Leigh Steinberg was at one time the single most powerful sports agent in football, and arguably all of professional sports. He was the first celebrity agent. Steinberg's life was loosely used as an inspiration for the hit film, "Jerry Maguire".
Steinberg is also a recovering alcoholic, which was documented in a compelling segment on HBO's Real Sports. Nearly four years removed from his last drink, Steinberg is "back" and is a good bet to drum up business in a field he for years dominated.
Steinberg has released a new book, and is doing the rounds. He was nice enough to give me about 20 minutes.
When I met you it was at the NFL Combine in ’08, when you were very thin. There was a lot of speculation you were very ill, perhaps terminally; were you aware that people thought you were dying? (laughs) When I get really down and down to my optimum weight, my face is thin, so I look really gaunt. I was tying to lose weight to make sure I wasn’t going to have a heart attack. I wasn’t aware that’s what people were saying (laughing).
After watching The Real Sports piece, I had no clue that you were going through your struggles (with alcohol). Well, for a long time I was coming into work and being very productive. And it was that way until I wasn’t. It really wasn’t until March of 2010 that I crashed and realized that I was an alcoholic and made a decision to go into sober living, and that I would be sober and I would be a good father. If I had no other accomplishments, that would be enough. That world didn’t withdraw from me, I withdrew from the world.
How long did it take before you felt comfortable as a provider and a good father? The beginning of recovery is a whole series of events and I was helped by working in a 12-step program. Finding a higher power. And threw myself into that program. I embraced that whole concept. … I underwent testing for three years.
What is your relationship like with alcohol now? My brain is not going to turn back into a cucumber from being a pickle. In March, it will be four years. My relationship with it is that it’s the one thing I can’t do to have a happy life. I’m in situations almost every day where alcohol is served; what happens is – thank God – is that the craving leaves. If you are in the program, it’s not an issue. You can stick a drink in front of me and I’m not going to drink it.
Did you replace the appetite for alcohol with an appetite for something else? Yeah – an appetite for life. An appetite to do what I had done, try to make a difference. My dad had two core values – one is to treasure relationships, and the second was to a make difference with people who couldn’t do it themselves. I realized I was not doing either.
Were you representing anybody for an extended period? I gave my practice away in 2007 or 2006. I didn’t apply for certification (with the NFL union). From 2007 until last year (2012). I was not certified. I still had residual clients for a while. (SMU football coach) June Jones stayed with me. Earl Campbell was a real source of support. Troy Aikman and Warren Moon and were all very supportive.
Now that you are back, is the job the same? The part that is the same is to try to get the athletes doing charitable work, and getting them ready for second careers. … In 2011, they instituted a much harder salary cap. There is not much room to negotiate for rookies any more. What used to be a creative, fun process is now cut and dry. … The current system is more fair. We know there is a part of the first round that is going to be non-productive or unproductive. In the past, those guys got big bonuses. That money was redistributed to veterans, and benefits. The new system does limit the role of the agent.
Is an agent obligated how to advise his client to spend his money? Absolutely. The first thing we do when we meet a potential client is they are playing a public sport that is dependent on discretionary entertainment buys. They have to graciously give out autographs, interact openly with reporters, and conduct themselves in public in a decent civil way. If they do not want to do those things, I tell them to play football in a sandlot. No one will have any expectations.
Are you ‘Back’? It’s always been a matter of perspective. Yes, I had struggles – but I was not a struggling peasant in Darfur. I didn’t have the last name Steinberg in Nazi Germany. I wasn’t crippled. I don’t have cancer. I live in a country with a high standard of living. I have led a blessed life.
Are you Jerry McGuire? In 1993, Cameron Crowe asked if he could follow me around to pick up atmosphere for a film based on a sports agent. He came to the 1993 draft where Drew Bledsoe was the first pick. (Crowe) came to the first press conference with Bill Parcells and Bledsoe. He went to two Super Bowl parties. And I just told him stories. Lots and lots of stories. He came up with a script, which I looked at.
I worked with Cuba Gooding Jr. I had to throw Jerry O’Connell had to throw a spiral. He went to NYU so he didn’t know how to throw a football.
It was an interesting experience.
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