Levine Grills Lassiter about Lori Loughlin and “Cheater’s Game”


Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990. Thirty years later, Lassiter is still navigating the shark-infested waters of the justice system. In “Cheater’s Game,” the heartbroken lawyer must defend his brilliant nephew Kip who’s charged as an imposter, taking entrance exams for students in the true-to-life college admissions scandal.

Paul: Earlier today, actress Lori Loughlin and her husband pleaded guilty in the college scandal. Any thoughts?

Jake: I wish I’d repped them, instead of my nephew. A fat fee without having to try the case.

Paul: That’s a little cynical. What about your quest for justice?

Jake: Justice doesn’t put pork chops on the table.

Paul: So why did they plead guilty after claiming innocence for the past year?

Jake: Because their lawyers aren’t idiots. They knew that jurors would find their clients to be rich, arrogant liars who thought they could game the system.

Paul: Are you saying that a defendant’s personality affects a trial’s outcome?

Jake: Duh! It’s Trial Practice 101.

Paul: So you would have plead out Lori Loughlin in return for a couple months prison time, rather than risk a trial?

Jake: Maybe not. Maybe, I’d put her on the stand, but not in designer duds. She’d admit everything and cry – actress tears – and say she’s sorry. Then, in closing argument I’d ask for a “Texas verdict.”

Paul: Which is?

Jake: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

Paul: Okay, back to “Cheater’s Game,” I thought you’d retired, but here you are, back in the courtroom.

Jake: Don’t blame me, Scribbler. I hung up my briefcase after “Bum Deal,” but you put me to work again.

bum deal
Lassiter thought he’d hung up his briefcase after “Bum Deal.”

Paul: Admit it, Jake. You missed the combat of a criminal trial.

Jake: That’s your fantasy, Desk Jockey. Mine is to snooze in a hammock, drink tequila, and feed the peacocks.

Paul: You came back because your nephew Kip got in trouble. The boy you raised as your own son. That had to be painful.

Jake: I thought I’d taught Kip ethics and values, but I failed. I let him down.

“You release your child into the world, like launching a toy sailboat in a pond. Except the world is not a placid pond. More often, it is a raging sea, and life a perfect storm. You cannot prepare the child because your own personal crises, traumas and failures are just that, your own. Your child, as you will belatedly learn, is not you.” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

Paul: There’s a lot of blame to go around in the college scandal.

Jake: I don’t understand it. Why would parents cheat to get their kids into so-called elite universities? Don’t they realize they’re saying, “You can’t make it on your own? And your only honors will be summa cum fraud.”

“In a society without shame, where faking it is making it and deceit trumps virtue, integrity is for losers and cheaters win. Fairness? Forget about it! A meritocracy? In your dreams! Earn your diploma? Why bother, when you can buy it?” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

Paul: Yet, you plead your nephew “not guilty” and defend him in federal court when you know he took students’ SAT exams for big bucks?

Jake: All these years, Scribbler, and you’re still clueless about the justice system. My job is to force the government to prove its case.

Paul: Speaking of “years,” you were 40 in “To Speak for the Dead.” Thirty years later, you’re 60. How does that work?

Jake: Being fictional helps. Say, how are things at the Old Writers’ Home?

Paul: Forget about me. How’s your health? Your headaches, your memory problems.

Jake: You’re the punk who gave me chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I didn’t think you could even spell it.

The violent sport of pro football.

Paul: Sorry about all those concussions at Penn State and with the Miami Dolphins. But it did bring you together with Dr. Melissa Gold, renowned neuropathologist. And…your fiancée.

Jake: About time you gave me a grown-up relationship, after all those femme fatales and floozies.

Paul: News flash, Lassiter. Nobody says “floozies” anymore.

Jake: News flash, Word Boy. You’re the ventriloquist. But it’s true that I’m in love with my doctor and she’s come up with experimental treatments that might help hundreds of other former players with C.T.E.

Paul: Would your brain injury have anything to do with your bizarre conduct during Kip’s trial?

Jake: You mean my hearing voices and lapsing into a George Carlin routine in the judge’s chambers?

Paul: Judge Speidel said you were flirting with contempt.

Jake: Flirting, hell! I took her all the way.

Paul: Judge Speidel seemed miffed that you didn’t give him due respect.

Jake: Federal judges! So damned high and mighty.

“Federal judges are phantoms who inhabit marble palaces, hidden from prying eyes and cameras. They sit on thrones and are served by a retinue of clerks, assistants, deputies, and, for all I know, court jesters.” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

cheater's game cover
Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal and tangles with a federal judge in “Cheater’s Game.”

Paul: Face it, Jake. Your closing argument was unethical.

Jake: I’m not bad. You just write me that way.

Paul: You basically asked for “jury nullification.” Acquit my client even though he did everything the government charged him with.

Jake: I prefer to call it a “Texas verdict.” Do you know what that is?

Paul: You just told me a minute ago. So…what was the jury’s verdict?

Jake: I’d tell you if I could remember. But you’re the one who gave me memory problems, you multisyllabic babbler!

Paul: I’m not the one who told you to use your helmet as a battering ram.

Jake: You put me on the kickoff team, the suicide squad! What did you think would happen?

Paul: So, what now? You gonna retire again or smash down the doors to the courthouse and try another case?

Jake: Not up to me, is it, Svengali?

Paul: Now that you mention it, there’s a case I just heard about that’s right up your alley.

Jake: Great. You know what I always say?

Paul: Of course, I do.

Jake: “I want a cause that’s just, a client I like, and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three, and I’m ahead of the game.” So, I’ll see you around, Scribbler.

“Cheater’s Game” is available in paperback, ebook, and audio. For more information, please visit my Amazon Author Page.

College Football Hall of Fame: Skinny Legs and All

College Football Hall of Fame

By Paul Levine

The College Football Hall of Fame could not have been on Shane Conlan’s mind when he played high school basketball on a wintry night in early 1982.  He was 6-3, 175 pounds, and if there’s anything he didn’t look like, it would have been a major college linebacker.

That January night, in tiny, frozen Frewsburg in western New York State, Conlan just wanted to put on a good show for the college football coach in attendance: Tom (Scrap) Bradley, then a young assistant at Penn State.  Bradley was the only coach in the country interested in Conlan as a football player.  No one from Pitt or Ohio State or Michigan…or even little Division 2 schools had any interest in the skinny kid from the sticks.

(Yes, hang on, folks.  There’s a moral to this story).

Conlan only scored three points in that basketball game, but the field goal came on an alley-oop dunk, and Bradley liked the kid’s athleticism.  Bradley’s mentor, the great Joe Paterno, often scouted high school football players by watching them play basketball.  Both men thought the sport showed agility and overall athletic ability in a way football — particularly on film — did not).  Still, Conlan was not an easy sell at the coaches’ meeting just a few days before signing date:

“No one on the staff really wants him,” Bradley said in an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot-News.  “Back then, I don’t have much of a track record. I knew what I saw. But I started thinking: Maybe I don’t know what I’m looking at.  Finally, Joe pounds the table and says, ‘You want him? You take him. But you gotta coach him. And you’d better be right.'”

So Penn State gave Conlan his one and only football scholarship offer.

“I owe Tom everything,” Conlan said in an interview.  “If he hadn’t given me a shot, if he hadn’t convinced Joe [Paterno] that I was the right kid for them, who knows what would have become of me?”

Lots of lessons here.  How important is it to have someone who believes in you.  And to have a mentor.  And to make the most of your talents with the gifts you have.

College Football Hall of Fame to come
The legendary Joe Paterno with assistant coach Tom Bradley.

College Football Hall of Fame Announcement

This was brought to mind today by (1) the announcement that Conlan will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and (2) an excellent story about how the skinny kid from a tiny snowbound town made it big-time.  The story, “Hall of Famer Shane Conlan, Wanted by Nobody but Tom Bradley in 1982, a Recruiting Story of a Bygone Era,” is by Dave Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

By “bygone era,” Jones means these were the days before video and YouTube and high school recruiting gurus. All Bradley had to go on — other than that basketball game — were a few grainy frames of 8 mm film showing Conlan playing for his little high school (94 seniors) against less than stellar competition. And, of course, a coach’s sixth sense about a player’s desire, aggressiveness, intelligence, and overall athleticism.

No Easy Route to College Football Hall of Fame

Conlan had a stellar collegiate career. A consensus All American linebacker, he was the Most Valuable Player of one of the most famous games in football history: Penn State’s 14-10 Fiesta Bowl upset over heavily favored Miami to win the 1986 national championship.  Conlan had two interceptions of Miami QB Vinny Testaverde and eight tackles in the game.  (Testaverde would be the first player selected in the upcoming draft and two other Miami seniors were taken in the first nine slots.  Overall, Penn State delivered a whopping 13 players to the NFL that year, including two first rounders).

Okay, so Conlan was a standout in college.  But just how would he fare in the NFL?

I happened to be on Penn State’s practice field in Spring 1987 for Pro Day. So were a dozen or so NFL scouts, watching the graduating seniors run agility drills. The players ran, and the scouts  scribbled on scraps of paper.  (There were no cell phones, iPads, or laptops).

Unlike that wintry night in the Frewsburg gym, Conlan was the center of attention. I knew Shane a bit through two of his classmates I had been been friends with since their freshman year:  Tim Johnson, from Florida, the All American defensive tackle who would go on to a 10 year NFL career before becoming a minister, and D.J. Dozier, the running back who would join the select few who played both NFL football and Major League Baseball.

So I’m standing next to Ray Wietecha, the college scout of the Green Bay Packers, which had just finished an abysmal year and were drafting fourth.  (NFL aficionados will remember Wietecha as a center for the New York Giants in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He was an old-school, tough-as-nails guy).  In this photo, he looks like he’s still playing at age 45.

I remember looking at Wietecha’s gnarled hands — broken fingers going this way and that — as he took notes.

“Number 31’s really good,” I said, referring to Conlan, as if my words would boost his draft status.

“Skinny legs,” Wietecha replied.

“Fast.  Great anticipation.  Great ball sense.”

“Skinny legs,” Wietecha repeated.

In the NFL draft, with that fourth pick in the first round, Wietecha’s employers — the Packers — took Brent Fullwood, a running back from Auburn.  He played four years, and if you don’t know his name, well, he was just okay.  The Buffalo Bills took Conlan with the eighth pick.  He became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was named All-Pro three times, played in three Pro Bowls, and was selected to the Bills’ All-Time 50th Anniversary team.  Skinny legs and all.

en route to College Football Hall of Fame
Shane Conlan with the Buffalo Bills

 Long-time readers will know that I have a special kinship with Penn State linebackers.  My best-known fictional character, Jake Lassiter, was a walk-on who played linebacker for Paterno.  But Jake had disciplinary problems and run-ins with his Coach.  As he admits in “Lassiter,” “Joe parked me so far down the bench, my ass was in Altoona.”  Jake, needless to say, is not in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Paul Levine