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ATLANTA — Distraught wide receiver Donte Stallworth called him from the back of a patrol car. Accused quarterback Ben Roethlisberger texted him in the predawn hours from a Georgia college town. More recently, baseball’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, sought his counsel.

When big-time athletes get into trouble off the field, they often turn to David Cornwell, who from his Atlanta office has built a national practice as the go-to lawyer for superstars in the soup.

Cornwell, quoted earlier this month throughout the national media, strongly criticized Major League Baseball for slapping the New York Yankees’ Rodriguez with an unprecedented 211-game suspension for his ties to a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Cornwell will help lead Rodriguez’s appeal.

“No doubt it’s cool to see our case in the news and everything,” Cornwell said. “But that means both our successes and failures are headline news.”

Cornwell enjoyed enormous success last year when he persuaded an arbitration panel to overturn a 50-game suspension against reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. It marked the first time a player had successfully appealed such a suspension.

“He really looks after his clients,” said Atlanta criminal-defense attorney Ed Garland, whom Cornwell brought in to defend Roethlisberger.

Plays ball

Cornwell, the fifth of six children, grew up in Washington, D.C., where his late father practiced as a general surgeon. His mother taught history in the public-school system before becoming a real-estate agent.

During his senior year at Tufts University he played guard on the basketball team.

Cornwell obtained his law degree from Georgetown University and joined a law firm.

It was during this time when he became friends with the daughter of prominent attorney and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan. Jordan would later recommend then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle hire Cornwell as the league’s assistant counsel.

Cornwell said he only knew Jordan socially, which is why he always tells law students: “That’s proof you are always interviewing.”

At the NFL, Cornwell was assigned the task of coordinating the league’s minority-hiring program and worked closely with a member of the league’s public-relations office — Roger Goodell, now the NFL’s commissioner.

Cornwell’s work has been recognized for helping pave the way for the hiring of the NFL’s first black coaches, Art Shell and Dennis Green.

“What’s also incredibly rewarding is to go to league meetings now and see the number of minorities in all phases of the game, not just in coaching, not just in PR, but everywhere,” Cornwell said. “It wasn’t that way before.”

Last May, he joined Gordon & Rees, a San Francisco-based law firm with more than 500 lawyers in 28 cities. It was no coincidence, he said, that the firm’s Atlanta office had a strong sports and entertainment law practice.

Cornwell came out swinging shortly after Rodriguez retained him during the Biogenesis investigation. In June, he strongly criticized MLB, accusing the league of paying Biogenesis director Tony Bosch and his associates for information.

“The conduct of Major League Baseball with the Tony Bosch investigation is despicable, unethical and potentially illegal,” Cornwell told USA Today. “ … Paid-for evidence should never be in the same sentence. But their investigation is based on paid-for evidence.”

The accusations received a swift retort from MLB Executive Vice President Rob Manfred.

“At the conclusion of this investigation,” he said, “we hope that there will be a full airing of what we have learned about what Mr. Cornwell and his clients have done so that the public can decide who has behaved despicably, unethically and illegally.”

Cornwell, a longtime Yankees’ fan, expressed confidence in Rodriguez’s appeal. “We believe in our defenses,” he said. “I believe in Alex Rodriguez the man.”

Winning the case

When defending an athlete, the No. 1 goal is to win the case, but it’s also important to win in the court of public opinion, Cornwell said. This will be a challenge for Rodriguez, who has been derided by fans and sports commentators.

“It’s the fanatic part of the term ‘fan’ that makes sports so successful and it’s the way I make a living and have enjoyed a very fruitful and blessed life,” Cornwell said. “So I don’t begrudge anybody that.

“But these players are still entitled to a vigorous defense. And if there’s any question as to how you think they should be represented, then take the celebrity name out of it and insert the name of your father, your brother, yourself or your son and determine what kind of representation you want them to have.”