This is undoubtedly the most stressful time of year for agents.
In many respects, it’s a waiting game. Some agents have been courting prospects since early this year; all that’s left is a final word from a player that you’re their guy.
The agent business is a lighthouse for competitive egos. At this point in the process, every agent thinks he’s going to win, but just to be sure, the heat is often turned up on players.
Some agents go to a prospect’s bowl game for some last-minute schmoozing and lobbying with the family, and perhaps to get some ink immediately after the game. Experienced agents typically know if they’re the winner because they can read a player’s actions and reactions. It’s a bad sign, for example, when text messages and phone calls aren’t returned. But when a player starts to joke around with you via text, you are definitely in. And when mom and dad start asking you about all-star games and even other agents, you know you are their man, or their woman.
College seniors whose teams are not going to a bowl game are free to sign with an agent. My guess is that 80 percent of this group have selected an agent and are already preparing for their all-star game and the NFL Combine. Those who are playing in a bowl game have to wait until afterward to sign. About 75 percent of this group have informally selected their agent. The rest have narrowed it to a field of two to three and may have some interviews scheduled immediately after their game. I have two meetings set with players from this group.
To date, I’ve signed only one player, wide receiver John Matthews from tiny 1AA University of San Diego. John won’t be drafted high and will be on the fence to make it to the Combine. But it’s possible I might have another Brandon Stokley (Broncos) or Karl “The Truth” Williams (Bucs/retired) on my hands. Matthews caught 102 passes this season and broke a number of team receiving records. His QB from last season, Josh Johnson, was taken in the fifth round by the Bucs and is being groomed as their potential starter next season. So you never know what you have until these young men go to camp and start competing. I usually sign from two to four draftees per year.
Here are a few war stories from the recruiting/signing trenches:
Earl Dotson, OT, Texas A&I (third round, Packers): Earl was from my alma mater and was the best prospect to come out since my old teammate, Hall of Famer Darrell Green. I thought I had Earl locked down for sure, in part because I was close to his O-line coach, Juan Castillo, who is now with the Eagles. Earl said he wanted to take a visit to an agent in Dallas before he inked with me. When he got back, he informed me that he had signed with the agent because he had a “good program” and had loaned him $3,000 upon signing. I was disappointed, especially since I had never heard of the agent. I eventually called him back and wished him luck. I also asked him if he was comfortable with his decision, and after a long pause, he conceded that he was not. So I quickly asked him, “If I loaned you the money to pay him back, would you sign with me?” After he replied with a firm “Yes,” I got on the first plane to Corpus Christi and landed one of my biggest clients. Earl went on to become the highest paid O-lineman in Packers history with his second deal.
Robert Gallery, OL, Iowa (second pick overall, Raiders): After signing several players from Iowa, including 33rd overall pick Eric Steinbach the previous year, I thought I had a serious shot at Robert. He was very eager for me to give him and his family a presentation the summer before his senior season. We also e-mailed frequently, and he was proactive in contacting me and asking questions about his future. I recruited Robert for a year and threw everything at him I could. I was up against two big firms, IMG and Priority Sports. Robert made it clear that IMG (now CAA) was his least favorite and that he really liked one of the agents at Priority who had previously represented his brother Nick, a punter who bounced around the league for a while. In November, I was contacted by Iowa’s strength coach, who gave me the news that I was not a finalist on Robert’s list. However, I never gave up and talked to him three times a day after the bowl game. I thought I had him on the fence, but in the end he went with Rick Smith of Priority, who ended up getting a great deal for him. A sidebar to this story was that I got a call from an agent with Athletes First, who told me that Robert’s parents had been calling him for advice, and he felt that if he and I teamed up we could land Robert together. I asked Robert if he or his parents had ever spoken to Dave of Athletes First. He told me that he had a few messages from him but never spoke to him. Nice try, Dave. However, looking back, I should have taken him up on the offer.
Tim Dwight, WR/PR, Iowa (fourth round, Falcons): Tim was one of my best signings because he was what we call a “calling-card client,” meaning that everyone in the country, especially the Big 10, knew him and respected him. He actually finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting his senior year and even received some first-place votes. It was 1998 and I had represented Damien “Shot Gun” Robinson, a fourth-round safety picked by the Bucs, the previous year. I really went after Tim hard, but he wanted nothing to do with the process until after the season. So his dad handled it for him. When I did meet with Tim just before Thanksgiving, I gave him a great presentation and pushed him to brand himself properly so he would be guaranteed a prosperous life after football. The thing I remember most about the visit to Tim’s house was that his mother made us a great home-cooked meal (rare treatment for an agent), and Tim was quick to do the dishes for his mom.
Tim also heard presentations from my competition between his last regular-season game and the Sun Bowl in El Paso. In early December (these were the days before cell phones), I called Tim’s house and heard the following recording on the answering machine: ”If you are calling about representing our son Tim, the field has been narrowed to the following: Tony Agnone of Eastern Athletics Sports, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports and Jack Bechta of JB Sports. For the rest, we appreciate the interest, but please refrain from calling us any longer or trying to contact Tim.” Tim’s dad later told me that he had more than 20 agents calling daily.
The weekend before Tim’s bowl game, Mr. Dwight ask the finalists not to contact Tim for three days so he could consider his decision without any distractions. They would make up their minds that Sunday, he said. So three days passed in which I had to stop marketing myself and just wait for a phone call.
Sunday morning rolled around. No call. Sunday afternoon, still nothing. At 8 p.m., the phone finally rang – clearly not a good sign.
It was Mr. Dwight. He asked me why I hadn’t checked in earlier to get the results. Then he said he was going to hand the phone to Tim, who wanted to thank me for my interest, another bad sign.
There was some small talk, after which Tim told me that I was the best fit for him and that he expected to see me in El Paso. Not my first choice for New Year’s Eve, but I said I would be there with a contract in hand. I later found out that Mark of Priority had called Tim several times during the requested no-contact period, which turned off Tim. And EAS actually had Bill Parcells call Tim and put in a good word for them, which also turned Tim off as he didn’t want a potential head coach holding a debt over his agent.
Since signing Tim, I have represented several more Iowa players. He also referred a few NFL players to me, including WR Eric Parker and LB Monty Beisel. On his second deal with the Chargers, Tim became the 19th highest-paid WR in the NFL with $6 million up front. Big dollars for the day. Tim is a close friend and a person I respect greatly.
Tyrell Johnson, S, Arkansas State (second round, Vikings): In November 2007, a well-known scout I knew told me that he thought the best safety the country was at Arkansas State. I quickly scanned my memory but couldn’t recall any players who had come out of that school. I then checked all the so-called “scouting guru” Web sites and books to see where they had Tyrell ranked. He was No. 21 in one book and No. 15 in another and was projected as a late round pick. That was perfect; it meant that few agents would be on him. I quickly made contact, then flew and drove to Jonesboro, Ark., for a presentation. I then flew him to a few workout facilities and to San Diego. He told me he was talking to four other agents, including Bus Cook, who also represents Brett Favre. He liked Bus for obvious reasons but told me he felt comfortable with him because Bus was a small-town guy like him. So when I got a text late one night from Tyrell telling me that he was going to go with Bus, I wasn’t surprised. But I was feeling competitive and didn’t want to give up. So I texted Tyrell back, told him that he made a good decision and asked him for a courtesy callback. He called me back and explained his reasoning. I told him that I respected him and wasn't going to try to make him second-guess his decision. He then did something I was hoping he might. He said, “See, that’s why I like you. The other guys gave me a hard time and tried to talk me out of it and told me that I was making a mistake. Just because of that I am going to go with you. Yeah, I’m going to stick with my gut and go with you.” I was on a plane the next the day getting the ink on the page. Tyrell started eight games this year.
Kevin Curtis, WR, Utah State (third round, Rams): Kevin had to be one of my worst recruiting efforts. Nothing went right, but I recruited him hard. He was a good kid and I was straightforward with him, telling him that he would most likely be a third-round pick and at best a late second rounder. After making several trips to Utah and then bringing him to San Diego, he called to tell me that he was going with Gary Wichard, one of the industry’s greatest salesmen. I asked him to tell me why he chose Gary and he said that Gary was the only one who believed in him and told him he could be a first-round pick. Needless to say, there are a lot of players I don’t get because I try to set their expectations conservatively. As it turned out, Kevin went in the third round. Agents simply cannot get a player drafted higher than the 32 teams’ collective opinion of that player.
For every signing I’ve had, there have been MANY rejections. You have to have thick skin and a short memory to survive in this business. After being stood up at the airport waiting for a prospect, losing out to a big firm offering a $100,000 to $200,000 line of credit and losing a guy because my competition bad-mouthed me, I have sometimes felt like quitting the business or just focusing on veterans. Then I remind myself that there’s a match for everyone and I have an amazing group of guys I work for.
I see a continued trend of more and more college players going with large agencies. The agencies offer lots of perks, and independents like me have a hard time matching them. But there is still a secure group of young men out there who choose an agent based on their experience, values and reputation.
It’s easy for a player to pick an agent because of their client list. However, people in the industry know that players make agents; agents don’t make players.