- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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As gifts go, walking into your young son's birthday party in Columbus, Ohio, with the star quarterback of the Ohio State football team and a linebacker is the stuff of dreams. Getting that quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, at the birthday party two years in a row with a teammate seems almost incomprehensible.
Yet there was Pryor in successive December parties with different teammates for Dennis J. Talbott's son -- sights that left even partygoers wondering about what they were seeing.
"We all thought it was crazy," said one 2010 partygoer who spoke to ESPN's "Outside the Lines" on the condition of anonymity. "It was a Saturday night, and I remember sitting there watching them watch the SEC championship game [on TV]."
Talbott, a Columbus businessman and photographer, had connections to the Buckeyes program in big ways. And although at times he boasted to seemingly anyone and everyone about those connections, what has come to light in the past week has, in recent days, had him minimizing his relationship with the storied football program that has been under NCAA investigation for months.
The 40-year-old who has driven around town in an Ohio State-themed van with the vanity license plate "TPRYOR" shot into headlines this week alongside Pryor as the central figure in a memorabilia arrangement that "Outside the Lines" reported paid the quarterback between $20,000 and $40,000 in 2009, all in violation of NCAA rules. A former friend of Pryor's said the quarterback was paid $500 to $1,000 each time he signed mini football helmets and other gear for Talbott.
Talbott, who grew up and attended high school an hour north of Columbus in Galion, said that he's not an Ohio State booster, hasn't given money to the school and isn't a season-ticket holder. He denied ever paying Pryor to sign memorabilia, telling ESPN, "Your source is wrong. I mean, I would fight it tooth and nail." He said he has arranged autograph signings for former Ohio State players only after they have used up their eligibility, like Thaddeus Gibson and Doug Worthington.
As for his relationship with Pryor, the twice-divorced father with a young child from each marriage has been inconsistent. He told "Outside the Lines" early last week that "I don't really have a relationship with him. I've met him, but as anyone else has met him. I have no more of a relationship with him than you do." A few days later, he informed the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "I have never made it a secret that Terrelle and I have a relationship."
The source who spoke about the memorabilia signings said the Pryor-Talbott relationship was well-known -- that Pryor at one point told him OSU coaches had warned him about Talbott, telling him to "stay away from that dude."
According to this source, Talbott was a regular visitor to Pryor's apartment, where the quarterback, then a sophomore, allegedly signed memorabilia for cash. "Every time, it was all about money," Pryor's former friend said. "I mean, Dennis managed to give him money. It was all about money. That was the thing about Dennis. That's all he was about."
So who is Pryor's pal and the Buckeyes' latest nightmare?
Even before highly recruited Pryor snubbed rival Michigan in favor of the Buckeyes in a prolonged recruiting process that concluded early in March 2008, Talbott had ingratiated himself with Ohio State football players. Talbott, known then to dabble heavily in the memorabilia business, set players up with signing sessions and, in some cases, sources said, paid them while they still competed for Ohio State.
The father of a former Ohio State player said that, as early as 2006, he saw Talbott provide money to an athlete, one now playing in the NFL.
Sources describe Talbott as a major wholesaler of signed Ohio State memorabilia throughout the Buckeye State. Memorabilia signed by college stars can fetch high prices. According to a former colleague, Talbott sold his merchandise through his company Varsity O Memorabilia. Items for sale on eBay included those signed by Pryor.
Talbott's relatives said he also wore the national championship ring of a Buckeyes running back and bragged of having paid the rent for a wide receiver on the 2003 championship team.
Along the way, toting a camera and a media pass, he made introductions through his freelance photography gig, working Saturday afternoon games from the sidelines as D. Jay Talbott -- some of his images appearing on ESPN.com and other national outlets. An ESPN review of Ohio State's ticket pass lists showed that Talbott was provided free tickets by an unidentified player or players for eight games in the 2008 football season.
Yet Pryor proved the big catch, adding another element to a series of findings by various media outlets and investigators that include players receiving free tattoos in exchange for memorabilia and a host of them receiving favorable car deals. The months-long scandal triggered coach Jim Tressel to walk away from a $3.5 million-a-year-job -- with four seasons left on the deal -- and has the football program in the crosshairs of NCAA investigators.
The summer after his freshman season, Pryor was routinely hosted by Talbott, who has managed or owned staffing and employment recruiting businesses in the past decade, for $80-100 rounds of golf at a plush Columbus-area country club, playing three or four times a week at one point, club officials told ESPN. Talbott was a club member despite his own distressed financial situation that has him owing more than $350,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes.
Concerned that Talbott's regular appearances with Pryor and other football players might pose a problem for Ohio State in the eyes of the NCAA, the general manager of the Scioto Reserve Country Club told ESPN that he shared his misgivings in a phone call with a secretary in Tressel's office. Another club employee told ESPN that he alerted an Ohio State assistant coach and was assured it would be dealt with.
"Coach never did call me back," said the general manager, Regan Koivisto. "But I never saw Pryor at the club again."
Shortly after, Talbott was kicked out of the club because of unpaid bills in the "thousands of dollars," Koivisto said.
But the Pryor-Talbott relationship remained strong.
When Talbott's son by his first marriage celebrated a birthday in early December 2009, the father brought along two friends: Pryor and OSU teammate Thaddeus Gibson, one partygoer said. This past December, Pryor made another birthday party appearance -- this time at a Columbus bowling alley -- with teammate DeVier Posey.
When Pryor and the Buckeyes played in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, Talbott made the almost 2,000-mile trek to Arizona. Talbott also found time to schmooze with leadership of the Young Buckeyes of Phoenix Alumni Club. Even though he only briefly attended Ohio State, Talbott was until last week listed as a director on the club's website.
"From a relationship standpoint, it is not a close relationship," Kevin Fox, president of the Phoenix chapter, told ESPN of Talbott. "We created a little relationship based on photographs and stuff that we could post on our website.
"Yeah, he was a photographer and was out here [for the Fiesta Bowl] on a media pass and stuff."
As for the Pryor-Talbott relationship, the quarterback's attorney, Larry James, downplays it, saying: "You have a guy who is a photographer, who has credentials to be on the field. He knows most of the players -- that is it." He has said Pryor never received checks or cash from Talbott.
And now that Pryor has left the program and is free of NCAA rules, don't expect him to share any details or open his bank records. Asked whether Pryor would cooperate further with the NCAA, James said: "Unequivocally, no. It ain't going to happen."
A lot on the line for Ohio State
As revelations about the program keep coming, the onus lies on Ohio State to convince the NCAA that it had the proper institutional safeguards in place, heeded warnings -- in this case, suspicions about Talbott's dealings with athletes -- and did everything in its power to maintain control over its athletics program. That was already a tall order based on an earlier Tressel admission that he didn't pass on information related to players trading memorabilia for tattoos. The potential involvement of Talbott with OSU athletes only further muddies the waters.
Consider: After Ohio State was alerted to suspicions by the country club employees, Talbott still maintained his media pass for the 2009 season. Talbott does acknowledge meeting with athletic department officials last summer, though he told ESPN that it was a routine inquiry and that nothing came of it.
The Plain Dealer has also reported that a March 21, 2007, email was sent to Tressel allegedly warning that Talbott was selling memorabilia signed by underclassmen before their eligibility had expired. That next season, according to school records reviewed by ESPN, Talbott still received free tickets from OSU players for games in the 2008 season -- a pass list maintained and monitored by the athletic department.
Ohio State officials declined comment on Talbott, citing the fact the school is in the midst of an active NCAA investigation. The NCAA does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Any NCAA findings are potentially about more than reputation and obvious effects on the football program such as reduced scholarships. A direct financial fallout is also possible should the football program be hit with major NCAA sanctions. A review of Ohio State's Nike contract alone reveals that the equipment supplier is entitled to terminate its multimillion-dollar deal with the university if the football program is banned from television or postseason appearances for longer than a season and that Nike could reduce the fee paid by 50 percent if the Buckeyes are banned from TV for one season. The contract, which runs through July 2014, provides OSU an annual cash payment of $1.188 million in addition to $2.4-2.5 million in equipment and apparel each year.
Questionable claims, questionable actions, questionable background
The notion of Talbott being ensconced at the center of such a mess isn't a surprise to many family, friends and others who crossed paths with him. Talbott appears to have lived life larger than his bank account allowed, now followed by a trail of legal filings, bad debt and failed marriages. In several instances, they said, he's been caught playing loose with the facts and presenting a pumped-up image of himself.
A 2006 business profile of Talbott in The Columbus Dispatch described him as a former Chicago White Sox pitching prospect, having spent five seasons in the minor leagues. The White Sox have no records of drafting Talbott or of his having ever played in their system. His stepmother told ESPN: "As far as I know, I don't think he played any sports when he was in [high] school."
The same newspaper article described Talbott as graduating from Kent State. His profile posted on a social media site, under an "education" heading, lists Kent State University 1989-92. His major is identified as English. Kent State officials told ESPN he attended the school for two semesters -- the fall of 1989 and of 1990 -- majoring in pre-business. They have no record of his being involved in the baseball program.
"Sometimes, I think he actually believes some of this stuff," said his stepmother, Richie Talbott. "He is a smart individual. Very smart. And if he would have pursued an education, got a degree and went a straight way, he could have easily made a success out of himself. But I don't think he wanted to put the work in and went a little bit faster pace. Dennis is an easy person to like and care for, but you have to watch out because in return you can get badly hurt."
According to his stepmother, Talbott was a typical Ohio kid who grew up a huge fan of the state's big-time university. He attended as many games as he could. Later, she recalls, he toyed with breaking into the business of representing pro baseball players.
She said Talbott was adopted by her husband when he married the child's mother. They later divorced, and Bruce Talbott and Richie have been married 21 years. During that time, she said, there has been some estrangement from Dennis Talbott, partly because of "some financial problems" he created for the couple.
Richie Talbott shed little light on the circumstances, saying only: "[Dennis] would portray himself as my husband and that kind of stuff."
She added: "I have worked in the car business for many years, and some of this stuff had to do with car dealings. And I caught him on it. And told him to come to the house and we needed to talk about this. Just stuff like that."
Bruce Talbott, the stepfather, declined comment.
The stepmother said the couple hadn't heard from Dennis Talbott since the ESPN story broke and didn't expect to. She indicated that the two of them were aware that Talbott had financial troubles, though it was a "little overwhelming" to hear he owed the IRS $278,000. "He always lived above his means."
That's the picture portrayed through court filings, which are littered with bad debt dating back more than a decade.
According to public records, Talbott owes more than $278,000 to the federal government and almost $75,000 to the state of Ohio in unpaid taxes. The upscale home in Westerville, Ohio, he and an ex-wife owned was foreclosed on and sold at auction in 2008. The liens and court filings against him over unpaid debts number at least eight this decade. In 2005, he was found in contempt for failure to pay child support and threatened with 30 days in jail before settling.
As for his business dealings that have him on the NCAA radar, Talbott acknowledged being a sports memorabilia collector and seller -- some of which sources said he has sold directly to other dealers, as well as through online sites and to folks shopping for valued Ohio State items to be sold at charity auctions. His role in the business dates back more than two decades, and some collectors and family members have at times claimed to have challenged him about the authenticity of a few items.
Doug Godwin, a collector who lives north of Columbus in Mansfield, said he remains upset 20 years later after having paid Talbott more than $100 for a baseball card of Mickey Mantle that contained a fake signature. He also said fellow collectors were sold mini basketballs with fake Michael Jordan autographs at a Mansfield show.
After the Jordan basketballs sold out, Godwin said, he recalls Talbott returning with another batch. "He ran out of them at his table, so he went out to his car and came back with an armful of them," Godwin said. "Later, we found out they were all fake."
Even back in the late 1980s, Godwin suspected Talbott was close to Ohio State athletes. Godwin said he worked with Talbott to stage a signing show in Mansfield and remembers Talbott bringing OSU basketball star Jay Burson to sign at the show for a fee. Burson played at Ohio State from 1986 to 1989.
"I have been waiting 20 years for somebody to get him," Godwin said of Talbott. "I am a born-again Christian and wish no ill will. I just want him to stop hurting people."
ESPN investigative reporters Tom Farrey and Paula Lavigne and Enterprise Unit producers Justine Gubar and Nicole Noren contributed to this story. Mike Fish is an investigative reporter who can be reached at email@example.com.