"I understand that the opportunity to be a part of the team raises questions," Pelini told The Associated Press the same week the university settled a lawsuit brought by Ma'lik Richmond to allow him to stay on the team after the school planned to make him sit this season and lose a year of eligibility.
Richmond was 16 in 2013 when he and a Steubenville High School teammate were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old during a party. He served 10 months in juvenile prison in a case that drew international attention through social media, including allegations of a cover-up to protect a storied local team.
Youngstown State sidelined Richmond in August after getting backlash about him playing football again three years after his release, including a Change.org petition from a student that challenged Pelini and the school president, saying: "Are you more concerned with your football team's status than the disgusting rape of a young girl?"
Richmond sued, and federal and appellate courts ruled last month that he could temporarily stay on team while the lawsuit played out. That prompted the settlement and the university agreed to allow Richmond to remain on the active roster while the school reviews its policies on athletics and other high-profile school activities.
Speaking to the AP for the first time about the case, Pelini said he gave Richmond a chance to try out in the first place after hearing him accept responsibility for his conviction.
"I didn't make this decision lightly," Pelini said. "He was extremely remorseful. I saw a young man who was desperately wanting to better his life and those of the people around him."
As the backlash played out, Richmond's father, Nathaniel Richmond, was killed in an unrelated confrontation when he shot a judge in a courthouse parking lot and a probation officer returned fire. The judge had been overseeing a wrongful death lawsuit the father filed against a housing authority. He had been mostly absent during his son's childhood but was becoming more involved in his life.
Richmond also quit the team and went home to Steubenville after the university said he would not play. Pelini, another coach and three teammates visited Richmond to convince him to return to school.
"'You need to get your butt back to campus and trust that things are gonna work out. You can't walk away from school, you've come this far. It's time to stick it out,'" Pelini said he told Richmond during the visit.
Richmond was released from prison in January 2014 and attended colleges in West Virginia and Pennsylvania before transferring to Youngstown State in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore.
Richmond and his legal guardians spoke with Pelini and YSU President Jim Tressel about joining the team after he enrolled. Pelini researched Richmond's past before meeting him, then said he made no promises and told Richmond he'd have to earn good grades and stay out of trouble to be on the team.
"He stuck with it," Pelini said. "He went over and above. He knew he had no room for error."
Richmond began practicing with the team as a defensive end after Youngstown State's loss in the Football Championship Subdivision title game in January. Pelini said Richmond, a walk-on player with no scholarship, showed talent but was a "work in progress."
Pelini said the rape conviction and the intense public attention sharpened Richmond's focus and determination to rise above his past.
"It makes you grow up in a hurry," Pelini said.
Richmond got on the field during the second half of a blowout win against Central Connecticut State on Sept. 16, but didn't play Saturday in a 19-7 win over South Dakota State.
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