DETROIT - Ghazi "Gary" Manni said he sat in the MotorCity Casino playing baccarat, while a University of Toledo football player was at a nearby table trying his luck at blackjack.
As often happens at the casino, these two strangers crossed paths, shared polite salutations and casual conversation, and were eventually buying one another drinks.
As the alcohol flowed and the stakes grew, two things became apparent to Manni that night in the fall of 2003 - his new friend was both a UT football player and a fool about to lose his money to the dealer.
So Manni told the UT athlete that he would take the player's remaining money, about $100, and play the casino games for him. The gambler wound up winning the Rockets' player $5,000 in one adrenaline-packed evening.
"He was so happy that he hugged me right there," Manni said. "He said he had never had that much cash in his hands."
What ensued was a casual prediction of a UT victory against its next opponent by that Rockets player, eventual friendships between Manni and several other UT athletes, and an FBI investigation into point-shaving involving the Rockets' football and basketball teams.
In an exclusive interview with The Blade last week, Manni painted a detailed picture of his relationship with UT athletes. The relationship included socializing, small gifts to athletes, and talk of upcoming games, but he emphatically denied that the relationship involved point-shaving and game-fixing, as alleged by the FBI.
Manni, who is at the heart of the alleged point-shaving conspiracy said by the FBI to have begun in the fall of 2003, said he met many UT football and basketball players at Detroit casinos, a party he threw for a UT athlete near campus, or through other UT athletes. Those athletes included Bruce Gradkowski, Harvey "Scooter" McDougle, Jr., Nick Kaczur, and Keith Triplett.
Manni said he would ask the athletes who their next game was against and what they felt their chances were for victory and he would place bets based on their information.
He admitted to occasionally giving the athletes money for gas, food, or to cover other small expenses, but he denied giving them cars, cell phones, and large sums of money, as the FBI charged in a sworn affidavit.
Manni also said the FBI's claim that he and Mr. McDougle conspired with other UT athletes to fix the outcomes of the Rockets' football and basketball games is untrue.
"Nobody in the world can make any money for me except for me," said Manni, who lives in Sterling Heights, Mich., but was born in Iraq.
"I'd always wish [UT athletes] the best of luck, tell them to go kick some [butt], and ask them how everybody's doing. They'd always say 'we're gonna' go kick some [butt].' And what happened most of the time? Gary [lost]," he said.
Manni, 50, sat last week in a second-floor office overlooking the King Cole Foods grocery store in Detroit, an establishment he said he and his five brothers have owned and operated since 1995.
He said he started working in grocery stores shortly after he moved from Baghdad to the United States in 1973. About 15 years old at the time, Manni said his first job in this country was at Parkway Foods in Detroit, where he bagged groceries and cleaned floors.
The Manni family eventually acquired several grocery and liquor stores in Detroit, but Manni said the family sold its last liquor store about a year ago.
Now relegated to just "helping out" at King Cole Foods, Manni said his true occupation is gambling.
"That's what I do," said Manni, who said he was arrested on a felony tobacco products tax act violation in 1999. He also said he spent 90 days in jail in 2001 on a gun charge . "I put 'gambler' down as my occupation on my taxes, my everything."
Manni, a Chaldean Christian, said he first started gambling around the age of 12 by playing dominoes on Baghdad's streets. He said he placed his first wager on American football when he was 18, likely betting on the Pittsburgh Steelers to win.
By the time Manni met the UT football player at the casino in 2003 - a player he refused to name but he said was not Mr. McDougle, Mr. Triplett, Mr. Gradkowski, or Mr. Kaczur - he was already betting regularly on college football.
And Manni said the day after he won the UT athlete $5,000, his new friend called to tell him the Rockets were going to handily defeat their next football opponent.
"And it just so happened they did [win]," Manni said. "But did he give me all winners? Absolutely not."
Manni said he eventually became immersed in the social scene of many UT football and basketball players. The FBI affidavit stated its agents observed Mr. McDougle and other UT football players meeting Manni at a downtown Detroit restaurant and going to Greektown Casino on Dec. 2, 2005.
Several former UT athletes, including current NFL players Lance Moore and Mr. Gradkowski (Mr. Kaczur plays for the New England Patriots, but could not be reached for comment), have told The Blade they at least knew Manni. Some of them apparently knew him better than others.
Speaking about his relationship with Mr. Gradkowski, the Rockets' all-time leading passer and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, Manni said: "I looked at Bruce like he was my own son."
Manni said he never gave Mr. Gradkowski anything of significant value. But the former Rockets quarterback might have joined the known gambler and eaten a free meal provided by a Detroit casino, Manni said.
Manni also said he casually discussed UT football with Mr. Gradkowski, asking him the same questions he asked so many other athletes.
"Not one time did Bruce ever say the team wasn't feeling good or they weren't going to win," Manni said.
The Detroit gambler said he lost money on the Rockets because of the players' confidence, often betting on them to win or cover point spreads when UT ended up doing the opposite.
The Blade was unable to reach Mr. Gradkowski. The Buccaneers declined to make him available to comment for this story. His team opens the 2007 season today in Seattle.
But in an interview with The Blade last month at Tampa Bay's practice facility, Mr. Gradkowski said: "You meet someone and you don't have a clue who he is and you get to know him before you know anything else."
And like Manni, Mr. McDougle, and others, Mr. Gradkowski said there was no point-shaving at UT, as the FBI alleged.
"The one thing I do know is I've never witnessed anything suspicious, and I know the guys I played with would never jeopardize winning or losing because of something like that," Mr. Gradkowski said last month.
Mr. McDougle was the only one charged March 29 by the FBI in the alleged scheme and was the lone UT athlete mentioned in the federal affidavit.
Those charges were dropped April 18, but the FBI said its investigation is ongoing. Mr. McDougle, a running back, remains suspended from the team - a suspension UT officials said would continue at least until the investigation is over.
A senior this year, Mr. McDougle will almost certainly never play college football again.
Manni expressed sorrow for the circumstances surrounding the 22-year-old from East Cleveland.
"If I knew this [stuff] would've happened, I never would've met Scooter," Manni said. "I never wanted to destroy anyone's career."
Mr. McDougle has declared his innocence to The Blade - a claim supported by Manni - even though the FBI's affidavit stated the agency has electronic surveillance of Manni's phone that shows that he and Mr. McDougle "participated in the sports-bribery scheme."
According to the affidavit, Mr. McDougle told the FBI that he "was given cash, a car, a phone, and other things of value" by Manni in exchange for "insider information" and introductions to other UT athletes "so they could be solicited by 'Gary' to accept bribes to influence games."
Mr. McDougle told The Blade he never received those things from Manni. And Mr. McDougle's father, Harvey McDougle Sr., has told The Blade in previous interviews that his son only received discounts on groceries from Manni.
The McDougles did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.
Mr. Triplett, the lone former UT basketball player linked to Manni thus far, also didn't return a message seeking comment.
But in an earlier interview with The Blade, Mr. Triplett said he met Manni about three years ago but didn't discuss sports with him.
Manni declined to elaborate on his relationship with Mr. Triplett.
Both the FBI and UT continue to decline comment on the alleged point-shaving scheme because of the ongoing federal investigation.
But university officials insist UT coaches and administrators are doing what they can to educate athletes about the dangers waiting for them away from the playing field.
J.P. Bekasiak, who last played football for the Rockets in 2006 and is now a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, said UT coach Tom Amstutz constantly warned the team about staying out of trouble after games or when the Rockets had a day off.
Mr. Bekasiak also said he remembers overhearing talk among teammates about impromptu trips to Detroit casinos but said he was never invited to go and never met Manni.
"It was a big team and there were a lot of little cliques, but I never heard of [Manni] or anything like [point-shaving] going on," Mr. Bekasiak said.
Stacey Osburn, a spokesman for the NCAA, also declined to say last week whether the NCAA is investigating the relationships between UT athletes and Manni.
She referred The Blade to the NCAA's earlier statement, which said it was aware of the point-shaving allegations at UT and had been in contact with university, law enforcement, and Las Vegas gaming officials.
Manni, who usually declines to speak at the advice of his lawyer, Neil Fink, said he ignored Mr. Fink's advice this time because he was "tired of being accused of something I have not done."
And Manni said he doesn't expect to ever be charged by the FBI for participating in a point-shaving scheme at UT.
"If the FBI had any evidence against me, they already would've snatched [me] up," Manni said.
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Ghazi Manni said he sat in the MotorCity Casino playing baccarat, while a UT football player was at a nearby table trying his luck at blackjack. As often happens at the casino, these two strangers crossed paths, shared polite salutations and casual conversation, and were eventually buying one another drinks.