“I was definitely guilty of getting caught up in that lifestyle,” Black said last week, his eyes bright as he remembered that time. “The pace was so fast, we were into so many things, so successful.”

He paused. “Then I got into lines that were gray or blurred,” he said, “and I crossed them.”

In 1999, as his Professional Management Inc., was signing five NFL first-round draft picks, everything fell apart. Black, then 43, was charged in what federal agents told Sports Illustrated was “the biggest case of agent fraud in the history of sports.” Black was accused of mismanaging or defrauding his clients of $15 million.

The charges included money laundering, mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice involving a Detroit drug dealer; illegal recruiting of college players in Florida; and, most infamously, his involvement in Cash 4 Titles, a payday lender that proved to be a Ponzi scheme in which Black had encouraged players to invest — all the while, prosecutors said, pocketing money for himself.

Black acknowledges that, during the investigations, he lied to the FBI and to a grand jury. “I didn’t think of the ramifications of lying to them,” he said, shaking his head. “I knew I was lying, but I didn’t think they’d charge me for perjury. I know that now.”

He pleaded guilty in Michigan and was found guilty at trial in Florida. His sentences totaled nearly 12 years, and he spent nearly seven years in prison (getting time off for cooperating with the government in pursuit of the drug dealer, Dean Parker) before being released to a halfway house in December 2007 and into the world in May 2008.

A year later, Black — his second wife has a home in Irving, Texas, while he maintains a condominium in Columbia — has written a book. “Tanked! Behind the Scenes with the NFL’s Biggest Stars by the Game’s Most Infamous Super Agent” is a product, he says, of days in prison spent writing down the story of his life.

It is, he says, “a true story” — but more than that, one he hopes will be the key to his redemption.

———————-

The heart of the book is Case No. 8:00-cv-383, from U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida. In April 2004, Judge Richard A. Lazzara ruled the Securities and Exchange Commission, in seeking payment from Black of more than $2.6 million, “has not met its burden of proof in all instances,” and previous payment of $240,000 to players was all he owed.

Most importantly from Black’s viewpoint, Lazzara wrote “(Black) makes a compelling argument that the Cash 4 Titles transactions were not the substance of illegal gains.” In Black’s world, that counted as a major victory, and a reason to publish.

“I want to get out the fact my name has already been cleared,” he said. “I want (former clients) to know the federal courts cleared my name as it relates to involvement in Cash 4 Titles … and that I never participated in any fraud relating to players.”

Others question whether Lazzara’s ruling amounts to the “complete exoneration” Black calls it.

“That’s pretty far-fetched,” a lawyer familiar with the case said. “(Black) looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. Me, I’d be falling on my sword more, saying ‘I screwed up.’”

Nevertheless, Black has spent recent months attempting to get his story to those he once represented — with mixed success.

He met with former USC and New York Giants linebacker Corey Miller, with ex-Philadelphia Eagles back Duce Staley, and with former Clemson back Terry Allen. He lunched with Bill Bradshaw, his one-time business partner. “It’s like if you haven’t seen a friend in a long time; you give them a big hug, say ‘how’s it going?’” Black said.

Others are less accepting. Harold Green, former USC and NFL back, did not return calls from The State; a colleague at Pro Bowl Motors said Green “isn’t interested in talking about Tank Black.” Former Miami Dolphins receiver Mark Clayton also did not return his calls, Black said.

Miller, who heads a Christian ministry and hosts a local sports talk show, said he saw Black’s reaching out as “a ministry opportunity. I told him, ‘If you’re coming back from that standpoint, to redeem your life, I’ll stand in your corner.’”

Miller said he is hopeful, but retains skepticism. “I don’t know if I believe it,” he said. “I’ll support him spiritually … I wouldn’t go into business with him, though. If he’s not sincere, it’ll be exposed.”

Added Bradshaw: “I don’t know how you could go through what he did and not reevaluate yourself. I think he learned something; I choose to believe the best in him.”

For his part, Black talks of regrets: of advising players to invest in Cash 4 Titles (he claims he personally lost $2.2 million), of the rich-and-famous lifestyle he said clouded his judgment, of “being misleading and untruthful” with federal agents.

But Black also contends his punishment did not fit his crimes. “Martha Stewart (lied to investigators), and she got five months; somehow, I got 142 months,” he said.

Even now he retains his old recruiter/salesman style when asked about his future. “I’ve learned so much, it made me a stronger, better person,” he said. “I’m a business person who loves business; I will form some corporations that will go out and do business.

“I feel like, no question, I’ll have as much success at the things I’m going to be doing as I’ve had with things in the past.”

———————-

The first 100 pages of “Tanked!” read like Horatio Alger. Raised dirt-poor in tiny Greeneville, Tenn., by his grandmother, who sometimes put food on the table by selling moonshine out of her kitchen, Black became an All-American wide receiver at Carson-Newman, then spent part of a season with the Atlanta Falcons before turning to coaching.

In 1983, he left Chattanooga to join South Carolina as receivers coach for Joe Morrison. By 1987, the stage was set for him to become the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator — Morrison had promised him the job — but when USC hired Al Groh instead, a disillusioned Black quit to sell disability insurance to pro football players.

Black’s career as a player representative began with ex-USC receiver Sterling Sharpe, his first Gamecocks recruit, negotiating a lucrative contract with the Green Bay Packers. Black was a rarity: a black agent representing mostly black players. Many of his clients came from similar backgrounds as his, and in Black they found an often missing father figure, one who offered advice on everything.

In 1988 Black joined forces with Bradshaw, one of his former USC players, to form PMI. The union worked well; Bradshaw handled the business, Black recruited the clients.

“My experience with Tank, he was the best football coach I’d ever had,” Bradshaw said. “He cared about players, was a good teacher. But he wanted to be an agent, and I didn’t want to be.” The two split amicably in 1995.

In retrospect, the loss of Bradshaw’s business sense and, perhaps, his moral compass were greater than anyone realized. Soon, Black was offering investment “opportunities” to his players in a board game, “Black Americans of Achievement (BAOA),” and in a payday lending company touted, Black said, by Columbia businessmen Jimmy Roof and Bob Ellenburg.

“I’m the one who looked the fellows in the eye, who advised them I thought it was good,” Black said of Cash 4 Titles.

There were flights to the Cayman Islands, PMI’s leased jet loaded with bags of cash; gatherings at a dude ranch in North Dakota; and, Black says with a grimace, late nights in high-end strip clubs in Atlanta. Sports Illustrated would report how Black became enamored of one stripper in particular, whom he showered with expensive gifts, unbeknownst to his first wife, Charlotte.

But the million-dollar gravy train was about to jump the tracks. In 1999, University of Florida police investigated charges Black had given money to players in violation of state law. FBI agents asked about those charges and also Cash 4 Titles, and Black — “in a panic,” he says now — lied about what he knew.

“That was wrong,” he said. “Do I ever regret making that stupid mistake.”

Those lies, and other actions, brought him down. An associate of then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gators players Black pursued, refers to him as “the athletics version of Bernie Madoff. He stripped those guys of their money.”

Facing more than a decade in prison, Black set out to “clear my name” in the SEC civil case. With no funds for lawyers, he buried himself in the prison library, “10 hours a day,” at Buttner Medical Facility near Raleigh, turning himself into a “jailhouse lawyer.”

“My life was on the line,” he said. “I was highly motivated.”

After winning his 1994 civil case, SEC charges against his three companies (PMI, Professional Management Counseling and Silverline Development Corp.) were dismissed in 1995. All three were long bankrupt, but “when I got that ruling back, it made me feel like I wasn’t in prison anymore.”

And so, Black might have quietly served out his sentence, then disappeared into the world. But the book was still to be written.

———————-

Black says he wrote “Tanked!” to “tell the truth about what happened.” Today, “most of my energy is going toward the book now. Things I derive from that — speaking engagements, anything to do in terms of sales — that’s what I’m focused on.”

He said it is not an attempt to make excuses for what he did, or to “get back” at people who he feels wronged him. But there are elements of both in its 316 pages.

Take his broken relationship with Sharpe. Black writes about Sharpe’s behavior toward fans and media, but he also reveals the NFL Network announcer, married with a daughter, is the father of a son from an earlier relationship.

Sharpe, asked about his depiction in the book, responded via e-mail: “After reading (the pertinent chapters), it’s obvious Tank really hates me. …”

The other person earning most of Black’s wrath is Brantley Evans, a former PMI employee who left in 1997 and later joined his brother-in-law, Columbia lawyer Ricky Lefft, to form a competing management agency, Synergy Sports. In his book, Black refers to Evans’ “betrayal,” accuses him of “stealing” players and ratting out Black to the NFL Players Association in its investigation of illegal agent activities in Florida.

“… Brantley Evans’ jealousy and greed is largely responsible for bringing down me and PMI …” Black wrote.

After reading portions of Black’s book, Evans, a former senior associate athletics director at South Carolina State, told a different story.

Evans said when PMI began selling shares in BAOA, “it started legitimate. But when the games stopped selling, I saw Tank was still taking investments from players.” When he mentioned that to his lawyer, Clarence Davis, the former assistant U.S. attorney told him, “This sounds like a Ponzi scheme.”

“That was red flag No. 1,” Davis said.

No. 2 came when Black sent Evans, unregistered as a sports agent at the time, to recruit Florida players in violation of state law. The final blow came the weekend he resigned from PMI. With Black out of the office, Evans said he found financial records revealed “possible misuse of a player’s funds” in excess of $100,000 (he would not identify the player).

At that point, Evans knew he had to quit.

“Clarence told me (PMI) was a house of cards that was going to fall sooner or later,” Evans said. “That’s the best advice I ever got.”

He still believes, had Bradshaw and Black remained together, “they would be the largest sports agency in the U.S., in my opinion.” And Black would still be doing what he did best: selling himself and his brand.

“We mutually benefitted from our relationship,” Evans said. “I learned a lot, and he made a lot of money. His business continued to do well” after Evans’ departure.

He shook his head. “I’ve moved on,” Evans said. “It’s sad to see he hasn’t.”

———————-

Two other men played a role in Black’s return to the world. Robert Bragdon, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., lawyer and childhood friend, helped Black pursue client fees owed him when he went to prison, which some players had stopped paying. The biggest payday came when Black and Bragdon won a multi-million dollar judgment against NBA star Carter.

“Everyone (else) was fairly nice about it,” Bragdon said. “They all had the same defense: ‘He’s in jail.’ I’d say, ‘Don’t y’all have a contract?’

Bragdon credits Black for winning his civil case by himself. “He did all the research for his brief and obviously did an excellent job,” he said. “The judge ruled in his favor.”

Foster Winans likewise has a unique perspective. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who served time in prison for insider trading, he was Black’s ghostwriter for “Tanked!”

“His motive (for the book) from the beginning was very clear: ‘I want people to know I didn’t steal anyone’s money,’” Winans said. “His message was, ‘I did dumb things, lied to the grand jury and FBI, didn’t do due diligence. But I didn’t steal your money. I lost alongside you.’

“My take on the SEC decision … I’d hesitate to use ‘exonerate.’ But there’s enough in there to suggest, hey, a judge says I didn’t take money. That’s the key element Tank is focusing on.”

In fact, that was a crucial part of what convicted Black in his Cash 4 Titles criminal case. That assessment comes from Jerry Sanford, 68, the U.S. district attorney assigned to the case.

“The players in his ‘stable’ at the time, he would take their money, say ‘I’ll invest it wisely for you,’ then sent it off-shore and brought it back through a variety of conduits,” Sanford said. “He was defrauding players of their money.

“Fred Taylor of the (Jacksonville) Jaguars, who lost his $3 million bonus (in Cash 4 Titles), he testified he saw Tank as a father. When I asked him on direct examination, I saw tears over what Tank had done. A betrayal, some of the players used that term.”

Sanford said it was that sense of betrayal — and, he added, Black’s apparent lack of remorse — that swayed the jury. That and what Sanford called “massive” evidence; Sanford called more than 80 witnesses against Black (only two spoke in defense), including a forensic accountant.

“It was just the detail (the accountant) used to explain the trail of money — here it was, there it goes, poof,” Sanford said.

That Black still protests his innocence does not surprise Sanford. “That’s so common in white-collar crime,” he said. “He’s the type who wants to show he’s really a good guy (and) that he was a victim, too.”

Bob Ellenburg was no victim, a jury said. The Columbia businessman and former high school coach was found guilty for his role in Cash 4 Titles and served 32 months, or 85 percent of his four-year sentence. Now working in Florida, he was unaware of Black’s book until this week.

While Black said in “Tanked!” that Ellenburg and Jimmy Roof (who did not return calls for this story) knew of Black’s innocence in Cash 4 Titles, Ellenburg said he could not confirm, or deny, if Black profited by the scam.

“My understanding was he made a profit (on commissions), and there were profits made,” Ellenburg said. “You know he wasn’t doing that for free.”

But then, Ellenburg still maintains his own non-guilt in the matter — sort of. Asked if Black was a victim, he chuckled.

“He might’ve been,” he said. “I know I was surprised when the SEC told me it was a Ponzi scheme — when I found out, I literally fell out of my chair. I’m sure Tank and (PMI attorney James Franklin, who also served time) were, too.

“I told the judge (at his trial), ‘I didn’t know (Cash 4 Titles was illegal),’ but he told me, ‘Either you knew, or you should’ve known.’ I’m sure Tank had those words said to him, too: ‘You knew, or you should’ve known.’”

———————-

This week, “Tanked!” goes on sale, and Black has no doubts it will sell.

Despite his doubters, Black seemingly remains convinced of his own intentions, his love for the players that made him wealthy, and his worthiness to be forgiven and again embraced by … well, some of them, anyway.

“I’m happy with who Tank Black is,” he said. “I feel like the storm I’ve been through, the way I handled it … most wouldn’t be able to handle that and come out without bitterness.

“I know I was a flawed person; I still am. But I learned so many great lessons. If I had a chance to go back and change it, I wouldn’t. I would want to get knocked all the way down, because you learn so much about who you are.”

And who is Tank Black now? A confident master at winning his players’ trust, or a master confidence man who used that talent to enrich himself — and ultimately fell victim to his own ego?

Only one person truly knows that — and he would rather you bought his book to find out.

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