Fred Taylor called his agent Pops. That's because Tank Black didn't merely negotiate the contract of the Jacksonville Jaguars running back, but he was also, as Taylor puts it, "like a second dad." Black was the man Taylor would call at all hours to discuss personal problems. He was the jovial, fun-loving man who gave Taylor expensive gifts and flew him to Cancun in a private jet. He was the man who earned Taylor's unconditional trust. "You've got to understand the way I thought of Tank," says Taylor, his voice trailing off. "You don't have a lot of relationships like that in your life."
So last fall, when Taylor read in the newspaper that the $3.6 million he had entrusted to Black—his entire 1998 signing bonus after taxes—had been lost in a pyramid scheme, Taylor went through a variation of the stages of grief. First there was denial: Taylor re-flexively became Black's staunchest defender, telling anyone who would listen that his agent was simply being smeared by jealous rivals. "I knew how bad it was," Taylor says, "but I just tried not to admit it." The second stage, depression, ensued when FBI agents confirmed to Taylor that his money had vanished. Already dejected after an exasperating season in which he was hampered by a strained left hamstring, Taylor became despondent, less from the financial hit than from the knowledge that a good friend had betrayed him. "That kind of information can mess with your mind," Taylor says. Eventually his sadness led to anger. "I was very, very upset," he says. "A go-grab-a-gun type of upset." He's still grappling with acceptance. In the meantime, he has filed a lawsuit seeking to recover the money he lost.
Hurtling past the Appalachian countryside with the smell of palmetto in the air, the two men drove through the night. It was fall 1987, and Tank Black and Jim Washburn, assistant football coaches for the University of South Carolina, were on a recruiting trip. They were trying to land a Murphy, N.C., high school star named Carl Pickens—the future NFL wideout—but Black's mind was elsewhere. "He was a successful young coach, but he told me that night that he was leaving the profession," recalls Washburn, now an assistant for the Tennessee Titans. "I asked him what he was going to do, and he was real vague. He just said, I have an opportunity to make a lot of money.' "
Over the next decade Black came out of nowhere to become one of the most prominent sports agents in the country. By May 1999, Black's Columbia, S.C.-based company, Professional Marketing Incorporated (PMI), had more than 35 NFL players as clients, including Taylor, New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard, New England Patriots running back Terry Allen and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth. Black had made history a month earlier by signing an unprecedented five first-round picks in the NFL draft, among them defensive end Jevon Kearse, who would become the league's defensive rookie of the year and lead the Titans to the Super Bowl. For good measure, Black also represented NBA superstar-in-the-making Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors. "What can I say?" Black, wearing black sweatpants and a tattered Oakland Raiders sweatshirt, told SI last September in Toronto. "It's a very financially successful business."
Not anymore. His life and business a shambles, Black, 43, has a starring role in what federal investigators claim is the biggest case of agent fraud in the history of sports. The subject of a civil suit filed in February by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging fraud as well as a federal indictment filed in Gainesville, Fla., in February for money laundering, conspiracy and criminal forfeiture, Black is accused of defrauding clients and mismanaging approximately $15 million of their money. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Jacquez Green and Detroit Lions wideout Germane Crowell each allegedly lost in the neighborhood of $500,000. Carter, the jewel in PMI's crown (until he severed relations with Black in March), lost about $300,000. (Black has denied all die allegations and pleaded not guilty to the charges against him; on the advice of his lawyers, he declined interview requests from SI after the indictment.)
Yet the SEC case and the Gainesville indictment might be the least of Black's troubles. According to three sources close to the case, a federal grand jury in Detroit has been considering whether to indict Black for allegedly laundering money for a Detroit drug-trafficking ring. Federal investigators have testified that Black filtered narcotics money through offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands and helped a fugitive drug dealer flee the U.S. The Detroit drug case, said one federal investigator, "goes all the way to Bogot�."
Over the past 18 months Black has been investigated by authorities in two states ( Florida and Louisiana) and by three federal agencies (the SEC, the FBI and the IRS). Yet the seriousness of the allegations now swirling around him has left even some of his pursuers stunned. When the NFL Players Association completed a four-month probe and threatened Black with a possible lifetime ban in May 1999, the union's principal concern was that Black had made under-the-table payments to players at the University of Florida. Says Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the union, whose efforts to decertify Black are continuing even as the agent addresses the federal charges against him, "Comparing where things are now to where they were when we first got involved is like comparing an orchard to an apple."
The Saga of William H. Black begins in Greeneville, Tenn., a soporific town best known as the home of Andrew Johnson, the first American president to be impeached. Black claims he was dubbed Tank at birth when he emerged from his mother's womb weighing nearly 11 pounds. His mother died when he was an infant, his father was never in the picture, and Tank was raised in poverty by his grandmother, Susie Black.
Tank tells friends that it was sports that helped bolster his self-esteem as a kid. Endowed with good speed and a brick wall of a chest, he was a football star at Greeneville High. At 5' 8" and 160 pounds, Black was too small to play wide receiver in Division I, so he attended Carson-Newman College in nearby Jefferson City, Tenn., and became a three-time NAIA All-America and the school's alltime leading pass catcher. "He was a hard-nosed player who always had that underdog's mentality," says David Barger, the school's athletic director. "He always played like he deserved to be big time."
After graduating with a degree in business administration, Black had a failed tryout with the Atlanta Falcons. He returned to Greeneville to care for his ailing grandmother and became an assistant coach at Greeneville High. A year later he joined the staff at Tennessee- Chattanooga, and three years after that, in 1983, he landed a job as wide receivers coach at South Carolina. As a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner who cut a confident figure and oozed charm, he was an irresistible recruiter; as someone not far removed from his own playing days, he related well to athletes. "He was made for this profession," says Washburn. "We're talking NFL head coach material."