DENVER (AP) – When the police burst through the door at John Bowlen’s luxury apartment to investigate a domestic dispute and 911 hang-up, the 29-year-old son of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hollered, “I didn’t do anything wrong! … I’m calling Harvey.”
Circumstances aside, “it was quite flattering,” said Denver-based criminal defense lawyer Harvey Steinberg, whose long list of exonerated clients includes Perrish Cox, Bill Romanowski, Travis Henry, Rolando McClain and receiver Brandon Marshall.
Other prominent figures who have sought Steinberg’s counsel after run-ins with their league or the law include NBA player Ty Lawson and Broncos executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert.
“I have Harvey’s number in my cellphone,” former NFL pass rusher Alfred Williams said. “And it’s a number I hope to never use. But you can bet I’ll use it if I have to.”
After graduating from the University of Colorado law school in 1978, Steinberg, 61, worked in the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s Office for six years before going into private practice.
The first professional athlete he defended was then-Broncos tight end Clarence Kay in 1990. Steinberg convinced the judge Kay should be allowed to accompany the team to a preseason game in Tokyo rather than spend the night in jail after he was arrested on a domestic violence allegation.
He’s helped hundreds of athletes since, including Elvis Dumervil, whose Miami road rage case was dismissed, and Matt Prater, whose yearlong alcohol suspension was reduced to one month.
“I know one thing, nobody wants to see him on the other side of the fence,” said former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. “He’s not into settling; he’s into winning.”
Steinberg’s best courtroom performance came in 2012 when a jury acquitted Cox, now a $5 million-a-year player with the Titans, of two rape charges after prosecutors presented DNA tests they said proved the former Broncos cornerback impregnated his accuser on the night in question.
“I love my lawyer,” Cox said after avoiding a potential life sentence.
Whether in the courtroom or the commissioner’s office, Steinberg has only lost a handful of cases involving athletes and sports executives. Yet, as the Cox case shows, he doesn’t just handpick them to pad his won-loss record.
“You can’t be afraid to lose,” Steinberg said. “When a lawyer’s thinking about his record, then he’s not thinking of the client.”
Steinberg said pro athletes don’t pay any more or less for his services than anyone else, but taking their cases does allow him to do pro bono work. As to whether it drives business to the practice he shares with Jeff Springer, his law partner of 31 years, that’s more complicated.
“It works both ways. I can remember people sitting here and saying, ‘Well, I’m not a Denver Bronco. Am I going to get the same treatment?'” Steinberg said. “Oh yeah.”
Steinberg insists he’s equally unpopular with the players’ union as he is the commissioner’s office because he’s beholden to neither, and he relishes the role of being detested.
“It’s not the client that’s on trial in my world, it’s the system,” Steinberg said. “The system has to be held accountable. And if the system works, justice occurs. If it’s broken, that’s when there are problems.”
Steinberg said his “healthy, healthy disrespect and disdain for authority” was instilled in him as a young boy. “I’ve never talked about it, but I’ll talk to you because I’m so old now I might as well get going,” Steinberg said.
“Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors. My father was liberated from a camp in Germany called Buchenwald and he was liberated by an all-black battalion and he had nothing left, I mean literally didn’t even have a shirt on his back because it was, well, what the Nazis gave, which was not a shirt. His entire family had been killed.”
Steinberg said that his father, Aaron, immigrated to America when he was in his mid-20s. In New York, he met a woman named Doris, who had been held at a concentration camp in Auschwitz. The couple married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where, in 1947, his father was arrested for sitting with black passengers in the back of a bus, Steinberg said.
“These are the people that liberated him. These are the people that fed him. These are the people that took care of him after the war,” Steinberg said. “Told white people have to sit in the front, my dad said, ‘If you think after what I’ve been through I’m going to discriminate, you’re crazy.'”
So, the couple packed the car and set out for Los Angeles, but ran out of gas and money in Denver. His father went to work at a luggage factory and his mother at a hospital cafeteria. They raised two children. Their mother died in 2006, 21 years after her husband.
“And what he instilled in me is a healthy, healthy disrespect and disdain for authority,” Steinberg said. “And that’s probably why I am able to do what I do and not care about what other people think.”
Agent Tom Condon is a close friend of Steinberg’s, but the Holocaust story was new to him.
“That’s very interesting,” Condon said, “and certainly it gives you some idea where all that passion comes from.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
AP Writer P. Solomon Banda and AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this story.
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