Thirty-six hours before the official start of the NFL's annual free-agent auction last Friday, Chad Brown was in Boulder, Colo., hanging out with his snakes and his agent. (Because Peter Schaffer, who represents Brown, is a decent guy, the obvious parallel between sports agents and serpents will not be drawn here.) Schaffer was visiting Brown at Pro Exotics, his reptile emporium. After a brief tour of the grounds, on which Brown keeps more than 1,000 cold-blooded creatures, many of which recently had been marked down—"Order soon before they all disappear," a pamphlet commanded—the talk turned to the imminent enrichment of the league's most accomplished herpetologist.
The 26-year-old Brown, a 6'2", 240-pound All-Pro linebacker, was the top free agent on the block. In 1996 he had 81 tackles (14 for losses), 41 quarterback pressures and 13 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who paid him only $348,000. Never again would he be such a bargain.
On what, Brown was asked last week, would he spend the big money from his next contract? He had a tough time with the question. Brown is renowned among the Steelers for his frugality. His sartorial motto is If it's free, it's me. His kitchen table is the same homely oval—complemented by mix-and-match chairs—that he bought for $65 at a used-furniture store during his senior year at Colorado. The 1992 Blazer he drives is distinguished by a four-foot-long crack in the windshield and the stubborn odor of rodent excreta. ("Sometimes I use this car to pick up mice and rats to feed the snakes," Brown says.)
Finally he thought of a new toy he desires. "I need a new computer," he said.
"Hold off on that," replied Schaffer. "Who knows, you may end up signing with someone who has a little pull with Microsoft."
Schaffer was onto something. Just after 10 the following night (past midnight, and thus Friday, in the East), he phoned Brown to say that Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who last April purchased an option to buy the Seattle Seahawks, wanted to dispatch his private jet to Centennial Airport on the outskirts of Denver. (Allen has until July to exercise his option, which he has said he will do only if there is public funding to help underwrite the cost of a new stadium.) At about 12:30 a.m. Mountain Time, the jet soared into the air above Denver, whisking Schaffer; Chad and his wife, Kristin; Kristin's sister Kia Pope; and the Browns' six-month-old daughter, Amani, to Seattle-where the Seahawks would make their pitch.
Actually, the courting began before takeoff. Upon arriving at the airport—after stopping at a nearby Super Kmart to purchase formula for Amani and socks and underwear for Chad—the Browns were greeted by Seattle coach Dennis Erickson and vice president of football operations Randy Mueller. During the flight the group made small talk over grilled chicken salad and freshly squeezed orange juice, of which Chad said, "It was very good, very pulpy."
"I felt like I was back in college, recruiting again," said Erickson, who won two national championships at Miami before taking the Seahawks job two years ago. The truth was, this wasn't a recruiting visit so much as a velvet kidnapping.
Schaffer and Brown continued to consider their options with other interested teams, paring a list of eight or so down to four. They figured Chad and Kristin would then play musical chairs, visiting the other three clubs after leaving Seattle. By 9 p.m. last Friday, however, the Seahawks had made Chad the most generously compensated linebacker in NFL history by signing him to a contract worth $24 million over six years, including a $7 million signing bonus. So much for musical chairs.
Before the deal was done, a reporter had said to Schaffer, "I hear you're asking for a $7 million signing bonus." To which Schaffer had replied, "Does that make me a bad person?"