Sitting at his antique kitchen table, sipping Chablis from a glass, Pete Banaszak seemed by all appearances to be living the idyllic life he had always dreamed of when he was a hard-driving running back for the Oakland Raiders.
Outside his lovely four-bedroom home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., as sunset neared, a cool wind wafted in off the ocean, birds sang on the deck overlooking the pool and the air was fragrant with the smells of cypress and pine. One daughter, Amy, 10, was folded up nearby with an Archie comic book. Banaszak was waiting for his wife, Sue, and another daughter, Becky, 14, an excellent tennis player. He looked good, tanned and rugged, although his hair was graying lightly, perhaps owing to the rigors of his job as an assistant vice-president for a marine transport firm.
On one finger he wore the ring from Super Bowl XI, the game in which the Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings 32-14, and Banaszak rushed for two touchdowns. Only when he walked, slightly dragging a stiff right leg, was there any evidence of the physical beatings he took in the NFL; and only when he talked did he betray the melancholy sadness that had settled on his life in the last few weeks.
"I've had broken noses, fingers, ribs and wrenched knees, but a true pro plays with that stuff," Banaszak said. "But I always thought that football was tougher mentally than physically. Believe me, this is tougher. This one there are no answers for. It's done, ended, gone. In football, if you make a mistake, you get another chance. We don't have another chance here. You talk about a blow to the belly. This is the hardest hit I've ever taken."
The hit devastated him financially, leaving his life in shambles. On Feb. 7, Technical Equities Corp., a California-based company in which hundreds of investors, including Banaszak and other present and former athletes, sank part or all of their life savings, filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in San Francisco, seeking protection from creditors. Technical Equities investors face losses of millions of dollars in stock, debentures and real estate. Others face the loss of millions in promissory notes that were issued by TE founder Harry Stern's management company. Several investors have sued for damages, alleging fraud and negligence. The Securities and Exchange Commission and state agencies are investigating.
What Technical Equities offered was a chance to invest in a variety of high-tech and manufacturing companies and real estate deals set up as supposed tax shelters. Although it also attracted doctors, lawyers and others, at least 70 of its 700 investors were sports figures, and the company beat the bushes at spring training and golf tournaments for new prospects. Not that it always had to recruit; as word of the company spread through the jock grapevine, athletes rushed to get aboard the TE ship, as did some club personnel and TV announcers.
TE's collapse dramatically and sadly points up the vulnerability of athletes when it comes to dealing with agents, investment planners and other financial advisers. One reason athletes fall prey to bad deals is that many of them make a lot of money in a relatively short time. They tend to be young and inexperienced in money matters and have marquee value as well as money to offer. It was no accident that Technical Equities used a picture of pitcher Mark Clear prominently in its annual report; it was a company in which a surgeon, a lawyer or an insurance broker could hope to make a killing at the same time he could brag to the boys at the country club that he was in a limited real estate partnership with one or another famous athlete.
But TE's investors, athletes and nonathletes alike, ended up with less than they bargained for. Banaszak figures that he could lose about $400,000 in TE, all the money that he and Sue had stashed away in a family trust for his retirement and their children's future. "It's like a bad dream," Banaszak said. "When I wake up, I say, 'Boy, that was a bad nightmare.' Then I realize it is no nightmare." Banaszak took another sip of wine. "I hung around for 13 years [1966-78]," he said. "I thought, 'I made this money and I'll enjoy it down the line.' But now that whole dream is gone, shattered. All I've got is a bunch of game balls and trophies in that den. No money and a lot of memories of some great guys. I guess that means something. I didn't have the ability or physical talent. I hung in because I had a lot of heart."
"You liked to mix it up, huh, Dad?" said Becky.
Pete Banaszak looked at his daughter sadly. "You know what the worst thing is? I won't trust anybody, anybody, with a nickel anymore. We live in the best country in the world, and to walk around with an attitude like that, it's very sad.... If we make it through the next three years, I'll get down on my hands and knees and say thanks to the Big Guy up there. Just let me get the money I put into it. Let me walk away."