Leigh Steinberg discusses the many fascinating changes in agentry from Steve Bartkowski, to Patrick Mahomes, and beyond.
From the beginnings of NFL player representation, to the dawn of NIL, Leigh Steinberg has been there.
Some may know him as the inspiration for Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. But for those who have followed the NFL since the mid-1970s, odds are you were a massive fan of one of his many clients. Steinberg Sports & Entertainment has represented eight former No. 1 overall picks, 12 Pro Football Hall of Famers and stars of today, including Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa.
With the highs of presenting Warren Moon at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, to the lows of seeing one’s career fall apart from alcoholism, Steinberg has always chosen optimism. Without it, how do you transcend and ultimately redefine what it means to be the sports agent? And to think, this remarkable journey started in a Cal dormitory back in the 1970s.
His first client Steve Bartkowski became the No. 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 1975.
Leigh Steinberg on Steve Bartkowski and how much Atlanta has changed
“I was a dorm counselor in the undergraduate dorm,” said Steinberg. “I actually had been student body president when Ronald Reagan was governor. I learned everything I needed to know about the art of negotiating from dealing with Governor Reagan.”
“So [Steve] Bartkowski, they moved the freshmen football team into their dorm and Bart was the quarterback of the team, so he and I got friendly. In 1975, he becomes the very first player picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. There I am with little legal experience, never having practiced law before, and I have the first pick in the first round of the NFL Draft.”
“There really wasn’t a well-rounded field of agentry, at that point. As a matter of fact, a team could hang up the phone and say, ‘we don’t deal with agents because there was no collective bargaining right for representation. It was rudimentary in the wild, wild west.”
That same Cal dormitory gave us Steve Wozniak (Apple), Brian Maxwell (PowerBar) and Bob Swenson (former Denver Broncos All-Pro linebacker), but this story starts with Steinberg and Bartkowski.
The first thing we heard was, ‘We interrupt the late news to bring you a special news bulletin: Steve Bartkowski and his attorney Leigh Steinberg have just arrived at the Atlanta airport. We switch you live’.
“It was then for the first time I really saw the idol worship and veneration athletes were held in communities across the country. And that’s what spawned our whole concept of role modeling and retracing your roots. You saw the power those athletes had over multiple communities.”
Keep in mind professional sports had been in this southeastern metropolis for only a decade. Atlanta was defined by college football (it still is), as well as the birthplace of many civil rights leaders, none more prominent than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Deep South can be a little intimidating to some outsiders, but for many transplants, Atlanta can also feel like home.”
Leigh Steinberg on the importance of Warren Moon’s legacy to the NFL
“It starts with Warren Moon because at the time he comes into the NFL, there’s a level distrust as to whether an African-American quarterback is suitable intellectually and otherwise to play the position. It’s not spoken, but you can feel the doubt there.”
Moon had been a standout quarterback for the Washington Huskies in the earliest years Don James was in Seattle. Despite being the 1977 Pac-8 Co-Player of the Year as a senior, Moon went undrafted, spending his first six professional seasons in the CFL with the-then Edmonton Eskimos. He won five Grey Cups and became a legend north of the border before Houston called.
“So with that, he goes to Canada for six years. We timed it so he came back at the point where the USFL, the CFL and the NFL all would be bidding on him. He was the first true free agent.”
All Moon did in 17 NFL seasons was be a perennial Pro Bowler for the then-Houston Oilers, win NFL Man of the Year in 1989 and play at an elite level into his 40s with the Seattle Seahawks. Had he have been judged on his quarterbacking abilities alone, Moon would probably be viewed as a top-10 quarterback in NFL history instead of one of the very best to never play in a Super Bowl.
“I feel like we grew up together and went through that long experience. When he made the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame, I was especially thrilled. The fact he had me present him was one of the great highlights of my career.”
Leigh Steinberg feels Patrick Mahomes was misevaluated coming out of college
“With Patrick [Mahomes], people were not projecting him correctly and understanding that Texas Tech was giving up 50 points a game. He had to score virtually every time he had the ball. If they weren’t scoring on every drive, they had the capacity to lose the game.
“It pushed him into pressing and trying to make things happen. I think they misjudged his capacity to adopt to a three, five-step drop and take the ball under center.”
Sloppy footwork and playing for a Texas Tech Red Raiders team that could not even get to a bowl game under Kliff Kingsbury had many people question if Mahomes’ raw talent could translate from the Big 12 Air Raid to the NFL. Yes, being the son of a major-league pitcher and going to the perfect situation helped, but we also overlooked Mahomes’ cognitive abilities and leadership skills.
But during the scouting process, he was able to show off some of those skills. His personal skills, his eidetic memory and his calm demeanor, except when he’s celebrating a touchdown (laughs). He also demonstrated how grounded he was, his the capacity for leadership and all the rest of it.”
Mahomes fell to No. 10, the Chiefs traded up to get him, and the rest is history. No doubt in Steinberg’s mind his client landed in the absolutely perfect situation.
“A marriage made in heaven. Stable and insightful ownership. Excellent front office. A quarterback whisperer as a coach and a talented team around him.”
For as gifted of a quarterback as Mahomes is, any blue-chip prospect is at the whim of the organization he goes to, whether it is an extremely competent one or a highly dysfunctional mess. Simply put, where you land matters. It always has and it always will.
“You go back to 1999. Tim Couch was the first pick. Akili Smith was the third pick. Cade McNown was the 12th pick. They all underachieved. Some of that might be the player, but a lot of it is the system they’re in and how they’re brought along.”
It is only fitting the two other first-round quarterbacks that year went to great situations: Donovan McNabb went No. 2 out of Syracuse to Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles. Daunte Culpepper landed with Dennis Green’s Minnesota Vikings at No. 11 out of UCF. The late Green should be a Hall of Famer. Reid will be one when he retires.
Leigh Steinberg on the art of being a good lister and finding his sobriety
“The most important skill for what I do is listening. People think it’s suasion. If you can create an atmosphere of trust around another human being, so that they’ll reveal what their values and priorities are and not stay on the surface, but cut below that to get to someone’s deepest anxieties, biggest fears and greatest hopes and dreams. That’s what allows you to fulfill them.”
By seeking to develop deep and meaningful relationships with his clients, Steinberg became the gold standard in his profession for decades.
However, nothing gold can stay. People do hit rock bottom. When they do, it’s about the response. Steinberg is in his 12th year of sobriety and has some words of encouragement for those out there who might be struggling with something in their lives.
“If you’re struggling, I’m in my 12th year of sobriety. I hit bottom back in 2010. For people out there who are struggling, depressed, losing hope, don’t lose hope. There’s help available. There are 12-step programs with unique fellowships.
“Amidst all the darkness, you need to keep a fundamental sense of A.) Optimism that you can get to a better place and B.) Proportionality, which is at my worst, or at my lowest, I had an epiphany.
“I said, ‘I’m not a starving peasant in Darfur. I don’t have the last name Steinberg in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Nothing’s really wrong with me, and what excuse do I have to not live up to the expectations I have for myself?’ I made my mind up if nothing else for the rest of my life, I’d be sober and a good parent, and the rest of it just came along. Those were my priorities.”
Sober, happy and still rolling, Steinberg has more than 45 years in the business. From the looks of things, he’s nowhere near finished.