FEATURE: Worcester T&G - Stranger Helping Sutton's Recovery
By Paul Jarvey
Lorenzo Sutton and the Sign Man -- it's an unlikely pair, the one-time sweet-shooting guard whose life has taken such terrible downward turns and the guy doing everything he can to rescue someone he has never met.
Sutton was about the best thing there was about UMass basketball in the 1980s. He was a three-year captain and a three-time all-A-10 second-teamer who once hit eight 3-pointers in a game and shot threes at a 45 percent clip as a junior. He left in 1988 -- the year before John Calipari showed up to turn everything around -- as the leading scorer in school history.
Life held so much promise for him then. Maybe he would play in the NBA. Nobody doubted that he was good enough. Perhaps he could put his architecture degree to use.
The university put him on its all-'80s team, which was honored in January as part of a season-long celebration of 100 years of UMass basketball. Sutton wasn't there, of course.
He was in a small town near Atlanta, broke, disfigured and with little hope of things getting any better.
Then the phone rang.
Ed Rubin -- the Sign Man -- had come across a heart-breaking 2003 story about Sutton, about how an accident in 1990 in Amherst had left the hoop star in a coma, changing the course of his life in horrible ways.
Sutton fractured his skull, was in a coma for 16 days and suffered brain damage. Forget a pro basketball career, his life was now on a path that would lead to jail and the discovery of a cancerous tumor on his face that would alter his appearance in hideous fashion.
Something about the story had touched Rubin, how one of the greatest players in UMass history had fallen so far and seemingly disappeared.
Rubin, a 1969 UMass grad who lives in Harvard, prides himself in being able to locate people who are hard to find, so he started sniffing for a scent. A week later he had Sutton on the phone.
It wasn't exactly a happy conversation.
"I thought I had a potential suicide," Rubin said. "He sounded really down."
Rubin had a suicide in his own family, so he knew the desperation in Sutton's voice was real.
Unemployed, Sutton was facing mounting bills. He had physical and mental health issues. He needed a new place to live. He had hit bottom and didn't know the way out.
Rubin realized he had to help. There was no choice. His assistance has meant everything from making calls to get Sutton the services he needs to helping him pay his bills.
Rubin said he has spent about $3,000 on Sutton so far and another UMass alum, who prefers to stay in the background, has done the same.
Rubin said his best friend just happens to be a Social Security lawyer in Ohio who put him in touch with another attorney in Georgia who is trying to restore Sutton's SS disability payments. Rubin also happened to meet a top surgeon who is willing to take the former hoop star's case and reconstruct his face.
The way things have come together has made Rubin believe that he is somehow meant to be helping Sutton.
"We know there are issues with his background -- things we don't even know about -- but we have a lost person here," Rubin said. "We want to rebuild his life."
Sutton has been arrested several times since he was hit by that vehicle 19 years ago and was sentenced to two years in the Hampshire County House of Correction in the 1990s.
He had never been in trouble before the accident, so Rubin believes his behavior is due to brain damage.
While he was in jail, doctors first thought Sutton had a cyst on his face. When they went to remove it, they discovered it was cancer. Surgery to eradicate the cancer left him badly disfigured.
Rubin believes that successful reconstructive surgery could go a long way to putting Sutton back on track.
He has had trouble keeping a job and part of that may be due to how he looks. Rubin thinks improved appearance would give Sutton confidence, which would help in so many ways.
Of course, it will be expensive. Rubin is the Sign Man, not the dollar sign.
So, he is organizing a fund-raiser to help Sutton at 4 p.m., May 3 at the Wonder Bar, 121 Shrewsbury St., Worcester. He hopes to not only bring in money, but to spread the word about Sutton's plight.
The amazing thing about all of this is that while Rubin has talked to Sutton hundreds of times on the phone, he has never seen him, even in his playing days.
Rubin didn't become the Sign Man until 1994 when he began showing up at the Mullins Center with his home-made signs. He added football in 1998.
He kept at it until this year, when he "officially retired," first because of a health issue then because of a desire to focus as much of his energy as possible on helping Sutton.
"Will I go back to doing it? Maybe," he said. "But this stuff is more important.
"We've got a person whose life has been lost for 20 years. Let's make the future something bright for him."
The fund-raiser for Lorenzo Sutton will be at 4 p.m., May 3 at the Wonder Bar, 121 Shrewsbury St., Worcester, and will feature live music, food for purchase and a cash bar. Suggested donation is $20. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can also be sent in Sutton's name to Easthampton Savings Bank, PO Box 81, Hadley, MA, 01035.
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