Jeff Benedict: The making of a Sports Illustrated cover story: The investigation comes to Utah and Bingham High School
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.