Former super agent Leigh Steinberg likes new representation of self

Leigh Steinberg was once known for his boyish good looks and an elite clientele that included Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and a multitude of other famous names.

Until it all fell apart.

Sipping from a bottle of water, he talks about it in the third person.

"Here's the thing about drunks," Steinberg says.

"They're good at it.

"Here's the thing about really smart drunks.

"They're very good at it."

Now Steinberg is starting over. No clients yet. He has a handful of employees, though. And the new Steinberg Sports and Entertainment has been recertified by the NFLPA.


Steinberg, 64, was once the super agent of all super agents, representing clients such as Aikman, Moon, Steve Bartkowski and 150 other professional baseball, basketball, boxing and Olympic athletes.

He's the father of two sons and a daughter, Katie, who is a freshman at Michigan State. He's also trying to restart his agent business. He got a California license in October.

The new company is being financed by Houston businessmen because in the dark days Steinberg had to declare bankruptcy. He said he would like to represent NBA and Major League Baseball players, launch entertainment projects and most of all find an answer to the concussion problem plaguing the NFL and other sports.

He would like a few clients signed when the NFL holds its draft in April.

That never used to be a problem. At one point Steinberg, a graduate of UCLA and of UC Berkeley's law school, represented $2 billion worth of Hall of Fame clients and a record eight No. 1 NFL picks.

"Life was pretty good," Steinberg said. "I was getting good guys, I was making sure they put money toward a charity of their choice but that their families were taken care of too."


Katie Steinberg says she was never sure when her father had turned to vodka. He preferred vodka because it's clear like water and doesn't smell like alcohol on the breath. Put it in an Evian bottle, take a swig and you're just a California health nut, Steinberg said.

Katie, 18, the youngest of the three children (there are also John, 27, and Matt, 22, who is attending USC's film school), says her father was around more than people think. "He tried hard to be the best dad he can be, he was a fun dad. He took us to Disneyland. We'd always go to the movies."

Katie said the low point in their lives came when she was 6 or 7 and the family took a trip to Boston. It was sold as a family trip with her mother, Lucy, and her brothers, but, she said, "My dad went to rehab.

"He could be the greatest person in the world, but, finally, a few years later I talked to him. I told him, 'You need to figure yourself out.' I told him he was one of the most supportive people in the world, one of the greatest people ever, but honestly, he was hitting rock bottom and he needed to fix it, but to do that he had to want to fix it."

Leigh and Lucy divorced in 2008. Katie stays with her mom when she comes home from school but always spends time with her dad.

"Even at his worst he was a good dad," Katie said. "What he did didn't hurt me, it made me need to be there more for my parents, and in a way made me more mature."


Steinberg is sitting in a small office in a cramped building off Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach talking about the time five years ago when he was living in a halfway house in Orange, his fortune gone, his agency in tatters, his family scattered.

Yes, that Leigh Steinberg, the one who would throw an extravagant Super Bowl party every year where you were nobody if you didn't get an invite to eat steak and lobster and hobnob with stars such as Tom Cruise. Steinberg says Cruise was playing him in the movie about sports agents, "Jerry McGuire."

Steinberg is asked why, when he says he's been sober four years, he would want to reenter the world that seemed to cause him such pain.

"It wasn't the business that made me an alcoholic," Steinberg said. "There were health problems in my family, my immediate family, that I would prefer not to talk about, that originally caused me to drink.

"I can go to a party now, take a glass of water and be happy. I can go to the parties and the dinners and not need alcohol."


Steinberg isn't exactly sure when some of his clients drew closer to other agents in his company and began ignoring him.

Jeff Moorad is one of the high-powered baseball agents who worked with Steinberg and later became part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He still admires his old boss but remembers when it became clear to everyone but Steinberg that the drinking had become a problem. More and more agents cozied up to clients who a decade earlier would have been glued to the side of Steinberg.

Eventually Steinberg made Moorad and David Dunn partners in a company called SMD. In 1999 the three sold the company for a reported $120 million to a Canadian firm called Assante.

The three agents went to the new company, but in 2002 Dunn left, took clients and formed his own agency, Athletes First. About 50 NFL players went with Dunn, who did not return requests for an interview for this story.

"That hurt," Steinberg said. "I felt like I had nurtured David and taught him everything I had learned in a harder way. I admit my soul hurt at that time."

But it was also a time when Steinberg was drinking heavily.

By January of 2011 Steinberg had a drunk driving arrest, an arrest for being drunk in public and a bankruptcy. He said he had already started the steps toward sobriety, and the bankruptcy was the step toward being able to support himself and his family again. "It was as if my whole being was reawakening again now that I had gotten rid of the vodka," Steinberg said.


"I was working for Leigh then," says Moon, who now lives in Seattle and works as a broadcaster. "I chose Leigh as my agent because he was different. He talked about the long-range effects of what he hoped I'd do with my life.

"He always wanted me to go into politics. He was more concerned about how I'd use football than how football would use me. I saw him have his problem, but there was nothing anybody could do. He tried rehab a number of times but he didn't want to listen to me then, so I removed myself from him."

But Moon says he always kept in touch with Steinberg either through emails or text messages. "Now he tells me how many days he's been sober, and we finally sat down and became friends again.

"He's doing a lot of great things, and I want to be with him and the concussion work and a sporting arena alliance he'd like to get into. He never was a bad person, and the disease that took him for a while didn't change that."


Steinberg has had offices in a run-down condo and drab strip malls in the last five years.

Now his place has views of Newport Harbor that he posted on Facebook last week. He uses social media extensively to spread his message that athletes need to make it their own fight to figure out how concussions might affect their lives after sports.

Moorad thinks his old partner has good intentions.

"If there is someone to never underestimate, it is Leigh," Moorad says. "Look at him. He's 64. He looks 44. He's ready."


Jared Berman, a student in a law school class Steinberg teaches at Chapman University, said he enrolled in it partly because of Steinberg's notoriety and partly because of what he thought he might learn. Berman, from Irvine, doesn't want to be a sports agent. But the chance to take a course from Steinberg? "Irresistible," Berman said.

"Word got around pretty quickly that he was teaching. I know someone from Whittier Law School who enrolled just because of Mr. Steinberg.

"The very first class he told us his life story and didn't leave anything out, even his smoking pot, doing magic mushrooms, his hippie days at Cal. He didn't hide anything.

"The best thing he did is teach us an array of life lessons." Berman said Steinberg would bring in athletes such as Mike Sherrard and media people such as Fox Sports lawyer Bobby Hacker.

"We got contacts, we got business cards," Berman said. "Networking is part of learning at this level."


Scott Irwin, one of the three Houston businessmen who is helping underwrite Steinberg's second chance, happened to meet Steinberg at a Southern Methodist University function.

"You put him in front of a room and it lights up," Irwin said. "I trust him so much that he stays in my house when he comes to Houston. The guy is brilliant and he has a second chance to fulfill his destiny, and by overcoming the first challenge this challenge is stronger. Honestly, I don't think there's a guy not pulling for Leigh, and in that business it's quite unusual."

Billy Dore and Andy Priest are the other two Houstonians who have put their money on the line.

"We've known others who have gone through similar challenges," said Irwin, who made his money in steel pipe. "A lot of people have gone through substance abuse and come out better people. I just believe he's not going to mess this up again, nothing is going to stop him. For Leigh, it's not about the money now. It's about other things, concussions, health, and it's incredible that he's willing to take all that on at this stage."


"I'm increasingly concerned about client head injuries," Steinberg says. "Troy Aikman's rookie year he got knocked out and blood came out of his ear.

"Moon, he had way too many. We go to doctors and there's no answers. We've brought in helmet manufacturers, established medical regimens and not much has changed since 2007."

It is Steinberg's hope to start a concussion foundation. He tells mothers their sons should wait until later to start playing football. "The mothers listen," he says.

This is what he considers a second chance for himself too. "I messed up the first one. We don't all get second chances. I feel lucky to be in this place now where I can help people. I hope I take advantage of it. Every day sober is another day to try and do something right. So I'm trying."

He is trying with his family too. He has relationships with all his children, and Katie says she and her brothers have a new bond with their father.

"He's worked so hard to get to this place," she says. "I don't think he'll mess it up again. He just wants to make things right, and he can do it."

Steinberg said there was no magic moment, no single incident that finally helped him stay sober.

"Unfortunately, I had to hit a bottom so dramatic and hopeless that it forced me to surrender to the reality that I was an alcoholic and could not safely drink," Steinberg says. "That finally pushed me, the drunk driving citation, the bankruptcy, all of it. I had to get a sponsor, a home group and do everything recovering alcoholics do. Because I was one. And I finally realized that."

And things are looking up. Besides having financial support and six employees plus several interns, Steinberg may be getting a reality television show.

"I signed a deal with a production company for a show called 'Do You Want to Be a Super Agent?,' which would be the ethical 'Apprentice.'"

Look out, Donald Trump.

Steinberg may be back.

Twitter: @mepucin

Pucin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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