For decades NFL owners were in a unique and enviable position in the world of sports: They were flush with guaranteed TV money and had a choke hold on every player they wanted to keep. That situation changed forever on Feb. 28, 1993—the day the owners, on orders from U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, had to turn loose most of their unsigned players, who were then able to hawk their services on the open market. Four days later Browns owner Art Modell began wooing All-Pro defensive end Reggie White, whose contract with the Eagles was up and who was the cream of that first unfettered free-agent crop.
Modell sent his jet to Knoxville, Tenn., to pick up White and his wife, Sara. Modell put them up in an $800-a-night suite at the Ritz Carlton. Modell had Jim Brown make a recruiting call after the Whites checked in. Modell had Cleveland Mayor Michael White make a similar pitch the next morning. Modell handed Sara a $900 leather coat. Modell banned cursing while Reggie, an ordained minister, was in the team's offices. "Unbelievable," a stunned White said after the visit. "It's a whole new world."
Or, as unheralded tackle Don Maggs said, after getting a 500% raise to defect from the Oilers to the Broncos, "It's capitalism at work." Thirteen teams chased backup guard Harry Galbreath. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson got calls from 20 teams. But White clearly was the prize. He thought he might get about $2.8 million a year, but then Green Bay entered the picture. Though the Packers were starving to win, Green Bay was a city whose overwhelmingly white population was not inviting to most black players. White didn't care. After the recruiting lunacy he saw in visits to the Browns, the Falcons, the Lions and the Jets, he welcomed the corner-table-at-the- Red Lobster pitch in Green Bay. The Packers made White the highest-paid player in NFL history, at $4.25 million a year.
Everyone laughed at White, who had said he would sign only with a team that had a chance to win a title; even agent Jimmy Sexton, who brokered the deal, was afraid White was bypassing better teams for the money. But in the end White was right: He helped spur the Packers to Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997, when they beat the Patriots 35-21. "It turned out just as we said when we went after Reggie," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf says. "I remember telling him, 'Wherever you go, you'll be a star. We all know that. But if you come to Green Bay and we win, you'll be a legend.' It happened."
Something else has happened since 1993: More and more players have taken control of their destinies.