Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini says a player convicted of rape as a teen has earned a second chance by staying disciplined, focused and out of trouble.
Ma'lik Richmond will be allowed to remain on the team's active roster after settling a lawsuit Monday against the school, which had told him he wouldn't be allowed to play this season after he made the team.
Richmond was 16 in 2013 when he and a Steubenville High School teammate were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl during an alcohol-fueled party. Richmond served about 10 months in a juvenile prison in a case that garnered international attention through social media and included allegations of a cover-up to protect a storied high school football team.
Pelini told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he gave Richmond a chance after hearing him accept responsibility for his conviction.
"I didn't make this decision lightly," Pelini said. "He was extremely remorseful. I saw a young man who was desperately wanting to better his life and those of the people around him."
Pelini, the former Nebraska coach in his third season at Youngstown State, said Richmond stood out from other 21-year-olds because of his focus, discipline and maturity.
Richmond was released in January 2014 and attended colleges in West Virginia and Pennsylvania before transferring to Youngstown State in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore.
Richmond and his legal guardians spoke with Pelini and YSU President Jim Tressel about joining the team after he enrolled. Pelini researched Richmond's past before meeting him, then said he made no promises and told Richmond he'd have to earn good grades and stay out of trouble to be on the team.
"He stuck with it," Pelini said. "He went over and above. He knew he had no room for error."
Richmond began practicing with the team as a defensive end after Youngstown State's loss in the Football Championship Subdivision title game in January. Pelini said Richmond, a walk-on player with no scholarship, showed talent but was a "work in progress."
When The Youngstown Vindicator wrote a story in August noting that Richmond was on the team, a student circulated a petition calling for the school to bar Richmond from playing football. Youngstown State subsequently sent a university-wide email that said Richmond could continue to practice but could not be on the active roster this season and would lose a year of eligibility.
Richmond quit the team after learning of the email and went home to Steubenville, prompting Pelini, another coach, and three teammates to visit him and convince him to return to school.
Pelini said he told Richmond during the visit: "'You need to get your butt back to campus and trust that things are gonna work out. You can't walk away from school, you've come this far. It's time to stick it out.'"
It was a mistake not to publicize Richmond's place on the team or address concerns earlier, Pelini said.
"I'm not stupid," Pelini said. "I understand that the opportunity to be a part of the team raises questions."
Richmond returned to school. Less than two weeks later, he was in class when he learned his father, 51-year-old Nathaniel Richmond, was killed when he shot a judge in a courthouse parking lot and a probation officer returned fire. Pelini said it was another blow to Richmond, whose often-absent father was becoming more involved in his life.
Richmond grew up in a troubled home. He began living off-and-on with his youth football coach, Greg Agresta and Agresta's wife, Jennifer, when he was 8. They became his legal guardians and mentored him as college coaches began recruiting him in high school.
Pelini said Richmond's rape conviction and the intense public attention sharpened Richmond's focus and determination to rise above his past.
"He's been through a lot," Pelini said. "It makes you grow up in a hurry."
The day after Richmond's lawsuit was filed, a federal judge ruled that Richmond could play for Youngstown State. He got on the field during the second half of a blowout win against Central Connecticut State on Sept. 16, but didn't play Saturday in a 19-7 win over South Dakota State.
"He really puts his nose to the grindstone and brings it every day," Pelini said. "He understands the scrutiny that goes with this story, that with his background, he can't make another mistake."