March 13, 2013— -- Ma'lik Richmond, a high school sophomore football player in Steubenville, Ohio, is accused of raping a 16-year-old girl from across the Ohio River in West Virginia while at a party with several other teenage boys.
The case has created a firestorm in the small football-obsessed city stoked by allegations that officials protected Steubenville football players at the expense of the alleged victim. Residents there follow the storied Big Red high school football team religiously. It is a program that Ma'lik, 16, had dreamed of joining and, on the night of Aug. 11, 2012, he relished the role he played in their first scrimmage win.
"I had two touchdowns and the fans were screaming and cheering," Ma'lik told ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas in an exclusive interview with "20/20" given a little more than a week before his trial, which begins today. "I was just thinking, 'I just can't wait for the season to start.'"
It's no surprise that he was in a celebratory mood. But even Ma'lik admits that some of what happened at the parties he and several of his teammates attended that night crossed the line.
"I knew one person had a fake I.D.," Ma'lik said. "People had Bud Light Platinum, and different variety of beers and vodka. Everybody was drinking."
But, Ma'lik insists, that was the only crime committed that night.
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday, March 22, at 10 ET
Prosecutors will argue that the young girl who was allegedly raped was intoxicated and beyond the point of consent when Ma'lik and teammate Trent Mays, 17, allegedly used their hands to penetrate her vaginally. In Ohio, as in many states, that constitutes the crime of rape.
"The state doesn't have to prove that she was flat-lined, but it's clear during both of these digital penetrations she was not in the state to consent," Prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter said at a probable cause hearing in October.
The alleged victim's civil attorney also insists it would have been impossible for his client to consent that night. "My client was unconscious that night. She doesn't have any memory of what happened," Bob Fitzsimmons told "20/20."
ABC News does not name the victims of alleged sexual assaults.
Ma'lik says he was stunned to get a text from a friend three days after the party saying that one of the girls present that night had accused him of rape.
"I just texted him, like, 'What are you talking about? Stop playing with me,'" he said.
Up until that fateful night, Ma'lik's life had read like a script from the movie "The Blind Side." Growing up, it was not uncommon for him to dodge gunfire at home.
"One day we were all just sitting in my living room and it was dark and all you hear is a big gunshot," he said. "The bullet flew past my cousin's head and we all just hit the floor. I just remember basically every house I lived in was the same exact thing."
Sports soon became an escape from his home life. By the age of 8, he had already become a gifted athlete who excelled at baseball, basketball and track. It was football, though, that afforded him the first real opportunity for a better life.
Greg Agresta is a successful banker living on the other side of Steubenville with his wife, Jennifer, a teacher, and their two sons. He was encouraged nine years ago to sign his 8-year-old son, Robby, up for a pee-wee football league whose rosters included disadvantaged kids. Greg was soon recruited to coach the team, and he immediately took notice of one player.
Ma'lik Richmond's athletic talent was obvious, but so was his lack of parental guidance. Agresta would offer to drive Ma'lik home after games and, concerned he was not getting enough to eat at home, stop for dinner. Eventually, as a way of guaranteeing Ma'lik would show up for football, Agresta began allowing him to sleep over before game days. Ma'lik and Robby Agresta, both the same age, bonded easily and before long Ma'lik had become just like another member of the family.
"I said to myself at the time, 'I see this is a special kid. I'm going to do what I can to help him out.' And that was the beginning of it," Agresta told Vargas.
Greg and Jennifer Agresta asked Malik's mother whether they could help her out with the day-to-day caring for her son. She agreed and Malik was soon sharing a bunk bed with Robby. "I remember saying to him the first time he came to our house, 'You are always welcome at my home until you give us a reason that you wouldn't be welcomed. And he's just never given us a reason," Jennifer Agresta said.
The Agrestas eventually made the arrangement official, filing a petition for legal guardianship so they could get Ma'lik covered with medical insurance.
Ma'lik lived with the family for two years before moving back home to his biological mother. "He was always part of our family even when he wasn't living here any longer," Jennifer Agresta said.
He would text on holidays and birthdays, sending well wishes, and he continued to turn to the Agrestas for support. "When he was starting high school, his uncle was supposed to take him to get some new shoes," she said. "Something had come up and he wasn't able to do that. So he called me."
At the store Agresta could tell that Ma'lik was conscious of the prices and would only try on the least expensive shoes. She says it was just another example of the kind of kid Ma'lik was and that he never took advantage of her generosity.
As Ma'lik was preparing for his sophomore year in high school, his horizons looked bright. He had been selected to play for the Big Red football team and was eager for the season to begin. "Obviously, he's very athletic," Agresta said. "Academically, he does very well. He's a good-looking boy. He's a well-mannered boy. He had a lot of possibilities out there."
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says there were "no heroes" present the night of the alleged rape. "We all have an obligation to kind of look out for each other in this world," DeWine told ESPN. "That was absent that night. No one can defend what happened that night."
Ma'lik's promising future is now threatened by decisions he made that night that resulted in charges of rape against him and Trent. From police interviews and court documents obtained exclusively by ABC News, the case against them appears largely to be based on three eyewitness accounts from fellow Steubenville athletes.
"I didn't rape anybody. I didn't witness a rape going on," Ma'lik told Vargas in her exclusive "20/20" interview. "And if I would have thought that somebody was being raped or anything like that, I would have stopped it."
Ma'lik's attorney would not allow "20/20" to ask the teen whether he used his hands to penetrate the victim vaginally, saying only that what occurred that night was consensual.
Soon, his fate will be in the hands of a juvenile court judge in an Ohio courtroom. Even if acquitted, Ma'lik seems to believe his story will have a very different ending than the one it initially mirrored so closely, "The Blind Side."
"There'll always be that question," he said. "This will always still be right there. Always remember this case."
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday, March 22, at 10 ET