A day in the life of sports agent Jack Mills, 49, of Boulder, Colo., is one of ringing telephones and negotiations that are at once high-powered and low-keyed. Mills deals mostly with football players and their teams, and he's always polite, always at ease.
He walks into his third-floor office in the morning and looks out on the glories of the front range of the Rockies. The pigeons on the balcony coo, and he likes that. He throws his coat over a chair. This is a casual man not given to flashiness. In a recent family portrait he and everyone else wore brown.
Mills passes the autographed pictures of clients past and present—Randy Gradishar, George Rogers, Eric Dickerson, Dean Steinkuhler, Irving Fryar—and sits at his desk, which is awash in pink phone messages. The phone is ringing. He leans back and takes his first call of the day, from Kansas City Chiefs general manager Jim Schaaf. It's 9:02, and Schaaf wants to talk about Christian Okoye, the Chiefs' second-round draft pick, from Nigeria via Azusa Pacific University. Okoye, a 253-pound running back, fumbled 26 times in 28 games, but Mills is quick to point out to Schaaf that "only nine were in his senior year.
"He's another Earl Campbell, only faster," says Mills, who is not above hyperbole. He and Schaaf spar. "You got anyone signed yet?" Mills asks. They spar some more. Schaaf finally makes an offer that averages $200,000 a year for four years. He tells Mills, "This is low, and I know you're going to think it's low."
Mills says politely, "It's O.K." Not O.K., as in "I accept," but O.K., as in "Fine, negotiations have to start somewhere...." Schaaf thinks he's making more headway than he is and suggests a meeting. "I'll get back to you when I can," Mills says. He is thinking of a deal averaging $300,000 per year.
He calls Okoye and says, "It's a start." Okoye repeatedly says he just wants to play. "Don't be nervous," Mills responds. "I'll be nervous."
Mills's understated ways work, he says, "because I tend to be easy on people and hard on the problem." After all, what would have been gained by giving Schaaf a piece of his mind? Okoye is feeling better. "Call me if you need anything," Mills says, signing off.
At 9:42 he's on the phone with Mike Chernoff, a Colts vice-president. They spar. Mills asks, "Any new and different ideas on Chris Gambol?" Gambol, another Mills client (since 1967 Mills has represented 414 football players, including 31 first-rounders), is an offensive lineman from Iowa and the Colts' third-round selection. Chernoff is interrupted by a call from his team's owner, Robert Irsay. Chernoff calls back four minutes later, and Mills says innocently, "I bet Bob Irsay said to give Jack Mills everything he asks for." Chernoff, less jovial, says he hopes there won't be any problems. Mills assures him there won't "if y'all will do my deal." Chernoff makes an offer, and Mills says, "O.K., right, I hear you, O.K." In fact, the offer is nonsense. They'll talk later.
It is 9:50, and Okoye is back on the phone. He wants to leave Kansas City and go home to Sacramento. Mills plans a meeting with him when he changes planes in Denver.
At 10:05 somebody calls who wants Mark Bavaro of the New York Giants to put in a day's work at a football camp. For $6,000. "That might get his attention," says Mills. He calls Bavaro, who has family plans scheduled for the day. Bavaro decides to turn it down. "Call me if you need anything," Mills says.
At 10:14 Victor Scott, a cornerback for the Cowboys, calls to discuss buying a house. Mills tries to steer him toward something a little cheaper. "Sure, you know you can call me at home, anytime," says Mills. At 10:26 Mike Gann, a defensive end for the Falcons, calls to get figures on investments he has made with and through Mills. "Call me anytime," says Mills. "I'll help you fill in the blanks."
Another call. It's from Bronco linebacker Jim Ryan. "What can I do for you?" asks Mills. Play golf, that's what. They arrange a date.
Gambol calls. He wants to play football. Mills soothes him. "Don't worry. It's just a waiting proposition," he says.
At 11:30 a turkey-and-cheese sandwich arrives at his desk, and the phone keeps ringing and Mills keeps talking. Nearly an hour later the sandwich is half-eaten. Meanwhile, Ron Brown, a wide receiver cut last year by the Giants, comes in to sign papers. He will get a look from St. Louis, thanks to Mills. While Brown is there, Mills says with a sigh, "This is a business of trust and honor, and there's not much of either. Most agents are not trustworthy. This is a business that has developed a bad reputation. There is this big opportunity to steal and be dishonest because people are trusting you. And if you are out to fool 'em, you can fool 'em. It doesn't take much." Brown laughs—a little nervously.
The day grinds on. It's 1:31, and Okoye calls again. "Anything I can do to help?" Mills asks. "I'm a little short of cash," Okoye answers. Okoye is reluctant to say how short, but Mills, who views himself as something of a father figure, says, "I'll bring a couple of hundred to the airport."
At 1:42 a call comes from Brown's wife, Tracy. She's anxious. Mills knows that Brown's chances are slim (indeed, Brown will be cut after a month in camp), and he looks for the silver lining: "And if they don't keep him, they'll pay to send him home," says Mills. Tracy laughs.
Exactly at 3:00 there's another call from Schaaf. He's obviously feeling local media heat and is concerned about a comment that Mills made to the press. Mills had been quoted as saying Schaaf hadn't made an offer. That had been true when Mills last talked to anyone from the Kansas City media. But now it makes Schaaf look bad. Mills is conciliatory: "You're in a real precarious position."
At 3:21 an Indianapolis reporter calls. First Mills says gently that there are "significant differences" between how much the Colts think they should pay Gambol and how much Mills thinks they should pay Gambol. Sounds bad, says the reporter. Mills shifts gears and says of the latest offer, "It's respectable, not a lowball." Ultimately, Gambol will get a signing bonus of $129,500 and a three-year deal for $110,000 the first year, plus $15,000 more for making the roster; $135,000 the second year, plus a $10,000 roster bonus; and $180,000 the third, plus a $10,000 roster bonus. Mills will evaluate the deal as "excellent."
A few minutes later he strides past his LeRoy Neiman print of running back Larry Brown and leaves the office to get his '87 Cadillac, which he drives the 30 miles to Denver to meet Okoye. Mostly he goes to assure him that everything will be O.K. He also does another small favor, negotiating a first-class seat at coach price for Okoye. "He's a big man," Mills explains to a very small gate agent. "You'll get used to this," Mills says jokingly to Okoye.
A couple of days later Mills will get Okoye a contract that pays a $250,000 signing bonus plus $125,000 the first year, $150,000 the second and $200,000 for an option year. Mills wanted a deal shorter than the four years originally offered by the Chiefs, because he thinks his client will be a big star and soon will command more money.
Now it's back to the office and the phones. Messages have piled up, and Mills keeps phoning. At 5:45 he talks hurriedly with the Rams, making a deal for 12th-round pick Alonzo Williams, a running back. The Rams' general counsel, Jay Zygmunt, says he has never spent so much time on a 12th-rounder. They share a laugh, adversaries in arms. The bottom line for Williams: an $8,000 signing bonus. At 5:52 Mills has Williams on the phone and is talking optimistically. But when he hangs up, he looks a little sad: "Twenty-eight teams passed on him 11 times, but they could be wrong." They weren't. Six weeks later Williams was cut. He gets to keep the $8,000; Mills's fee—it varies from 3% to 5%—brings the agent $400.
The calls are really beginning to back up now. Mills's secretary, Vicki Spanswick, takes more messages. A relative of free agent quarterback Loren Snyder—he played at Northern Colorado—calls and asks Mills and his family to attend a going-away barbecue for the young athlete, who will get a look-see by the Dallas Cowboys. Mills accepts the invitation. By now it's 6:00, and Mills is, as is his custom, quitting for the day. The phone is ringing as he walks out.
It's a 12-minute drive to his house in the shadow of Devil's Thumb. His front door opens to the foothills of the Rockies, and his rear door overlooks city lights; deer play near the hot tub. On this spectacular evening the whole family is home. There's his wife, Cirrelda; Tom, 19, a University of Kansas sophomore; Deborah, a 24-year-old University of Oklahoma graduate (Jack's alma mater, where he also got his law degree); and Mary, 22, who helps coordinate Elizabeth Dole's activities on behalf of presidential candidate Robert Dole. The shish kebab is on the grill, and the sun is setting behind Flagstaff mountain. All is peaceful—for a while.
It's 8 p.m. The phone rings.
Mills contends that he is successful "because I tend to be easy on people and hard on the problem."