Onetime Detroit Lions quarterback JEFF KOMLO was a success in sports, business and love. So why did he die alone, on the run, thousands of miles from home?
When he went on the lam, his old college teammates passed around a cellphone number and left him encouraging messages. Sometimes the voice mailbox was full, other times it was receiving. The players debated whether the messages were getting to him or it was an FBI trap. Their venerated coach called the number and left a message urging his old quarterback to turn himself in, take his punishment and come out of it a better man. "Sad to say," the coach laments, "I never heard back." P Using a calling card with a blocked international number, the fugitive was in periodic contact with his family, his younger brother in particular. He was careful not to tell them where he was, but, the brother recalls, "he did say that he was in a place where life was slower, there weren't money stresses and he was happier than he had been in a long time."
Then, in the summer of 2006, one of his daughters received a call from a friend. "You're never going to believe this," the friend said. "We were just in Greece, and guess who we saw on a train, dressed in a golf shirt, reading a newspaper? Your dad!"
"You sure it was him?" Christie Komlo asked.
He tried to kill me. Jennifer Winters stood in the driveway at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Chester Springs, Pa., watching the house burn, and the same thought kept rocketing around in her head. He tried to kill me.
It was a warm Saturday evening, June 4, 2005, when Winters pulled up to the sprawling house owned by her boyfriend, former NFL quarterback Jeff Komlo. Their relationship, then in its fifth year, was tempestuous, marked by booze-fueled fights, dramatic breakups and reconciliations, and a flood of calls to the cops. On several occasions Winters had filed domestic battery charges against Komlo only to refuse to cooperate with prosecutors. But despite all the friction between them, she says, Komlo "could be incredibly charming," and no matter how vicious their fights became, she always went back to him.
Just earlier that day, while Winters was visiting her parents in Connecticut, she and Komlo had argued on the phone. But, she recalls, he sweet-talked her into coming home that evening. He bought her a plane ticket from Hartford to Philadelphia and booked her a rental car at the airport. Her flight was delayed, so it was around 7:30 p.m. when she drove past the dogwoods that led to his property. By that time there were black billows of smoke in the sky and fire trucks in the street. "If my flight had gotten in on time," says Winters, "I would have been in the house. I would have been killed."
Fire department investigators don't dispute this. This wasn't your typical house fire, they said, which starts in one room and spreads outward. This was a blast that began in the kitchen, shot upward and almost instantly engulfed the entire structure. Fire marshal Harrison Holt immediately thought that the blaze "wasn't consistent with an accident." When the fire dogs were called in, they sniffed accelerants in four areas.
Winters says that as she stood staring at the inferno, her cellphone chirped. It was Komlo. "I like your outfit," he said.
"Where are you?" she gasped.
"In the woods."
She spun around but couldn't see him. In fact, she would never lay eyes on him again. Neither would Komlo's parents, his three siblings, his four daughters, his ex-wife or his former football teammates. A warrant for his arrest would be issued on grounds of arson, the last in a string of charges that included cocaine possession, DUI and domestic violence. But by then he would be gone, his whereabouts unknown, the latest act in a disintegration that was as spectacular as it was mystifying.
A few years earlier Komlo had been living on Philadelphia's affluent Main Line, an ex-jock who had replicated his athletic success in business. Two decades before that, he had been a starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Now he was on the run.
In the fall of 1975, Jeff Komlo strutted onto the Delaware campus in Newark. He stood 6'4", had a strong, well-proportioned body and had excelled at every sport he'd tried. At DeMatha High, the Catholic sports powerhouse in Hyattsville, Md., Komlo had been the star shortstop and cleanup hitter. But his father, William, had played football at Maryland in the 1950s, and Jeff, who had been a starter on DeMatha's team, was determined to become a college quarterback. When he wasn't recruited out of high school, he took a postgraduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy to improve his skills. Finally the coach at Delaware expressed interest. "I can't give you a scholarship," Tubby Raymond told Komlo. "You're going to have to make the team as a walk-on."
"O.K.," Komlo replied, "then that's what I'll do."
He didn't get many snaps on the freshman team, but that did little to dampen his spirits. He just woke up earlier and worked harder. On school breaks he went home to College Park, Md., and jumped rope for so long that his parents feared he would drop dead from a heart attack. Then he ran for miles around the neighboring horse country.
As a sophomore Komlo surpassed the other Delaware quarterbacks and won the starting job and eventually a scholarship. Coaches remember that William Komlo, an insurance salesman and thoroughbred horse breeder, would sit quietly in the bleachers during practice, nodding when his son made the right plays. Jeff didn't have the strongest arm or the greatest accuracy or mobility, but he radiated confidence. He was Steve McQueen in the pocket, a natural-born leader. "There was just this air, this presence Jeff put forward," recalls Ted Kempski, then the Blue Hens' offensive coordinator. "All the coaches thought the same thing: This guy's got it."
Handsome and personable, Komlo was the classic Big Man on Campus. He was seldom without a girl on his arm. The professors all knew him. He and his roommate and favorite receiver, Peter Bistrian, would tool around Newark in a yellow Corvette, music blaring. "He was larger than life," says teammate K.C. Keeler, now the football coach at Delaware. "We were in the same locker room, but you didn't even know if you should address him, or how."
Komlo got better each year. As a senior he was a Division II All-America and led the Blue Hens to the national championship game. In three seasons he passed for 5,256 yards, set more than a dozen school passing records and laid the groundwork for Delaware's unexpected rise as an NFL quarterback factory. Komlo's backup, Scott Brunner, would end up playing for the Giants, Broncos and Cardinals. Rich Gannon, the Blue Hens' quarterback a decade after Komlo, would lead the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002. Most recently, of course, there was Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to two playoff victories as an NFL rookie last season. "There's no doubt," says Raymond, the man after whom the Delaware football field is named, "Jeff Komlo did a lot to put this program on the map. You know what he had? An athlete's mentality."
Toward the end of his four years at Delaware, Komlo began dating Jennifer Aldrich, a pretty freshman from a prominent Philadelphia family. She saw up close the treatment accorded a star quarterback. "Jeff cut to the front of every line," she recalls. "He never paid for a beer. He had girls writing his papers. The local merchants would do his dry cleaning or make his travel arrangements for free. I guess it's like this everywhere: When you're the star quarterback, you're like a god."
Komlo was the Lions' ninth-round pick in the 1979 NFL draft. He had hoped to go higher, but he entered training camp full of confidence. He'd just have to do what he always did and play beyond his abilities. "That's how we were raised," says Jeff's younger brother, Drew, who was a quarterback at Maryland. "There's nothing you can't do. It's up to you to work hard and make it happen."
When the Lions' incumbent quarterback, Gary Danielson, had knee surgery in the preseason, Komlo became the starter as a rookie. Though the 2--14 Lions went 2--12 in the games he started, he threw for 2,238 yards, then a team rookie record. For the first time, however, Komlo showed flashes of a disturbing alter ego. He once bloodied a teammate, Keith Dorney, in a barroom dispute by throwing a beer mug at Dorney's head. But Komlo apologized, promised the coaches it wouldn't happen again and became friends with Dorney.
After the season Jeff married Jennifer. During the 1980 season Danielson was healthy again, and Komlo returned to his backup position. He played infrequently for the Lions through 1981 and then was the third-string quarterback with the Falcons in '82 and the Buccaneers in '83. The joke among his friends was that Komlo did his best work in the off-season. A serial networker, he would attend team-related functions and dinners and invariably end up chatting with local business leaders, discussing commercial ventures or real estate deals. "He was always working some angle," says Jennifer. She was surprised to learn that he had taken out an insurance policy on his throwing arm for $500,000--considerably more than his salary. She says she called the wife of Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski and asked if this was standard. Jennifer was told that, no, Bartkowski had no such policy. By the mid-'80s Jeff had hooked up with the Seahawks, though he would never play a game for them. While in Seattle he complained of arm pain. Jennifer says that he cashed out the insurance policy, citing a torn ulnar nerve.
Komlo retired as a Seahawk and made a seamless transition into business. He and Jennifer settled in the Main Line Philadelphia suburb of Radnor, Pa. Komlo worked for various companies in financial services and then cofounded a management consulting firm called Bolton Capital. The confidence and work ethic that had served him so well in football did the same in his second career. Komlo may not have had an MBA, but with his effortless charisma he made everyone in his orbit feel comfortable. "He could talk a dog off a meat truck," says one former coworker.
"Jeff was a tough, driven guy," says Ambrose Regan, a longtime friend and colleague of Komlo's, "but he also had this gift where people--some of the highest net-worth people in the country--would meet him once and think he was their best friend."
In 1989 the Komlos moved to a 7,000-square-foot house in Bryn Mawr, Pa., with four cars in the driveway and a pool in back. There were furs and jewelry for Jennifer, memberships in country clubs and a vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla. The family employed housekeepers, nannies, personal trainers and gardeners. Jennifer estimates that by the mid-'90s the Komlos' monthly expenses were $40,000.
Jennifer would give birth to four daughters, each as pretty as the last. This was a source of great amusement to Jeff's old friends and teammates, who recalled his days as a ladies' man. "The joke was, How do we know God has a sense of humor? Jeff Komlo has four girls," says Tom Tomashek, longtime Blue Hens beat writer for the Wilmington News Journal. By all accounts, though, Komlo was a dedicated father, coaching their various sports teams. Besides teamwork and technique, he taught them toughness. "Grow alligator skin," he'd tell them when they were about to cry.
At Delaware, meanwhile, Komlo was as popular as ever. He was no longer just the star quarterback who'd made it to the NFL; he was also a prosperous businessman. Keeler recalls that Komlo would make the hourlong drive to Newark from Philly for alumni functions and spring football scrimmages. Dressed sharply, still fit and blessed with a thick head of stylishly coiffed hair, he would prop his feet on the bleachers and light up a fat cigar. "He had the beautiful wife and kids, the friends, the professional success," says Regan. "You want to talk about a picture-perfect life, this was it."
Except it wasn't. As his 30s galloped by, Komlo worked feverishly to pay for a standard of living that seemed to get more extravagant every year. "We'd say, 'Jeff, you're not in the fast lane; you're in the HOV lane,'" says Drew Komlo. And Jeff seemed to take little pleasure in the status that came with living on the Main Line. "We're here for Jennifer and the girls," he'd confide to friends. "I may belong to the Philadelphia Country Club, but I don't belong. I'm just a simple guy from Maryland horse country."
By the late '90s Jeff's marriage to Jennifer was, after nearly 20 years, deteriorating. She claims he hit her. "I learned not to provoke him," she says. Never much of a drinker in the past--friends kidded him over his fondness for alcohol-free beer--Komlo was now putting away glasses of vodka and cranberry juice when he came home from work. He cut back on his coaching, and his daughters say they would look into the bleachers during their games and see their mom sitting alone.
In early 2000, Jennifer says, Jeff told her that their marriage was over and that he had a girlfriend, Jennifer Winters. It was then that he suffered what friends and relatives describe alternately as "an emotional breakdown," "a descent into darkness" and "the mother of all midlife crises."
At Baxter's restaurant in Paoli, Pa., they called the couple Barbie and Ken. Komlo celebrated his 45th birthday in 2001, but he could have passed for a decade younger. Winters was in her mid-30s, a striking, tall and slender blonde. Within months of meeting Jeff at a bar in Florida, she had relocated to the Philadelphia area and moved in with him. The two often went to Baxter's, where they drank and argued with equal intensity. Komlo had never before been arrested, but in the spring of 2001 he was cited for domestic violence and DUI. (He pleaded guilty to the DUI and did community service as a volunteer football coach. As for the domestic violence charge, Winters refused to testify.)
Komlo and Winters split their time between the Philly exurb of Chester Springs and Komlo's house in Palm Beach; at both residences there were frequent calls to 911. "Neither of us were angels, put it that way," says Winters. "It was one of those relationships where the bad times were awful but the good times were great. He was madly in love with me. Then I'd see his temper or his deceiving side. Then he was madly in love again."
In May 2004 Komlo and Winters had a fight during a night of heavy drinking. According to the police report, Komlo shoved Winters out of her rented Monte Carlo and left her at the side of a road. He crashed the car, returned to his house, left again in a black SUV and crashed that too. He was convicted of two drunk-driving charges but didn't show up for sentencing. A warrant for his arrest was issued.
"What got him in trouble was his arrogance," says Michelle Frei, a Chester County, Pa., assistant district attorney. "He literally did not think the laws applied to him. 'Do you know who I am?' he would say. Excuse me? You don't drive drunk in this county and get away with it. He had this attitude: 'I deserve to walk because I once played in the NFL. I'm better than these people.'"
The Komlos' divorce proceedings, meanwhile, were contentious, a seemingly unending series of motions and hearings and delays--with mounting legal fees. Jeff became delinquent on court-ordered spousal and child-support payments. Jennifer and the girls moved to a succession of houses, each smaller than the last, and Jennifer borrowed money from friends and relatives to stay afloat. "We were struggling to pay bills," Jennifer says, "and I would find credit card receipts [indicating] Jeff had taken his girlfriend parasailing in the Caribbean or skiing at St. Moritz."
It also discouraged Jennifer to see that, more than two decades after his football glory, Jeff was still being treated like the star quarterback. Court officers would befriend him during breaks, hoping to discuss the NFL and even asking if he wanted to toss a football around in the parking lot. A court reporter once gushed to Jennifer, "We love it when your case is called."
"Why's that?" she replied, puzzled that anyone could take pleasure from such a messy, destructive conflict.
"Your ex is so hot!"
The same year, while the divorce was pending, a Montgomery County family court judge ordered Jeff to sell the house in Palm Beach and use the proceeds for the delinquent child-support payments. Within a month the property had burned to the ground. (Local investigators would later determine that the cause was arson, and a warrant would be issued for Komlo's arrest in April 2008.)
By mid-2004 Komlo, once a devoted father, had completely dropped out of the lives of his daughters: Katie, then 21; Courtney, 20; Christie, 16; and Callye, 15. Katie had been accompanying her mother to her younger sisters' parent-teacher conferences. There had been missed birthdays and graduations; tears and recriminations and counseling sessions. Jeff's parents and siblings claim that Jennifer prevented him from seeing the kids. "He worked his ass off to provide for the family," says Wendy Komlo, Jeff's sister, "and she made him look like the bad guy."
Jennifer and her daughters disagree. "That's one thing that still gets me," says Jennifer. "The Jeff I knew could not have walked away from the girls like that."
They leaned on each other and their mom for support and consolation. But they also relied on sports. For all four girls the school year had been divided not into semesters but into athletic seasons; their lives were a blur of soccer games, basketball scrimmages, field hockey practices and lacrosse games. They liked the camaraderie and the teamwork and goal-setting. But sports were also a release for their anger. They grew alligator skin.
Katie played college lacrosse at Villanova; Christie and Callye would play the sport at Delaware. Asked to list her parents for a team media guide, Katie said only that she was the daughter of Jennifer Komlo. For Christie and Callye, attending Delaware--which was not only near home but also less expensive than other schools that had recruited them--meant walking past plaques devoted to their dad's achievements and bumping into people who recalled him fondly. The girls endured comments such as, "You must be related to Jeff Komlo--how's he doing?" At first they answered tersely, withholding the fact that they'd nicknamed their missing father Osama. But eventually they decided they'd had enough. "I remember your dad," a well-wisher once remarked. "Man, what a great guy."
"Not really," snapped one daughter. "He's not."
Komlo's downward spiral accelerated in 2005. On Jan. 8, no longer working, he was charged with cocaine possession in Florida. (The man who was once famous for arriving at business engagements 10 minutes early failed to appear for his court date.) In Pennsylvania in March he was charged with assaulting Winters. According to the report filed by state police officers responding to an alarm at the Chester Springs house, "This female was curled into a ball with a fur coat covering her head. She was crying and trembling [and] related that she was hiding from Komlo out of fear." But Winters again refused to cooperate with prosecutors. Barely two weeks later, on April 15, police responded to a 911 call from Winters, entered the house in Chester Springs and found a glass vial. Komlo was charged with morphine possession. He didn't show up for his court appearance.
Around the same time, Komlo had been investigated for alleged financial fraud. His Delaware roommate and receiver Peter Bistrian had already spent two years in jail, in 1996 and '97, on federal convictions related to a $1.5 million loan fraud. The judge at his trial had characterized him as "the consummate con man." Now Bistrian was accused of masterminding a complex $1.4 million scam that defrauded a South African firm, Columbus Stainless Steel Ltd., and filtered the money through an account belonging to Komlo. Komlo cooperated with investigators, claiming he believed Bistrian had obtained the money legitimately. Komlo was not charged in the case.
Weeks later, in the summer of 2005, Bistrian was apprehended as he tried to cross into Canada carrying false identification, four cellphones, $3,700 in cash and Mapquest.com directions to Toronto International Airport. (He pleaded guilty to fraud charges and is currently in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Then, finally, there was the suspicious June 4 fire at the Chester Springs house. Authorities theorize that Komlo blamed Winters for his troubles--it was her calls to the cops, after all, that led to several of his arrests--and might have intended to kill her in the blaze. Jeff's siblings assert that this is reckless speculation and that Jeff had left the country by then. Calls to his cellphone went unreturned. His lawyers claimed to have no knowledge of his whereabouts. Federal marshals converged on the homes of his parents and siblings, but left convinced that they were as clueless as everyone else.
By summer's end Komlo was featured on the website of the TV program America's Most Wanted, sandwiched between a woman accused of pretending to be a deaf mute to rob stores in seven states and a Russian immigrant charged with killing an acquaintance and burying him in a backyard in Detroit. This enraged Komlo, who went so far as to call Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kathleen Brady Shea from an undisclosed location to complain. "I'm not a criminal, and I would like to get this resolved," he said. "I'm not above any law." He made a vague reference to a vendetta against him and indicated that he would turn himself in shortly. He never did.
Even those closest to Komlo could make little sense of what he had done. How could the BMOC and successful businessman have turned into a fugitive from justice? Komlo wouldn't be the first athlete to make a mess of his life after his playing career. But to those who knew him, his downfall defied belief.
It seems everyone in Komlo's life has a theory to explain his decline. His parents and siblings think it all started with his divorce. "When his marriage fell apart, he fell apart," says Wendy Komlo. Several friends think his volatile relationship with Winters was the catalyst. Clearly, drugs and alcohol were also factors. A Florida attorney who represented Komlo, Kenneth Lemoine, says, "I think he lost faith in the system. He didn't think he could get a fair shake."
Those less sympathetic to the old quarterback, such as Chester County prosecutors, throw around clinical terms such as sociopath and psychotic.
It's hard not to wonder whether the "athlete's mentality" cited admiringly by Tubby Raymond also played a role in Komlo's downfall. When he played football in college, he overachieved through sheer self-confidence. His risk-taking was rewarded. Again and again he was able to make the big play. Even as criminal charges against him mounted, he carried himself in a way that suggested that somehow he'd pull off life's equivalent of a hook-and-ladder. The guys liked him; the girls still thought he was hot. Everything would be O.K. Then, suddenly, he realized he was out of downs.
Greece? No one could recall Komlo ever talking about Greece. He had no relatives there, no business dealings or known contacts. The Talmud, the text of Jewish laws and ethics, states that "if a man feels that his evil passion is gaining the mastery over him, let him go to a place where he is unknown." Komlo, a Roman Catholic, might have been more concerned about his freedom.
Informed of Jeff's whereabouts after he was sighted on that Greek train by Christie Komlo's friend, the Chester County district attorney's office looked into extradition. But federal authorities felt it wasn't worth the expense or effort, Frei says, because none of the outstanding charges against Komlo were sufficiently grave. Life moved on.
Her divorce made final in 2008, Jennifer Komlo found a job working in the office of a Main Line plastic surgeon. Jennifer Winters returned to Florida and became engaged to another man. When Callye Komlo went to her senior prom with Wayne Ellington, who would go on to play basketball for North Carolina and be named MVP of the 2009 Final Four, she simply accepted that her father wouldn't be on hand to watch her date fumble with the corsage. William Komlo continued working with horses; in fact, he trained Tone It Down, a long shot in the 2009 Preakness.
Jeff, meanwhile, had a girlfriend in Greece and was working for a hair implant clinic in Athens called NHI. The clinic caters mostly to Brits, who fly to the Greek capital for something called the Choi Method--which, according to the NHI website, is "a procedure far too labour intensive to operate in the UK." Komlo's job, not surprisingly, was to greet clients, put them at ease and show them a good time on the town before their procedure.
Like many wild rides, Komlo's would come to an abrupt end. At around 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 14, 2009, he was reportedly killed in a car accident in southern Athens. Frei, the Pennsylvania A.D.A., was skeptical. "I wouldn't put it past this guy to fake his death," she said. But the U.S. State Department matched fingerprints and confirmed that, yes, the body was Komlo's. According to Drew Komlo, Jeff's car hit three others before crashing to a halt. Jeff was flung through the windshield and died of a cranial fracture. He was 52.
On April 1 there was a memorial mass for Jeff Komlo in Rockville, Md. It was a small, private affair. His parents and siblings were there; his four daughters were not. He was then cremated.
His parents and siblings try to remember him in the first 45 years of his life and still puzzle over what happened afterward. "You know those unsatisfying mysteries that never get solved?" asks Wendy Komlo. "What happened to my brother is one of them."
At Delaware, Komlo radiated confidence. He was Steve McQueen in the pocket, a natural-born leader.
For the first time Komlo showed flashes of a disturbing alter ego. He bloodied a fellow Lion in a barroom dispute.
"You want to talk about a picture-perfect life, [Jeff's] was it," says his friend Regan. Except it wasn't.
When asked about Jeff, his daughters didn't reveal that they'd nicknamed their missing father Osama.
Even as charges mounted against him, he carried himself as if he could still pull off the big play.
MAKING HIS MARK Stepping in for the injured Gary Danielson in 1979, Komlo broke the Lions' rookie passing yards record.
COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE
A SHORT RUN Komlo blazed a trail for pro quarterbacks at Delaware (opposite page), but he was a starter for only one season in the NFL.
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF THE KOMLO FAMILY
FLEETING IMAGE At first Jeff (above with, from left, Courtney, Jennifer and Katie) was a devoted husband and father, but eventually he left his family for a volatile relationship with Winters (left).
COURTESY OF JENNIFER WINTERS
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF CHESTER COUNTY FIRE MARSHALS OFFICE (HOUSE)
FEELING THE HEAT By the time Komlo's house in Chester Springs suspiciously caught fire (above), his mug shot (left) was well known to local police.
[See caption above]
Source Citation:Wertheim, L. Jon. "The Wrong Turn.(JEFF KOMLO)." Sports Illustrated 110.24 (June 15, 2009): 62. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 10 Oct. 2009
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