When Maurice Clarett was suspended last September for accepting thousands of dollars in extra benefits from a caterer from near his hometown and for attempting to conceal those gifts from NCAA investigators, Robert Dellimuti was portrayed by associates and even Ohio State coach Jim Tressel as a well-meaning guy trying to help an underprivileged kid. The tailback talked daily with his benefactor during the 2002 national championship season, sometimes on a cell phone paid for by Dellimuti.
But Dellimuti was more than a fan of Maurice Clarett that year. He was a gambler.
Cell phone records acquired by ESPN.com show that Dellimuti made 27 calls during the Buckeyes' title season to a prominent sportsbook in Costa Rica, SBG Global. Ten of those calls were made in the three weeks leading up to the Fiesta Bowl victory against Miami. The records do not show what type of gambling activity took place, including whether Dellimuti was betting on Ohio State games.
The disclosure of the sportsbook calls is the latest twist in a saga that began last April, when Clarett called campus police to report that a loaner car he was using had been broken into. The police report led to questions about the car, which brought the NCAA to Columbus. That in turn prompted Dellimuti to supply his phone records to Ohio State. Clarett was suspended indefinitely from the team, which caused him to sue the NFL over its early-draft rules.
U.S. District Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled in his favor Thursday morning, and the NFL immediately announced its intention to appeal. Clarett, whose advisors had been concerned about how high he might be drafted this year, has not stated whether he plans to take advantage of the judge's decision or try to return for one more year of college football.
Asked early last week about the calls to SBG Global, Dellimuti first pleaded ignorance. "What's that?" he said. Pressed further in the brief interview, he confirmed that the phone number with the SBG calls was his, and said he had gambled on "football" but that he did not bet on Ohio State games. He insisted he did nothing wrong.
Maurice Clarett was the centerpiece of Ohio State's 2002 national championship team, but in the months after, Clarett was declared ineligible for accepting gifts and cash from his hometown friend and benefactor Bobby Dellimuti, an admitted football gambler.
"Everyone gambles," Dellimuti said. "Everyone plays football."
The NCAA, however, becomes concerned when athletes associate with any gambler, no matter the league or sport they wager on. Beset by point-shaving scandals on college teams in recent years, and alarmed by studies showing that nearly half of all male athletes have wagered on sports, the NCAA identifies gambling as a threat to the integrity of its games.
William Saum, NCAA director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities, declined comment on the pattern of sportsbook calls by Dellimuti and his connection to Clarett, citing the organization's policy of not discussing ongoing investigations.
In general terms, he said, "We've spent a lot of time with all of our athletes, coaches and administrators encouraging them to know whom they associate with. If we prove or someone proves that an athlete or coach is associating with a known gambler, we and the institution will sit down with that individual and explain what we have and figure out a plan of action."
At a minimum, the athlete would be asked to disassociate himself from the gambler, Saum said. For Clarett, the consequences grow in severity if Dellimuti is found to have profited from the relationship. An NCAA bylaw prohibits athletes from providing team information to gamblers, who in turn can use it to make sharper bets.
"It's not acceptable if the person's gambling only on the pros," Saum said. "We would suggest to the student-athlete that it's just a matter of time before the gambler takes advantage of him and gambles on his games. And who's to say that gambler is not already gambling on his games? Most gamblers I know don't just bet on one level -- it's football, both college and professional."
When asked, Dellimuti, 38, declined to provide ESPN.com with betting records. A representative at SBG Global, citing client confidentiality, declined to discuss any gambling activity by Dellimuti.
SBG Global is considered by industry observers to be one of the larger sportsbooks in the world, and one that markets to a college football audience. SBG Global, which takes both phone and Internet bets, was the sportsbook that former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson allegedly used to place bets on pro and college games. He pleaded no-contest in July to a misdemeanor gambling charge.
Clarett declined to be interviewed by ESPN for this story. A statement released through his attorney Alan C. Milstein read: "Maurice certainly did not know of any gambling activity by anyone, including Mr. Dellimuti, that he was in contact with. In addition, Maurice had no reason to believe that any statements that he was giving to anyone were used one way or another for gambling purposes. And he considers any inference to the contrary to be an attack on his integrity and reputation."
ESPN.com's investigation came across no evidence to suggest that Clarett gambled, shaved points or tried to compromise the result of Ohio State games. In fact, he earned a reputation during the 14-0 national championship season for his competitiveness and his willingness to play with shoulder and knee injuries.
But by taking money and gifts from someone now identified as an admitted gambler, Clarett risks further NCAA scrutiny if he attempts to continue his college career. He is suing the NFL to gain access to its April draft and strike down the league's policy of making players wait until three years after high school. But in a statement in January Clarett expressed interest as well in playing again for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State, which suspended Clarett indefinitely in September, must petition the NCAA for his reinstatement, a move school officials have said they will consider in March. Clarett led the Buckeyes in rushing as a freshman with 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns, including the winning score in the 31-24 overtime victory at the Fiesta Bowl.
ESPN.com employed a public records request to acquire the phone records from Ohio State. Dellimuti supplied the university his phone records last summer when Ohio State and NCAA officials investigated his gifts to Clarett, which Dellimuti figured were proper because he had known Clarett since he was in the ninth grade. Instead, the NCAA determined that Dellimuti met Clarett, a local star since middle school, after he became a prospective college athlete. Investigators found that Dellimuti supplied Clarett with $3,800 in extra benefits: $500 in cash, the rest was in payments for the cell phone Dellimuti provided Clarett.
Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger declined to comment on whether Ohio State is concerned about Clarett's relationship with a gambler, or whether the situation would affect the university's impending decision to ask the NCAA to reinstate Clarett. "It would be totally inappropriate to comment," he said. "It's an ongoing case and we have consistently not talked about (Clarett)." When asked if Ohio State should have known about Dellimuti's phone calls to SBG Global, Geiger said, "What makes you think we didn't?" He declined to elaborate.
When asked about Ohio State's level of knowledge about the SBG Global calls, the NCAA's Saum said "I really can't respond to that other than to say it's an ongoing case and in due time the institution and association will review all matters related to the issue."
Geiger on Wednesday night issued a statement saying: "We have read ESPN.com's story, and are obviously concerned with the issues that it raises. We cannot emphasize strongly enough our belief that gambling on intercollegiate athletics is a very serious issue.
"Rest assured, we will look into this matter and will support and cooperate with any and all investigations on this subject."
Dellimuti said he regards himself a father figure to Clarett, who grew up in Youngstown but after a stellar freshman season transferred to Warren G. Harding High School, a football powerhouse a half hour drive to the north. Dellimuti was a co-chairman of the high school booster club when Clarett's mother Michelle, a deputy clerk at the Youngstown Municipal Court, was also an officer. Dellimutti was often at practice and gave Clarett odd jobs at his banquet hall, where the kitchen now is decorated with a "Free Maurice" T-shirt and a poster of Tressel holding up the national championship trophy. Dellimuti said he first started paying for Clarett's cell phone back when the star football player was a high school sophomore. On occasion, Clarett would sleep at his house.
"Knowing Bobby's heart, he was trying to do something good for somebody," said Paul Trina, Warren's athletic director. "I really don't think he believed he was breaking any rules that would jeopardize Maurice's career at Ohio State."
In December, Tressel told ESPN.com that he feels bad for Dellimuti, "because from what I gather from the coaches at Warren, he's been a guy who's helped players whether they were stars or not, and wasn't interested in anything down the road from (an agent) representation standpoint."
In an Oct. 5, 2002 story in the Columbus Dispatch, before the NCAA violations came to light, Dellimuti was identified as one of Clarett's few confidants, a group that included his mother, high school coach Thom McDaniels and former youth coach Mike Butch. In the article, Dellimuti said of Clarett, "He's very quiet, only lets a few people into his life. He won't open up, and it took me a while to crack into him. But now we talk three or four times a day."
Dellimuti's records show two calls that season to Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio. Dantonio said that both of the calls -- to his office phone on Dec. 15 and to his cell phone three days after the Fiesta Bowl -- were related strictly to the Buckeyes' recruitment of Prescott Burgess, a Warren prospect who ended up signing with Michigan. Dantonio is now the head coach at the University of Cincinnati.
Dellimuti has attempted to prevent ESPN.com from reporting on the contents of his phone records, which he maintains are private. His attorney, James E. Sanders, sent a letter, dated Jan. 27, to ESPN insisting that the records should not have been released by Ohio State, and requesting their return. (ESPN obtained the records from OSU in connection with an open-records request.)
"Mr. Dellimuti turned those records over believing they would be held in confidence, and they weren't," Sanders said.
Dellimuti's phone records released to ESPN extend back to April 2001 and are billed to his catering business, DiLucia's Banquet. The records for some months are missing, but those that were turned over to the school show a total of 67 calls from Dellimuti's cell phone to SBG between October 2001 and April 2003. The first of the calls occurred during Clarett's senior season at Harding when he was named the USA Today Offensive Player of the Year.
In addition to the regular calls to SBG Global, Dellimuti's cell phone records show that calls were made on the morning of games to ATS Consultants, a fee-based tout service that provides sports gamblers with "invaluable inside information that is not available to the general public." It is unclear whether those calls were made to receive or provide information.
Among running backs in college football that year, Clarett had the greatest impact on establishing the line for a game, said Kenny White, oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which helps many sportsbooks set their opening lines. Alone, Clarett's presence was worth up to two points, White said. Others in the business say Clarett was even more of a difference-maker for the Buckeyes, and gamblers.
"Anytime you have information on a key player like Clarett, that's very valuable," said Mike Foreman, manager of MVPsportsbook.com, an online sportsbook. "If we learn that Clarett is not going to play, our line could move six points. So if you (as a bettor) can get in before we find that information, you would have a huge advantage."
But with Clarett, who sat out three games that season, knowing whether and how much he might play was often a matter of guesswork to the public. College football teams are not required to release injury information in the days leading up to a game -- unlike NFL teams, which use categories such as "probable" or "questionable" to describe a player's availability.
Like many coaches, Tressel uses that data vacuum to keep opposing coaches off balance in their game preparations. For instance, before the Nov. 2, 2002 game against No. 23 Minnesota, Tressel told the media that he expected Clarett to play despite a banged-up shoulder. The Saturday morning newspapers reflected that sentiment -- yet Clarett, in uniform on the sideline, never got on the field.
A week later, the Dispatch published an article lauding the Buckeyes for their skill at being vague about player injuries. The newspaper quoted linebacker Cie Grant, who said, "I think for the most part we've done a great job as far as our team disguising things. There's been times where Maurice Clarett and myself knew that we weren't going to play, but we were still in pregame and made them guess until the game actually starts."
Phone records show that SBG Global received calls made from Dellimuti's cell phone in the week before eight Ohio State games, including three on the morning of games. It is not known whether these calls related to Ohio State games or not.
"Generally speaking, we tell our young people and administrators 'Just don't associate with gamblers,'" Saum said. "Why? Because whether that call is made after practice or on the morning of the game, all it does is beg that many more questions. It puts the game and the athlete at risk. If a person (associated with the athlete) is gambling, they don't have the athlete's best interest in mind."
A 1999 University of Michigan survey of NCAA athletes found that more than 4 percent of males provided inside information to someone so they could have an advantage when placing a bet. Nearly half -- 45 percent -- of male athletes had wagered on some form of sports themselves since entering college.
Dellimuti bristled when asked if he ever used information gleaned from Clarett to bet on Ohio State games. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life," he said.
But if Clarett tries to return to play college football, he can expect his interactions with Dellimuti to be scrutinized. If made aware of an athlete's relationship with a gambler, Saum said, the NCAA would "spend a lot of time with that athlete to question every conversation, every move. We would look at phone records and analyze the relationship as closely as we could. In my business, we just don't take people at their word. There's too much at risk."
An NFL spokesman did not return calls for comment on whether Clarett's relationship with a gambler would prompt scrutiny from the NFL.
The NCAA also would have access to any of Clarett's cell phone bills that may have been turned over by Dellimuti to the university. Citing student privacy law that applies to the public but not the NCAA, an Ohio State spokeswoman declined to release to ESPN.com any documents that mention Clarett, who has continued to take classes at OSU.
Dellimuti is unlikely to face criminal charges for any gambling activity. Although using U.S. phone lines for betting with a foreign sportsbook is illegal, individuals are rarely prosecuted.
Dellimuti, though, can expect an ultimatum from the athletic director at the high school that brought him and Clarett together: Stop gambling or quit coming around the program.
"If it's true that he is gambling on football, I would definitely talk to him and say, 'Listen, I've never heard you discussing that around the kids but you need to know that's something we don't want,' " Trina said. "It's not something we want them to be involved with, to be encouraged about, to be excited about, or to eventually want to do."
Clarett's attorney insists that his client was unaware of Dellimuti's sports wagering. But Dellimuti's affinity for Las Vegas, at least, was apparent.
According to Dellimuti, he and Clarett flew there the day after the Fiesta Bowl for a 12-hour stopover before returning to Ohio. Together in that city of casinos, they walked the marble hallways, the benefactor showing the teenage star of the newly crowned national champions another side of life.
Clarett did not gamble, Dellimuti said, noting, "He's underage."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com