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December 5, 2013

Column: This 'Linebacker U' alumnus is one for the books

Jake Lassiter is a controversial hotshot Miami lawyer who once played linebacker for Penn State and the New York Jets.

Perhaps you've never heard of him, but his agent, Paul Levine, says Lassiter was a walk-on who didn't play much because he was always in coach Joe Paterno's doghouse.

"When Jake played at Penn State, he cut so many classes he was often suspended, and Joe put him on the bench," said Levine, a former sports editor and editor of the school newspaper, The Daily Collegian. "Or as Jake likes to say, 'Joe put me so far down the bench, my butt was in Altoona.'

"Jake also was a little slow of foot, and not always the best decision maker, and when he did play, he had the propensity for the late hit, and that also did not endear him to Joe. Penn State had some pretty good linebackers in those days and Jake never earned a letter.

"But as a free agent several years ago, Jake was signed by the Miami Dolphins and made the last cut. He never started for the Dolphins at linebacker but he was on the suicide squad on the kickoff teams. Once, in a tough game against the Jets on one of those foggy, rainy days in old Shea Stadium, he made this jarring tackle on the kickoff and recovered the fumble, but unfortunately got turned around and ran to the wrong end zone and ended up scoring a safety for the Jets, and the Dolphins lost by a point. That was kind of the highlight of Jake's professional football career.

"That probably led him to go into a different line of work. So he went to night law school at the University of Miami and passed the bar exam on his fourth try. But his football career at Penn State served him well, because he's also known in the courtroom for his late hits, and that's a useful tool in the courtroom. As he told me, 'They don't call us [lawyers] sharks for our ability to swim."

Levine said Lassiter prides himself on being a shark and doesn't mind when people call him a shyster. "'I'm not that bad,'" he tells me. "'Some people just write about me that way.'"

Lassiter's cavalier attitude toward the law has finally caught up to him because he's on trial in Miami for the murder of his lover, who was also his banker.

"Jake told me it's a bum rap," said Levine, "and I believe him. As Jake put it in his own unique style, 'I never stole from a client, bribed a judge or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity. I didn't know the guy I hit was a cop.'"

If anyone reading this column wonders why they've never heard of this former Penn State linebacker, then they probably are not readers of mystery novels or knowledgeable about Penn State's famous alumni. Paul Levine is an award-winning author of crime fiction, mostly legal thrillers, with 19 books thus far, including 10 that feature the ex-Nittany Lion linebacker Jake Lassister as the prime protagonist.

Like Lassister, Levine also graduated from the University of Miami Law School. But unlike the impudent attorney he created, Levine graduated from Penn State and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2003. At one time, he not only practiced law and taught it but he also was a reporter for The Miami Herald and a legal commentator for two Miami television stations.

After 30 years in Miami, Levine moved to Los Angeles in June 1990 to also work in television, and he became a writer for the popular television program "JAG." He also created a short-lived TV series about the U.S. Supreme Court, "First Monday," that starred James Garner.

Levine moved back to Miami about a year ago to concentrate on his legal thrillers. His latest book, "State vs. Lassister," places the former Penn State linebacker in extreme jeopardy on a charge of first-degree murder in a client-trust bank scam.

"This is the 10th book of a series, and with Jake Lassiter charged with murder it's time to ask, 'Is this the end of the linebacker turned lawyer?'" Levine told me recently.

So, why did Levine create the character of Jake Lassiter with a loose-cannon background as a Penn State and Miami Dolphins linebacker?

"That's the first time in 25 years I've been asked that question," Levine said with a laugh. "I'm going to have to think about this a little bit. Because I graduated from Penn State and covered the football team for two years at The Daily Collegian, I was steeped in Penn State football and the Joe Paterno ethos. It just seemed natural, when someone says to me, 'Write what you know,' to have Jake come out of that atmosphere.

"But I always wanted him to be a flawed character. I thought there was something unique here. If you look at all these heroes in crime fiction, you find so many private detectives and cops and you find cops who lost their badges and now they're private detectives. I thought it would be fun to have somebody who's a little bit more physical and a lawyer who's not a Harvard graduate who barely passed the bar exam who would be a bull in the china shop in the courtroom. But he is tenacious, and that's what gives him characteristics that separate him from other characters we see as heroes in crime fiction."

Obviously, Penn State football has been another passion of Levine's, although he hasn't seen many games at Beaver Stadium since he initially moved to Miami two days after graduation in June 1969. But he has a unique perspective from covering the beginning of the Paterno era for the Collegian and traveling with the team in 1967 and '68. To the best of my knowledge - I was the Collegian's sports editor during the 1958 season - Levine is the only editor of the paper to continue covering the team after his sports editor year of 1967-68, sharing the beat both years with Ron Kolb, who became the sports editor in 1968.

"Looking back at the teams that had Mike Reid and Jack Ham and Ted Kwalick on them - and then just as I was leaving, incoming freshmen like Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris - those were mighty exciting times," Levine said. "Nobody beat those teams. Penn State was 22-0 and started that record 31-game undefeated streak in 1967."
However, like on campus today, there was more than football on everyone's mind back then. That was a period of great change and unrest at Penn State and throughout the country.

"If you could go back in a time machine to 1965 and spend a little time and then go back to 1969 in a time machine, you'd go, 'Wait, these are two different places. This is crazy,'" Levine said. "There were several things going on at once: the escalation of the Vietnam War, the student power movement - and there's a phrase I don't believe I've used in 40 years - and the Civil Rights movement.

"There were also less-serious things - maybe this falls under student power - like let's eliminate curfew hours in the women's dorm, which is something we marched about. We would march about a lot of things. And it became, for a short period at Penn State, uncool to go to pep rallies and those sort of things because the war was on and the student movement was on, and 'How could you go and cheer for a football team or a basketball team?'

"Now, I did not agree with that, and I had my feet firmly planted in both camps, the student power camp and increasing black enrollment - which was the big issue in The Daily Collegian in 1968 - and at the same time I covered the football team and followed all the other sports, and I didn't see any inconsistency in that and I still don't. But there was tension among the students with the administration. Some students wore coats and ties every day, and a lot of students weren't shaving or taking showers.

"When the head of the SDS - Students for a Democratic Society - somehow managed to get an appointment with president Eric Walker, Eric Walker's first comment to him was, 'Don't you shave when you're coming to see the university president?' That's a line pregnant with meaning because it showed the divide and the lack of understanding between the two groups."

Levine sees a similar disconnect in the wake of the arrest and conviction of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for child sex abuse.

"Many of my acquaintances on both coasts who have just the passing knowledge of what happened, a knowledge they acquired through the mass media, have a violent [anti-]Penn State attitude, and have bought hook, line and sinker the theories espoused by some, including some sportswriters, who have waged these hate campaigns," Levine said. "I am very disturbed by the reaction I have heard by some otherwise intelligent people.

"People who haven't made a study of it, haven't read the critiques of the Freeh report and don't follow things the way I do, they're headline readers, basically, and the headlines often are damning when the facts are not."

As a former journalist and attorney, Levine is angry at how the media and the legal profession have handled the scandal.

"There is so much misreporting," he said. "The public perception, which was the result of media reporting, is that a football coach working at Penn State until about yesterday was molesting children in the locker room and that's what was witnessed. The chronologies were fouled up. They essentially told the prosecution's side of the story as if that was the final determination of guilt of Joe Paterno and the three administrators and that created a very misleading impression across the country.

"The fact remains there really wasn't an NCAA violation. They couldn't find a rule that had been broken by this. So, as horrible as it was in terms of what Jerry Sandusky did, the nuclear fallout from that that settled over Penn State was the result of this crazed reaction of the media, this hysteria and fear of the board of trustees and the bullying by the NCAA.

"I followed this closely from afar, and it seems to me it's a really bad idea to make major decisions when you're in a state of hysteria. The way it looked from afar is that the board of trustees made a series of major decisions, both involving Joe Paterno and the NCAA, in a state of near-hysteria and fear. Perhaps some of those decisions over time can be reversed. But some damage was done in a misguided effort to protect the university."

"My overwhelming feeling that this could have occurred at Penn State is one of sadness," Levine said with a little melancholy in his voice, "sadness for Penn State, sadness for Joe Paterno and his wonderful family, sadness for the victims and sadness for Tim Curley, Graham Spanier and Gary Schultz, who are still awaiting their trials. I knew Jerry Sandusky casually for 20 years and I was stunned by the revelations.

"Like many of us [alumni], I am heartbroken on many different levels. I'm heartbroken that Jerry Sandusky turned out to be who he turned out to be. And I'm heartbroken the way the university has treated Joe and his memory. I'm numbed and pained at what happened."

Levine has no intention of having the outspoken Jake Lassiter comment on the scandal. Instead, he'd rather have his off-the-wall tough-guy lawyer defend the former university president and two administrators at trial.

"Jake would vigorously argue that even if they made errors of judgment, his clients had no criminal intent, and their actions did not amount to crimes," Levine said. "In my world, Jake Lassiter would win acquittals."


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