They met in the University of Missouri weight room. She was a swimmer. He was a football player, offering to help her with some equipment. They dated briefly, then segued into a deep friendship. It would continue past her death at age 20 and require him to choose between two powerful loyalties.
Rolandis Woodland could have stayed out of the story about Sasha Menu Courey's suicide and alleged sexual assault. It would have been the easier choice. Yet there he was on ESPN's Outside the Lines last Friday (which first appeared online and aired on TV on Sunday), confirming that he had reason to believe that three fellow football players had raped Courey in 2010. He sided with the ghost of a woman, not his former teammates.
"People are saying 'Why did you do this? You could get into trouble. Do you just want to be famous?' '' Woodland said by phone on Monday. "You don't understand. I miss her so, so much, and I wish I didn't have to do this. I just want her to be here.''
Sixteen months after the alleged rape, in June 2011, Menu Courey overdosed on Tylenol while staying in a psychiatric hospital. The rest of her story is as complicated as it is heartbreaking. Her history of mental illness does not follow a straight line from the date of the alleged assault. She had made another overdose attempt at 16, after a breakup with a boyfriend.
The rape allegation came to light primarily through her diary, which her parents read after her death. She never went to the police; the diary suggests she thought it would be pointless.
If the accusation ever leads to an arrest, Woodland will be the primary reason.
On Sunday, after Outside the Lines report, the university announced that it had handed off the case to police. Four years have passed since the night in question, and the evidence is thin at this point. But if Woodland had not spoken up, the hope for further scrutiny would have all but vanished. (To understand the background further, see the video and accompanying text, with more reporting from Nicole Noren and Tom Farrey.)
Woodland told ESPN that he did not know about the alleged assault while Courey was alive, but he knew when she began her plunge into depression and chaos. He had found her distraught one morning, crying and saying only that something bad had happened to her.
Just before her death, Woodland said, Courey mailed a videotape to him that showed three men assaulting her in a dark room while she was inebriated. He said he then confronted three of his teammates and that one of them conceded that he had taken advantage of Courey, but insisted that he did not force himself on her.
The videotape, Woodland said, has been misplaced. He can offer only his word now, accusing people he once considered brothers.
"It's too late for Sasha. She can't speak for herself. She needs people to speak for her,'' he said on Monday. "I had to do it. She believed in me and I believed in her.''
Since the ESPN interview first appeared as an online video, he said he has received more than 2,000 Facebook messages, many of them from women thanking him, at least one recounting an assault that remains unsolved. They know that, without his word, people would be inclined to dismiss Sasha as the mentally ill girl who cried rape. It wouldn't be a first.
Woodland expected a backlash, too, and it arrived. "Just crazy fans,'' he said. " 'We know where your car is,' stuff like that, making little threats.''
His voice drifted as he explained. He did not want to create more drama around himself. He said he now teaches kindergarten as a permanent substitute at an elementary school in St. Louis. The principal suggested he take Monday off to "just chill out a little bit and lay low.'' Lawyers who contacted him after the ESPN piece offered similar advice, telling him to ignore further media requests. He agreed to this phone interview to explain his decision and describe his friendship with the young woman he nicknamed "Sasha Bear.''
They both grew up without knowing their biological fathers, he said, and they would talk about what that meant to them. They had a regular meeting place, a Columbia dog park, and they'd go there often for an end-of-the-day debriefing. It's where Woodland and another friend of Sasha's staged a memorial service for her. Everyone wore white shirts and sunglasses, a favorite look of Sasha's, and released balloons into the air to say goodbye.
"She was really, really smart,'' he said, "and really outgoing.''
During one winter storm, when the snow piled up so high that students had trouble opening their doors, she refused to hunker down.
"Sasha puts on her swimsuit and goes out into the snow and makes snow angels, throwing snowballs all around,'' Woodland said. "We're like: 'You're going to get pneumonia.' [She says] 'I don't care.' That's how she was, so spirited.''
When her parents asked him to speak up, he couldn't say no. If anyone judges him as disloyal, he said, they have to ask themselves what they'd expect from decent people if the same thing happened to their sisters or their daughters.
"I was scared because they're my teammates, and I love those guys. I love all of those guys,'' he said. "They're like my brothers. But this event occurred, and Sasha needed my help.''
He says so far, none of his ex-teammates has hounded him. But I doubt he'd admit it if anyone had. He still loves his school, and doesn't want to cause harm. He just wanted to stand up for a friend who can never know what he's done.