Yasses
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I have watched the transition for Craig and it has been great to see somebody come from such adversity and now be successful! Art is always glowing when talking about Craig and giving updates. This young man through his actions and lifestyle change is proving that people can change their life around and is an example to those troubled youths of today! Keep working hard Craig and keep pushing through!

Beth Kinsley
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What an awesome story. Good luck Craig. You certainly have a lot of people pulling for you.

bud prevost
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Great update, Howard. It's awesome to see him turn his life around. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself. Very proud of you Craig, and very proud to call Art and Renee my friends Smile

Lorrie Treat
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Great job Craig!

John Woodworth JR
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Yes Craig, GREAT JOB and having the strength to make the changes to improve yourself and guide yourself on the right track in life.

Howard, kudos on this story.

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