When Asante Samuel, a corner-back who had just completed his eligibility at Central Florida, signed a four-year, $1.7 million contract (including a $312,500 signing bonus) with the New England Patriots in mid-July, the event was anti-climactic. Samuel had been living like a pro for months. Shortly after the Golden Knights' 42-32 victory over Ohio in the Florida Citrus Bowl in their last game of the 2002 season, the 22-year-old had secured a $25,000 line of credit and a lease agreement for a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade.
The man who arranged the loan and the lease is Felix Wright, who runs the professional sports program at Datatex Sports Management in St. Louis. Wright, an NFL strong safety from 1985 through '93, obtains lines of credit for likely draftees until they cash their signing-bonus checks. "You've got to help these guys before they help you," says Wright, 44. "When I played, we finished the spring semester, conducted our own off-season workouts and went home to wait for the draft. Nowadays, kids become pros when they shower after their last college game."
Last March, Wright's relationship with Motorworks, a car leasing company in Dayton, enabled Samuel, then a projected third-round draft pick (he was selected in the fourth round), to obtain the Escalade with a $10,000 down payment and no immediate monthly obligation. "Essentially the truck is on loan from the dealer until the player can start a normal payment plan," says Wright, who earned a teaching degree at Drake. "The truck goes back to the dealer if the player doesn't make a roster." When Samuel signed with the Patriots, he started making the monthly payments.
Over the last four years Wright has set up about $3 million in lines of credit for more than 100 NFL prospects based on draft projections by pro scouts. (The loans are 10% of a player's projected signing bonus, after taxes.) Wright obtains the loans from Datatex shortly after bowl season, when college players eligible for the draft are allowed to receive money from agents and financial institutions. When a player who is drafted receives this bonus, the amount he used from the credit line is due immediately, with 8% interest compounded daily.
There are risks for both the player and Datatex. If the player is not signed, he can find himself in substantial debt. Over the winter and spring Wright arranged loans totaling about $1 million for 35 rookies, ranging from $2,500 to $95,000. About a third of the kitty still has not been repaid. "The  draft was the craziest I've seen," Wright says. "As a result we're probably going to have a higher than normal default rate this year."
With a default rate averaging about 20% on loans to prospective NFL players, Wright occasionally has to turn to a collection agency to retrieve the investor's money. "We approved a guy for $25,000, and he didn't make the team," says Wright, who declined to name the player. "He went underground, would not return my calls and eventually changed his number."
Datatex did not pioneer the practice of lending players money, but it may be the first company to lend to players in the later rounds of the draft. "Most lenders are only interested in helping first-and second-round guys," says Wright, who earns a straight salary from Datatex. "But it's the fourth-and fifth-round guys, who aren't going to receive the multimillion-dollar bonuses, who need the most help [with their finances]. Most players will have short careers. We would like to see them walk away financially secure."