TAMPA — Bucs receiver Antonio Brown obtained a fake COVID-19 vaccination card so he could avoid NFL protocols, according to his former live-in chef.
Brown’s girlfriend, model Cydney Moreau, told Los Angeles chef Steven Ruiz in a text message July 2 that Brown was willing to pay $500 if he could get a Johnson & Johnson vaccination card.
“Can you get the COVID cards?” Moreau texted Ruiz on July 2, according to a screen grab he provided to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I can try,” Ruiz responded.
“JNJ shot. Ab said he would give you $500,” Moreau texted.
The text exchange between Moreau and Ruiz does not refer to Brown by name. The wide receiver is often called A.B. by friends, coaches and teammates.
Brown wanted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine card, Ruiz alleged, because it’s the only one that consists of a single shot and would require less paperwork.
The wide receiver and his personal chef fell out over an uncollected debt. Ruiz, who owns Taste ThatLA, says he is owed $10,000. He spoke publicly for the first time about Brown after trying unsuccessfully to extract a settlement from the Super Bowl champion Bucs and after talks with Brown’s lawyer went nowhere.
Ruiz said he was unable back in July to find a fake vaccination card for Brown, who had told those around him that he was worried about the vaccine’s potential negative effects on his body. A few weeks later, however, Ruiz said Brown showed him fake vaccination cards, which the wide receiver told Ruiz he had purchased for himself and Moreau. They were sitting on Brown’s dining room table, Ruiz said. It was just days before the start of Bucs training camp.
Alex Guerrero, a personal trainer and co-founder of TB12 with Tom Brady, arrived at Brown’s house the same night to help the 33-year-old Pro Bowler recover from knee surgery. According to Ruiz, Guerrero took a photograph of Brown’s vaccination card while he was there.
To document the list of vaccinated players as quickly as possible, the Bucs would sometimes have Guerrero or others in the organization photograph the cards to send to head trainer Bobby Slater and eventually to their infection control officer.
Ruiz said he believes Guerrero was unaware the card was fake.
Guerrero declined comment for this story.
Ruiz’s story calls into question Brown’s vaccination status.
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Brown’s lawyer, however, said in a statement Thursday afternoon to the Times that Brown is vaccinated.
“Antonio Brown appreciates the severity of the pandemic, which is why he got the vaccine and supports everyone for whom it is advisable to get the vaccine,” Sean Burstyn texted. “Coronavirus has hit close to home as it took him out of a game. He is healthy, vaccinated, and ready to win another Super Bowl.
“One of the worst parts of the pandemic has been a movement to cast doubt on our country’s vaccination programs with baseless, vindictive tabloid gossip.”
The Bucs would not make Brown available to the Times for an interview. Bucs officials and Brown’s agent declined to discuss the story. And Brown did not respond to messages left on his cellphone.
Brown is recovering from a foot injury sustained in a Thursday Night Football game at Philadelphia on Oct. 14.
NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said teams are responsible for verifying personnel and player vaccination status. Players are supposed to present the cards to club medical staff or the infection control officer. Any attempt by team personnel or players to use a fake card would be reviewed under the personal conduct policy and may subject the individual to discipline. In addition, creating, using and/or selling such cards is a felony subject to fines and up to five years in prison.
In a statement released Thursday night, the Bucs said they followed protocol:
“After an extensive educational process conducted throughout our organization this past offseason highlighting the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines, we received completed vaccination cards from all Tampa Bay Buccaneers players and submitted the required information to the NFL through the established process in accordance with league policy. All vaccination cards were reviewed by Buccaneers personnel and no irregularities were observed.”
McCarthy said in an email that league officials are aware of the Times’ report and “have been in contact with the club. We will review the matter.”
He added that “no club has reported any issues during the verification process. In many instances, personnel, players and their family members were administered shots at club facilities.”
Brown, who had a violent altercation after a bill dispute early last year, has already been subject to recent NFL scrutiny. The league suspended him for the first eight games of the 2020 season for multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy.
Six days before the Sept. 9 season opener, Bucs coach Bruce Arians proudly announced that his team was “100 percent vaccinated,” including “every player, coach and staff member.”
Brown became one of only a few Tampa Bay players to be infected with COVID-19 this season, missing one game because of it — the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams, which the Bucs lost.
Players who are vaccinated can return to work if they are asymptomatic and pass two COVID-19 tests 24 hours apart. Instead, Brown endured the same 10-day waiting period imposed on unvaccinated players who test positive for the virus.
In an agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, unvaccinated players face a long list of stringent protocols enacted by the league; they include social distancing and wearing a mask at all times. Weight room capacity is limited to 15 players.
The NFL does not hesitate to punish teams and players for disregarding COVID protocols. On Nov. 9, the Green Bay Packers were fined $300,000 for not enforcing league rules with players. Two unvaccinated Packers, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Allen Lazard, were fined $14,650 each.
It is unclear whether Brown ultimately got the vaccine. But according to Ruiz, at least over the summer, Brown tried to avoid it.
From Brown’s inner circle to on the outs
Ruiz said he met Brown and Moreau when he catered a party for the wide receiver in Los Angeles last summer. Ruiz said he quickly was invited to become more than Brown’s personal chef.
Once in Tampa, Brown let Ruiz run errands for him in his $300,000 yellow McLaren, such as picking up Moreau at the airport. Ruiz prepared meals that followed the strict TB12 regimen and dropped off lunch for Brown at the Bucs training facility. Ruiz also said he accompanied Brown to a Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas in July.
Ruiz said he and Moreau were in regular contact. She was frequently at Brown’s house. Ruiz said they attended two Bucs preseason games together at Raymond James Stadium. The Times has confirmed that the phone number in their text exchange belongs to Moreau.
When reached by the Times, however, Moreau said she did not know Ruiz. “No, I don’t know him. I don’t want to be part of any story.”
When Moreau was read the text exchange Ruiz said he had with her, she added: “That’s not true.”
The texts between Moreau and Ruiz on July 2 started as a conversation about meal planning and schedules.
“Where’s lunch ? Lol,” Moreau texted Ruiz, according to the screen grab.
“I’m on my way back,” Ruiz responded.
“Are you coming tomorrow,” she asked.
“Yes I am. Do you know what the schedule like is tomorrow?” Ruiz asked.
“AB going to the gym at 8. Come earlier, plz,” she texted.
“What time should I do breakfast,” Ruiz asked.
“Be ready for 7!” Moreau wrote.
“Ok sounds good,” Ruiz said.
“Can you get the covid cards?” Moreau then asked.
“I can try,” Ruiz responded.
“JNJ shot. Ab said he would give you $500,” Moreau texted.
After the request to obtain fake cards, Ruiz said he was invited to move from Los Angeles. He lived at Brown’s South Tampa home for a month before renting his own place in Channelside in August.
Ruiz returned to Los Angeles on Sept. 9 after he said Brown became furious about an invoice submitted the day the Bucs opened the 2021 season against the Dallas Cowboys. Ruiz said the receiver still owes him $10,000.
The dispute is outlined on a screen grab of a series of texts starting that day from Brown to Ruiz.
“Paid u $46k bro no plan no me I appreciate your work the next tine for so much be detail and n on point appreciate the service,” according to Brown’s text to Ruiz.
“750 X 50 days = 45,000. Bro u been paid this ain’t been here for 50 days.”
But after the Bucs’ win over the Cowboys, in which Brown caught five passes for 121 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown, he sounded almost regretful that Ruiz had left.
“We come too far to turn back we doing something special chef counting on you want u be happy to be around if anything just talk to me about anything u feel champ get some off days let’s break bread trust God plan and continue to be great let god use us do something g bigger than us,” Brown texted in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, shortly after the Thursday night game had ended.
Ruiz said he believed hiring an attorney to sue Brown in civil court would probably cost more than he was owed.
And, at that point, the story took a sordid L.A. twist.
Enter the Hollywood fixer
Ruiz reached out to Kevin Blatt, known for helping sell stories to the tabloids.
“I didn’t really have the money to hire an attorney,” Ruiz said. “Kevin is well-known for being a fixer in Los Angeles.”
Blatt, who works mostly as a media broker, released the Paris Hilton sex tape in 2003. Since then, Blatt has been credited with some of the biggest celebrity stories while working with ABC News, TMZ and the National Enquirer.
Blatt told the Times that he contacted Bucs chief legal officer Dan Malasky on his cellphone as he was eating lunch in California the week of Oct. 18, and they spoke for about 8½ minutes.
Blatt said he identified himself as a media broker, gave his name and encouraged Malasky to Google it. Blatt said he told Malasky that the Bucs have issues with fake COVID vaccination cards.
Blatt said he gave Malasky names of two players but did not mention Brown because he planned to contact the receiver’s attorney directly.
Blatt did not tell Malasky whom he was working for. “I don’t give away my sources,” Blatt said. “But I told him I found the guy very credible and I believe his story and I’ve seen some evidence firsthand. I told him to let me know what they wanted me to do or if they thought we could come to some resolution.”
Blatt said he did not request an amount of money to make the story disappear. “Hell no, that’s extortion,” Blatt said.
On Nov. 8, Brown’s attorney, Sean Burstyn, contacted Ruiz and spoke with him for about six minutes, according to a cellphone log provided to the Times. Ruiz says Burstyn asked him “how much” he wanted to settle the dispute. Ruiz said he told Burstyn he only wanted the debt owed to him by Brown.
Brown’s history of unpaid debt claims
This isn’t the first time Brown has been accused of not paying his bills, and one previous altercation turned violent. Among the recent incidents:
In September 2019, Sports Illustrated reported that Brown had faced a half-dozen lawsuits for his alleged “refusal to pay wages to former assistants and part-time employees.” That includes another celebrity chef who said Brown owed him more than $38,000 and a trainer who said Brown owed him $7,200.
In January 2020, Brown was accused of attacking a truck driver in front of his home in Hollywood, Fla. The driver claimed that Brown became violent after a dispute over paying him. In that case, Brown was charged with burglary with assault, burglary conveyance and criminal mischief.
Brown entered a no contest plea and was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation as well as a 13-week anger management course. A civil suit filed by the driver, alleging assault and battery, is still pending, as is a separate suit filed by the moving company.
In October 2020, Brown was accused of destroying a security camera and throwing his bicycle at the security-guard shack of his gated community in South Florida. According to a Hollywood Police Department report, Brown could have been charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief, but the president of the homeowners association declined to press charges, saying she feared Brown “might retaliate against her employees.”
Two weeks after the incident, the Bucs signed Brown. “I think he’s matured and I believe in second chances,” Arians said at the time.
Brown was accused of sexual assault by his former trainer, Britney Taylor, in a lawsuit filed in 2019. The two sides reached a settlement in April. A couple of weeks later, the Bucs signed Brown to another one-year deal.
And in May, KCB Marketing sued Brown, claiming he had not paid commission on more than $2 million in earnings. Last month, the court ruled that the case should go to the NFL Players Association’s arbitration tribunal.
After arriving in Tampa Bay, Brown had 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns last season. He also caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Brown was inactive for the third straight game Sunday. The Bucs are hopeful he is close to returning. They are 5-0 with Brown in the lineup, 1-3 without him.
On his Instagram account Tuesday, Brown posted a picture of himself making a play against the Dolphins. “Godsplans,” he wrote. “Fireworks soon.”