Almost Famous

By Ramzy Nasrallah on September 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm
Talbott in a parking lot. Photo in black/white to set the mood.

Dennis Talbott will never forget the moment he found out he was suddenly famous.

"My phone rang," said Talbott. "It was a member of my family who just said, 'hey man, you're on the bottom line ticker on ESPN!'"

Talbott's name was in the news because someone described as 'an acquaintance of Terrelle Pryor's' had told ESPN that Talbott had been paying Pryor for autographed memorabilia for years.

The spring and summer of 2011 were a media feeding frenzy where Ohio State football was concerned. The FOI requests rained down on the athletic department from all over the country. They came from credible journalists performing due diligence, amateur scribes seeking fame and every level of correspondent in between.

Talbott's name did not land on ESPN's bottom line ticker because of an FOI request. It surfaced because a reporter interviewed a former roommate of Pryor's, Antoine Henton, who is the brother of another former Buckeye quarterback Antonio Henton.

Ohio State football was in shambles, Jim Tressel was gone and the name "Dennis Talbott" had surfaced as a person who had helped create a festering scandal. The news of his involvement with Pryor took him from being relatively anonymous to extremely unpopular overnight.

"Antoine only knew my name because I once gave him my business card," said Talbott. "He wasn't doing all that well. I gave it to him and told him I might be able to help him get a job. I was being nice. The next thing I know, my name is on the cover of USA Today."

There's being nice and there's being shady, and that sounded shady. As a Ohio State football stakeholder, I was not happy with this "Dennis Talbott" character either.

"Why would you try to get Antoine Henton a job?" I asked. "What business do you have getting some random guy you don't know a job?"

He paused, as if he couldn't believe I was asking such a question. "Um, because I'm a professional staffer?"

That was something I had not heard before. "I thought you were a professional photographer?"

"That's my passion and my part-time job. But my full-time job is in staffing." He answered. "It's been my career, my entire career."

As a part-time blogger, that didn't seem quite so shady. Later on a very simple background check found that he was, indeed, an employee of a staffing firm.

But when Talbott's name was pushed into the public's consciousness in June, the media that had its focus on Ohio State's athletic department shifted, albeit briefly, toward this previously anonymous part-time photographer. His full-time job wasn't mentioned, not because it absolved him of anything he had been accused of; it just didn't add anything to the narrative.

The Ohio media, according to Talbott, was very fair with him. "I'll never forget something Doug Lesmerises (Cleveland Plain Dealer) said to me. He said, 'this isn't a Dennis Talbott story. This is an Ohio State story.'"

Admittedly, this wasn't intended to be a Dennis Talbott story either. This is supposed to be a story about scrutiny.

I don't know Talbott, at all. I'm just a guy who called him this past summer when his name suddenly appeared in the middle of the Ohio State-Tressel-Pryor feeding frenzy. I know a lot of names around Ohio State football that I would tag as being 'potentially suspicious' but Talbott's wasn't one of them.

I got his number from a mutual acquaintance and called him. He answered on the second ring.

Talbott was at the pharmacy filling a prescription. I told him who I was and how I got his number. I did not tell him that I had no tolerance for anyone who might damage Ohio State football, but he figured out my leanings quickly.

"So did you pay Terrelle Pryor $20-$40 grand for autographing memorabilia?" I asked right away.

Talbott didn't answer quickly, nor did he laugh off the question. He exhaled, as if he was exasperated by it.

"Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Montana don't make that kind of money signing memorabilia," he said. "That market might have existed before, but it's gone now."

I know nothing about the memorabilia market. A quick eBay search later showed plenty of Big Ben and Joe Montana items up for auction, but I wouldn't begin to know how to aggregate the value for either athlete.

"So does that mean that the amount of money being reported is too low?" I asked. Talbott and I had now been on the phone for about 90 seconds.

"Not only did I never pay Terrelle a dime for anything," said Talbott, "I have proof that I haven't done anything inappropriate. I document absolutely everything."

I wasn't going to ask for his documents, because they were his documents.

"So there are no personal checks from you to Pryor?" I had to ask. At this point in the summer, I was convinced that no school stunk more at cheating than Ohio State, and if the head coach was going to reply to an email alerting him to improper benefits from his university email account I figured nothing was impossible. Besides, it didn't matter how he answered. If there were personal checks from Dennis Talbott, they would eventually appear.

"No," he said. "People are sending anonymous tips about me to the media. Someone said they saw me give Terrelle Pryor $200 in a parking lot. Who could have seen me peel off $200 in a parking lot? Was I counting the bills out loud like a cashier or something? Do I even have $200 that I could give to Terrelle Pryor? Did I buy him an Escalade? Did you hear that one? A reporter asked me that!"

It was a good point. Unless those personal checks were produced or someone showed proof that Talbott had paid Pryor or any other Ohio State player - beyond an anonymous source - it's an empty charge that hurts exactly two entities: Ohio State and some previously anonymous guy named Dennis Talbott.

"If you're telling the truth, you should take legal action," I said. "You're being painted as a pretty sketchy guy. If you're not telling the truth, you're making it worse. I think Tressel could tell you about how that works."

"I'm telling the truth, and followed the rules at Ohio State to the letter because of my career in photography," said Talbott. "Take legal action? That could end my career."

I was mostly unfamiliar with Talbott's work, aside from a couple of random samples slapped together for the stories I had read about him. So after our call I checked to see if this guy who had been painted as an athlete stalker was a legitimate photographer.

It turns out that Talbott takes pretty good photographs. Ironically, Sports Illustrated used pictures Talbott took of Robert Rose and Ray Small in the print edition of George Dohrmann's famous article. However, neither photo is featured in the online version.

But clearly he is reputable in the photography business. SI snatched up his photos of Danica Patrick, Caroline Wozniacki, Andy Roddick, Roethlisberger, NFL cheerleaders and random fans, just to name a few (check the links for yourself). You'll also notice that each of those photos carries a credit to "Jay Talbott" or "D. Jay Talbott."

As for ESPN's familiarity with Talbott, whom it profiled in its Outside the Lines segment on him, I quickly found this article from June, the same month that Talbott started seeing his name on national television. Look at the picture of Michael Brewster, and now look at the photographer credit beneath it. ESPN's OTL about Talbott was constructed as an investigation into a myserious figure: A mysterious figure from whom it was already purchasing photographs.

So the narrative was correct: It did appear that Talbott does in fact chase athletes around a lot. He does this to take pictures of them, according to my ten minutes of rigorous Internet research.

Just yesterday, the University of Michigan claimed that Talbott had deceived them by applying for a credential under the name of Jay Talbott from Icon/SMI, implying that he had changed his name in order to hoodwink them. (Here you go, Michigan: Try this next time, and you won't feel beguiled so diabolically by a guy using the same name that he's used for several years with ticky-tack organizations you've never heard of like the NFL, Major League Baseball and the ATP).

Still, it was entirely possible that Talbott is a professional photographer and a sketchy character hanging around college athletes. The two could have been mutually exclusive. So I asked him about it.

"You have a car with TPRYOR vanity plates," I said, knowing that the vehicle existed because I had seen it. "That's kind of weird, right?"

"That's a tailgating van that I drive six times a year, for games," he said. "I've driven that van 12 times total."

That was not the point. "But that's still kind of weird, dude." I said. "You got a college kid's name put on vanity plates. You understand that people are going to find that creepy, especially when it's being reported that you're paying the guy whose name is on the plates."

"Listen," Talbott said, "I only got TPRYOR because it was available. Every single iteration of TRESSEL and GO BUCKS was already taken. When TPRYOR came up as available, I took it. As soon as he was gone from Ohio State, I was going to change it to someone or something else Buckeye-related. I am going to change it to something else."

Perhaps Talbott saw the vanity plates no differently than wearing a number two jersey. I personally did not see it that way, but I didn't care to debate the point. It's creepy.

"So if you didn't do anything wrong or give Pryor any money, who did you piss off to make this happen to you?" I asked. "The report I saw had you golfing three to four times a week at Scioto. I grew up in Columbus - that's not like going to Kroger three or four times a week."

At this point, admittedly, my Ohio State stakeholder bias briefly took over and I continued to rip into him. "It wouldn't surprise me to read about who you ate lunch with three years ago. You've got reporters (in your orifices) and you seem to be willing to talk. You're talking to me right now."

"I'll be exonerated," said Talbott. "Scioto pulled its records from 1999 through this year when that former employee went to ESPN and said that. I golfed there a total of five times."

"Five times in 12 years?

"That's correct. That makes it really hard for me to be golfing with anyone at Scioto Reserve 'three to four times a week'."

Taken by D. Jay Talbott at Michigan in '09

"So did anyone besides Scioto follow up with you?" I asked. "Because that's the story that still out there."

"The NCAA has still never called or emailed me or my attorney," said Talbott. "I imagine they're busy investigating tips with evidence or paper trails. With me, they've got anonymous sources speaking to the media and documentation that disproves the claims or no evidence to support the accusations."

"Then why are you so toxic?" (I'm sure the question sounded even harsher than it reads, but it was a fair question).

"I will be exonerated," Talbott repeated. "Eventually. My name will be cleared when they're finished investigating. The thing is, my name doesn't appear in the NCAA Notice of Allegations and I'm not even being investigated now, yet I have to deal with this."

Looking into his background later (and revisiting the NOA) it turned out that yes, he wasn't named, had no criminal record, and he had indeed - as he had told me - just finished shooting the ATP in Cincinnati that weekend.

"You should see the fans clamoring over each other trying to get a sweaty, disgusting wristband," he had told me.

"You're right on the court at the ATP," I had replied. "For a guy who says he has no money, I'm sure you could easily get a couple of sweaty disgusting wristbands and make a little cash."

He was direct with his response. "I'm there to work. I shoot, I get the photos I need and I leave. Even when I shoot the Buckeyes, a team that I love and root for personally, I'm there to work. I shoot, I get the photos I need and I leave."

Our initial conversation occurred in late August, not long after a Texas Rangers fan had tragically died in front of his son falling over the outfield wall trying to catch a baseball. Talbott's verbatim description of "fans clamoring" struck a chord with me in light of that accident.

I re-watched the ESPN Outside the Lines segment that featured Talbott. I was taken at how Talbott was portrayed through creative production with still shots and candid videotape of him walking to his car. When he spoke to ESPN on the phone in the segment, that scene was shot at an awkward angle in a car with a handheld videocamera, as if to create atmosphere for an investigative report.

ESPN then dug into Talbott's life through public record requests and shared that he owes state and Federal governments hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, without bothering to ask the obvious question why someone in debt would be paying Pryor - as claimed by the anonymous source - large cash payments in front of him every single week for "35 or 40 weeks."

The NCAA has still never contacted Talbott about anything ESPN has reported.

At the same time, even among the most deluded Buckeye fans, it is hard to believe that anyone still doesn't think that Pryor had his hand out for all three years that he was in Columbus. I don't believe it for a second.

So that begs the question of why Talbott was ever brought into this. By the letter of the NCAA law, if he gave Pryor or any other Ohio State athlete a dollar, he provided improper benefits. He maintains that he has never even done this. He is accused of funneling tens of thousands of dollars in this case.

The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between. I think the truth is much closer to Talbott's side of the story. I think the media saw a very easy mark in Talbott, and they went after the wrong guy. Somewhere, the right guy - or guys - are probably laughing at his expense.

There was a report of an eBay account using the pseudonym "infickellwetrust" to sell memorabilia, and Talbott's name was tied to it. Upon remembering this, I called again and asked him about it, and he said it has no connection to him at all. He went so far as to say that ESPN verfied that he was truthful regarding the eBay account and had actually tracked down the real owner behind "infickellwetrust."

That person exists. Apparently it is not Talbott, but you wouldn't know this from the "exclusive report" that not only suggested it belonged to him, but that Talbott had written personal checks to Pryor. There has been no update or correction to that story.

I watched for months as the public at large took reports about Ohio State's troubles at face value. Fixed 30-year old football camp raffles that are absolutely impossible to prove or verify, signed checks, free cars (!) for players, all in broad daylight. It hurts the university's reputation. The university is an entity, a brand, a thing. It will recover. Ohio State does just fine.

Talbott is a person, with a family, with career and life aspirations who has unwillingly become the boogeyman for a memorabilia scandal. He has no criminal record for drug trafficking or racketeering like Ed Rife, who is named in the NOA. He isn't a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman who showed up in Jim Tressel's sent emails either.

He's a professional photographer who isn't even a person of interest for the most high-profile NCAA investigation of 2011, with sincere, jail-key jingling apologies to Nevin Shapiro.

I have no personal reason to defend Talbott, who - aside from a couple of phone calls and emails - is a stranger to me. I have a very hard time accepting the narrative of this shadowy figure squirreling his way onto sidelines to get close to players so he could give them wads of cash in parking lots.

I know those shadowy figures exist, which is why the NCAA specifically has rules to deal with them, but I do not think Talbott is one of them. This must be repeated: I do think he has criminally bad taste in license plates.

Talbott's story shouldn't be confused with cognitive dissonance, i.e. Ohio State didn't or doesn't have a secondary market memorabilia issue. But in a move to put a human face on this scandal, there was definitely a rush to judgment where Talbott's involvement is concerned.

He may end up on the guilty side of the story, or as he believes, he may have his name cleared. His circumstances are in parallel to Ohio State's as the university waits for its own verdict to come down.

Regardless, this guy's reputation is compromised. Imagine your name eliciting such feelings among the fan base you've been a part of for most of your life. If you think you're having a hard time waiting for the NCAA's judgment to come for Ohio State, imagine what it's like for Talbott waiting for his vindication.

As with the reporting around Ohio State and Talbott, the resolution for both is also in parallel: The verdict, when it arrives, might end up being bad. But both are fairly confident that it won't end up being the case.

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