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Joshua Barber, who was making $9 an hour working part time in a deli, aspired to play professional football, and his first pick was the Buffalo Bills.

The 20-year-old NFL wannabe at first made an honest attempt to telephone then-Bills General Manager Buddy Nix in March, leaving his phone number at one point, according to his defense attorney.

But when his next call got through to Nix, Barber choked and hung up.

From there, though, things got out of hand, and Barber and a friend concocted an elaborate hoax on Nix and the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that got national attention.

It might have seemed amusing and somewhat profitable when Barber and his friend, Nicholas Kaiser, 20, both from Plymouth, Mass., allegedly sold a secret recording of a phone conversation between Nix and Tampa GM Mark Dominik for about $200 to sports website Deadspin, which published it March 12.

But there was nothing to laugh about Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Buffalo.

With his mother leading the way, the 5-foot, 8-inch, 225-pound Barber, walked into the courtroom just moments before the session started. Already seated was his friend Kaiser, his dark hair also closely cropped and wearing a red shirt, tie and white trousers. Next to him were his parents, Kevin and Kim.

The two young men sat silently as U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. entered pleas of not guilty to the charges placed against them – illegally intercepting and recording the Nix-Dominik conversation.

The magistrate judge granted Barber free legal representation by federal public defender Marianne Mariano, after the deli clerk said his income could not cover the cost of a private attorney and that his only asset was a 13-year-old Jeep.

Schroeder then released them without bail and ordered them to return to court Aug. 30.

“This is just devastating,” defense attorney Rodney O. Personius, who is representing Kaiser, said in explaining how the prank spun out of control. “I think it is also a little overblown.”

Barber and his mother refused to speak as they left court, but Personius maintains that it was a wrongheaded prank that did not rise to the level of a federal crime.

“Mr. Barber is of the belief that he has the skills to play in the National Football League and was looking for a tryout with the Buffalo Bills. He called Buddy Nix and on one occasion left his phone number,” Personius said.

In another call, Barber succeeded in getting through to Nix, “but he got cold feet and immediately hung up,” the attorney said. Soon after, though, the prank was afoot.

“It was a perfect storm,” Personius said of the unlikely chance that Nix would call Barber’s phone number at the same time the two defendants were phone-pranking Dominik.

At Plymouth South High School in Massachusetts, records show that Barber, No. 42, played four games as an offensive and defensive lineman in the 2008-09 football season but was not a standout player, according to an official at the school. “I don’t recall him,” varsity football coach Scott Fry told The Buffalo News. “He may have played.”

When Personius was asked whether he will pursue a plea deal, which was encouraged by Schroeder to save taxpayers money, the lawyer said that was certainly an option.

Personius cited weaknesses in the 1968 statute that Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiGiacomo has invoked against the defendants.

“At the time the law was adopted, the technology of today was ‘Jetsons’ technology,” Personius said of the futuristic 1960s cartoon show. “I don’t think that statute contemplated what exists today, so how can it be applicable?”

If convicted of the charges, Barber and Kaiser could face up to five years in prison and a fine of $500,000.

Nix, who announced last month he was leaving the Bills GM post and taking an advisory role with the team, was not in the courtroom.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com