Raised to Be a Leader of Men, He Has Led His Clients to Riches in NFL
He was a law student, a dorm counselor at a dorm in which the University of California freshman football team just happened to be placed, and by chance he came to know Steve Bartkowski, who would become the No. 1 player selected in the 1975 NFL draft.
He traveled the world for a year after graduating from law school, while Bartkowski honed his skills in college, and accepted an offer to work in the Alameda County district attorney’s office. But before he could be shown his desk, he agreed to provide legal help to Bartkowski, who had been drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.
That might have been luck, but what followed has made agent Leigh Steinberg almost as well known and successful as any of the clients he would go on to sign.
The secret ingredient: quarterbacks, lots of quarterbacks.
The NFL’s premier agent for quarterbacks, a man who began by working out of his parents’ home in West Los Angeles without a secretary and driving a 1965 Buick station wagon with a blue body and red hood, stunned the football world by getting Bartkowski the biggest contract in NFL history at the time: $650,000 for four years, including a $250,000 signing bonus.
“That seemed like all the money in the world,” says Steinberg, who received 7.5% of Bartkowski’s signing bonus.
Twenty-three years later, and Steinberg is now fresh off signing his latest quarterback, Ryan Leaf, who received a signing bonus of $11.25 million from the San Diego Chargers in a complicated contract that will reward Leaf at least $30 million the next few years.
“No player in sports, with the exception of Michael Jordan, commands more interest than a football quarterback,” says Steinberg, who has a grip on the marketplace with 13 of the league’s 30 starting quarterbacks as his clients. “The quarterback has the most unique position of any player in team sports.
“A boxer and golfer can achieve unique status in name recognition. But no team sport emphasizes one position as much as football. The game is televised from the quarterback’s standpoint. The quarterback is like the leading man and the game is advertised that way: Here comes high-flying Warren Moon and his Seattle Seahawks to take on Troy Aikman and his Cowboys. The action always starts with the quarterback’s face and usually ends on TV on the quarterback’s face. Even in a sport with helmets, this is the one player who stands out.”
Remarkably, that’s what a young Steinberg noted in 1975, sitting in the back of a room as the media and fans fawned over Bartkowski.
“We fly into Atlanta before he’s signed and it’s like a movie premiere,” Steinberg says. “A huge crowd is pressed up to a police line and on TV an announcer is saying, ‘We interrupt the Johnny Carson Show with a bulletin: Steve Bartkowski and his agent, Leigh Steinberg, have arrived at the airport.’ I remember looking at Steve and thinking this is what Dorothy must have thought as she looked upon Munchkin land: We’re not in Berkeley anymore.”
Steinberg, Cal’s student body president during a time when students were supposed to wander in hazy thought in Strawberry Canyon, had not experienced such athletic adoration.
“We were living in Berkeley, where there was a certain amount of football balance,” he says. “But suddenly I’m seeing this tremendous phenomena with an athlete being looked upon as an idol. There were huge billboards with his picture, nickname contests with the fans calling him, ‘Peachtree Bart,’ and ‘the Golden Pole.’ They had to hire security guards when he got hurt and had to go to the hospital.
“It all made quite an impression on me. I saw the effect athletes had on people, especially youngsters, and the role modeling that was possible. There was something there, and I knew negotiating money contracts was not what I was intended to do. My dad raised us to make a difference in the world.”
All in due time, but first he had to make a living, and so he continued to negotiate contracts. And for a while it would be a tough ride, his money running out three years into his career.
“I’ve never told this story before, but the truth is Bartkowski loaned me the money to keep me going, paid my air fare to Georgia, rented me a car and gave me the chance to try and recruit Joe ‘Cowboy’ Parrish and Mike ‘Moonpie’ Wilson, ‘the Georgia Connection.’ Eventually the Toronto Argonauts signed them as a package deal, and I had some operating capital.”
A short time later, he represented Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin, but more important tucked into that draft pool was another quarterback, Warren Moon. Moon had won the Rose Bowl for Washington but would probably have been selected from the fourth to sixth round of the NFL draft. That wasn’t going to offer the playing time that the Canadian Football League would.
The CFL allowed Moon to develop his skills as a quarterback, so in 1984 when he became free to return to the NFL, he came back a total free agent, providing Steinberg the opportunity to graduate to the top of the game.
Houston won the bidding war, signing Moon to a $5.5-million contract for five years with a $4.5-million signing bonus. A few months later, it looked as if Steinberg’s client, Steve Young, would be the first pick in the draft, but along came the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, and after offering to send Young to law school and help him learn about international banking, they threw in $42 million for four years--$37 million of it in a funded annuity.
Young ended up getting all his money after the USFL folded, and Steinberg had smashed his way onto the national sports scene with the 1-2 punch of Moon and Young.
And, he says, he couldn’t have been less satisfied.
“It’s where I came from,” he said. “I grew up with my father talking every night about values. My father was the head of the city’s human relations commission. I was being raised to be an environmental leader, or civil rights fighter, someone to make a positive change in the world.
“I was looking at athletes, and as role models they had the chance for that positive change in the world. The enemy with most athletes is self-absorption, so I began talking to athletes, getting them to look at themselves as athletic figures capable of making an impact.”
He began insisting his clients pay back the community, reimburse their college for their athletic scholarship and do more than throw a football. His competitors laughed, writing it off as grandstanding and the quest for more publicity.
“I could see where they could say that if it was something that happened overnight, but it’s something that’s been going on for the past 20 years,” says Steinberg, who is about to release a book, “Winning With Integrity,” in September. “People wake up every day and the newspaper provides an unremitting diet of athletic misbehavior with contract hassles, strikes and athletes in crisis. So the role-modeling message being sent out there has been a negative one. Why not provide something else?
“My parents read about a big contract I do, and they pay it no attention. On occasion, when they hear of something one of my clients has done in the community, you know what, that’s when I get the call.”
Steinberg’s parents will be calling today: Young has his “Forever Young Foundation” endowed by $2 million of his own money to assist underprivileged children in the Bay Area, and the “Moon Foundation” has sent a long list of youngsters through college with scholarships endowed by $2 million of his money.
And the list goes on, growing each year because it also represents an advertisement--a role model for success if you will--for parents looking for an agent to take care of their son in the professional ranks.
“People can say what they want,” says Steinberg, aware of those who might look upon his work from a cynical bent. “But I feel like I have a duty and responsibility to make a major contribution to the world through my craft.”
That’s the way he was raised.
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Playing the Percentages
Thirteen of agent Leigh Steinberg’s clients are among the NFL’s 30 starting quarterbacks this season. A look:
Troy Aikman: Dallas
Drew Bledsoe: New England
Kerry Collins: Carolina
Glenn Foley: New York Jets
Jeff George: Oakland
Jim Harbaugh: Baltimore
Rob Johnson: Buffalo
Ryan Leaf: San Diego
Neil O’Donnell: Cincinnati
Warren Moon: Seattle
Jake Plummer: Arizona
Kordell Stewart: Pittsburgh
Steve Young: San Francisco