An inside look at how two agents guided clients throughout NFL Draft
This story appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to SI and read a digital version of the magazine, go here.
Sitting in the green room backstage at Radio City Music Hall last Thursday night, Rob Bortles suffered a moment of confusion. The NFL draft had just gotten under way, yet there was his eldest son, Blake, the gunslinging junior quarterback from Central Florida, a cellphone pressed to his ear. True, the 22-year-old couldn't realistically expect to be selected for another hour or so -- he had spent the previous fortnight plummeting down mock draft boards. Still, his old man considered it bad form to be yukking it up with a buddy, especially with so many cameras around.
"Who's Blake talking to?" Rob inquired. "He needs to get off the phone!"
It was quickly explained that the caller was in fact Blake's future employer, the Jaguars, who had not moved the 6' 5" 232-pounder down on their draft board. In fact, they had earmarked him months earlier as their QB of the future and then engaged in a campaign of misdirection and skullduggery to camouflage their ardor. Jacksonville invited multiple passers to its facility in the weeks leading up to the draft, feigning interest in all but one of them. GM Dave Caldwell went so far as to fudge the big board at his team's headquarters, moving Bortles down to a slot where he wouldn't attract attention. Caldwell didn't even tell his wife, Joelle, of the team's intentions for the No. 3 pick until just before the draft.
Less surprised than many by Jacksonville's derring-do was Ryan Tollner, a pensive, handsome ex-Cal quarterback who shares the responsibility of being Bortles's agent. Tollner, 38, had a strong hunch that reports of his client's slide had been greatly exaggerated. Along with his cousin Bruce Tollner, 49, Ryan is a partner at Rep1 Sports, an up-and-coming agency that's gone through a handful of names and configurations since Bruce founded it in 1992. By allowing SI to tag along during the three days of the draft, the Tollners provided a front-row-seat view of the agency's finest hour.
Not everything was on the record: After the Steelers used their first pick on a linebacker rather than an offensive weapon that might make life easier for Rep1 client Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback sent Ryan a text that the agent thought it best not to share with the world.
But the rest: fair game. A few hours earlier Ryan had stood milling about at the J.W. Marriott Essex House, on Central Park South, which provided its posh lodgings to the 30 prospects invited to attend the draft. One by one, the future stars and future busts migrated toward the shuttles that would take them to Radio City. At one point Bortles found himself 15 or so feet from Johnny Manziel, who helped himself to a long, lupine look at Lindsey Duke, Bortles's equally popular girlfriend. "Watch, now he'll send a runner over for her," wisecracked one member of the Bortles party.
Manziel's stock had been rising as the draft approached. But what did those teams at the top think of Bortles? Ryan Tollner was having a devil of a time finding out. General managers and scouts, formerly his partners in the trafficking of hunches and rumors, became evasive. GMs he was sure thought highly of Bortles-- the Vikings' Rick Spielman, the Texans' Rick Smith, Caldwell in Jacksonville -- had gone to ground, failing to return calls and texts.
Then there were the Browns, rumored to be interested in a variety of players, none of them Bortles. Which was odd. He'd made a strong connection with the brass on his visit to Cleveland and was one of the few prospects to be granted an audience with owner Jimmy Haslam. Yet none of the rumors surrounding the Browns linked them to Bortles.
"It feels suspicious," Tollner said with a bemused smile before boarding his bus to the draft. "I wouldn't be surprised if they took Blake at four."
He was right to be suspicious. Shortly after Jacksonville selected Bortles, Tollner took a call from Caldwell, whom he's known since he was a scout for the Colts, more than a decade ago. "It was killing me not to tell you," said the GM. Bortles, he finally admitted, had been their man all along.
With the Rams having planted a for sale sign on their No. 2 pick, any GM who pined for Bortles could have leapfrogged the Jaguars to snag him. Hence the Jags' subterfuge. Two weeks before the draft, one assistant coach openly discussed a potential play in the wide receivers' meeting room, then opted not to install it because, he said, "Johnny can't handle it" right away. Shortly afterward, Jacksonville wideout Cecil Shorts, a Rep1 client, texted another of the company's agents, Chase Callahan, to let him know that the team intended to draft Manziel.
"They did a phenomenal job getting the guy they wanted," said Ryan Tollner, who was happy to be duped. When the Browns came on the clock, one pick after Bortles was taken, they promptly traded back to No. 9 -- a strong indication, Tollner pointed out, "that their guy was off the board."
The green room on NFL draft night can be a cruel archipelago, each roundtable its own island with its own emotional microclimate: jubilation here, anxiety there. The future pros can be divided into two ever-changing groups: those with hats and those without.
While Bortles posed with commissioner Roger Goodell onstage, a young woman bearing a box of Jacksonville ball caps approached the table belonging to the newest Jaguar. Members of the QB's entourage were given a choice between flat or bent brims. (The line of demarcation was right around 22: Those older went with rounded brims; those younger opted for flat.) Photos were Instagrammed, congratulatory texts poured in. Family members laughed and grinned and shed happy tears, but the Rep1 crew -- the Tollners, Callahan and charismatic marketing director Nima Zarrabi -- had already turned their attentions back to the draft.
By all estimations, the next Rep1 player to hear his name called would be Joel Bitonio, a tackle from Nevada who in 2,054 snaps was penalized just five times and gave up only two sacks. Befitting the son of a carpet layer who moonlighted as an MMA fighter, Bitonio is a relentless, nasty player. (Mike Bitonio died of a heart attack in 2010 at 45.) After shining at the Senior Bowl and slaughtering the Combine, Joel entered the draft projected as an early second-rounder who could sneak into the first. Forgoing New York City, he chose to watch the proceedings in the bosom of family, at the Long Beach, Calif., house where, he says, Mike's presence is still strong, "from the floor he laid to the fireplace he put in to the table I'm sitting at. It's going to be pretty emotional."
The Rep1 gang spent the rest of Thursday evening willing Goodell to speak Bitonio's name. For that to happen, the hogs ranked ahead of him needed to get snapped up. "Three tackles have already been picked," Ryan noted mid-first round. "We need Zack Martin from Notre Dame to come off the board."
Moments later, with the 16th pick, the Cowboys obliged him, taking Martin instead of Manziel. In the green room it had been clear that Dallas was taking a pass on Johnny Football. Martin was on the phone; Manziel wasn't. For two agonizing hours, until Cleveland came to his rescue with the 22nd pick, the QB/celebrity out of Texas A&M lived the Randy Travis lyric: Since my phone still ain't ringin', I assume it still ain't you.
A couple of avowed Bitonio admirers, the Chargers (No. 25) and the Panthers (28), filled more immediate needs. With Day 1 complete, the Bortles entourage decamped to Willow Road, a stylish Chelsea gastropub recommended by ex-Jet Mark Sanchez.
While the flat-brimmed set sowed wild oats -- UCF center and Bortles wingman Joey Grant, a rising senior, showing impressive agility on the dance floor -- the Tollners found themselves in a more reflective place, savoring a professional watershed. There's a cachet to representing the first quarterback selected in the draft, a distinction usually reserved for monoliths such as CAA and Athletes First.
Joining that club was a milestone for the Tollners. It had been a long time coming.
Ted Tollner was the quarterback on the Cal Poly football team that lost 50-6 at Bowling Green on Oct. 29, 1960. Flying out of Toledo in thick fog that night, the C-46 propliner carrying the Mustangs football team crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 22 of the 48 people on board, including 16 players.
"We got up about 100 feet or so and it was the left engine that sputtered and went out," Ted told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "I knew we were going down, and I went into a ball to protect my head and that's all I remember until I came to."
He survived, with a mangled left foot that doctors considered amputating. A talented athlete, Ted Tollner never played beyond college. He did, however, coach for 47 years across the professional, collegiate and high school ranks, including four seasons as head man at USC. While Ted's Trojans went 26-20-1, his son Bruce was playing baseball, rowing and majoring in business finance at USC.
With an assist from Dad, Bruce took a job in the Bills' front office in 1987. But after a year of seeing how the club handled player negotiations, he decided he wanted to be on the other side of the table, advocating for the athletes. He earned his JD at Southwestern Law School in L.A., then hung up his shingle in '91. What kind of law did he practice? "Anything that came in the door," he recalls with a laugh. "Wills, trusts, estate planning -- anything to keep food on the table" while he scratched and clawed for athletes to represent.
Success did not come overnight, or even in the first few years. Here is Bruce ticking off a typical client list from those days: "Free agent, free agent, going up to Canada, free agent. ..." His big break came in 2000. By this time Bruce's dad was the head coach at San Diego State. Among his players was a gifted pass-rusher named Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who asked Bruce to be his agent. KGB was a fifth-round pick of the Packers, and went on to become Green Bay's alltime sacks leader.
The outlook had brightened in 1999 when Bruce welcomed his cousin Ryan into the business. A veer-option quarterback out of St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., Ryan may have overreached, slightly, by walking on at Cal, though he did take roughly 50 snaps in his career. More important, adds his cousin, "He got a picture of it." In other words Ryan spent eight straight years learning the nuances of the quarterback position, which he discusses today with the insight and erudition of an NFL coach.
In 2002, Tollner Sports Management merged with Leigh Steinberg and his partner, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, to form Tollner, Moon & Steinberg. Four years later the parties divorced amicably, with Bruce and Ryan taking their client list of 40 NFL players with them.
While the cousins are talented agents, neither is out of central casting. It was with considerable misgivings that Mary Raney agreed to be set up on a date with Ryan in 2004. "All I knew is that he was a sports agent from Newport Beach," a combination that she describes as "not promising."
"I was expecting this unctuous character to pull up in a sports car, maybe park in the handicapped zone," she says.
In walked an Eagle Scout in a button-down shirt. Ryan had an easy smile, kind eyes, and was a good listener. She knew after one date that she wanted to marry him. Four years later, she did.
That same low-key, genuine approach serves Ryan well at work. In 2003, he travelled to Iowa City to watch a player with whom he'd developed a rapport after a cold call. Iowa was feasting on Miami (Ohio), whose junior quarterback had asked Tollner before the game what he needed to do to get to the NFL. Among the agent's suggestions: Throw at least four touchdowns for every one interception.
In the 21-3 beatdown absorbed by the Redhawks that day, Ben Roethlisberger threw four picks and zero touchdowns. Afterward, Tollner told his downcast bud to shake it off, keep playing. The agent, strangely, came away hugely impressed. With Hawkeyes defenders teeing off on him, Roethlisberger had made NFL throws all over the field.
Before the 2004 NFL draft, when Roethlisberger (by then a Tollner client) unexpectedly fell to No. 11, Ryan had urged the QB to "remember the teams that pass you, and make them pay for it." Big Ben took particular umbrage in being passed over by the Browns -- he'd grown up in Lima, Ohio -- and has gone 17-1 against them.
Ryan said the same thing to Bortles last Thursday night: Remember the teams that pass you. But before Bortles could muster up even a mild sense of outrage-- two measly picks -- a 904 number appeared on his phone. The future was calling. It was a good day for Bortles, a very good day for Rep1 Sports. The Tollners, Callahan and Zarrabi enjoyed themselves well into Friday morning, as well they should have. They knew that the most grueling -- and heartbreaking -- day of the year lay just ahead.
Friday was good. Friday went according to plan. Bitonio landed safely in Cleveland (No. 35), where first-year coach Mike Pettine made this son of a bare-knuckle brawler Exhibit A in the team's quest for toughness. "You [don't] stand in front of a room and say, 'Hey, let's get tougher,' " Pettine said. "You get tough people in that room."
Eight picks after Bitonio, Colorado State center Weston Richburg was plucked by a Giants braintrust enamoured of his 34-inch arms and ability to pull and get out on the edge. There were the Bears, middle of the third (No. 82), taking a flier on defensive tackle Will Sutton, a holy terror during his junior season at Arizona State who packed on 30 pounds as a senior and wasn't close to being the same player. Sutton had lately been assuring teams that he would keep his weight down. Chicago believed him. Kareem Martin, an edge rusher from North Carolina, found a home with the Cardinals two picks later.
Saturday was more stressful. After hitching a ride to Jacksonville in the Jaguars' private jet at 8:30 on Friday morning, Ryan returned to Orange County that night, logged four hours of sleep, then drove 85 miles to San Diego, there to hold the hand (figuratively) of Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, who'd been described as the best third-down back in the draft. Gaffney was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round, so his distress was understandable as nine running backs went off the board on Saturday alone before the Panthers spent the 204th pick on him.
Earlier in that sixth round an Eagles coach had called to lavish praise on him, leading Gaffney, his mother and his girlfriend to believe he'd been drafted. The women sprung a few happy tears before Ryan clarified that Philadelphia wasn't selecting him -- the Eagles were recruiting him. As Zarrabi explains, "Teams identify talented players who might not get picked and say, 'Hey, we need to start loving this guy up.' So they tell him, 'We really want to take you in the next round, but if we can't' " -- they never can -- " 'we'd really like to bring you in as a free agent.'
"It makes guys think, This team really wants me. But [as a player] you've got to look at rosters and contracts rather than decide based on being courted."
Cut to Rep1 headquarters, a tasteful if testosterone-intensive office space in Irvine. (Guys, take your 3% cut of the Bortles deal -- $20.6 mil, or thereabouts -- and hire an assistant to rinse the coffee-maker, remove that petrified slice of pizza and dump the curdled milk from the fridge.)
Midway through the sixth and penultimate round, the courting and wheedling of potential undrafted free agents had grown dizzying. Bruce Tollner leaned forward on a love seat, bios of his orphaned clients scattered across the carpet in front him. No one's getting rich from these deals. A typical UDFA will earn a $10,000 signing bonus plus a $155-a-day per diem -- all for the privilege of getting pounded into steak tartare and then (probably) cut. And yet they're desperate for the chance. The agents scrambled like ER doctors to keep those dreams alive. Callahan: "These guys are counting on us."
Someone from the Cowboys called about UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt. "Pittsburgh just took him," replied Bruce; then: "How about Max Bullough? You have any interest in him? From Michigan State. He's the only other linebacker we have."
When they weren't advocating for their clients ("... I've also got a running back, two quarterbacks and a center-guard you may be interested in. ... "), Bruce and his charges shouted at the television. With the Packers on the clock -- No. 236 of 256 -- GM Ted Thompson appeared on the 60-inch flat screen. "He spent a lot of time with Max at the East-West game," Zarrabi noted hopefully. "Come on, Ted; he's perfect for Green Bay!"
"Patriots calling on Tenny," shouted Jason the intern.
"I like that," said Zarrabi. "Wilfork's hurt."
He was not happy, obviously, that New England nosetackle Vince Wilfork is rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon. But he liked the door it opened for Tenny Palepoi, a 300-pounder from Utah who would go undrafted and then conclude, at the end of the day, that the best situation for him is with the Chargers, whose coach, Mike McCoy, happened to play at Utah.
Bullough believed his best chance to shine was in Houston, where he could back up injury-prone Brian Cushing. And while his agents absorbed the heat from hardballing personnel types -- "I apologize, I'll try to speed him up; we just need a few more minutes" -- USC tackle Kevin Graf took his sweet time deciding between a half-dozen teams, settling on the Eagles.
After grinding and selling for two hours, Callahan found a team willing to give Stanford running back Anthony Wilkerson an invite to its rookie minicamp. When it was over, when the cajoling and shouting and sales pitches died down, the agency had found landing spots for 15 of its 16 clients. That single miss had everyone subdued, as if they'd somehow left a man behind. Spirits soared the next day, however, when the Cowboys invited Colorado center Gus Handler to a minicamp tryout.
These guys take pride finding opportunities for the long shots. "You want to be in the top three rounds," said Ryan. "That's where your best percentages are in terms of guys getting second contracts. But we love the underdog, the late-round guy who can turn into something. It's part of our fabric." Free agent, free agent, going up to Canada, free agent. ....
It's easier to hold so-called camp bodies and roster meat in the same regard as Blake Bortles when one of your clients is, well, Blake Bortles. Perhaps that's part of the reason Ryan couldn't quite sustain any sense of glumness as he walked to his car in the Rep1 parking lot, the sun still an hour from disappearing into the Pacific, the draft finally over.
For the first time, he represented the first quarterback selected. He's pretty sure it won't be the last.