CLEVELAND — A former NFL wide receiver who’d become a respected and popular figure in the city where he played his best football pleaded guilty on Wednesday to stealing from two children’s charities to pay his gambling debts and personal expenses and is expected to serve prison time.
Reggie Rucker, who played seven seasons for the Cleveland Browns, was charged last week in U.S. District Court with wire fraud and lying to FBI agents. A plea agreement calls for Rucker, who’s 68, to serve about two years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for May.
Rucker’s attorney Michael Hennenberg said he accepts responsibility for his conduct.
“He knows he was wrong, and he’s trying to do everything possible to make it right,” Hennenberg said Wednesday by telephone.
The nonprofit groups Rucker was charged with ripping off are Amer-I-Can Cleveland, a local chapter of an organization created by Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown to help inner-city youths succeed in school and life, and the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, which uses street workers to quell gang violence.
Rucker, who played in the NFL from 1970 to 1981, stepped away from the two groups in the last year, Hennenberg has said. Rucker often cited his tough upbringing in the District of Columbia for his devotion to helping underprivileged kids.
His plea agreement sets the groups’ losses at between $95,000 and $150,000. Hennenberg said it’s around $100,000.
The charging document detailed hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank and ATM withdrawals, including dozens of ATM transactions at casinos in Las Vegas, Cleveland and other places. Authorities said Rucker stole $65,000 to pay off gambling lines of credit, called markers, to Las Vegas casinos.
Rucker, who’s from suburban Warrensville Heights, took money from the groups’ accounts but also deposited large sums, including some of his gambling proceeds, authorities have said.
Hennenberg acknowledged Rucker has a gambling problem, but said Rucker believed he’d returned all the money he’d taken.
“He thought he had made it right, but lost track completely,” Hennenberg said.