Leigh Steinberg was once the most powerful agent in the NFL. He represented the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft eight times — more than any other agent in history. Steinberg's fame and power as the NFL's preeminent super agent crumbled in the 2000's, when he fell into bankruptcy and battled alcoholism.
The inspiration behind Jerry Maguire, Steinberg is now penning a tell-all book about his career representing stars like Troy Aikman, Steve Young, and Bruce Smith, and Ben Roethlisberger. He's also represented duds, like Ryan Leaf. In his book, The Agent, Steinberg details how Leaf manipulated the Indianapolis Colts into taking Peyton Manning instead of himself with the No. 1 draft pick in the 1998 draft.
It's a claim ex-Colts general manager Bill Polian denied in an interview with Mike & Mike saying: "Agents cannot manipulate anything in the draft … It's just the kind of hubris that existed among agents years ago where they told kids flat-out, 'I can get you taken here, I can get you taken there.' Nothing could be further from the truth"
As Steinberg notes in the following excerpt from The Agent, courtesy of Thomas Dunne of St. Martin's Press, it's a decision the Colts surely don't regret.
It was not until several months before the draft that I realized Ryan might present challenges I didn't anticipate. By then, it was too late.
"No way do I want to play in Indianapolis," he told me, referring to the Colts, who owned the No. 1 pick. Instead, because of the exceptional weather and the more laid-back lifestyle, he preferred the San Diego Chargers, who would go second.
"That's fine," I warned him, "but the way to achieve this is not exactly going to help your image. You'll get a lot of criticism." Ryan didn't care about his image, though, only his destination.
Making his wish come true would not be easy. The Colts leaned toward choosing Ryan. Many scouts also saw him as a better prospect than Peyton Manning. Hard to believe now, isn't it?
I told Ryan it would do no good to approach Colts GM Jim Irsay. Irsay saw the sport the same way he viewed his other passion, rock 'n' roll. Just as musicians tended to be a bit eccentric, so did football players, and that did not stop him from drafting Jeff George or trading for Eric Dickerson. "Leigh," he used to say, "it's about the freaking talent." If someone is that gifted, in Irsay's opinion, you simply find a way to deal with his personality.
Instead, the case needed to be made to the Indianapolis coach,
Jim Mora, and it couldn't come from anything Ryan said. It had to come from what he did, or, rather, did not do.
"If you go to the combine," I told Ryan, "but fail to show up for a meeting with Mora, that should do it. Jim is a real prideful person who has a tendency to explode. I am not recommending you do this, but if you are desperate to go to San Diego, this is the way."
Ryan approved, but I first cleared the idea with Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, lest San Diego also question my client's reliability. Beathard went along with the ruse. If he'd had a problem, Ryan would've shown up for his meeting with Mora. Some purists argue players should not have the right to dictate where they start their pro career, but aren't college graduates who don't play football allowed to choose where they want to work and live? The draft was not handed down by Moses as part of the Ten Commandments. The draft, let's be honest, is a control mechanism designed to prevent college athletes from exercising the same freedoms everyone else takes for granted and to limit their leverage in contract negotiations. It is important to separate the honor of being selected from the concept of not being given the freedom of choice. Just because athletes are well compensated doesn't change the underlying principle.
Once Ryan was a no-show, Mora, as anticipated, went ballistic. I defended my player, naturally, dismissing the coach's response as another Mora meltdown. As I'd anticipated, Ryan was criticized, but the plan achieved its purpose. The Colts took Manning. Something tells me the folks in Indianapolis have never regretted that decision.
The Agent By Leigh Steinberg with Michael Arkush is in stores January 21 and can be purchased