iStock/djedzuraIt’s a Monday in February, and I’m back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Though I’m exhausted from travel, it’s my buddy’s birthday, so I go over to his girlfriend’s house and we spend the night catching up until I say goodbye around midnight. My mother’s home is just five minutes away. I had come home to celebrate her birthday.
My 2011 white Range Rover is parked on the street. As I get in and reach for the seat belt, someone yanks my door open. There’s a man wearing a black ski mask and pointing an AK-47 inches from my face.
“Give me the keys!” he barks. “And get out of the car!”
I freeze, wondering if my buddy is playing a trick on me. I babble, but words aren’t coming out of my mouth.
“Give me your wallet! Your phone!”
I step out and hand over my belongings. Another man with a shotgun rushes toward me and shoves me into the backseat. Two other men with shotguns appear from the side of the house and hop into the car. The man with the AK-47 gets behind the wheel, and I’m squished between two of the masked men in the backseat. We begin driving around the neighborhood.
“Where’s the money at?” one shouts.
“I, I, I don’t have any money,” I stammer.
“Where’s the money at?”
“You can have the car. You can have anything you want,” I say. “Just let me get back to my family.”
“Why are you lying?” says the man in the front passenger seat. “Lie to me again and I’ll kill you.”
I can’t feel my mouth when I talk. I try to breathe. I think of my mom. I think of God. I stare straight ahead. I’m trembling. Though I can’t see their faces, I can tell by their voices that they are young. They ask for my name.
“Earl,” I say. “Earl Wolff.”
“Wait,” one of the men says. “The football player?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you’re telling me you have no money?”
One of the men next to me bashes me twice in the right knee with his gun. I’m bleeding.
Where I’m from, a lot of people don’t make it out. Of all my friends I grew up with, only one went to college. I’ve never been arrested; I graduated from college in three and a half years. I’m terrified of getting in trouble. My main motivation: I don’t want to ever disappoint my mother.
My parents separated when I was in second grade, and though my father is still in my life, I’ve always been a mama’s boy. She was in the military, and she just retired after 31 years of service. The hardest year of my life was when she deployed overseas.
Playing football, I knew I’d have an opportunity to provide for her. And yet here I am, kidnapped after an innocent night at my friend’s house.
My heart is racing, my head spinning. All I’m thinking is, Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?
My financial adviser never allows me to keep too much money in my bank account. So when one of my captors orders me to withdraw $10,000, I say it’s impossible.
“I only have $400 in my account,” I say. “Look, you have my phone. Open the Wells Fargo app. Here’s my password. You’ll see there’s just $400.”
“If you’re lying,” he says, repeating a numbing refrain, “I’ll kill you.”
When they see I’m not lying, they ask if my friend has money at the house where they picked me up.
“Maybe,” I say. “If he does, he’ll give you whatever he has.”
We drive back to my friend’s house. I am led to the door with my hands in the air. I feel the AK-47 pressed against my back. My friend opens the door. He instantly slams it in my face. I now think I am dead. I close my eyes.
My captors are panicking. I hear them conspiring, wondering if my friend has called the cops. They rush me back into the vehicle and secure zip ties around my ankles and my arms, which are then tied behind my back. They put an itchy hat over my face. Now we’re driving, and I have no idea where we are or what time it is. At some point, two other men get into the vehicle, and five of us are crammed into the backseat. I am exhausted. I try to keep my faith. I try to think of my mom. I am numb, but she is all I have left.
The car jolts to a stop. I’m pulled out of the back and shoved onto the road. Lying on my back, I think, I can’t die this way. And then, in the distance, I hear the faintest sound of police sirens. The men hear it too. They scurry into the car and speed away.
I am left alone. I am alive.
I manage to shimmy out of the arm ties and then slide the hat off my face. I’m surrounded by woods. I can’t free my legs because those ties are too tight, so I begin to hop. I hop and hop and hop down the road.
I eventually come across a trailer park. At the second trailer, the lights are on. I can hear the sound of laughter and chatter, so I knock on the door, back up, and wait with my hands up.
“Who is it?” a man barks from behind the door.
“Sir,” I say. “I’ve been in a terrible situation and I need some help.”
He opens the door and stares at me.
“I have just been robbed and kidnapped,” I say. “Can you please call the police?”
Another man appears in the doorway and points a handgun at me.
“Look, I play for the Jacksonville Jaguars,” I say, pointing to the team-issued shorts I’m wearing.
They don’t trust me. I anticipate a shot being fired, so I fall down and roll on the ground. There’s a loud bang. Shot fired. I hear the men close the door, and I realize I can still feel my body. The shot was likely a warning to scare me or anyone else who might have been lurking in the shadows.
But I am alone. I am on the ground. I’m sobbing.
I suddenly get a rush of adrenaline. I manage to get my legs out of the ankle restraints and start running. I see an intersection. I stand in the grass as cars pass by. I wave my hands, asking for someone to stop, but no one does.
I run to a gas station. It’s lit up, but nobody is there. The pay phone has a broken cord hanging from it. I crumble to the ground, defeated again, when a couple pulls in.
“Are you OK?” the woman asks.
“I was robbed and kidnapped,” I say. “Please, I just need some help.”
“That’s all you need me to do?” she says in a maternal way. “We are going to wait for the police to get here.”
“Yes,” I say. “Please. Thank you.”
Help, finally, is on the way.
If you’re ever in a situation like this, consider these moves as a last resort:
- If you’re behind the wheel, carefully drive into parked cars, trees—whatever—just to get noticed by others and, hopefully, the police.
- Make a scene: Yell, scream that the police are coming, or pretend you’re sick and faint. Kidnappers rely on your complying with their wishes. When you don’t, it ruins their plans, delays their reactions, and, thanks to those few extra seconds, potentially saves your life.
- If the police arrive, hit the ground, retired New York Police Department detective sergeant and negotiator Wallace Zeins told ABC News. “Stay low. The police are going to shoot for the largest body mass—from the waist up.”