Jim Dey | Pardon in hand, former Illini star Matt Sinclair plots next step

Jim Dey | Pardon in hand, former Illini star Matt Sinclair plots next step

Jan. 11 — just nine days ago — was a date that former University of Illinois football player Matt Sinclair and former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner anticipated with excitement — but for very different reasons.

On the verge of leaving office, Rauner was determined to clear the backlog of clemency requests left to him in 2015 by the previous administration. Sinclair was hopeful that his petition — one of the 302 left for review — would be favorably received.

Both hopes were fulfilled.

Rauner got to the bottom of the pile. He denied 268 requests, while granting 30 clemencies and four commutations.

"... there are currently no pending clemency petitions in the office of the governor," a Rauner spokeswoman stated.

And Sinclair received the pardon he desperately wanted.

"I was extremely humbled," the 36-year-old stated. "It was a similar feeling of humility and appreciation I felt for all the people who have helped us out in the last five years."

Clemency is the umbrella legal term used to describe the governor's action.

To be more specific, Sinclair was granted a pardon for his 2013 conviction for the aggravated unlawful use of a firearm.

"All forms of pardon, commutation and reprieve are forms of executive clemency," said Jason Sweat, chief legal counsel for the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

As a consequence of Sinclair's pardon, he can petition to have his criminal record expunged. Of course, Sinclair can't erase his personal history, but Sweat said he will "not be treated as a felon anymore."

Now a member of the football coaching staff at North Central College in Naperville, Sinclair said his felony conviction has cost him multiple coaching opportunities at schools where the head coach wanted to hire him but upper-level administrators rejected him.

"For those folks in human resources, a felony is a felony is a felon," said Sinclair, who expressed hope the pardon will allow him to be "hired by folks who don't know me."

For those who don't recall, Sinclair was a high-profile member of the University of Illinois football team in the early 2000s who later played in the National Football League. He was a member of the UI football coaching staff in 2013 when, on a celebratory trip home after a win at Purdue, he foolishly pointed an unloaded gun at a car driven by another Illini assistant.

A third person, a female motorist, saw what Sinclair intended as an admittedly foolish joke, thought she was witnessing a potential shooting and alerted police.

Sinclair was subsequently pulled over, charged with a gun crime and eventually convicted at trial in Champaign County court. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of public service.

Sinclair also was forced out of his UI football job.

Making matters worse, he said it "wasn't just me" in a jam. His wife and children were in it with him.

"It was the first time in my life I could not will my way out of something," he said. "In situations like that, it's best to rely on your faith and go about your business."

So that's what Sinclair did, diminished job prospects and all.

Ordered to perform 100 hours of public service, Sinclair more than met that obligation as a volunteer football coach at Monticello High School. Serving as the team's defensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 under head coach Cully Welter, Sinclair estimated he put in 1,500 hours with the team, loving every minute of it.

With the assistance of former Champaign County YMCA Director Mark Johnson — a onetime UI wrestling coach — Sinclair joined the staff at the Y. He worked as a fitness trainer, cleaned equipment and did "whatever Mark Johnson wanted done."

Sinclair also went back to school. He's about to complete an online master's degree program from Penn State in the psychology of leadership.

"The NFL is paying for it," he said.

Sinclair also has gotten back into college coaching, first at Washington University in St. Louis and now North Central. He coordinates special teams and coaches linebackers in the highly successful program.

"We won the conference for the third year in a row," Sinclair said of the 2018 season.

But to continue to move forward, Sinclair sought a pardon, beginning the process about a year ago.

In Illinois, there are two ways to get a pardon — statutory and political.

The formal statutory method requires an individual to go through a lengthy review and application process that requires the applicant to demonstrate through words, deeds and letters of recommendation why he is worthy of consideration.

It's topped off with a personal appearance to answer questions before a five-member board.

After reviewing each case, the board makes confidential recommendations to the governor, who then conducts his own review and issues a decision.

The political method is informal, but has a long tradition in state government.It involves an applicant using political clout, campaign contributions or both to go directly to the governor. In that way, the applicant can bypass the review process and jump to the front of a long line of applicants.

Because the governor's clemency power is absolute, clemency granted for any reason is beyond legal challenge.

Now that it's all over, Sinclair describes his legal saga as "an extremely, extremely costly life experience." But he said he's come to believe that he gained more from it than he lost.

Sinclair said he's grateful for all the people who offered assistance when he was down and the lessons learned as a consequence of a moment's foolishness.

"All I want to do now is support my family (wife and two kids) coaching football," he said.

There's an irony in the pardon Sinclair received. In addition to the expungement of his record, he's legally entitled to exercise his restored legal right to obtain a firearm.

"That's on the back end of my considerations," Sinclair said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.