Darick Holmes stood in a Buffalo courtroom Thursday, sobbing as he begged a federal judge to give him a break in his tax fraud case.
If the judge spared him from going to prison, the former Buffalo Bills running back promised to devote his life to mentoring teenagers in poor neighborhoods like the one where he grew up.
"I talk to kids every week," Holmes said. "I tell them about the things I have done, to try to keep them from doing the same things."
After listening to Holmes, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny gave him a major break. Despite advisory sentencing guidelines calling for at least a year in prison, Skretny sentenced Holmes to three years on probation, including one year in home confinement on electronic monitoring.
"You still have to prove yourself," Skretny told Holmes. "Now, more than ever."
Holmes, 38, nodded in agreement. He acknowledged that his life has taken some bad turns since 1995, when stardom in the National Football League looked like a possibility.
At age 24, the speedy athlete had a promising rookie season with the Bills, rushing for 698 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
But his football career went downhill from there, and by 2000, he was out of the NFL. Like many other pro athletes, he had trouble adjusting to the real world.
He spent some time in Buffalo, coached youth football in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., and knocked around from one odd job to another. Then, in 2008, criminal investigators from the Internal Revenue Service caught him running a tax-return scam.
Holmes and his partner in the scheme, Darryle Buckner of Buffalo, taught people how to use fake documents to steal money from the Earned Income Credit program, a tax relief program designed to help the poor.
In February of last year, nine months after his arrest by IRS agents, Holmes got into another kind of trouble. Hired by a friend to deliver some money for an $80,000 marijuana purchase near Pasadena, he was robbed, tied up with duct tape and then shot seven times when he tried to escape.
He helped police as a witness in the shooting case and has not been criminally charged.
But Holmes was in Buffalo Thursday because he pleaded guilty last year to 15 felony charges of tax fraud.
Holmes is the third former Bills running back to be sentenced for felony crimes since December 2008. That month, O.J. Simpson was sentenced to at least nine years in prison for his role in an armed robbery in a Las Vegas hotel room.
In July, Travis Henry was sentenced to three years in federal prison for cocaine trafficking in Colorado and Montana.
"Darick has had problems and made mistakes, but he's a good person," said Holmes' attorney, James P. Harrington. "He cares about kids . . . He teaches young people through his own problems."
Harrington submitted numerous letters from people who work with youngsters in Pasadena. They lauded Holmes as an unselfish volunteer who has spent years trying to keep young people from joining gangs.
"As someone who grew up in this neighborhood, he knows the draw that the streets have, and has taken many of the young kids from his program under his wing, and mentored them to stay off the streets," wrote Ken Howard, football coach at John Muir High School in Pasadena.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Campana said Holmes deserves credit for mentoring young people, but he offered a different view of the case to Skretny.
Holmes' crimes warranted at least a year in prison, as dictated by the guidelines, Campana said.
He noted that, despite the tax fraud case hanging over his head, Holmes last year became involved in the marijuana deal that resulted in his shooting.
The prosecutor also noted that Buckner, Holmes' co-defendant in the tax fraud case, was previously sentenced by Skretny to a year in prison. Campana said the government's investigation showed that Holmes was "more culpable" for the crimes than Buckner.
Holmes admitted that, while spending time in Buffalo in 2004 and 2005, he helped people file tax returns that listed false information about where they had worked and how much they paid in taxes.
When the tax filers received refunds, Holmes got a cut of the money, Campana said.
Harrington said he does not believe his client caught a break because he is a football player.
"I believe he got a break because he has used his status as a football player to help kids," the attorney said.
Skretny said the sentence was a tough decision, but he said he believed that Holmes is sorry, and sincere about helping young people. The judge ordered Holmes to pay $53,000 in restitution to the IRS and told him to strictly adhere to his probation requirements, which include drug-testing and community service.
"If you come back here on a violation of your probation, you will have to do jail time," Skretny said. "I guarantee that."
"It's up to me to do the right thing. There are a lot of kids I can help," Holmes told The Buffalo News after the sentencing.
Holmes played for the Bills in the years 1995-1998 and later played briefly with the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
During his years in Buffalo, Holmes sometimes spoke about the hard life of his youth. He grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood and lost his mother at age 16.
His younger brother, Karl Holmes, is on California's Death Row, awaiting execution on his conviction for murdering three teenagers in 1993. Karl Holmes maintains that he was wrongly convicted and has an appeal pending.