20 years later, life imitates art for NFL agent Leigh Steinberg
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Twenty years on, Leigh Steinberg is still amazed at the staying power. No matter where he goes, or what the local language is, a day rarely passes without a mention of the movie, and those famous and ubiquitous four words of dialogue.
Can it be that Jerry Maguire turns 20 this year? And just like Cameron Crowe’s film, the well-known sports agent the story was loosely based on has managed to stand the test of time. Just don’t expect Steinberg to repeat the “Show me the money” catchphrase, because even by asking, your request just made the daily list he compiles in his head.
“What I didn’t expect was for virtually every day in the last 20 years to be sitting in an airport or at dinner or something and have someone run up and say those four words,” said Steinberg recently at his bay-side office, reflecting on his two decades as Jerry Maguire’s alter ego. “I’ll be at the Super Bowl, talking to people at our party, walking around the street, I’ve been in Central Park, Times Square, I hear it everywhere. I’m taking a flight to Chicago later today, and if you came with me to Orange County Airport and got on that plane with me, we could look around and be assured that someone on that flight at some point will say it.”
Chalk up the movie’s anniversary as another nice piece of fortuity so far for Steinberg in 2016, whose fight to launch a career renaissance as an agent has been well chronicled in recent years, after his personal struggle with alcoholism resulted in the flameout of his business and bankruptcy. But until now, his comeback has lacked the defining clarity offered by a high-profile client, and that’s where Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch—a projected first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft—comes in.
With Lynch as the centerpiece of his modest but resurgent eight-client practice, Steinberg is back in the headlines, and back in the midst of the draft’s top-tier quarterback debate, a game he once dominated like no one else, representing eight different No. 1 overall picks and a host of franchise quarterbacks in a career that started in 1975. Now 66, Steinberg is remarkably enough something of a player again, a development few could have predicted when his personal life and career fully unraveled in 2010, prompting him to seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
Americans love second acts in life, and Steinberg’s is as intriguing and unexpected as they come.
Paxton Lynch on Steinberg: “It was kind of a no-brainer”
Steinberg might have a Kordell Stewart poster on Lynch’s childhood bedroom wall to thank for representing his latest potential first-round quarterback. Lynch’s father, David, is a Steelers fan, and the son inherited that commitment as he grew up in Deltona, Fla., near Daytona Beach. Steinberg was Stewart’s agent, so when it came time to shop for an agent, the “Slash” connection sure didn’t hurt.
“That’s one of those stories where if you presented that at the agent seminar, the number of people who would believe it would be zero, okay?” Steinberg said. “Because it doesn’t really fit this whole process of recruiting.”
Lynch’s parents called Steinberg after their son’s 2014 season at Memphis, the family and the agent found a comfort zone with each other, and when Lynch emerged as a projected high pick, Steinberg was their choice.
“We knew about Leigh and his background and all the success he had with quarterbacks in the past, with guys like Troy Aikman and Steve Young,” said Lynch, reached on the phone just two days before he left for Indianapolis and last week’s NFL Scouting Combine. “Given his resume, there was really no one that could compare to a guy like him. After we built that relationship with him, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
A no-brainer? In 1996 no one would have blinked if Steinberg was the choice of a top-rated quarterback. But in 2016, given how Steinberg has been largely off the map in the past decade, and how far he fell? Picking Steinberg represented a bold choice by Lynch, and even his agent knows there were multiple obstacles to surmount.
“This year we did finally get the chance to recruit again, so it was always going to be the quarterback, because that’s how I started in 1975 with Steve Bartkowski (the No. 1 overall pick to Atlanta). And it’s even sweeter. As long I could get through the first part of the process, I knew I’d get a chance. And look, realistically, you have to go through all this stuff in your mind: How do you convince someone you’re not going to relapse? You can’t.
“You couldn’t manage your own money, how can you manage his? Well we don’t manage money. You’re too old. I’ll be 67 next month, and luckily I’ve got good genes. And finally, well, you’ve been out of it for a while. True, but my relationships with Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, the Rooneys, Dan Snyder, those just never went away because they went on for so long. Same with a lot of the GMs and coaches. So as you go through the process, everything is still there.”
Lynch obviously isn’t old enough to remember Steinberg in his super-agent hey day, but he said he did his own homework on the guy who has eight former clients in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and pronounced himself content with his choice. As part of that process, guess what he watched?
“Before I actually met Leigh, we watched the movie to just kind of get a feel for him,” Lynch said. “We had just heard about (Jerry Maguire) but we had never watched it. But we were watching it and it was pretty cool. I thought it was a little crazy though that they had Tom Cruise playing him. To me, he’s just a great guy with a big heart, and he’s someone that cares about people.
“Everybody has a past, and who am I to judge somebody for what they’ve been through or what troubles they’ve had as a person? So I didn’t hold anything against him. When I talked to him and he told me about his past and all that, and how he was done with that, he was very confident in that and very proud of himself in how far he’d come. And that kind of sold me on that factor. I can definitely see the drive and determination.”
Coming full circle 40 years later
In the movie, Cruise’s character plays a perpetually busy super-successful agent who goes from having many clients to just one, Arizona Cardinals receiver Rod Tidwell, played so memorably by Cuba Gooding Jr. That real life is coming so close to imitating art—20 years after the fact—adds another interesting twist to Steinberg’s reemergence. Acknowledged or not, Lynch is Steinberg’s modern-day Tidwell, just as Bartkowski was once his lone client at the start of his career more than 40 years ago. That full-circle experience is not lost on Steinberg, who said the agent game reflected in the movie still stands the test of time two decades later.
“It’s because the basic principles have never changed,” he said. “People think the whole key to representation is persuasion, being able to sell. Where really it’s always been about listening, It’s about creating enough stillness so that you feel comfortable to open up and the layers of the onion are peeled back, so we get beyond surface responses. So I can understand your deepest hopes and dreams and your greatest anxieties and fears, and if we can bond with that emotional connection, it’s an understanding that can last for a career and for life.
“What the movie was partly about was the question as to where is the agent’s loyalty in terms of other clients? And that terror of having one client and theoretically potentially losing him. It’s the high and the low, the anxiety of it. What Cameron Crowe also tried to show was something that people don’t get, that these big physical men are not afraid to show emotion. And there is an emotional payoff to this job, when a Steve Young will come off the field having thrown six touchdown passes in the Super Bowl, then tell you he couldn’t have done it without you. Or being on stage presenting Warren Moon (for the Hall of Fame), when he turns and says, ‘I love you.’ Those are private moments, and they’re meaningful.”
But Steinberg’s ability to connect personally with his clients is a lot easier today in his post-super-agent phase. Whereas his agency once represented as many as 90 players, almost all at the star or superstar level, he doesn’t have a host of athletes competing for his time these days. He can give them all his one-on-one attention.
“Yes, it is more fun to have this one player, because there’s no pressure,” Steinberg said. “There came a certain point where if we didn’t have the first pick in the draft, I’d be labeled a failure. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, our practice is falling apart.’ Just for the ‘fun’ aspect of being able to really appreciate the experience, this is enjoyable.”
Getting back in the game at QB with Lynch?
It’s early in the draft projection process, but Lynch’s final landing spot has been a bit all over the map thus far, anywhere from going No. 2 to Cleveland to dropping entirely out of the first round. Steinberg has ridden such roller coasters before, and is taking the long view, believing that the NFL has become such a quarterback-centric league that Lynch’s stock will inevitably rise in the eyes of one QB-needy team, be it the Browns, No. 4 Dallas, No. 7 San Francisco, No. 13 Philadelphia, No. 15 Los Angeles, or someone else.
“Someone called me up the other day and said, ‘Did you see the latest mock draft? Paxton fell all the way to 15. He was like at 3,’” Steinberg said, smiling broadly as he talked. “I said first of all, it’s based on nothing, he hasn’t been scouted yet (this was pre-combine). And second of all, oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch. Him going to the Rams at 15, that would be so terrible. He’d probably lose three or four million dollars, and he’d be here in LA. Don’t. Please, no. Have him go to Cleveland instead. Anything but LA.”
Lynch himself wouldn’t mind a bit if he relocated to his agent’s backyard, and became perhaps the new face of a Rams franchise just returning to its big-market Los Angeles roots. He was a mere one-year-old when the Rams departed for St. Louis.
“It would be crazy, and it would also be an honor, too, especially with the Rams headed back to LA where they used to be,” Lynch said. “I’ve never been, but I’ve heard LA is a really cool city and the fan base was great when the team was there. It would definitely be exciting to go there, but you never really know what’s going to happen until a team actually picks. But if it happens that way, I’ll be excited.”
The franchise quarterback was always the calling card of Steinberg’s practice. Depending on how Lynch fares this spring, perhaps it will be again. Two of Steinberg’s other clients, Cal running back Daniel Lasco and Northwestern tight end/fullback Dan Vitale, just turned in impressive combine showings that displayed their athleticism and versatility and should boost their draft status, furthering Steinberg’s recent hot streak.
But Lynch is the lynch pin, if you will. His success could at least make Steinberg a viable competitor in the annual battle to land the draft’s top-rated quarterbacks, keeping him in the game he once seemingly had mastered.
“One of the greatest differences between 20 years ago and now is that it’s virtually impossible to get to the Super Bowl without the presence of a franchise quarterback,” Steinberg said. “I thought it was that way 20 years ago, but the game has evolved even more that way. It’s not by chance that both of this year’s Super Bowl quarterbacks—Peyton Manning and Cam Newton—were the first pick in the draft.”
“It feels like life is beginning again”
Steinberg can recall attending Super Bowl XXX in Phoenix with Gooding Jr., in Jan. 1996, when Gooding was doing research for his role as Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (Steinberg’s son, Matt, then five, sat on Gooding’s lap at the game). That day, both starting quarterbacks, the Cowboys’ Troy Aikman and the Steelers’ Neil O’Donnell, were Steinberg clients. So were Dallas backup QBs Jason Garrett and Wade Wilson, as well as Pittsburgh backups Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak. Twenty years ago last month, he had every quarterback on the field in the Super Bowl, not to mention numerous non-QB starters on both teams.
“It was sort of fun,” said Steinberg, recalling when his name was synonymous with quarterbacks.
After being able to corner the market at the game’s most crucial position, did he ever dream he’d have another highly-rated quarterback to represent?
“If you’re asking me if in 2010 or ’11, in the midst of the wreckage and all the rest of it, no,” he said. “All I knew then was that I had to get and stay sober and I had to be there for my kids. Frankly there was wreckage and obstacles, and all were self-inflicted, all my responsibility. There were times where I felt like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill, and it just kept rolling back down.”
The NFL, of course, has undergone seismic changes in the 20 years since Steinberg was the unquestioned king of all agents. The popularity and reach of the game has exploded, growing exponentially. There’s a rookie salary cap in place limiting the windfall potential of first-round picks, and a whole new breed of general managers and coaches dot the NFL landscape.
“In those 20 years, football moved from being a very popular sport to being the most dominant cultural factor in America,” Steinberg said. “It’s not only the most popular sport, it’s the most popular form of televised entertainment. It dominates the ratings and 45 million people play fantasy sports. With social media and cell phone cameras, the public-private delineation is gone and news travels in a fundamentally different way. It’s a major danger for players, because it creates imagery and impressions. Ask Johnny Manziel. Ask Ray Rice. All the way back to Matt Leinart, who is caught in his hot tub at home. So America has gone bonkers over NFL football.”
Once a young, fresh face in the agent business, with his trademark laid-back California cool, Steinberg is now rather old-school. He has adapted fairly well to the times, but not entirely. He still does a lot of his business on those yellow long legal pads that he was always known for, and he hasn’t changed his approach to recruiting players by selling them on the benefits of using their NFL platform to set up their post-career lives.
But his vantage point of how the league’s club front offices have changed in the past two decades is spot on.
“There’s been a shift in regards to the delineation between the old guard and the new way when it comes to general managers,” he said. “The old guard meaning people who came up through the game, playing the game, scouting the game and whose permanent background was football. They picked up negotiation or business skills later. There’s a new guard now which comes out of business school and law school.
“The old guard loved players, but was viscerally revolted by the amount of money they were being paid. They liked the players themselves, but it felt wrong to them that the big money was there. The new guard treats it like a business. They’re dispassionate toward players and they just seek players salaries as a cost of doing business. Their job is to return a profit and so they try to make salaries as low as they can, but it’s a business.”
The business of representing high draft picks and star NFL players is a field Steinberg once dominated. His efforts to return to it is one of the more notable comebacks the game has seen of late. Twenty years after Jerry Maguire, he’s still standing, and is busy working himself back to a state of relevancy.
“It’s been a reasonably good couple of months,” Steinberg said, with a sly smile that conveys understatement. “The Rams returned to LA, my book (“The Agent”) keeps selling, we signed Paxton and all those other players, we established Steinberg Ventures and we did our Super Bowl party again. So it feels like life is beginning again. It’s 1975 and I just left the dorm at Cal.”