By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Former National Football League wide receiver Reggie Rucker was sentenced on Wednesday to nearly two years in prison for embezzling more than $110,000 from anti-violence charities for personal use and to pay gambling debts.
Rucker, 68, pleaded guilty in February to one count of wire fraud and one count of making false statements to the FBI when agents questioned him about his suspected diversion of charitable funds.
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U.S. District Judge Dan Polster sentenced Rucker to 21 months and ordered the former Cleveland Browns player from 1975 to 1981, to pay more than $110,000 in restitution.
Rucker's attorney, John Sammon, before sentencing called his clients actions “an aberration from the totality of his life” and said Rucker's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis was “not an excuse for his actions but a factor.”
Rucker is one of the more than 4,500 former players involved in a federal lawsuit seeking damages against the NFL for concussion injuries. Sammon said Rucker will use any settlement funds to pay restitution.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 27 months, arguing against the CTE injury claim being an excuse for Rucker's poor decisions.
“Mr. Rucker treated a non-profit bank account like his personal slush fund,” U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon said in a statement.
Rucker, who remains free on a $25,000 bond until he reports to prison by Oct. 28, apologized in court for his actions, concluding with a promise to “make all of you proud again.”
After sentencing, Rucker said although he did not blame his head injuries for his behavior he warned that many former NFL players have been affected by concussions sustained during their careers. “There are going to be more players like me."
Former Browns head coach, Sam Rutigliano, was among the family and friends who sent letters or spoke in Rucker's defense before sentencing. “I have known him for over 50 years and this is not the Reggie I know,” Rutigliano, 73, said in court.
From 2010 to 2015, prosecutors said Rucker withdrew funds from the bank accounts of the anti-violence charities he ran, Amer-I-Can Cleveland and the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, to pay off gambling debts and personal expenses.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer, Editing by Ben Klayman and Bernard Orr)