A blind eye

Thirteen years ago Tuesday, I delivered my earliest draft-pick contract ever, first rounder Jermane Mayberry. The deal is still paying dividends in an unusual way.

After the Eagles drafted Jermane, an offensive lineman, my phones wouldn’t stop ringing with calls from the familiar 215 Philly area code. I assumed they were from reporters, but when I listened to the messages later, I realized a lot of Eagles fans had my direct line.

The messages had a tough, humorous but passionate tone that I was accustomed to hearing while growing up in the South Philly-Delaware County area. Most of them went like this: “Yo, Bechta! Be sure to get Mayberry in camp on time or don’t bother coming home.” Or, “Hey, brother, your boy better not suck and he better not hold out.” And these were from my good friends and family. That’s Philly for you.

The messages were reminders of how brutally harsh Philly fans can be. I know because I was one of them. My family had season tickets at the Vet for 20 years. I used to go to practices at Widener College, and my dad once went 17 years without missing a home game. I attended many hapless games in freezing weather and was even used as a mule to sneak in beers wrapped in hoagie paper (two 12 ouncers stacked).

I also grew up listening to the mother of all sports talk radio stations, WIP, which can be a buzz-saw to any Philly athlete. They simply take no prisoners and won’t let up. I wanted to make sure to insulate Jermane any way I could from becoming a target of the Philly media.

When Jermane attended his first Eagles mini-camp a week or so after the draft, I decided to go with him. He came from a small south Texas town and school, so I knew Philly could be quite the culture shock. In fact, I knew it all too well because I went from Philly to the same south Texas school. I wanted Jermane to have a stress-less transition into his new city.

One of my goals attending the camp was to assure the front office and the media that we would do our part to get a deal done as soon as possible. Quietly, I didn’t know Jermane well enough to know if he could handle the Philly heat if negotiations drifted toward a holdout. Of course, I didn’t want the Eagles to know that — or the media.

On my way to meet with Eagles GM Joe Banner, I had the station on my rental car tuned to WIP. Sure enough, the Philly faithful started in, wondering why the team had drafted an O-lineman from a small school in the first round. That was a pretty typical question. Then, one of the hosts (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that Jermane was legally blind in his left eye. Well, that opened the flood gates. Next thing you knew, callers were saying he’d be wearing a patch during games and look like a pirate. Another comment was that he was “blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other.” It got pretty ruthless and the guy hadn’t practiced a snap yet. I decided to call into the show and give some background and information about why the Eagles were comfortable drafting him as high as they did and why the fans should be excited. It worked for the time being — they actually let up on Jermane and had me on several more times over the next few weeks.

When I got to Vet, where the Eagles used to maintain their offices, it brought back a lot of memories, confirming that the Eagles were part of my DNA. But I had to put that all aside because I was there working for my client.

I met with Joe for an hour or so, and we both were anxious to get the contract done sooner or later. Then I asked to meet with owner Jeffrey Lurie, and from there an unusual series of events unfolded. When I met with him, I asked him why he bought the Eagles. He said he had tried buying the Patriots, but (Robert) Kraft beat him to it. He also said, “Owning a pro franchise could help make a difference in a community,” something he and his wife Christina were committed to doing. He then spent considerable time telling me about the Eagles’ Youth Partnership, a charity formed specifically to aid the Philadelphia community.

<p>I then did something I thought was in Jermane’s best interest: I told Jeffrey that my client would like to be a part of his foundation in some way.

Jeffrey introduced me to the executive director, Sarah Helfman, and the next thing I knew, Jermane, Joe Banner, Sarah, Jeffrey and I were in a room brainstorming about how we could make a difference in the Philadelphia area.

Jermane said he would like to do something that would help underprivileged kids get proactive eye care. His problem wasn’t caught until it was too late, he said, but if he’d had an exam at a much younger age, it could have been identified and most likely corrected. As the discussion progressed, I began to realize that the synergy in the room would also help move negotiations forward and create a bond between owner and player, something that happens only occasionally.

Over the next few weeks, Joe and I went back and forth on a few proposals and counter-proposals, while Sarah and I were simultaneously coming up with some unique ideas on how Jermane and the Eagles’ Youth Partnership could work together. We came up a method of creating an early screening process for elementary-aged children to get comprehensive eye exams, glasses or surgical procedures by transforming a bus into a mobile eye office.

Thus, we created the concept of the Eagle Eye Mobile. The converted bus would roll up to an inner city school where children would be tested and even fitted with glasses on the spot. In addition, Jermane or another player would be there to let the kids know it’s cool to wear glasses. Now, we just had to fund it.

In early June, I made a proposal to Joe that had an unusual component. It said that if the Eagles accepted my proposal, Jermane would donate, over the course of his five-year contract, $100,000 to fund the Eye Mobile project. So on or about June 15, Joe accepted my proposal, which was higher than the slot might have commanded, and Jermane was just the second first rounder to sign and get under contract. The charitable component to the Luries’ foundation definitely helped get the deal done early. However, for Jermane, it was more than a window-dressing tactic because he gave much of his free time during and after the season to be an active part of the program.

Actually, Jermane’s rookie year was pretty rough as he struggled at tackle. No one knew it, but he was suffering from bronchitis, which eventually led to pneumonia. He lost 20 pounds that year and caught some heat from the media. However, his commitment to the Eagle Eye Mobile not only helped soften the blow from the fans, it also gave him a true sense of purpose and a bit of salvation, which help to relieve some of the pressure and stress of an underperforming first-round pick.

Jermane eventually earned his way to the Pro Bowl and enjoyed an exceptional career.

The Eagle Eye Mobile evolved into a legacy flagship program (eagleseyehealth.org) of the Eagles’ Youth Partnership. Even after Jermane left the Eagles in free agency to play for the Saints, Jeffrey, Sarah and Joe decided to keep his picture on the bus. To date, the program has given over 25,000 comprehensive eye exams. Of those, 75 percent have resulted in diagnoses of corrective action such as being provided with two pairs of free glasses. Another 3,000 to 4,000 children were provided some type of surgery or serious medical attention — some even sight-saving.

The fact is that one in four children suffers from vision problems that can lead to serious learning disabilities or other disadvantages.

Jermane has obviously made a huge difference in the lives of many children who went on to learn without the struggles related to vision problems. For me, this is the negotiation I’m most proud of because of the small role I played in the creation of this program.

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