It was time to go to jail. Bob Probert, wearing jeans, a leather jacket and cowboy boots, walked slowly down the Metro Airport corridor, next to his lawyer, his mother, and two friends. He chewed gum. He smiled occasionally. He looked like a big kid, which always has been part of the problem.

“Coffee, Bob?” said his laywer.

“What’s that?”

“Should we get some coffee? We have a minute.”

Probert nodded. They looked around. It was early morning, still dark outside, and through the windows you saw the rain soaking the runways.

There was no place to get coffee.

“Maybe at the gate,” the lawyer said.

They walked on. He was going to jail. After all the warnings, all the apologies, all the second chances and all the arrests, Probert, once a hockey player, always trouble, would pay the piper. The night before, he said farewell to his fellow patients at the rehab center. There was a Red Wings game on TV, but he didn’t watch. Instead, he went horseback riding with several staff members, something he hadn’t done since he was a teenager. There, in the saddle, galloping away, he felt the wind at his back and the world behind him. Freedom. He felt freedo-

“Newspapers, Bob?”

“Huh?”

“Newspapers? You want something to read on the trip, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

An uneasy conversation I took a breath and approached him. It was not easy. In the past two years, I have written a string of columns about Probert
— how he let down his team, broke his coach’s heart, set an awful example for kids and, worst of all, never seemed to learn. He deserved what he got. Maybe more. I felt that. I wrote it. That’s easy to do when you’re behind a typewriter, miles away. Now we were both here, together. “Hey,” I said softly.

“Hey,” he said, spotting me.

He looked at his lawyer, Harold Fried, who shrugged OK. We stepped away from his family and stood under a screen marked, “departures.” What could I ask him now?

“Are you scared?”

“It . . . I . . . it hasn’t hit me yet.”

“Do you think this punishment is fair?”

“Yeah. It is.”

I paused. “Bob. Are you sorry?” He nodded. “I’m sorry for a lot of things. I’m sorry for my family, for my teammates, for me. I hurt people. I messed up. Now I have to live with it.” He dug his hands in his pockets, a familiar pose. I thought back on all the poses I had seen Probert in over the years: lighting a cigarette with a blowtorch; snarling at reporters in the locker room; in taverns, knocking back beers like a sailor; in courtrooms, staring at the floor, after he’d drunkenly wrapped his car around a telephone pole; in handcuffs, after he’d been caught at the U.S.-Canadian border with a packet of cocaine in his underwear.

He is a criminal now, not a hockey player. He has been in a rehab center for months and reports say, for the first time, he is straightening up his act. Who knows? “I’d like to get back to hockey someday,” he said. “But if I don’t, I don’t. I’m still a better person for being in this rehab program.”

He was calm. He seemed together. Two years ago, I was the writer who discovered that Probert and several Red Wings teammates had been out drinking the night before the last playoff game against Edmonton. I wrote the story, and the team tumbled into controversy; it has never been the same. Most of those players are off the roster now. And Probert is on his way to jail.

I looked at him. He looked at me. What if we never said anything about that night? What if no one found out? Where would they all be now?

All we can do is hope “Bob, let’s go,” said his lawyer.

“Can’t be late,” Probert said, grimly.

We walked together toward the gate. A TV crew approached and flicked on a hot white light. Once again Probert stopped and answered questions. Yes, he was trying to turn his life around. Yes, he understood why the judge insisted on a jail term — though the jail he’ll be in the next three months is not the steel bars and handcuffs type.

The Northwest gate attendant waited patiently. He took Probert’s ticket and said he was all set. He would fly to Minneapolis, with his lawyer, and go straight to the facility. Day One was today.

“Hey, ma, everybody, come over here,” Probert said. They walked to an empty area. He lit up a cigarette and whispered a few things.

“He’s a changed person,”‘ his lawyer said. Who knows? We write so many columns blasting athletes for acting foolishly, for breaking rules. Cocaine. Alcohol. We scream for justice. And here, in the artificial light of an airport, justice was coming to port. I waited for satisfaction. It never came.

Instead, I watched Probert hug his girlfriend and his mother and turn and walk through that jetway door. And all I felt was sorry.

Maybe I’m too soft for this business. Maybe the business is too harsh. I would like to report that Bob Probert is cured, but I can’t do that, and I would like to report that he is hopeless, but I can’t do that either. I am sitting in my office now, and I guess all you really can do is watch them get on the plane and fly away. And hope that fate treats them kindly.

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