Retired Ohio State wrestling coach Russ Hellickson reached out to two ex-team members and asked them to support their former assistant coach, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a day after they accused the powerful congressman of turning a blind eye to alleged sexual abuse by the team doctor, according to the wrestlers and text messages they shared with NBC News.
The former wrestlers said their ex-coach made it clear to them he was under pressure from Jordan to get statements of support from members of the team.
Hellickson’s appeal to help Jordan came after the congressman repeatedly said that he had no idea that team doctor Richard Strauss was allegedly molesting the athletes — contradicting three wrestlers who told NBC News that Jordan must have known since the abuse was frequently discussed in the locker room.
“I’m sorry you got caught up in the media train,” Hellickson wrote in a July 4 text to Dunyasha Yetts that the former wrestler shared with NBC News. “If you think the story got told wrong about Jim, you could probably write a statement for release that tells your story and corrects what you feel bad about. I can put you in contact with someone who would release it.”
In an NBC article published a day earlier, Yetts recounted how Strauss had tried to pull his shorts down when he went to see him for a thumb injury. Yetts said he told Jordan and Hellickson about what happened and insisted they intervene — an account that was later corroborated by another former Ohio State wrestler who said he had witnessed the conversation.
Yetts said Hellickson also called him later on July 4 and said he was under pressure from Jordan, who was an assistant wrestling coach at the university from 1986 to 1994, and from Jordan's supporters to make “a bold statement to defend Jimmy.”
“He said, 'I will defend Jimmy until I have to put my hand on a Bible and be asked to tell the truth, then Jimmy will be on his own,'” Yetts said in an interview this week, recalling his conversation with Hellickson. “I told him, 'I’m going to contradict you, coach, because I’m telling the truth.'”
Mike DiSabato, the former Ohio State wrestler whose whistleblowing spurred the university's investigation into the alleged abuse by Strauss, also shared a text message defending Jordan that he got from Hellickson. Out of loyalty to his old coach, he asked that NBC News not quote directly from it.
“He called me after the story broke, too,” DiSabato said of Hellickson. “He said Jimmy was telling him he had to make a statement supporting him and he called to tell me why he was going to make it. “
Yetts, DiSabato and three other former Ohio State wrestlers interviewed recently by NBC News all expressed deep respect for Hellickson but said they believe he has been boxed in by Jordan’s denials and is now caught between wanting to support his former protégé and the wrestlers who have called the congressman a liar.
Six former wrestlers interviewed by NBC News have said they believe Jordan must have known about the alleged abuse; Yetts is the only one who said he had told Jordan about it directly. Other wrestlers, including two who spoke to NBC News, have said they believe that Jordan did not know about it.
“I think Jordan got some bad advice up front to deny knowing anything and wasn’t going to change when he got confronted by wrestlers saying that’s not true,” one former Ohio State wrestler, who asked not to be identified by name, told NBC News.
Complicating things further for Hellickson is the fact that he was videotaped by DiSabato this year, before the accusations against Jordan were reported, talking about some of the lewd behavior he had witnessed at the wrestling team’s headquarters in Larkins Hall.
Yetts said that after he rebuffed Hellickson’s suggestion to release a statement defending Jordan, Jordan’s allies began attacking his credibility and using his admission that he had served 18 months in prison for bilking investors as ammunition against him.
“What a world we’re living in when a member of Congress is digging up dirt on sex abuse victims like us,” said another former Ohio State wrestler, who asked not to be identified “because my family is terrified" of being targeted by Jordan's defenders.
Hellickson, 70, who won a silver medal for freestyle wrestling at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, did not return several calls and emails from NBC News seeking comment about his missives to Yetts and DiSabato about Jordan. (Another wrestler who had criticized Jordan publicly said he did not hear from Hellickson afterward.)
A pro-Jordan statement from Hellickson — one of several gathered by the conservative public relations firm Shirley & Banister — appeared later on July 4, following his text message to Yetts.
In it, Hellickson called Jordan “the most honorable man I have ever known” but did not specifically back up the congressman’s claim that he had no idea about Strauss's alleged misconduct.
Nor did Hellickson delve into what he said on the video that DiSabato made in June. In that video, which was heavily edited in the version provided to NBC News, Hellickson said that he had confronted the doctor directly about being too “hands on” with the wrestlers and that he complained about people having sex in the Larkins Hall showers to higher-ups at the university.
The revelation that Hellickson reached out to Yetts and DiSabato comes as an investigation into the actions of Strauss, who killed himself in 2005, is underway. Strauss's family has released a statement saying that they are “shocked and saddened to hear the allegations of misconduct" against him.
The university opened an investigation into the abuse in April after DiSabato came forward with allegations. The Perkins Coie law firm is overseeing the probe for the university and has interviewed more than 150 former students and witnesses so far, OSU officials said. Former athletes from 14 Ohio State sports have reported abuse by Strauss, the university said.
Jordan has repeatedly said he had no idea Strauss was allegedly abusing athletes — and didn’t even hear any locker room banter about the doctor. Jordan met last month with the investigators and told them he had no knowledge of the alleged abuse, his spokesman said at the time.
Asked if Jordan got Hellickson to contact the wrestlers, his spokesman Ian Fury released the following statement: “Seven coaches have said exactly what the Congressman said. Many wrestlers have echoed those comments and support for the Congressman. Why are they all saying the same thing? Because it’s the truth. Of course we encouraged folks to speak the truth.”
A former wrestler who trained under Hellickson and Jordan — and said he was molested repeatedly by Strauss — told NBC News he has been interviewed by investigators as well and he was asked a “litany of questions” about his former coaches.
“They asked me, ‘Was this something the coaches knew about?’” the wrestler, who asked not to be named, said. “So I said yes. I told them we all talked about it in the locker room, in front of the coaches. And everybody knew about this.”
“Sometimes the coaches would chase these idiots out of the shower,” he added. “One of our coaches, John Dougherty, an enormous guy, was about to rip off the head of this guy he caught masturbating in the shower. And now he’s saying there was nothing going on.”
Dougherty, an assistant wrestling coach from 1986 to 1988, has issued a statement praising Jordan and denying any knowledge of wrestlers being abused. “No comment,” he said, when reached by an NBC News reporter.
The former wrestler said he supported Jordan politically but was deeply disappointed with a man he once believed was “as clean as a whistle of a human being as you will ever meet."
“People say politicians are crooked — I was proud to be able to say I know one that’s not,” he said. “But for him to say he had no idea what was going on, well, he’s not being honest.”