There was a time in New York Jets history when one of the biggest power brokers was agent Leigh Steinberg. In the 1980s and 1990s, he represented the likes of Ken O'Brien, Tony Eason, Dave Cadigan, Browning Nagle and Neil O'Donnell. And, for a brief time, Mark Gastineau.
Steinberg, the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire," went off the radar as he battled alcoholism, but he's making a comeback -- and his life story is detailed in his new book, "The Agent." (St. Martin's Press). I caught up with him this week, and he did some reminiscing about his dealings with the Jets.
In 1983, Steinberg came to the aid of Gastineau, who, along with O'Brien, was involved in a headline-making brawl at the then-famous Studio 54 club in Manhattan. He tells a great story about a lengthy, late-night meeting with the late Leon Hess. The Jets' owner, who made his millions in oil and gas, told Steinberg he'd never met a sports agent before. They met at Hess' home in Manhattan.
"He had a luxury apartment with priceless art and amazing sculptures," Steinberg told me. "We were talking about the power of football and he said, 'Energy resources are what make the world go 'round.' He said, 'Let me tell you about some of the important people I know.' He takes out his Rolodex and shows me a card, with a phone number and everything, of the Ayatollah Khomeini" -- the late controversial leader of Iran, once described as the face of Islam.
Because of his oil business, Hess was well-connected in the Middle East.
"That's one of those stories you don't tell until they're gone," Steinberg said, laughing.
There's a postscript: When Steinberg returned to his home in California, he found six or seven toy Hess trucks, a gift from the owner.
Steinberg has represented some of the biggest names in the sport, but he said there was no one quite like Gastineau.
"One day, I was walking down the street in Manhattan with him, and I'd never been in public with a player who had more of a visceral effect on fans than Mark Gastineau," Steinberg said. "I've had Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, but there was no one like Gastineau. Every cab driver, every construction work was like, 'Yo, Mark! Yo, Mark!' It was like being with a rock idol. He was perfect for New York. He once sent me a fur coat and I hung it in my closest in Berkeley. I was worried about being the target of anti-fur activists."
One of Steinberg's last dealings with the Jets came in 1996, when he negotiated a five-year, $25 million contract for O'Donnell, a free agent coming off an AFC Championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The negotiations got heated at times. Steinberg said team president Steve Gutman was barking so loudly on the phone that he had to put down the earpiece and use speaker phone because he got a headache.
It turned out to be a disastrous deal for the Jets, as O'Donnell lasted only two seasons. Steinberg thought it was the right fit because of O'Donnell's New Jersey roots.
"The only thing better," he said, "would've been the Giants, right?"