Remembering Eugene Parker: The Agent Whose Business Was People

Thursday April 7th, 2016

It was truly heartbreaking to hear the news that longtime NFL player agent Eugene Parker died last Thursday, at 60, following a brief battle with kidney cancer. First and foremost, Eugene was a friend of mine and to so many others in the business of football, a caring colleague who was interested in far more than talking about players’ contracts. Beyond his personal kindness and empathy, he was as effective an agent as perhaps we have ever seen, maximizing players’ earnings in a career that spanned decades.

I met Eugene almost 30 years ago while interning for agent David Falk. Although we were not an established football agency, Falk represented top NBA players such as Michael Jordan, which granted us the opportunity to meet with a projected top pick in the NFL draft: cornerback Rod Woodson from Purdue University.

When we met Woodson in Fort Wayne, Ind., the person at his side was an impressive young attorney and Purdue alumnus named Eugene Parker. Eugene was not Woodson’s agent; he was simply advising him on which agent to select (Woodson chose Marvin Demoff). It was not hard to see even back then that Parker’s role in advising players would only increase. His client list over the years would include Woodson, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Curtis Martin, Stephen Jackson, Devin Hester, Jason Pierre-Paul and countless others.

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Eugene was trusted unconditionally by his players and respected universally by both peer agents (a feat in itself) and NFL team personnel. As a team executive, Eugene was the rare agent with whom you looked forward to doing business with. When I negotiated with him—our dealings included contracts for Greg Jennings, Hardy Nickerson, Joe Johnson and Justin Harrell with the Packers, and Jason Peters when I was consulting for the Eagles—I knew the talks were going to be a tough but fair. Moreover, I knew that whatever contract we negotiated, I would walk away feeling good about dealing with someone who knew his player, the market and the team. Eugene handled negotiations with true respect for his counterpart, even when he had (and rightfully used) the leverage in the situation.

Speaking of which…

Fitz’s Fortune

Eugene understood value and leverage as well as any one of the hundreds of agents with whom I have negotiated. In negotiating veteran contracts—and even some rookie deals—his signature “ask” was for shorter contract lengths. Unlike so many other agents, Eugene did not want the five- or six-year deals (with slightly bigger bonuses and puffed-up numbers) that offered little to no security in later years and locked players up longer. Eugene practiced his craft always mindful of an important tenet in the business of football: players only earn true value when nearing or at their leverage point of free agency. He played that card effectively and often, although always with respect. And his results speak for themselves, constantly tipping the negotiating scales toward his players in a business predominantly tilted toward ownership.

There was no client of Eugene’s whose contract history illustrates his savvy more than Larry Fitzgerald. Eugene negotiated not one, not two, but an astonishing three market-setting contracts with the Cardinals for Fitzgerald— followed by yet another value-add last year. The second of those three contracts, in 2008, may have been as player-friendly as any veteran contract I have seen: a four-year deal worth $40 million, with $33 million (83%) guaranteed, and giving Fitzgerald another bite at the free-agency apple before the age of 28 (when he, of course, set another new standard for wide receivers with a $16 million-plus average). At this time last year, when Fitzgerald’s role was being reduced with questions about his continued status on the Cardinals, Eugene negotiated a two-year, $22 million guarantee for Fitzgerald, securing him at an age (31) where most wideouts—even elite ones—have a year of security at best, at a much lower number. No player has maximized value in the NFL more than Larry Fitzgerald. His still-growing career earning are roughly $130 million, easily the most for any wide receiver in NFL history. That is largely due to Eugene.

“You Grieve for Mark”

Before the new CBA set the market for rookie contracts starting in 2011, first-round rookie contracts were among the most challenging and complicated negotiations in the NFL. Agents had leveraged multiple bells and whistles to these contracts, creating a “second rookie pool” of first-round earnings (the CBA changed all of that). There is one first-round negotiation that I will always remember; it endeared me to Eugene forever.

In 2004, our first-round pick was a speedy cornerback from Arkansas named Ahmad Carroll, a client of Eugene’s. We had a few early conversations about the contract—with Eugene’s usual ask for a shorter term—but put off our conversation until a designated date two days before the start of camp (deadlines spur action). On the eve of that day, I was in my office preparing when Mark Hatley, our player personnel director and my good friend, stopped by and asked if he could help with anything. I told him I was good; he then said he was going to play golf “for the last time,” meaning that once the grind of camp started he would not have time to play.

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That was the last time I saw Mark, who was found dead the next morning after having suffered a heart attack following his “last” round of golf. I, as everyone, was devastated; Mark was a shining light around the Packers’ office in the short time that he was there. Indeed, the last thing I wanted to do was negotiate rookie contracts, let alone a first-round deal.

While agents for the lower picks were relatively unsympathetic to my plight and wanted to haggle over a few thousand dollars—I remember losing my temper with one of those agents, screaming at him in the hot summer Green Bay night—Eugene was, as always, a cut above. He was also friendly with Mark and had heard about his passing; he understood and appreciated what a loss it was. I will never forget Eugene’s call that night, when he calmly and assuredly said, “Andrew, don’t you worry one second about Ahmad’s deal. We’ll get to it, and we’ll do it without a moment of tension, whenever you are ready. You grieve for Mark; I’ll tell Ahmad his situation is not important right now.” Eugene even offered to come to Green Bay and support me through the process.

After a couple of days of grieving and arranging a proper service for Mark, I returned to some sense of normalcy and negotiated our remaining rookie contracts. The negotiation of Ahmad’s deal with Eugene was as pleasant a first-round negotiation as I could have hoped for; we understood each other’s position and compromised on a fair contract. It was a signature Eugene Parker negotiation: he achieved maximum value for his player while treating his counterpart with kindness, respect and, in this case, unconditional friendship. Following that negotiation, I told Eugene I would never forget what he did. And I never will; that kind of compassion and fellowship is rare in the cutthroat world of professional football.

What a massive loss this is for Eugene’s family, his clients, and all the friends he made on both sides of the negotiating table in the NFL. He embodied a lesson for all negotiators: you do not have to be rude and unpleasant to get what you want. Eugene was one of the best negotiators in the world of sports while being one of its nicest people. The business of football will never be the same without him.

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