For the past six months I've worked on one of the most ambitious journalism investigations of my career.
Sports Illustrated and CBS News collaborated to conduct criminal background checks on all 2,837 college football players on the teams in SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 poll. The results are this week's cover story in Sports Illustrated: "Criminal Records in College Football," which hit newsstands today. Additional reporting and videos are online at SI.com and CBS.com.
I've done big investigations into crime and sports previously, including four books. But this project ranks among my all-time favorites. We performed over 7,000 individual records checks at courthouses, police stations and prosecutors' offices throughout the country. We also conducted over 150 interviews with law enforcement agents, court officials, players, coaches, lawyers, victims and witnesses.
But the best part of this project was partnering with two of my most respected colleagues in the industry, starting with my editor at SI, B.J. Schecter. We met as interns while attending Northeastern University in Boston in 1992. I knew then that he was going places.
My time at Northeastern is also when I met Armen Keteyian, then a correspondent covering sports for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. As an intern I helped Armen research stories about athletes and crime. When I signed my first book contract to write "Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women" a couple years later, Armen is the one who introduced me to his literary agent, Basil Kane, who became my agent and has represented me on all nine of my subsequent books.
Today, B.J. is the executive editor at SI and Armen is the chief investigative correspondent for CBS News. More important, they are trusted friends in a business where trust is a priceless commodity.
Over the six-month investigation, there were many amazing moments. But one day in Utah stands out. It began shortly before 4 one morning last December when Keteyian headed to an airport in New York and I went to one in Washington, D.C. Around 10:30 Mountain Time, we landed within minutes of each other in Salt Lake City, rented a car, and drove to Bingham High School, where we met up with a camera crew. Without an appointment, we asked to see football coach Dave Peck, who had just guided his team to an undefeated season, a state championship and the No. 3 ranking in the country.
I had been out earlier in the season to watch Peck's team play. But we were back to ask about Peck's all-state lineman Viliseni Fauonuku, who had been arrested for holding up two men at gunpoint. He eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree felony robbery. Yet, he'd been allowed to play his senior season. We wanted to know why.
No coach wants to have this conversation. But Peck talked to us. Our questions were direct. So were his answers. No apologies and no excuses. The thing I'll always remember about this interview is seeing goose bumps rise up on Peck's arms as he spoke of his love for Fauonuku. You can't fake goose bumps. I left Bingham with respect for Peck, an unpretentious man whose players are lucky to have him as a coach.
Next we went to the scene of the crime in hopes of inspecting the detached garage where the robbery took place. We'd been told it was a popular hangout for teens who go there to smoke. As we approached, a group of guys scattered from the building. We gave chase, catching up with two of them, which led us to a man who was present on the night of the robbery. He turned out to be one of our best interviews, especially when it came to describing the gun and the fear in the victims' eyes.
From there we went to the police department and spoke to Chad Hahn, the lead detective who investigated the crime. With his sergeant looking on, Hahn told us that the victims in the robbery were threatened with bodily harm if they reported the incident. When we asked what he meant by bodily harm, he answered with one word: "death." That silenced all of us, another moment I'll never forget.
Then we tracked down the prosecutor in a parking lot. He didn't want to talk to us. But we wanted him to explain why he supported transferring Fauonuku's case from adult court to juvenile court — a move that would ultimately clear the way for Fauonuku to sign a scholarship with the University of Utah. The prosecutor told us that the football scholarship was a factor; Utah can't award scholarships to felons. By putting the case in juvenile court, the crime would ultimately be classified as a "delinquent act," not a crime.
It was dark by the time we went to Fauonuku's house and knocked on the door. His mother answered and invited us in after we stated our names and our purpose for being there. Inside, Viliseni emerged from a hallway and joined his mother on a couch facing us. For the next 45 minutes we asked them a series of difficult-but-candid questions about the crime, the gun, the alleged death threat, the aftermath and how it might impact Viliseni's scholarship offer from Utah. At one point we asked him if he thought the victims were scared during the robbery. He said he knew they were scared. When we asked how he knew, he said he could see it in their eyes.
It wasn't something he was proud of. And that leads me to the second thing I took away from our meeting with Viliseni — a sense of remorse. That's what makes this story so compelling. It raises the question of whether a star high school athlete should be denied a scholarship for committing a serious crime as a juvenile. His mother admitted that football was probably his only chance for a shot at college.
As we stood up to leave, I noticed a picture of the leader of the Mormon Church on the mantle. I asked Viliseni's mother if they were Mormons. "We are," she said, her voice trailing off, before saying they had been away from the faith but were looking to return to it. Yet another layer to this complicated story of second chances and redemption.
It was 6 p.m. by the time we left the Fauonuku residence. That's Utah time. But we were operating on Eastern Time. We'd been at it for 16 hours at that point. We had not eaten since breakfast. Still, we pushed further, going to the home of some parents whose son was one of the victims. They were afraid to talk to us. Yet they invited us to sit with them at their dining room table. You learn a lot about a family at the place where they eat.
While we took notes, the mother's hands shook and her lips quivered as she described what it was like having their son held up at gunpoint. The crime was bad enough. But the aftermath brought fear to the entire family. You can't fake shakes and quivers, either.
The prosecutors did not consult with them before offering Viliseni a plea deal. Nor did anyone explain why a pending football scholarship should factor into the decision to treat an armed robbery as a "delinquent act." All these parents knew was that someone had aimed a gun at their son, taken his wallet and used the stolen debit card to make purchases.
At our request, the parents telephoned their son, who joined our interview from a remote location via speakerphone. He was too scared to meet with us face-to-face. Reluctantly, he recounted the crime for us. After he hung up, we telephoned another victim and put him on speaker phone. He corroborated the account of the other victim.
It was 8 p.m. by the time we reached our hotel. We ate, got a few hours of sleep and got up for early flights back East. Leaving Utah, I felt grateful for a coach, a cop, a prosecutor, a witness, two victims, a defendant and two mothers who told us their very different stories. A journalist is only as good as his sources. Of course, it helps to have talented colleagues.
To read more of Jeff's work, visit www.jeffbenedict.com.