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The maximum commission an agent gets for negotiating an NFL player's contract is 3%. As recently as the mid-1990s it was 5%, but the NFLPA cut it down over the years, and now it is the lowest in any major sport. This makes the competition for the highest draft choices even more ruthless. Doc and I had signed some good players, but to earn real money, I had to land the kind of player every agent covets: a franchise quarterback.
I had spent several years working to get inside the program at Washington State. The school often signed players from Southern California, and I got close to them. Eventually, I was paying several players on the team, including three starting defensive backs from the early 1990s—Torey Hunter, Singor Mobley and John Rushing—and also defensive lineman Leon Bender. Word spread in the locker room that if you needed money, you called me.
One guy who needed money was Ryan Leaf, which was why in 1996 I met with the Cougars' quarterback at a hotel near campus. This was before his junior season, and Ryan was on the cusp of stardom. He was a whale. I knew that if I could sign him, it would change my life.
At the hotel, Ryan made it clear that he had significant credit card debt, something like $5,000, and needed help. I knew that if I just paid off his debt, he would forget about me and have no reason to develop a relationship. "But I want to help," I said. "How much do you think you would need each month to make your life easier?" He said he needed around $500 a month, which wasn't much to pay for a player with Ryan's potential earnings. In the bathroom of that hotel, he signed an undated representation contract and a loan agreement for the money. Soon afterward, Doc and I began paying him monthly with money orders, ranging from $300 to $700.
I got close with Ryan in a hurry. We talked two to three times a week. I was 26, and he was 20, so I was like an older brother he could party with. I got as close with him as I had with Sean LaChapelle. I had bought a town house in Studio City, and Ryan and a lot of players knew they could crash at my place when they were in Southern California. I kept the fridge full of beer, soda and steaks, and I had every video game. Ryan stayed there a few nights, and I always showed him a good time. He was from Great Falls, Mont., and he would come out here and party with these amazing L.A. girls, and he loved it.
For all of 1997, Ryan was the main focus of my recruiting. At the time I was losing my parents. My mother died in October 1996, and then two months later my father learned he had an inoperable brain tumor.
Ryan knew what I was going through. One day, he came with me to my dad's house, and while he was there my dad got very upset, talking about how he hated that his illness prevented me from doing my job. Ryan told him, "Don't worry. Josh doesn't need to recruit any other players. He's got me."
My dad died in May 1997, and I was a mess. But a few weeks later I still went on a trip with Ryan to Las Vegas because I knew he was looking forward to it and I wanted to maintain our bond. It was supposed to be just him and me, but at the last minute two other Washington State quarterbacks, Steve Birnbaum and Dave Muir, joined the trip. That pissed me off. They were not potential clients, and yet Ryan expected me to take care of them too.
We spent two nights in Vegas, and when we checked out, I paid for the room Ryan and I stayed in, but I didn't pay for Birnbaum and Muir's room, and that caused a big stir. It was only about $500, and in hindsight I should have just paid for the room, but I was upset at the world because my parents were dead, and for the first time I resented someone expecting me to pay.