One morning last week a cab carrying USC Tailback Ricky Bell and his agent, Mike Trope, was stalled in traffic on New York's East 46th Street. A shabby figure lurched up to the taxi, stuck his head in a rear window and begged, "Could you guys spare a quarter for a little wine?" Trope produced a wad of bills, peeled off a 20 and handed it over. The wino stared at the bill in disbelief. Then, raising it in the air and waving it for all to see, he ran down the street shouting, "I can't believe it! A $20 bill! I can't believe it! I can't believe it!"
Back in the cab, Trope laughed uproariously. He could afford to be expansive, for earlier that morning he had increased his earning potential by more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Trope's windfall began at 10 a.m. Tuesday, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Bell the first selection in the 1977 NFL draft. And while Bell was busy posing for photographers, displaying a Tampa Bay jersey with his No. 42 and giving interviews at draft central in New York's Roosevelt Hotel, three more of Trope's clients were quickly snapped up.
Tony Dorsett, the Heisman Trophy winner from Pittsburgh, was chosen next. Shopping for a game-breaking running back, the Dallas Cowboys began the day by trading their first-round pick and three second-round choices to Seattle for the Seahawks' No. 2 drafting position in round one—and picked Dorsett.
May 15, 1977
Cincinnati, selecting third, had had its fill of Trope during last year's Archie Griffin negotiations, so the Bengals passed on Trope's remaining clients, taking Defensive Tackle Eddie Edwards of the University of Miami. But Trope was back in action on the fourth selection as the New York Jets picked another member of the agent's USC stable, Offensive Tackle Marvin Powell. Then, after the Giants picked Defensive Tackle Gary Jeter of USC, Atlanta plunged for another of Trope's players. Offensive Tackle Warren Bryant of Kentucky.
Scribbling numbers on a piece of paper, Trope estimated that his four star clients would sign contracts totaling between $3 million and $4 million. Even if Trope charged them less than the standard commission of 10%, he figured to collect enough to fund New York's entire population of winos for a month.
Trope wasted no time getting Bell's name on a Tampa Bay contract. The agent and his client left for Florida before the completion of the first round of the draft and, shortly after landing in Tampa, Bell signed a five-year contract for a reported $1.2 million. It was far and away the richest contract ever signed by an NFL rookie. At the same time, Trope served notice on the Cowboys that he intends to put Dorsett in Bell's tax bracket.
For Powell and Bryant, Trope expects the Jets and Falcons to agree to multi-year contracts in the $750,000 range. Told that such a figure seems excessive for players performing in the so-called "non-glamour positions," Trope said, "I don't care if they have frog's legs. If teams chose them fourth and sixth, they have to expect to pay for them."
Bell's contract aside, Trope's real coup was helping persuade Seattle not to retain its No. 2 draft position and select Dorsett. On April 18 Trope and Dorsett had lunch at the Allegheny Club in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium with Nelson Goldberg, Dorsett's marketing manager, and Harvey Eger, Dorsett's tax attorney. Goldberg made a list of those NFL cities that he thought would be good for what Trope calls "Dorsett's ancillary earning potential." Not surprisingly, Seattle, which appeared set to draft Dorsett, was not on the list.
So Dorsett's advisers decided to discourage Seattle from choosing him. That afternoon Eger sent a letter to the Sea-hawks, which read in part: "I have been authorized to advise you on behalf of Mr. Dorsett, Mr. Trope and Mr. Goldberg that Mr. Dorsett is not desirous of playing professional football in Seattle, and request that your team does not draft Mr. Dorsett in the upcoming professional football draft."
Last year the Seahawks could have shredded Eger's letter as junk mail, but not now. The new NFL Player Contract gives Dorsett and all other draftees alternatives to signing with the team that selected them. Dorsett, in fact, can become a free agent by sitting out for two years or by signing a contract for a minimum of two years and playing it out. And there is the Canadian option as well. Seattle was well aware that Trope had taken such clients as Johnny Rodgers and Anthony Davis to the Canadian League when NFL clubs failed to meet his price. What's more, the general manager with whom Trope had negotiated the Rodgers and Davis deals—J. I. Albrecht—now works for Toronto, which holds Dorsett's Canadian rights.
Understandably, the Seahawks started to talk trade. The New York Jets, seeking a box-office attraction to replace the departed Joe Namath, offered their own first-round pick and Defensive Tackle Carl Barzilauskas, a 1974 first-round choice who had a promising rookie season but has been a bust ever since. When Seattle suggested the Jets sweeten the deal by throwing in Middle Linebacker Greg Buttle, the Jets said they would look for their gate attraction elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Seattle General Manager John Thompson made two proposals to the Cowboys. The first involved some Dallas draft choices and Linebacker Randy White. "The Cowboys bounced that back faster than we could spit it out," Thompson says. The second was the deal that eventually was made. The Dallas general manager, Tex Schramm, was euphoric about landing Dorsett. "Dorsett is the outstanding back to come out of college since maybe O. J. Simpson," he said. "He doesn't have O.J.'s size, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be as successful as Simpson." Then Schramm talked like a businessman.
"We certainly recognize that Dorsett has unique talent, but we're not going to destroy our salary structure signing him. There are so many reasons why being drafted and signed by the Cowboys is advantageous to him. By joining an established team such as ours, a team that has a viable chance to be in the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl, he'll have so many opportunities to be successful that it really isn't logical for him to think of Canada. Why, we're on nine national telecasts before the playoffs even begin."
Behind the scenes at the draft there was more talk about the money Trope got for Bell than the trade Dallas made for Dorsett. Indeed, Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse may not have been half-kidding when he announced at a press conference, "I have just transferred my bank account to Mr. Ricky Bell."
Before Bell's deal, the highest amount paid to a draft choice was the $900,000 contract for seven years—two more than Bell signed for—that New Orleans gave Running Back Chuck Muncie in 1976. Muncie's agent was—you guessed it—Mike Trope. Excluding the war babies who became instantly rich during the NFL-AFL battles, the second-wealthiest rookie in NFL history most likely was Quarterback Richard Todd, who got a five-year, $605,000 contract from the Jets last year. The Cowboys, for instance, had the No. 1 draft pick in 1974 at the height of the WFL scare, selected Defensive End Ed (Too Tall) Jones and signed him for $450,000 over four years. And Tampa Bay gave Leroy Selmon, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, only $315,000 for three years.
"If that $1.2 million figure for Bell is correct, it's alarming," said General Manager Jim Finks of the Chicago Bears. "It really makes for a whole new ball game. I wonder why Tampa Bay would do that. I wonder about the rationale." One other general manager shook his head and said, "Now I know why Tampa Bay was 0 and 14 last year."
While some NFL club officials tried to blame the Tampa Bay management for the size of Bell's contract, Trope preferred to credit his own bargaining skill. Although he is only 25 years old and has been in business for just five years. Trope has represented three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners, the exception being John Cappelletti. Trope became an agent during the summer before his senior year at USC, where he majored in history and didn't take a single business course. Using a student standby ticket. Trope flew to Lincoln, Neb., where Rodgers was practicing with the Corn-huskers. Trope had no credit rating, and in order to rent a car he had to bribe the girl at the counter with $10. But he convinced Rodgers that, even though he was five months Rodgers' junior, he should represent him in contract talks.
"Starting with Rodgers, I have negotiated for more than 60 players with a signing gross of over $20 million," says Trope. "And I've never been sued or spent a day in litigation with any of my clients."
Trope seems to deal only in big numbers. He got a $1 million deal for Rodgers in Canada, and when Rodgers wanted to return to the U.S. Trope somehow persuaded the San Diego Chargers to give Rodgers a seven-year contract for more than $925,000. Trope's capers for Anthony Davis seem right out of The Sting. For starters, he produced a $900,000 contract from the WFL's Southern California Sun; because the league folded in midseason, Davis received approximately $220,000 for half a year's work. Trope then negotiated a $1 million contract for Davis with the Toronto Argonauts. Davis played for the Argos last season, pocketed $250,000, then negotiated a $100,000 buy-out of his contract and signed another agreement with the Buccaneers, who had acquired Davis' NFL rights from the Jets in the expansion draft. In Tampa, where he will rejoin Bell and Coach John McKay, Davis will get roughly $490,000 during the next four years. Not bad for someone taken 37th in the 1975 NFL draft. For Bell, though, $490,000 is small change.